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Twilight of the Gods: 36. A Parley like no other
Chapter 36 A Parley like no other
The noises of early morning gradually seeped into Éomer's conscience: muffled voices outside the tent, movement, the neighing and snorting of horses as the camp slowly rose from sleep. Soothing noises of normality and peace. Peace... but just as soon as he realised he was waking, a nauseating wave of pain thrust the King of Rohan into the reality of the day.
It had taken him an eternity to pass out the night before, even though he had been at the end of his strength. And yet even then it had been more of a doze than a wholesome sleep, haunted by the images of reflecting eyes and shining fangs. Éomer felt utterly spent just upon opening his eyes. A man was sitting to his right, his back resting against a saddle, apparently having kept watch beside him for the night even though his eyes were shut now. It was their healer Tolgor, and a feeble, thankful smile tugged at Éomer's lips at the sight of his utterly exhausted and yet so loyal kinsman.
Even the smile hurt. And he was thirsty, his mouth dry as desert sand because he had been breathing through it the entire night, as his nose was swollen shut. Like his left eye, he realised, inwardly grimacing over imagining how he must appear to his men. It was good Lothíriel wasn't here. Lothíriel… unmoving, lying on his back even though it was throbbing as well, if not as badly as everything else, his left hand absent-mindedly brushed over the wristband she had given him as a good-luck charm upon his departure. A curl of her black hair was interwoven with the brown leather band, and as his fingers gently traced it, Éomer felt an unexpected bout of homesickness so strong, he had to close his eyes.
It was that moment when Elfhelm entered the tent.
"Éomer?" Worried by the young king's pained expression, the Lord of Westfold quickly strode over to the makeshift bed and knelt down. "What is it? How can I help you?"
"It is nothing." Speaking hurt, too. Éomer hated hearing his hoarse voice, which betrayed his condition so clearly. "Or merely a thought. Nothing that should worry you, friend." He opened his eyes and looked up into the broad, worried face of his long-time friend and mentor. "You can help me, though, by passing me the water-skin." A small nod toward the sleeping Tolgor, next to whom he had spotted it, out of his reach. Likewise smiling upon the sight of their loyal, yet utterly spent healer, Elfhelm stretched and offered his king a few much-cherished swigs of water.
Exhausted even from that small task of raising his head, Éomer leant back, staring at the ceiling of the tent.
"When will the parley begin?"
"There is still plenty of time," Elfhelm calmed him while he settled into a comfortable position beside the bed. "It is shortly after dawn. The sun is not even up yet." He cast a critical eye upon the cloths that covered the younger man's brow and nose and pointed at them with his chin. "How are you, besides the obvious?" The one eye that would open looked at him.
"I will survive."
The marshal nodded, needing no further explanation.
"Do you think you are up for the parley, or should I take over? Tell me what your instructions are, and hand this task to me. Because frankly, you do not look as if you should be doing anything else then lying here for the rest of the day at rest." Éomer just looked at him, and Elfhelm knew his brother-in-arms long enough to know what the glance meant. "You are, by far, the most stubborn man the Mark has ever seen. Even your father was easier to handle, and that is saying a lot!"
A tired smile.
"Would that be a Rohirric compliment?"
Smiling, Elfhelm shook his head. Even if Éomer was looking as if he had been trampled by a Mûmak, it was good to see that his fighting spirit was unharmed.
"I am not certain..." He exhaled through his nose and offered the king another swig of water, which the wounded man accepted eagerly. "Yet it may please you to know that particularly our young warriors were most impressed by your display of sheer will yesterday. They are talking ceaselessly about how you came back from near defeat to behead that black beast."
Éomer's mouth twitched.
"Pity. I was aiming more at impressing the older warriors."
"Ah…you impressed those as well, son." Elfhelm grinned. It was a very welcome sign to see the king's humour back, however feeble. He patted Éomer's good shoulder. "If possible, you impressed those even more." For a moment, both men fell silent, before the marshal continued. "What you showed yesterday set an example for how a man's will can ultimately prevail against the odds. You made me proud to be able to say that I was your teacher in these arts once."
"Yet I would still have lost if it wasn't for you again." All playfulness had left Éomer's eyes as his gaze lifted, for a moment forgetting his pain as he shared a solemn look with the older warrior and seized his hand, giving it a squeeze. "You saved my life twice now in only a few days' time. Whenever it is needed, you have my back, even if you do not believe in what I do. There are no words for what that means to me, Elfhelm. No words to thank you enough."
The hardened marshal was barely ready for his king's confession, and his eyes betrayed the fact.
"You are a man of valour and honour, Éomer. It is easy to follow a man who always puts the love for his land and his people first, even if some of them may not fully understand it yet." He paused. "You know what I thought of your plans for Rohan and Dunland. I thought you erred, that you were heading in the wrong direction… but I must admit now that I may begin to see." His stare grew intense. "We have come too far now to stray from that way. Too much has happened to abandon the path you have chosen now. Your will may just make it happen."
"My will... your loyalty... and Elessar's wisdom." Another moment of silence passed, and then Éomer grimaced as he cast an unwilling glance at the unruly heap of his tunic. "It must soon be time for the parley. Elessar said he wanted to change the bandages in the morning. When he is done, you two must help me get dressed. I will not meet the Easterling delegates looking like this."
Awaking from a nightmare full of beasts, bloodlust and chanting people, Aragorn realised that Halamin had provided him with a bowl of fresh water, and he forced himself up, feeling even more tired than the night before. The flap went down, but concealed only darkness, hardly disturbed by the small fire in front of the tent. He breathed deeply, still in need of rest but knowing he would not sleep again tonight. Too disturbing had the images been, and the memories of the past week and the scásh were vivid enough to keep him awake. He rose to wash himself carefully. His body ached with every move, and he felt exhaustion rise again when he dressed in a dark blue shirt he took from his saddlebag. Adjusting the cloth he became painfully aware that the Evenstar and his ring were still missing. The knowledge that Harishdane and her fellows had escaped as beasts of prey caused him further worry. They could try and attack them from a position of strength – there could be more of them in Dunland – or they would return to their homeland, but what they would do there he could not anticipate.
He left the tent and was not only welcomed by Halamin, who had taken over the watch, but also by Hilberon, who quickly hid his smile behind an expression of imperturbability.
"My lord…" He bowed deeply and handed the king his sword in its scabbard.
Aragorn was pleased to have the valuable weapon back, but all the more that the young soldier seemed to be in such a good mood.
"Thank you, Hilberon." He waited to look the soldier in the eyes. "You proved yourself worthy in my service. Your father will be as proud of your courage and skills as I am."
Hilberon swallowed and flushed the same instant.
"Thank… thank you, my lord," he stuttered and would have wished to wash the heat from his face, but by averting his gaze he did not see the relief and approval in Aragorn's face. Halamin did, but he kept the knowledge to himself, glad to see his ruler on his feet again and equipped with at least one sign of his status.
"Are there any new tidings of the Easterlings?" the king then asked, turning to Halamin while Hilberon used the moment to retreat into the darkness. The morning's first light was still half an hour away.
"No, sire, they remained silent during the night after the burial of their dead fighter. No incidents were reported. No more…" He hesitated. What he had seen the evening before would forever haunt him. "No more beasts," he added, his voice even.
Aragorn nodded, exhaling.
"Very well. Keep the watch tight. We do not know if they might return."
"What about Dumarin?" the king asked when he could not immediately see him.
Halamin pursed his lips.
"He chose a watch during the night, my lord, and will be resting now." He could not hold his ruler's gaze. "In my opinion…" He broke off. He had no right to report any further.
"Go on, Halamin. By now you should know that I appreciate frankness."
Halamin gave a short nod.
"Dumarin is deeply ashamed for having lost faith in you, my lord. He regrets what he said."
Aragorn exhaled, his eyes surveying the campsite illuminated still by some fires and torches.
"It was I who led you astray. It was King Éomer of Rohan who saved us." He turned to his soldier. "There is no need for regret. Not by him." He walked over to Éomer's tent, and the guard opened the flap for him, bowing curtly. Aragorn crouched beside his friend, putting down Andúril close by. The King of Rohan was very pale under the dark purple bruises the polearm had caused, but he looked up from his improvised cot. "Could you rest?" the older man asked lowly, pulling back the cover from his friend's chest to change the bandages the Rohirrim healer had applied during the night.
"Come back in two days." The shadow of a smile crossed Éomer's face, turning into a grimace of pain when Aragorn removed the first cloth. "Or get me a tree with those leaves."
"Ridasha can give you some more." Aragorn sent the guard for water and bandages and when he sat down again he looked at his friend sternly. "I asked for the high priestess and Ridasha to meet you here at sunrise. Decisions have to be made, and they have to be made quickly. As far as I understand it the losing tribe has to work for the winners as servants. They will expect such a verdict."
Éomer clenched his teeth and needed a moment to answer.
"Rohan has no history of that, and I am not about to start it." He focussed on his friend, who carefully removed the rest of the soaked bandages. "What do I need to know for that parley? Is there anything you can tell me about their intentions?"
Aragorn paused a moment, recalling the conversations he had led with the young female Easterling. Without considering that he might be freed, she had given him information Harishdane would never have allowed her to share.
"Ridasha told me that it was indeed some of their people who supported the Dunlendings. They wanted to help the hillmen to settle in the Rohan realm, but…" Aragorn's stare became austere. "The help of the Easterlings was only granted in exchange for men." Éomer's eyes widened. "They took your kinsmen to Rhûn. Alive."
"For what purpose?" The pain of his soul now added to that of his wounds. He had feared his men to be dead, but their fate now seemed worse.
"They will become slaves of the Easterling tribes."
"Sweet Erú…" Éomer gasped, and for a moment they both fell silent, pondering over the consequences. "Slaves… But how… The Dunlendings had remained peaceful for two years, they even came to us to ask for help!"
"Harishdane – their leader – told them that the Rohirrim would never share their wealth, but prefer to kill their foes. The Dunlendings were convinced that their only chance of survival lay with the Easterlings and their help."
"So the Easterlings came here to... steal our men?" It was hard to understand, and coldness settled in the younger man's stomach. "They came to barter weapons for captives?"
"That is quite likely. Slaves mean wealth for the tribes, and allow their own men to rise in standing." He could sense the deep shock Éomer dealt with and experienced a bitterness of his own. Harishdane had meant to take him as a slave for the Jásheni to Rhûn. Unbeknown Aragorn let his fingers travel over the protruding scar on his neck. He did not want to think about what would have happened to him if her plan had succeeded, yet the image Ridasha had planted in his mind did not vanish. A shiver ran down his spine, and he forced himself to let his hand sink on his thigh. "Harishdane has united the tribes, and the more captives she brings…"
"The more she will be praised." Éomer's voice was low. "What an elaborate plan." Another silence followed. "It was their leader then, who escaped yesterday night?" His friend nodded. "I cannot allow the rest of them to return to Rhûn. It's too risky. If they remain peaceful there'll be no need to consider them as prisoners, but…" He groaned, and looked even paler when his breath finally returned to allow him to mumble: "I fear you will have to lead that parley, my friend. I have no strength left, as important as it is."
"If it is your wish, I will see it done." The Rohirrim healer brought fresh bandages and water and left the tent. Aragorn looked through the open entrance for a moment. "The sun will rise soon."
"When you have finished… you have to help me sit up."
"You should not…"
Éomer cut him off with a fierce look.
"Do not expect me to lie down crippled in the face of those who have lost!"
Aragorn remained silent, knowing well that no argument would change his friend's mind. He replaced the bandages and stretched out a hand to help Éomer up, though he made clear with a look that he considered his actions foolish. Éomer clenched his teeth, forcing the rush of pain down by sheer will, but when he sat his face was bathed in sweat. He gave a curt nod toward the heap of his tunic.
"You should stay here for a while," Aragorn suggested while he handed him the piece of clothing, but Éomer shook his head.
"The Dunlendings' tribal leaders wait for our return. There is still another parley to lead." He frowned, dreading the prospects. "Yet another parley... life as Third Marshal of the Mark was certainly easier." A very weary smile followed, which his friend returned, then he raised his hand. "Will you help me with this, friend?"
The agitated chatter had lasted long, and ever and ever again the Easterlings had cast glances at the Rohirrim on the other side of the circle. They had shaken their heads in disbelief, and still most of them were afraid – seeing many Rohirrim guards roving near the camp – while the others began to regard the winners as weak and unable to react adequately to the victory. Though their boorish king had won he had not even shown himself since, and he had not set the Easterlings to work for them. Only one had told them to bury Asentis, which they had done – reluctantly. But aside from that only the high priestess had been questioned by an older Rohirrim soldier as to whether there were more beasts nearby. After that dreadful interrogation Gishvané had calmed her people with wise words and ordered them to pray to the goddess, though she had trembled as all had seen. Then, deep in the night, they had found rest, but with the first light Ridasha and Gishvané walked slowly to the royal tent. They did not know what to expect, but for good or bad they would follow whatever judgement the King of Rohan spoke to them.
A Rohirrim met them with a fierce and unrelenting look, his hand ready on the hilt of his sword. The women stopped, uncertain how to proceed. The soldier announced their coming, and, from within, the call resounded to let them enter.
Ridasha took a deep breath and faced the men inside. On the right side in the spacious tent, laid with woollen covers, sat an older man with a neatly trimmed, fair-haired beard and a twisted scar on his brow. His frown told her that he distrusted them thoroughly, but he remained silent. Ridasha recalled him to be the soldier who had thrown the knife at the beast. Beside him and the Gondorian healer -- whose attendance she found irritating-- King Éomer of Rohan sat. His back rested against a saddle, and his left leg was outstretched to ease the pain. He welcomed them curtly, and immediately Gishvané and Ridasha knelt and bowed to the ground to indicate their submission.
"There is no need for this," the deep but somewhat hoarse voice told them. "Sit so that we can talk."
Gishvané exchanged an awkward glance with Ridasha and changed position, crossing her legs as she had seen the men doing. Reflexively she touched the middle of her chest only to find the spot empty where the pendant used to be. Her cherished jewel now lay between the healer and the king.
"We thank you, King of Rohan, that you allowed us to come here," she said, in a low voice filled with insecurity. She did not know what else to say, what would be appropriate. It was the first time she faced people of another kingdom. Until that day, all the parleys had taken place between Easterling tribes and had been simple, since the losing tribe had followed the winning without objection and worked for them. But something in the king's glance told her it would be different now. He was angry, which was understandable, but there was no indication that he had called them in just to sentence them to death. Apprehensively she dared another look. In the wake of the scásh his whole face was covered with bruises, and the cut on his brow had swollen shut the eye. He looked tired and in pain beyond measure, but she was still surprised when the Gondorian addressed them first instead of the winner.
"We welcome you, Gishvané, high priestess of the Mushéni-Rhûneshan, and Ridasha, and thank you for your clear-headed response to yesterday's incidents."
The high priestess stared at him wide-eyed, unable to understand the beginning of this strange parley, but nodding nonetheless. Hearing where they would have to settle for work would have been easier to accept than this praise.
Ridasha found it hard to believe what she had heard. This could not be the talk she had expected. And why did a healer speak, instead of the king or the man at his left side, who looked at them so adamantly that she could not bear his stare? But when she returned her attention to the king, he was biting down the pain that flooded him the instant he shifted his position. Then his fierce stare caught her as he summoned his strength, and his voice was harsh.
"Where are my men? Where are the men you abducted from the settlements?" Ridasha was hit deeply since she had never experienced an interrogation like this. And though the king was weak, she still could feel his rage like the vibrations of a polearm after a collision. She swallowed, and her mouth was suddenly dry. She could not evade, but also found no words to answer. "Speak up!" he ordered her, but failed to lean forward.
"You will answer the king at once!" the older man on her right instructed sternly, and Ridasha's head snapped around to him only to find anger and distrust – and his body so tense that for a moment she feared he would attack her. Sensing his strength she knew he would need no effort to kill her on the spot. The high priestess also was no comfort; she knew far less than the soldier. And her fear clearly showed when the older man spoke.
"They… they were taken to Rhûn," Ridasha stuttered, finally lowering her chin to her chest, evading his stare. Her heart beat fast. Harishdane had said many things about the battle-experienced Rohirrim, and all of them flooded her mind now upon seeing their faces seething with hatred. Though the healer had said she would not need to worry about getting harmed, she could not believe him.
"Where exactly are they now?" the king demanded to know.
"I cannot tell." She shivered. "I honestly cannot tell, King Éomer. Please, believe me… I did lead them through the mountains, but… no further." Ridasha could only breathe shallowly. "They might have reached… our land by now."
Éomer exhaled noisily.
"Why did the Easterlings come to Dunland? There is nothing for you here!"
Gishvané summoned her strength to answer, but could not stand Éomer's piercing glare. Unconsciously, her fingers worked on her tunic.
"Harishdane… our leader… she commanded us to seek an alliance with these people."
"Seek…? What for? Why did you come to Dunland?"
Gishvané and Ridasha exchanged a fearful glance. Neither of them wanted to answer. No matter what they said, it would anger the Rohirrim King and lead to unpredictable results. They wanted to save their lives, but at the same time were aware that the men of the winning tribe could order them to be killed without ever fearing retaliation.
"Ridasha, tell us of the conspiracy," the healer requested, and his calm voice made the young woman raise her head as much so she could see Éomer's hands clenched in fists. Bloody scratches on his forearm still recalled the fight against an enemy unknown before. "Tell him what you know."
"Harishdane said that… helping the Dunlendings would… bring us prisoners of war."
"Your kin would barter weapons for men?" Éomer asked with undisguised disgust, and Ridasha lowered her head further as if she were trying to avoid a lethal blow. "Answer me!"
"Yes." It was almost inaudible. Elfhelm snorted. "Harishdane let us bring weapons for the hillmen and… train them in their usage."
"To attack Rohan!" the older man boomed. "What else, snake? What else had you planned?"
"Marshal Elfhelm…" Aragorn requested with a distinct look, and, grumbling, the Rohirrim leaned back.
Ridasha was about to cry. This was worse than hearing a verdict. This was a torment of her mind, and still she had to obey whatever the winner demanded from her. She gathered her strength to answer,
"The plan… was to aid the Dunlendings and… they would then deliver the men they captured during the raids. They… they should not kill anyone."
Éomer exchanged a quick glance with his second-in-command. A coldness crept into him, and with a voice bereft of strength he asked,
"How many of my people did you lead through the mountains?" The woman did not look at him, but her silence was worse than any answer she could have given. Rohan was not densely populated, and not every occurrence would have been reported to the lords.
At length, she whispered, "Fifty… maybe. I'm not sure."
"You captured fifty of my kin?" Éomer echoed, and the consequences of those captures robbed him of his breath. It was too horrible to think about. "Men and women?"
"Only men." Ridasha exhaled nervously and unconsciously sought the hand of Gishvané. She needed support to go through this ordeal, silently pleading for the King of Rohan to speak a verdict and throw them out. But though he seemed exhausted, he was far from doing so.
"And they are all in Rhûn by now?" She nodded, expecting an outbreak of rage, shrinking where she sat. "What else was planned? More raids? In greater numbers?"
"We… we only gave the hillmen what they needed… what they wanted. Harishdane had said that they would never get anything from the…" She broke off and swallowed. There was no way to say it without insulting the warrior-king, which would be considered an act.
"Go on," Éomer ordered through clenched teeth, but she shook her head. "Tell me everything you know!"
Ridasha pressed her eyes shut, but admitted lowly,
"She said Rohan would be wealthy, but would never share and would prefer to kill their neighbours… She said that the people of Rohan did not help the Dunlendings on purpose during the last winter. That they wanted to wipe out all of them. Let them starve. And that… that the hillmen had no chance but to ally themselves with our kin to survive and get land in Rohan." She expected to be hit when the marshal at Éomer's side moved and tensed, but nothing happened; only grumbled curses could be heard, which she did not understand.
"How many of your kind are still in Dunland, aiding the hillmen?" Éomer's tone was strained. His strength was fleeing him faster than he wanted to admit.
Gishvané swallowed fearfully, but dared to lift her head to answer.
"Our leader told us to gather here at this camp. I think… I don't know for sure, but… there cannot be many of us left in the settlements. They might all be here."
"Might, yes," Elfhelm nodded, not believing her. "How can we be sure that none of those beasts still roam here, waiting to attack?"
The high priestess parted her lips, but Elfhelm's stare ruined what little self-confidence she had. She nodded obediently.
"Yes, my lord, you might be right. I cannot say."
Aragorn wiped his brow, seeing the women thrown into utter defence. He knew they had followed orders, and the one to blame had fled the night before. Still they held valuable information, and they needed all of it to see through Harishdane's plan.
"How many of you left Rhûn to train the Dunlendings?" he asked, and Ridasha wet her lips, letting her gaze wander anxiously between the king and the healer before she had the courage to explain.
"Only a few at first, but more came after us when the hillmen agreed. Then…" She shook her head. "There were many of us, but most of them have already left. Their task was done, and they wanted to go home. The high priestess must be right – these are the last to leave… who were about to leave," she closed regretfully.
"Fine," Elfhelm growled. "You say, now that you have given them weapons and taken our men, you draw back?" Éomer found it harder with the passing minutes to focus on the parley. The pain in his head, chest and thigh demanded more from him than he had to give. A slight nod to Elfhelm was enough to let the older man continue. "I don't believe a word! To me this is just the vanguard for a greater attack! You only want to deceive us!"
"No!" Ridasha exclaimed shaking her head. "No vanguard! We did not come here to attack! Our kin would never enter Rohan!"
Elfhelm shook his head determinedly, and his face was contorted with anger.
"You lie! You taught the Dunlendings to fight, didn't you?"
"Yes," Ridasha admitted, utterly confused, her gaze rushing from Marshal Elfhelm to the king and back.
"Then pray tell when the main attack was planned?" Lord Elfhelm boomed, leaning forward again. "For the end of summer? To steal the harvest? To return home with your packs full? Leaving our people to starve?"
"There… there was never an attack planned on Rohan!" Ridasha cried. "Believe me, please!"
Elfhelm snorted. He would not be convinced, so the Easterling turned in search for help to the healer, but his face too was reserved.
"Then explain why your people taught the Dunlendings to fight! Why did you provide them with weapons, if not to launch an attack to conquer Rohan?"
Ridasha hesitated, evading the pressing stares. So much was at stake here. So much confusion culminated in her mind, and she felt all eyes resting on her. Not even Gishvané could know as much as she did. But if she told them… She did not want her people to be blamed and killed!
"Ridasha, tell us what you know," Aragorn demanded and his uneasiness rose. If all she wished was to capture slaves for her tribes, Harishdane could have chosen another -- and by far easier -- way. "If Rohan had never been considered a target for your people, then why did your leader make contact with the Dunlendings?"
She wet her lips. Her heart beat in her throat, and the decision she had to make was harder than facing the verdict of slavery. She would condemn her own kin if she spoke. Staring straight ahead she could see the abrasions on the healer's wrists and she did not need to lift her gaze to know about the wounds Nisenur and Asentis had inflicted on him. He would need weeks to heal. And the scar on his neck and shoulder would never vanish. How could she dare to keep her knowledge to herself if this was possibly a way to pay a part of the debt? Inhaling deeply she raised her chin to look into the man's face.
"Harishdane… she will lead our people to Ithilien."
"They are about to occupy Ithilien?" Elfhelm echoed, and his voice had an edge to it indicating that he had reached the end of his patience. "That's quite a daring lie! My lord, you should not…" but Éomer silenced him with a look.
Ridasha frowned nervously, her gaze resting on the man from Gondor.
"It is no lie," she stressed desperately. "She… she knows about the alliance of Gondor and Rohan."
Aragorn heard Éomer inhale sharply beside him, and like him he finally understood the plan.
"Harishdane expected Gondor to come to Rohan's aid." His voice was flat and he held Ridasha in his stare. "And bind all forces that way." She nodded fearfully. "So she could move her army in position and attack while her enemies would be far away." Aragorn swallowed, feeling his anger and hatred rise. He thought of Faramir and the day he had burdened him with the defence of their homeland. He had left at the worst time, leaving him to deal with a threat that had announced itself clearly – and yet he had not seen it! "Then tell me, Ridasha," he continued, trying in vain to remain calm and keep the accusation out of his voice, "are the Easterlings already marching into Ithilien? Did they already start the war?" The young woman sensed the growing fury and restlessness and felt almost unable to answer. And she still did not understand why this healer held such a strong position in the parley. He did not ask for allowance to speak, did not even wait to see whether the King of Rohan would ask the questions himself. And the gaze from his grey eyes was far more concerned than she would have expected, since he was only a commoner. "Ridasha, you must tell me!"
"I honestly don't know, Strider! I have been here for two summers. I never went back to Rhûn, only got word from those travelling. Harishdane had left me here with some of my kin to… to teach and…" Unintentionally, her view changed to Éomer. The king had clenched his teeth, yet still tried to focus on her. "… and lead men through the mountains," she concluded almost inaudibly.
"Then they could already be in Ithilien." Aragorn exhaled, wiping his face, turning his gaze to Éomer. They both were thinking the same thing: they had to return to Gondor as fast as possible. But it could not be done immediately. The parley had already taken too long, and Éomer's face was bathed in sweat, his consciousness reeling. Aragorn had to remain patient, as precarious as the situation was turning out now. Inhaling, he faced the women again. "Since the people of your tribes have lost the fight," he stated, "you might now expect to hear what will happen to you all."
Ridasha's heart beat fast, and she glanced from the King of Rohan to Lord Elfhelm and then back to the healer, afraid that he might utter a verdict worse than becoming slaves of those horse-lords. After all her kinsmen had done under the command of Harishdane, there was no mercy to be expected. She was trembling noticeably and saw that Gishvané held tight to her tunic, trying to stay calm.
"The Rohirrim will not take you home with them as slaves …"
"Do not kill us!" Gishvané suddenly exclaimed fearfully. "We submitted ourselves! We did not fight you! We accept your verdict, but…"
"High priestess," Aragorn soothed her, raising his hand to stop her pleading, "this is not about killing. The people of Rohan are no slaughterers." He paused, regaining his composure. Still his voice sounded stressed and his look was austere, unrelenting. "But the king cannot allow you to return to Rhûn. So you will follow him to the realm of Rohan." He let the words sink in. Both women were confused, but did not dare to utter a question. "If you remain peaceful there will be no need to bind you and take you with us as prisoners."
"We will not resist," Gishvané assured him immediately, relieved that the King of Rohan would let her people live. "We will follow any order given."
"And you must swear to never gather your people for an attack on Rohan."
Gishvané nodded, but talked briefly with Ridasha, not knowing what to say since she could not speak for all of her people.
"The same agreement must be accepted for Gondor and Ithilien," Éomer added, eyeing both women sternly.
"Gondor and Ithilien?" Ridasha asked confused. "Why should we promise this to you, Éomer-King?"
"Because you are being addressed by King Elessar of Gondor!" the man on the right side stated emphatically, and his fierce stare quenched what little self-confidence she had gathered. She looked as if the sun had sunk, never to rise again, and all hope left her. The marking, the punishments, and her own behaviour were like stabs in her back, leaving her numb with horror wondering what kind of cruel revenge he would unleash on her. Hardly breathing she turned her head. For a brief moment she locked eyes with him, saw him twitch his brows before she threw herself on the ground, taking up the submissive position again, trembling with fear. Recalling all the incidents, it was impossible for her to get out of this tent alive, no matter what had been said before! His revenge would come upon her and all who accompanied them on the way through the Misty Mountains, and all she could hope for now was that he would end her life quickly.
Aragorn shot Elfhelm a chagrined glance, but turned his attention to Ridasha again.
"Please, look at me." But she was unresponsive, and the high priestess could not change that. She, too, frowned anxiously at the behaviour of the young woman, not knowing what had happened during the seven days in the mountains. "Ridasha…" Aragorn bent forward and touched her shoulder, feeling her quiver and hearing suppressed sobs. Exhaling, he gently cupped her chin to lift it. Eyes filled with tears met his, and she wanted to shy away from him. "There is no need to be afraid. I will not hurt you." He let go and watched her unbind the scabbard from her belt. With trembling hands she put the hunting knife between them both and drew her hands back, waiting nervously for his decision.
"It is yours. Take it back," she whispered.
Sensing that it was necessary to calm her down, Aragorn took the weapon and put it beside him. Only then did Ridasha seem able to relax a little. He turned his attention to the high priestess.
"There is need for a guarantee of the Easterlings to never attack Rohan or Ithilien. All men already there must be forced to retreat."
Gishvané swallowed and her glance changed between Éomer and Aragorn.
"I cannot speak for all tribes," she admitted lowly, still uncertain whether any assurance given would last if she unveiled the facts. "I am the high priestess of the Mushéni-Rhûneshan, and for them I can guarantee that none of this tribe will attack you and your people. But… I am neither the high priestess of the other tribes nor the leader of all of our kin."
"What do you mean?" Éomer asked, and his voice was strained. The time of the parley was taking its toll, and the pain had risen to an unbearable level.
Quickly Gishvané said something to Ridasha, and the young woman handed the pouch with leaves to Aragorn, unable to look in his face, while still tears trickled down her cheeks. Too vividly she recalled the night of the marking and his desperate yet unspoken plea to help him. Úshemor walked a strange way to teach her, and she still did not understand what this turn of events meant for her.
"Thank you," Aragorn said, giving the leaves to his friend, but a glance told him that Éomer would not be able to follow the conversation much longer. He needed to end this in due time.
"Harishdane leads the soldiers in case of war," the Easterling woman explained. "The high priestesses only rule the rituals. I am sorry, but I cannot give you what you want."
"But if you return with us – would you be able to keep your people from attacking?" Aragorn pressed, seeing the old woman grimace with uncertainty.
"I might – but they do not all follow me. Please, understand… I will do what is in my power, but… the leader commands us."
"We have to get back to Edoras," Éomer stated weakly, his voice but a breath, and slid to the right, unconscious.
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