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Twilight of the Gods: 35. A Secret Revealed
Chapter 35 – A Secret Revealed
His knees hit the ground hard, yet Éomer barely noticed. Nothing existed outside the dull buzz between his ears. He could neither see, nor hear, nor breathe. One hand met the ground to stop his fall, then the other, blindly groping for his sword. Anticipating the deadly strike as he sensed, rather than saw, movement in front of him. Supreme will enabled him to set one foot onto the ground and push himself up... only to reel to the side and fall back, his balance gone. Cheers branded up all around him, a unanimous roar he could no longer distinguish between as the buzz in his ears drowned it out. The world seemed far away all of a sudden.
Aragorn watched in helpless rage how Asentis played his brutal game. He tore at his bonds, infuriated to be condemned to watch his friend lose. Éomer would be killed if he stayed on the ground a moment longer!
"Get up!" he shouted. "Get up!" But the crowd's wild cheers and shouts of dismay from the Rohirrim drowned out every word.
Another attempt to make it back on his feet, and again he fell back, his strength fleeing him. There wasn't even enough left to look up at what his foe was doing now, as Éomer remained on hands and knees, his head hanging. Blood dripped to the ground from his nose and mouth and the numerous cuts his foe had dealt him, sapping his strength. Again movement in front of him. Swift, sure steps. Éomer tensed for the death strike as his right hand touched something hard.
The Rohirrim was finished, Asentis concluded as he circled the fallen warrior. He felt a brief twitch of reluctant respect for his challenger. While he had not represented a real threat, he had taken a lot of punishment until he had gone down, and even now, he was still – uselessly – trying to get up. Asentis could not determine whether it was stubbornness or pride that made his foe beg for yet more of this torture, but it was obvious that the Rohirrim would not make it back on his feet after the last hard hits. He was bleeding heavily from a dozen cuts and his nose, his balance was gone, and he could no longer see. He had been punished, and his tribe as well as the ornery Gondorians had been clearly shown their place by his demonstration. They could not compete. Resistance was futile. Coming to a stand in front of his kneeling challenger, Asentis briefly raised his eyes to meet first Harishdane's proud glance, and then let them travel to their prisoners, satisfied to see the look of utter dismay on their dishevelled features. There was no use in further delaying the inevitable. No more glory was to be had by cutting an already beaten opponent to pieces. It was time to end it. He renewed his grip around the pole and aimed the bladed end of his weapon for his foe's neck, raising his arms.
The knife was in Elfhelm's hand before he knew it. He tensed. Aimed.
Éomer's fingers closed around the hilt as he felt his opponent's presence close by. Not much strength was left in him, but it would have to suffice. Pushing himself from the ground with both hands leading the sword, Éomer let out a defiant yell as he swung the blade one last time with his entire weight behind it. Slicing through something hard. A surprised shriek rang out from the crowd and in front of him as he rolled to the side, somehow at last succeeding in coming to a shaky stand. For a moment, his blurred vision cleared enough for him to see the damage he had inflicted.
Asentis was staring at him wide-eyed, still holding on to the upper part of his weapon. The lower, bladed end lay on the ground, severed, but it was not what had left the Easterling stunned. The reason for that was the deep gash that ran over his entire abdomen just below his navel, oozing blood. Slowly, as if in shock, one hand went down to touch the wound, and as he held his bloodied fingers in front of his face in utter disbelief, their eyes met. The silent exchange told Éomer more than he could have learned in a day of talking. His opponent was well-versed in dealing out pain, yet inexperienced in handling it himself. His skill had protected him so far from serious battle wounds, and now the Easterling found himself ill-equipped to handle the reality of it. It would have been the perfect moment for an attack, Éomer realised, but he also knew that he had it not in himself anymore.
"Kill him!" It was Elfhelm's voice, and a moment later, it was drowned out by the Rohirrim's angry battle-cries for their king. From the other side, the Easterlings' shouts were pushing Asentis into action, forcing him to take up the bladed end of his smashed weapon and charge towards his swaying adversary. He was fast and furious, his face a grimace of hatred as he went straight for Éomer's chest, determined to skewer him. He was too angry, unfocussed. It took Éomer but a slight shift of his weight to evade the thrust and score another hit, if only with the broad side of the blade, against Asentis' head. His left leg was agony. He could not walk anymore, but had to let his foe come to him, amazed to see that where once icy calculation had ruled, white-hot fury was reigning now, taking away the Easterling's superior skill. The sight of it gave him new strength.
This was what Éomer knew. This was the way fighting on the battlefield was done. No time to size up one's opponent and seek for weaknesses, this was strength against strength, and in this competition, he knew his way around blind. Another charge by his enemy was countered with the sword, and they came up face to face, their weapons blocking each other. The Easterling's eyes blazed hellfire at him as Éomer let go of his two-handed grip on the hilt to punch Asentis squarely in the face. Something broke under his blow, and he retreated, gasping for breath himself, his nose swollen shut.
More cheers from his men and chanting from their foes. Asentis could not ignore their urging, could not retreat to play it safe like he had done for the first part of the fight. The Rohirrim had disgraced him. The price he would have to pay for making the mightiest warrior of the Jashéni-tribe the object of ridicule was the most horrible death Asentis could conceive. With a battle cry, he thrust the knifed remains of his weapon against Éomer's torso in a vicious upwards movement. Meaning to gut the strawhead.
The attack came from his blinded side, yet Éomer had anticipated the move, and his forceful swing easily deflected the blade. Carried by his own forward momentum, Asentis crashed into him and came off his feet as Éomer spun away and followed him down with a deadly lunge.
It was the heartbeat between life and death as their eyes met over the descending steel. It was instinct, not thought. Reflex, not will. From one moment to the next, the crouching shape of the Easterling warrior melted into a great black beast, coiled against the ground. A flash of white fangs, a flicker of silvery eyes, and the leap. The massive shape crashed into Éomer as he was still in the downward motion, toppling him over backwards with such force that the beast failed to get a hold on its prey and fell with him. With cat-like grace, it landed on all fours and whirled around even before the gasps and shrieks from the crowd rose.
"Stop the fight! The scásh is over!"
The sword had been knocked from his hand. Without thinking about what had hit him, Éomer forced his numbing body to roll on his knees, pure reflex. His hand found the hilt of his weapon, but again he staggered to the side as he pushed himself up. It was too late. The black shape was directly in front of him, coiled for the deadly leap. Terrible fangs glistened in the firelight.
The knife had left Elfhelm's hand before he knew it and disappeared to the hilt in the great cat's flank.
With a furious roar, the black shape spun away from his friend, its front paws slashing at the enemy that had attacked it from behind, but the Rohirrim marshal stood too far away. In the second it took Éomer to raise Gúthwine with heavy arms and come to a shaky stand, the thing whirled back at him and jumped. Steel met flesh in mid-air under the shrieks of the crowd, and as Éomer staggered to the side to evade the impact of the body, he caught the notion of two things flying through the air. With a dull sound, the larger shape landed in a heap next to him while the smaller, round shape rolled towards the end of the circle. It was the head of the great cat, and its fanged maw was frozen in a perpetual snarl while the silvery eyes were already breaking.
Unaware of the hot stream running over his body, Éomer sank to his knees, and only the sword on which he heavily leaned kept him upright, while he stared in stunned shock at what his eyes were showing him. Not believing what his eyes were showing him. For a few moments, his surroundings ceased to exist.
The silence that followed the dull impact of Asentis' body on the ground was louder than the fight before.
Harishdane swallowed the shock the deadly thrust on her beloved Asentis had caused. The high priestess still stood where she had been standing during the fight, and all eyes rested on Rohan's king and the dead body on the ground. Her mind was denying the mere possibility that her man had been killed by that primitive, but the situation demanded different actions than mourning.
"Take up your weapons!" Harishdane shouted loud and clear and raised her own polearm, ready to fight.
Immediately, as if they had only waited for a command, the Easterlings stooped to grab their weapons, and on the other side the Rohirrim stirred to get hold of their swords when Gishvané's voice cut through the noise.
"Hold it!" She stepped forward to be seen by everybody, facing her kin adamantly, demanding respect. "Lay down the weapons! Asentis has lost!"
"That Rohirrim bastard broke the ritual!" Harishdane shouted and pointed at Elfhelm, who was already in the process of entering the circle. She stepped closer to the King of Gondor. "Asentis…"
"Your fighter had already been defeated the moment he shifted into that beast!" Gishvané objected sternly, her voice drowning all sounds caused by the Rohirrim, who were readying themselves for the expected fight. "I ended the scásh that very moment! He lost! Lay down your weapons!" she repeated, staring her kinsmen down until they – slowly and uncertain of whom to follow – lowered their weapons again.
"Take them and fight!" Harishdane demanded at once, but the simple soldiers stood motionless. Some let their polearms fall, some had not yet taken them up, but straightened now to demonstrate they would obey the high priestess. Harishdane's eyes widened with shock.
Slowly surfacing from his trance and waking to the conflict amongst the enemy, Éomer laboured to rise from his knees, and the remains of his iron will finally put him on his feet. If he had indeed won, there were things to take care of. He faced the high priestess.
"Release your prisoners!" he commanded, but quickly turned upon the movement he saw in the corner of his eyes. The Easterling leader was sneaking up to Aragorn! "Hold her! Don't let her get to him!" And the guard blocked the way with his polearm, obviously puzzled by the sudden order, but reacting fast enough to stop the leader.
Infuriated about her defeat, Harishdane swivelled, refusing to submit herself to those Rohirrim peasants! Faster than anyone could react, she made eye-contact with Nisenur and Sisune, dropped the polearm and fled the campsite, shifting into a beast within the first yards and leaving behind another valuable weapon, as she made for the rocks and over them with wide leaps. The two of her kin swiftly followed, unharmed and unstopped by their utterly surprised comrades. Only breathing was to be heard, none could utter a word, too deep was the horror they had just lived through.
Gishvané exhaled. Despite her bronze completion, she looked pale and dumbfounded. As did her tribe. She summoned her strength, and with a last look at Asentis' catlike body she crossed the circle with heavy steps, praying silently that even now the goddess would hold a saving hand over her kindred. Low murmurs rose behind her; the men and women finally understood that their competitor had lost and that their fate had turned out differently than expected. Gishvané reached the winning fighter. From the deep gashes in his face, chest and leg, blood oozed with every heartbeat, and he seemed to be at the end of his strength, but still he held himself upright, frowning at her sceptically, and his fingers clenching the hilt of his bloodied sword.
Reluctantly, Gishvané laid down her polearm. With trembling fingers, she took off the symbol of the goddess, folded the cord in her hands and knelt before the King of Rohan to offer him the sign of submission on her outstretched hands, while she bowed in anticipation of his verdict. She swallowed hard, fearing what he would do with her and all the men and women who now belonged to him. Gishvané almost cried out in fear that this square-shouldered man would order his soldiers to slaughter them. Trembling she waited another moment until she felt the weight being lifted from her hands. Quickly she retreated and knelt in the row of her people. The murmur did not rise, but the high priestess could hear some of the women sobbing quietly. They all were afraid and did not dare to move.
All the while Éomer stood unmoving, the bronze pendant in his right hand while Gúthwine rested loosely in his left. For what seemed to him like an endless moment, he stared at the reflecting symbol on his bloodied palm. Unable to think. Unable to move. Light-headed. The world began to spin around him, but it was not until he felt Elfhelm's strong hands that he noticed he had already been swaying.
"You have to sit down, Éomer," the older man said, deep distress sounding in his full, familiar voice.
"See to it that the captives are freed," Éomer repeated and blinked when his vision blurred. He was not yet in pain, as the heat of the duel and the shock of the unexpected ending had dulled his perception, yet he could feel it lingering underneath, ready to jump at him like... like that predator his opponent had changed into. During his last desperate charge, Asentis' claws had torn open his flesh, but during the fight he had not even noticed the bleeding.
"It is already being done, sire. Come, sit down over there." Elfhelm helped his ruler to sit down and lean against a rock on their side of the camp, quickly pulling a saddle-cloth between the cold rock and his bare back. The king's gaze wandered over the rows of kneeling Easterlings. They remained at their places and made no sound. If it had not been for the seriousness of the situation and his own deteriorating condition, Éomer would have been fascinated by their behaviour. Somehow, between his shallow breaths, he managed to think of another thing that had to be done in the wake of the fight.
"Collect their weapons."
"Aye, my lord." Elfhelm was reluctant to leave the king, weak as he was now, for he still distrusted the Easterlings, but he knew at the same time that he had to take charge. Straightening from his crouch, he waved Thor over and instructed his second-in-command, seeing with satisfaction how his men were already carrying the polearms over to their side of the camp, while others stacked up the fire to illuminate the near darkness. More torches were lit, and still the enemies remained on the ground. Quickly assessing the situation, Elfhelm ordered the tents to be erected. There was no way for any of them to travel further tonight. They would have to spend the dark hours side by side with their enemies… a fact the Lord of Westfold found uncomfortable in light of what they had just witnessed, yet impossible to avoid. Inhaling deeply, Elfhelm gave himself a nudge to proceed. There was something he had to know right away, and with a short apology, and not leaving Éomer unguarded, he strode purposefully over to where the priestess was still kneeling on the ground.
On his way over, the warrior's gaze briefly fell on the King of Gondor, and he gave a deep sigh upon seeing the ruler freed at last. While they had not found their abducted men, at least they had succeeded in ending their ally's captivity. A reason to be thankful, even if the concern for his own king made all light thoughts inappropriate. Éomer had paid a hefty price for his wilfulness, and yet he had achieved what he had set out to do. Once again, his iron will had prevailed. Slowly but surely, he was becoming a legend in his own right, his reputation taking after that of their fiercest king, Helm Hammerhand, even though he came from a different line. Having barely finished the thought, he came to a halt in front of the Easterling leader and unceremoniously pulled her up by her collar.
Aragorn could not wait for his bonds to be cut, and when they fell he staggered to his feet, telling the soldier to go and help the others. He was grateful for the outstretched hand when he stumbled, hardly able to remain upright. He nodded to the man and moved on, exhausted and tired, but he would not be granted any rest yet. Somehow he straightened, rubbing his wrists to get the blood circulating again. The soldier spoke to him, but Aragorn did not react, only cast a short glance at their foes, while he forced himself forward. The commanding voice of Elfhelm broke through, and the Rohirrim soldiers hurried to follow his orders. Upon passing him, the marshal acknowledged the King of Gondor with a relieved nod, but Aragorn neither saw nor greeted him. Instead, he fell on his knees beside his friend.
"My brother…" Éomer muttered, and stretched out his hand, which Aragorn took. "I thought you were lost."
"I feared you to be a prisoner too." Through the weariness a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "You gave him such a fight no one will ever forget." Éomer nodded wearily, and Aragorn turned to the Rohirrim guard. "I need a bowl of water." And when the man was about to turn, he added, "Did you bring my horse?"
"Brego? Aye, sire. We brought him with us. What do you need from him?"
"Get me the saddlebags, please… and I need hot water to…" He exhaled, but the man had understood and left to fetch what was needed, running into Tolgor, their own healer, who was on his way to their injured king. He stretched out a hand to halt the man and redirect him to bring the required things. The healer looked surprised.
"You don't want me to treat our king first, captain?"
"As far as I understood, Elessar will treat him. Haven't you heard what the people told about how he brought back the White Lady from the brink of death after the battle of Minas Tirith? I am confident that he will do what he can for Éomer, too. He might need your assistance, but find his belongings, first."
"You saw it too, didn't you?" Éomer asked quietly, resting on his back now. His voice was hoarse and clearly betraying the pain that was by now assaulting his consciousness in waves, each one mightier than the one before. Pain that made him tremble. He could not help it. Aragorn flinched upon seeing the deep gashes Asentis' claws had cut. They were still bleeding, and the king was getting weaker.
"Yes, my brother, I saw it." And in looking back at the catlike body, Aragorn realised that the footprints he had seen in Ithilien and at their campsite at the River Isen had been left by the same kind of creature. The peasants in Northern Ithilien had rightfully reported about a beast stealing their cattle. The Easterlings had been roaming Gondor's lands for more than a year.
Éomer was breathing shallowly, briefly shutting his eyes.
"How could that be? How could he turn into that…" He wearily raised his head and forced his eyes open again. The headless body was still lying where it had fallen. Behind it, Elfhelm was holding the priestess by the front of her tunic, angrily talking, but he was too far away for Éomer to hear. He lay back, utterly spent even from that small effort.
"I do not know, but it is over. You bested him. Now rest." Aragorn turned to their enemies. Submissively they waited and not one raised his head to see what the Rohirrim were doing. It seemed that they had given themselves up completely. He tried to spot Ridasha among them, but though the campfire burnt high it was not possible to distinguish one Easterling from another.
Hilberon embraced Halamin heartily, and his face gleamed with relief.
"We made it!" he yelled. "We made it!" Laughing, Halamin slapped his shoulder and turned to the others, who were exchanging embraces and words of joy. They hardly understood their luck. They had already given up all hope and now they were granted freedom again. Nothing would ever compare to that moment, and for that short time the ordeal was forgotten, the days of toil turned into an obstacle which had been overcome. They were free! They could return home and tell the tale of the King of Gondor and his bravery, and how the King of Rohan had defeated an Easterling beast of prey.
Amidst the cheerfulness Hilberon turned to see Aragorn move to the King of Rohan, but in the moment he thought about walking over to him, his attention was drawn to the sword on the ground. With yet another yelp of surprise he leapt forward and got hold of it. He knew that sword and its scabbard well, had seen it at close range – a long time ago, as it seemed. He held it with both hands, satisfied and ready to deliver it to its owner at once, when Tarés grabbed his arm to stop him.
"Watch, Hilberon, my young fellow, he will not need it now."
"But it is…"
"I know, but keep it a little while longer, will you?"
"Me? I can't keep it! It is his!"
Tarés exhaled with a sigh.
"You are a worthy soldier of the Royal Guard, though you haven't seen many winters, and right now you will be the keeper of the king's sword. Is that understood?"
"Aye," Hilberon nodded. He felt awkward. Should he regard this as an honour? He did not know, and he did not see the sparkle in Tarés' eyes when he girt the sword in order not to lose it to an enemy again. Tarés nodded his approval and left, marching over the now-empty circle to see to the bidding of his ruler.
Aragorn heard the man come up from behind, and usually he would have turned and been alert. He was too exhausted now and relied on Éomer's soldiers to secure the campsite. He washed his hands and face carefully; the abrasions still hurt.
"My lord…" Tarés said quietly, watching his ruler as well as Éomer, who seemed to be on the verge of unconsciousness. "What are your orders?"
Through his weariness Aragorn found himself smiling when he turned.
"Is there any time you are not willing to serve your ruler, but give in to the bliss of freedom?"
Tarés lifted his brows, but returned a slight smile.
"Aye, my lord, there is such a time."
"Is anyone of the men seriously injured?" the king then asked. Tarés shook his head.
"No, sire. We can very well help ourselves. Can I be of any help to you?"
Aragorn took a moment of consideration. Elfhelm approached with another soldier to support Éomer in getting up and being led to the royal tent. The King of Rohan clenched his teeth, but moved with fading strength. Slowly Aragorn rose and stood, staring at the ground. Finally, and with a great effort, the king raised his head. Tarés had never looked into eyes so deep with sorrow and so tired.
"Try to find Ridasha and bring her to the tent."
Though Tarés frowned, he kept his tone even.
"It will be done, my lord." He quickly turned and strode over the place while Aragorn breathed deeply and entered the tent.
The thoughts of a lifetime rushed through Ridasha's mind. Of all the nice little events she had experienced, and the incidents following the arrival of the Jásheni-Rhûvenan and their trail of victory through Rhûn. She thought of her childhood and the endless training lessons with the polearm. She thought of the pride she had been granted by Gishvané when she had first attended a ceremony and had been chosen to help the high priestess. She thought of the day when she had given birth. Her child was back at home, and she would never see it again. The death of Asentis – considered the most talented fighter the Easterlings had ever seen – caused much pain and would throw them into misery. And all of her kin would be forced to follow the Rohirrim into slavery – to Rohan, home of the horse-lords. Or maybe worse. Ridasha had seen the high priestess' tears upon her return from the submission. There was no hope to be drawn from the fact that their king had not killed Gishvané in the spur of the moment, or that they all were still alive and allowed to kneel without being bound. Their polearms and bows had been collected from the ground; the Rohirrim had made sure that their foes would be helpless when the verdict would be spoken.
Ridasha would have wanted to see what had happened after the submission. She had heard the order to release the prisoners, but after that only the short conversations among the Rohirrim and the sudden clamour of joy from the freed captives. From those men too no mercy could be expected. She prayed silently, but it was obvious that even the goddess was powerless in this situation.
"You there… get up." The young woman felt like she had been hit with a rod. Her neighbours turned their heads in fright, and Ridasha looked up into the face of a Gondorian soldier. She had seen him with the healer before, but his call now threw her into deep worry. Ridasha trembled. Harishdane and Nisenur were gone, Asentis was dead – she would be the next to be sentenced for the wrong-doing of the ritual. "Get up!" the soldier repeated, and she stood, pressed her lips tight and inhaled, knowing she would be the first to not return to her kin. She heard a whisper behind her; it was full of fear. "Follow me." The soldier pivoted and crossed the circle, and she could do nothing but follow him. Her legs felt weak, and she forsook every hope of benevolent judgment. When the soldier opened the entrance of the tent to let her pass, she expected grim soldiers and weapons, but not the healer kneeling on the ground beside the winner of the scásh. The pleasant smell of the leaves he had used before rose from a bowl with steaming hot water; the tent seemed to be filled with air refreshing to mind and soul. "The woman you asked for," the soldier announced and waited, ready to grasp her if she tried an attack. But Ridasha fell to her knees at once, and pressed her forehead on the ground as she had done before.
"Ridasha…" The healer's voice sounded deep and strained. "Rise… please." She lifted her head slowly – hesitant whether she was truly allowed to – and eyed the fair-haired man lying behind the healer anxiously. Pain contorted his face, and his breathing was ragged. His victory had been bought at a great price. Again she feared that the King of the Horse-lords would give the order to kill her. "Have you got more of the mishénian leaves?" the healer asked quietly, and Ridasha nodded, unable to speak or grasp the meaning of the words she had least expected. She unfastened the little pouch from her belt and opened it, getting closer to the healer on her knees. She faced the ground when she offered it to him. "Give him two. He needs them more than I do."
"Leaves?" the wounded man repeated hoarsely. "What should leaves…"
"They numb the pain," Strider stated, only glancing at Ridasha. His concentration rested on the cloth he had drenched to clean the wounds. "Take them."
Ridasha met eyes with the victorious fighter, and still it seemed unbelievable that even a man of such broad and muscled build had been able to defeat Asentis after he had shifted into that vicious beast of prey. What kind of power that king must hold! She swallowed and handed him two leaves. He looked at them doubtfully, but upon another glance of the healer he put them on his tongue. Ridasha moved backwards immediately, relieved that the reason for her calling had been so simple.
"Come back when the moon reaches its centre," Strider ordered her without lifting his voice, and she stopped in front of the entrance, anxious as to why he wanted to see her again. The Gondorian soldier watched her closely, and she could read in his face that he considered her only another foe he would fight if necessary. Meanwhile, having dismissed her, the healer turned to cleanse the Rohirrim's wounds, and before the flap closed, Ridasha saw the man on the ground clench his teeth and try to bite back the cries of pain as Strider used thread and needle to close his wounds. None of the herbs she possessed would be enough to numb the ordeal the king had to go through.
Elfhelm felt beaten. Finally, the efforts of the past days and weeks, and especially the hard ride and the mental strain of the past hours, were beginning to take their toll on him, too. After surveying the preparations his men had made for the night and having expressed his satisfaction with them, everything seemed in order now and set for the night. Yet there was one more errand left to take care of, one report to issue; also he wanted to see after Éomer again, even though he knew that his friend was in good hands. Nodding his acknowledgement to the guard outside the royal tent, Elfhelm stepped in.
The wholesome scent of herbs hung thickly in the air as he entered, but there was also another, less welcome odour underneath it, and as a battle-hardened soldier of many years, he recognised it at once as that of blood. Frowning, he came to a stand shortly behind the entrance and stared down at the makeshift lair on the other side, where their healer and Elessar were treating the wounded king. For a moment, none of the men noticed him as he stood silently behind them. Elfhelm's gaze fell on Éomer's drawn features, or what could be seen of them underneath the drenched cloth on his face, while the Gondorian King was working on his chest. For a while he stood and watched, his stomach contorting upon hearing the young man's suppressed groans, and only after Tolgor finally turned his head and noticed his marshal standing behind them did he speak up, unwilling to disturb. Yet he had a duty to fulfil.
"My lord Éomer, would you like to hear my report now, or will it suffice when I say that arrangements for the night have been made and everything has been thought of as far as I can tell?"
Taking the cloth from his face to see his marshal, the Rohirrim king looked up, and Elfhelm flinched at the sight of his bruised and cut face. A moment later, his Gondorian counterpart turned, too, and the marshal understood that his full report was requested.
"I interrogated that priestess. She said that we would not have to worry about more of them turning into beasts. Apparently they didn't know about this particular ability of their kin themselves, and judging from the crowd's reaction when their fighter changed, I feel inclined to believe them." He saw Elessar nod thoughtfully, while he wrung out the bloodstained cloth he held in his hands. "However, since I am unwilling to take any chances with our foes, I ordered one third of the éored to stand watch around the Easterlings and set up guards for the night. We rounded them up inside the circle, yet permitted them to take blankets and lay down to sleep, if they can. I also ordered to have our horses spread over the camp. If any of these… things come back, or if they return with reinforcements, they will notice them long before we do."
Éomer gave him the smallest of nods, and Elfhelm could not decide whether it was sweat or water that beaded his face.
"Well done, Elfhelm. Go and seek rest yourself now. These have been taxing days for all of us."
The Lord of Westfold found himself unwilling to leave, and with the other king present, stayed in the formal tongue with his friend.
"If you do not mind, my lord, I would rather like to help. If there is anything I can do..."
A weary smile lit Éomer's face.
"You have done much already, marshal. And since it will be you the men will be looking to tomorrow, I need you rested and in good condition." He grimaced as another wave of agony assaulted him and nodded. "Go. I am in capable hands."
"As you say, sire." Elfhelm acknowledged the king's dismissal and turned to leave. His hand already on the flap, a thought hit him, and he looked back. "Tolgor, you will assist King Elessar in treating his own wounds when he is ready." He shifted his gaze to the Gondorian king. "Your tent has been erected close by, my lord. I thought that would be in your best interest." Another curt nod, then the marshal exited into the night.
Aragorn rinsed his hands in the bowl, and not even the scent of the athélas could lift his spirits or take away his weariness. He did not know how much time had passed, but it felt like the whole night. He looked into Éomer's slowly relaxing face. As a true Rohirrim he had fought the pain with all the strength he had left, and now that the wounds were covered with cloths drenched in the warm water and easing the pain, he was finally beginning to come to rest.
"You thought I would lose," he said quietly, and his eyes rested with painful certainty on his friend.
"I thought it to be the hardest fight you ever fought," Aragorn answered, unwilling to recall the moment when he had indeed feared that nothing would prevent Asentis from slaughtering Éomer. For a moment, there was silence.
"You were right..." The Rohirrim king closed his eyes, wanting to find rest, but knowing that the attempt was in vain. The pain was keeping him awake, and there was too much racing through his head for him to calm down. Like the impossibility of what he had seen. "He was fast. And strong." A careful, shallow breath. "But he was no man. Either that, or the signs they painted on him made that change possible."
"I cannot say," Aragorn shook his head, thoughtful. Remembering the claws he had felt against his back in the darkness, thwarting his escape. "I had seen Asentis fight before. He was very powerful."
Éomer wet his chapped lips and grimaced when he inhaled. His nose had swollen shut, and dark purple bruises marred his jaw and cheeks.
"He made one mistake. He underestimated me," he said, and Aragorn smiled wearily. At first wanting to rise, but quickly thinking better of it, Éomer extended his arm to hand the bronze pendant to his friend. "Take this, please. The parley will take place tomorrow."
Aragorn dried his hands on a cloth and took the symbol with the serpent, staring at it with a feeling of reluctance as he recalled the moment of Gishvané's submission.
"There will be no parley, Éomer, they submitted themselves to you." He could see in the king's eyes that he was too worn out to understand. "They will not demand anything, but will do what you say." Éomer only closed his eyes as sign of agreement. "If you want me to I will talk to Ridasha."
"Yes, the woman who brought the mishénian leaves." Upon Éomer's slight nod Aragorn slowly rose and met the young female Easterling outside. Seeing him she lowered her head again. The fear in her eyes told him everything. "Ridasha, look at me and listen." She looked up from the ground, casting a glance at Tarés, who watched her, and while the king crouched she slowly sat up. "The Rohirrim will not do you any harm if you stay in that circle they set. Since King Éomer is resting now, he will talk to Gishvané tomorrow. She shall come to him at sunrise."
"I will deliver your message."
He saw that still her worry did not vanish, and so he added quietly,
"Do not fear the King of Rohan. He will not harm you." She nodded obediently, but he could see he had not convinced her. "You shall accompany her."
Ridasha's eyes widened, but she did not dare to do more than nod.
"It will be as the King of Rohan commands." She looked at him as if he had granted her more than she had ever dared to ask for. Then she left, bowing to him one last time and vanishing across the circle to find Gishvané.
Aragorn swayed upon getting up, and Tarés accompanied him to the tent next to Éomer's. A guard waited and opened the flap for him, and the healer of the Rohirrim came up from behind.
"Are there any further commands for the night, my lord?" Tarés asked quietly, eyeing Tolgor, who brought a bowl with warm water and his pack into the tent.
"No." Aragorn hesitated to follow. As long as he had tended Éomer's wounds the tent's narrowness had been tolerable, but now he longed to stay outdoors. "Go and rest, Tarés."
"At your command." Tarés bowed and left.
The Rohirrim guard still waited patiently until the King of Gondor had entered. Though a fire burnt outside it was almost dark within the tent. Tolgor had set down the bowl and remained silent until the king had shed his torn jerkin and shirt. Wiping his face, wretched and too tired to object, the king sat down and let the healer have a look at the gashes on his back.
"Would you mind telling me, my lord, when these wounds were inflicted?" Tolgor asked politely and kept his voice low since the King of Gondor looked as if he would collapse on the woollen blankets at any moment.
"Three days ago." And when Tolgor kept his mouth shut and only cleaned the wounds, he added, "Why do you ask?"
The healer applied herbs, mixed with water into a paste, and heard the king inhale sharply and through clenched teeth.
"They are not healing," Tolgor finally said. "They should be closed by now, but they look yet like they would again bleed at any time." He finished his work, and wearily the king lowered his head. Frowning, Tolgor saw the marking on his shoulder and neck. "What is this…?"
"Leave it," Aragorn ordered him, and Tolgor clamped his mouth shut, collected cloth and bowl and left the tent.
Finally exhaustion took its toll, and Aragorn lay down to sleep immediately.
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