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Twilight of the Gods: 38. Reluctance
Chapter 38 - Reluctance
During the next four days Hilberon experienced the bliss of freedom, the joy of riding, and the company of his fellows. The Rohirrim soldiers seemed rough in their bearing, but aside from the special treatment they earnestly granted their horses every night before they even ate a bite themselves, they were a friendly company too. On the second and third day they had passed by groups of Dunlendings, but – he was sure of that – due to the impressive force of more than sixty soldiers they had immediately retreated, and like the others Hilberon had cheered. Finally the young soldier considered the week of captivity as an adventure – though not pleasant, it would be a story he could be proud to tell. And he longed to see his father again, hoping he would be in good health.
Dismounting in the waning daylight, he glanced at the strange group of men and women. The day had started with rain, and though it was still warm their clothes were wet and uncomfortable to wear. While the soldiers took care of the horses, the Easterlings were ordered to stack up firewood and pitch the camp. Hilberon saw their faces lighten with smiles and did not understand how such a simple task could spread happiness. He felt much better staying behind and giving the Rohirrim a hand with erecting the tents.
Éomer could read Elfhelm's face as plainly as he could read the signs of the weather. He knew it would rain again during the night, and he knew that his old friend's opinion had not changed by a hair's breadth. Taken to his tent, the King of Rohan unwillingly let go a moan of relief at being allowed to lie down again. He closed his eyes for an uncountable length of time, but when he opened them again, his old mentor had entered and Tolgor was kneeling at his king's side, changing the bandages. He looked at the healing wounds and flinched, failing at pretending not to care under the knowing eyes of the Lord of Westfold. Even though his head was no longer throbbing like a rotting tooth and the pain in his chest had further diminished, indicating that the gashes had not been as deep as he had at first feared, he felt thoroughly spent.
"The stitches are holding," Tolgor announced before a question was uttered. "And the gashes are healing, sire. At least, they would…"
"Very well." Éomer raised his eyes in question. "Where is Aragorn?"
"Outside." Elfhelm pointed with his chin at the entrance. "When I left he was talking with that high priestess, but he was on his way to you."
"Ask him…" The Rohirrim ruler hissed when Tolgor moved his injured leg to apply a new bandage. Elfhelm lifted his brows. There was no need for words, and the King of Rohan gritted his teeth at the older man's superiority at that moment. "Ask him to come here and bring Ridasha with him."
The marshal left, and Éomer closed his eyes again, thankful for another minute of rest, before the guard announced his friends and the young woman from Rhûn. He glanced at them and, with Tolgor's help, rose to sit. The healer quickly collected his belongings and left with a bow. The flap fell behind Elfhelm, concealing the beginning of the night. With a nod Éomer bade his guests to sit down, greeting them. In the eyes of the woman he saw terror grow anew as she crossed her legs and anxiously fumbled with the thin cord around her neck.
"Tomorrow we will reach the River Isen," Éomer began, upon having summoned his strength, and rising above his lingering weakness. "Dispatch-riders have been sent to gather the Dunlending's tribal leaders for a parley." Ridasha's eyes widened. "The conspiracy has to be revealed, and you, Ridasha, will tell Woldro and the others of your leader's intentions." She parted her lips, but he cut her off. "I will not hear your protest. You are the one who knows the details, and you will tell the Dunlendings how you used them for your own purposes."
Ridasha could not breathe. She bit her lips knowing too well that Éomer-king had just announced the verdict she would have to face. She nodded obediently, evading his fierce glance.
"It will happen as you wish," she uttered lowly, her voice trembling with fear.
"That will be all." Éomer indicated she should leave, and she fled the tent immediately. "I only hope they will be there when we arrive," he added quietly, and moved his aching body a fraction of an inch. "We have no time to lose."
"That was not very courteous, my friend," Aragorn stated, rising.
"Do you expect politeness after what they have done?" Éomer hissed. "Look at yourself! They abused you and your men and now they will get what they deserve."
The King of Gondor turned at the entrance to stare at his friend.
"Do you intend to leave the Easterlings to the hillmen's wrath? Because this is what will happen."
"I won't leave without having the conspiracy disclosed. There will be no peace without the Dunlendings knowing how they have been betrayed the whole time. Ridasha must tell them!" Éomer felt the strain between them rise, but added: "That does not mean, though, that I will allow them to kill our captives."
After a curt nod Aragorn left the tent.
Ridasha had come to a halt in the near darkness, away from the camp which was brimming with activity. Her face was hot, and neither the soft wind nor her cold hands could change that. So far she had called her kin lucky to have eluded the revenge of the Dunlendings they had met on the way, but now their fate was inevitable. As soon as Woldro, Durden, and all the leaders she did not know by name would learn of Harishdane's plan, all of her kin would be dead before nightfall. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and what little hope she had left fled her. King Éomer did not need to kill them himself, but could leave this task to the vengeful Dunlendings.
She was startled by the touch on her shoulder, turned and stepped back at once. Only then did she recognise the King of Gondor.
"There is no need to fear me," he said and took his hand away. Ridasha wiped her face, but to no avail. To see her doom looming only a night away was hard to understand, and impossible to accept. "I told you that we did not come to Dunland for war, but to seek peace."
"And for that Éomer-king will sacrifice us." She took a shallow breath. "But it is his right. I shall not complain."
Aragorn held her gaze, trying to convey his sincerity.
"He will not hand you over to the Dunlendings, but you have to tell them why Harishdane sought their alliance."
Ridasha retreated further, and the king followed her slowly, not noticing Tarés behind his back.
"He will not stop Woldro or the others from killing us if he can gain their trust this way!" She pushed away a strand of hair from her forehead, unable to stop the tears. Her gaze strayed to the fire, where some of her kin were busying themselves with stacking up wood. "We cannot expect mercy. Gishvané said that those of my kin you see here are all who were left in Dunland. We were about to leave the land!" She shivered violently as he got closer. "Woldro will know! They will all know by now! If they gather… Why should the Rohirrim or your men save us from their revenge?"
"Because we will not allow you and your kin to be slaughtered." Ridasha shook her head, unable to believe his words. "Éomer will take you to Rohan. But he can only leave Dunland when he knows that the hillmen will not attack his land anymore. And therefore you have to explain Harishdane's conspiracy. There is no other way."
"I will follow his order," she stated obediently, "and await my fate."
"Ridasha…" Aragorn held her by the shoulders, feeling exhausted, more than he could tell. "Even if the Dunlendings are not open to reason, we will not desert you like that."
"I will obey. What will happen to us is out of my hands."
He let her go, and when she melted into the darkness he exhaled, knowing that he could not lift her dread. Turning, he recognised Tarés, but his shape was suddenly blurred, and through the sound of his fast beating heart he heard the soldier's voice, but was unable to understand the words.
"My lord…" Tarés had quickly bridged the distance and grabbed the king's arm, stopping his fall. He kept him on his knees, deeply worried to see his ruler panting and squinting into the fire's gleam as if he could not see clearly. "My lord, let me help you get up." Breathing shallowly Aragorn shook his head only slightly, but slid to his side, steadying himself with his left arm. "I shall call for the healer." At that moment he became aware of Ridasha appearing from behind. "What have you done to him?" he accused her loudly. "What did you do to weaken him like that?"
"I did nothing!" she retorted fearfully, but crouched beside the king, touching his forehead, utterly surprised to see him in a state like this.
"Get away from him, you witch!" Tarés almost spat. "Was that what you were about to do four nights ago? Hurt him again?"
"I only wanted to help!" Ridasha could see in the soldier's eyes that nothing she said would change his mind, and rose. "Whom shall I seek?"
"No one," Aragorn stated weakly and wiped his face with both hands. "Just grant me a moment…"
"Go back to your people!" Tarés commanded rising. "I will search for the healer."
"No, let her stay." Tarés clamped his mouth shut, pivoted and ran back to the camp. Ridasha stood, uncertain, trembling, fighting the tears anew. From afar Tarés shouted for Halamin. "Is it true what he said?" The king lifted his head, indicating that she should sit down.
"I wanted to come to you." She knelt and stated compassionately, "I meant no harm. You were having a bad dream, and I wanted… I just wanted to ease your pain."
They locked eyes, both drowning in the bitter memory and silent within their feelings of misery and regret. She finally averted her eyes.
"Our people brought you nothing but suffering. Any verdict will be justified."
"Your people also brought suffering to Rohan," he said after regaining some of his strength. Tolgor returned, but Aragorn kept his gaze on the young woman. "Now it is your turn to end this. If you convince the Dunlendings that there is a way to end the raids and still gain what they seek, Rohan and Dunland will be able to find peace."
In the early morning's mist they rode on, and Thor helped Ridasha again onto Doloríon's back He frowned at her face, which still showed the signs of weeping. But she did not talk, and he did not ask, concentrating on yet another day's ride ahead.
Ridasha had retreated to her people without being able to find rest, and she had watched the King of Gondor being escorted to his tent. Gishvané had questioned her about the incidents, and she had reported. The high priestess too would accept any verdict spoken, and act on any order given.
When the black stallion suddenly leapt to the right, Ridasha was thrown off balance. With a shriek she clung to Thor's waist, expecting to fall at any moment. Cursing in Dunlendish, the Rohirrim caught her with one hand while, with the other, he regained control over his steed, seemingly effortlessly. Gasping, she adjusted herself on the horse's back, and he spurred his steed again.
"It was not nice to call this wonderful animal a nasty mule," she then said and hardly held his stare when he turned in the saddle.
"Now, he does not understand… but you do? You speak Dunlendish?"
"How did you learn it?" he added, still on the verge of disbelief.
Ridasha did not know how to react. That man belonged to the winning tribe, and in the past days he had treated her with reserve. Yet she had to answer.
"I have lived here… in Dunland… for almost two years." He shook his head and turned forward again, and she hid behind his back.
"Then I better be careful with my curses," she heard him say in Dunlendish again, and through her fear she felt a thin smile easing the dread for a short while.
Within reach of the River Isen, the air was thick with moisture. The cloudy day had pestered the riders with showers of rain, which had lessened to a drizzle now that the day's end was drawing near. Some simple tents could be spotted through the mist, and the Rohirrim allowed their horses to fall back into a light trot, aware that the men ahead might have prepared another trap. They gripped their lances tightly and looked to both sides, vigilant and ready to defend themselves.
The tension woke Éomer from a state of neither being fully aware of his surroundings, nor unconscious, a fact which was emphasized by the waves of excruciating pain from his leg. He lifted his head, and with his left hand wiped his face to take in what was happening around him. The host had come to a halt, and the king spotted two of his men stepping out of the dim light to talk with the Rohirrim riding at the head. Elfhelm urged his mount through the waiting lines, and the soldiers afoot, holding the reins of their horses, bowed deeply.
"The leaders are awaiting you, Éomer-king," the first one announced, dismay over the state of his king openly visible on his face. "We found them yesterday and brought them here. More are said to be coming within the evening."
"Well done," Éomer stated. "Pitch a camp and detail the guards for the night."
The soldier turned to give the order, and Elfhelm slid from the saddle to help his king from his tall steed. His ruler looked at him with a recurring expression of dread as he loosened his grip on the mane, bracing for the task ahead. The days on horseback had been painful but endurable, except for the daily ordeal of mounting and dismounting. Inhaling deeply, Éomer reluctantly indicated with a short nod that he still needed help, and when he slipped from Éon's back, he bit back the groan wilfully. The nearby waiting hillmen would not see him weak.
Through the haze of his pain Éomer heard clamour rise. Among shouts of dismay and hate directed at the strangers from the east, King Elessar's clear voice rang out, calming the screaming Dunlendings. Rohirrim guards parted the hillmen from the terrified captives, and over the neighing of the assembled horses more shouts were heard, and it took time until both groups were separated and quietened.
"This won't make that parley any easier," the marshal muttered gloomily, while he helped his friend lean against a trunk. Within the movement of the many horses he could see King Elessar still mounted and surrounded by the men of his guard, shielding him against a tall Dunlending who would not yield to the king's command.
"It has to be done. See to it that none of them gets any closer to the Easterlings. I won't have them fight."
"I would prefer to stay here."
"Don't leave Aragorn alone with this. He might need your help." And when Elfhelm frowned, Éomer added lowly, "Tolgor told me that the King of Gondor is at the end of his strength, even if he would never admit it." Elfhelm shot him an eloquent glance and left.
The moment had come. Ridasha's heart beat fast enough to hurt. She saw the Rohirrim stride over to her place, and with a curt order he accompanied her to the king's tent. From within she heard angry voices grumbling in Dunlendish, and then Thor's hesitant translation, covering up the insults. The guard opened the flap and let Ridasha enter. Immediately all pairs of eyes turned toward her. The King of Rohan sat on the far left, his marshal on one side and King Elessar on the other. Opposite Woldro sat with his arms folded in front of his mighty chest, and beside him Durden, another powerful leader, had taken a seat. Behind them two other hillmen waited in the shadow, and all of them looked ready to jump and attack her as she knelt near the entrance.
"Ridasha," King Elessar addressed her, "tell the tribal leaders of Harishdane's plans for Dunland."
The Easterling inhaled, but struggled for words as she was being confronted with the wrath of the hill folk. They pierced her with their stares and seemed to tremble with barely restrained anger. How was she supposed to explain to them what the leader of the Jásheni had done? King Éomer's gaze was not friendly either, and the older warrior at his side seemed about to shake sense into her if she did not start at once. She avoided all their stares and recalled in a low and stressed voice what she had told the Rohirrim King six days before.
When she fell silent again, Woldro was the first to speak, since the King of Gondor had silenced his interruptions more than once.
"You tell me, woman from the far-off lands, that Harishdane had done this all to conquer Ithilien?" He threw his hands in the air. "Lies! No more than filthy lies! She never said that!"
"We left," Ridasha answered, but could not raise her head. "All of us still in Dunland had gathered at one camp. We were about to leave over the mountains… with the rest of the captives."
"You want me to believe this? Her men left weapons! She said she returns with more men! Lending us strength and forces! That her army already gathered!"
"Our army has been gathered, yes, but not to cross the mountains. Their aim is Ithilien. She betrayed you. She never wanted to help, but only looked for a way to diminish Gondor's defence."
"He should come here to fight us?" Durden asked, and Ridasha nodded. "She expected the king to come to aid Rohan?" Another nod. Durden exchanged a glance with Woldro while he lowly admitted in Dunlendish: "Might be right. She ordered us to ask for their king, you remember?"
Ridasha lifted her chin to see the concerned and strained face of King Elessar when Thor translated. These tidings were new to him, and he turned to meet Éomer's gaze. Both rulers had involuntarily followed the Easterling leader's plan, a fact which was hard to acknowledge and added to the anger they already felt.
"You say Harishdane is gone?" Durden asked Éomer, and the king nodded, facing him.
"She fled with two of her kin. One of their tribe is dead; the rest submitted themselves to us."
Durden bared his teeth as he turned his head deliberately to the kneeling woman.
"You will deliver those captives to us, and then we talk about peace, Éomer-king."
Ridasha shivered violently and her eyes widened. The Dunlendings looked willing to kill her at once and enjoy the moment. Éomer remained calm.
"The captives are no part of this parley."
The Dunlending faced him and sternly repeated his demand.
"You either give them to us…"
"Or what?" Éomer made an effort to bend forward. His eyes narrowed, and there was a dangerous glint in the dark brown depths. "Will you attack two éoreds waiting across the river? Will you risk losing the genuine chance of peace for a headlong act of violence?" His gaze shifted slightly to the right to pierce the other Dunlending. "You said you want that land I spoke of, Woldro. You said I convinced you. Where is your trust now?"
Durden growled deep in his throat, and Woldro swallowed the first objection, but asked pointedly,
"But what you do with them? They are your enemies too, Éomer-king." His glaring black eyes rested menacingly on Ridasha, who could not breathe. The lives of her people were at stake, and she had no hope left. For a brief moment her eyes met with those of King Elessar. Reassuring. Asking her to hold on. "And what would one do with enemies? We could rid you of that problem."
"I see no problem in dealing with the captives on my own, Woldro," Éomer replied firmly, leaning back against a saddle. He felt a little better today. Not much, but enough to lead this parley with the bidden resolution. Dunlendings… they were more bull-headed than a herd of cows. Not unlike his own people, of course. "Now that Ridasha told you that there is no more help to be expected from the Easterlings, how do you decide? Shall we part and fight if next time you cross the river with your men? Or shall we speak about my offer of land to cultivate in the Westfold? What is more important to you – the past or the future?"
Woldro spoke lowly with Durden and the other two of his tribe, and for the time Ridasha sought comfort in the fact that the Rohirrim king had not light-heartedly condemned her people to die at the hands of the vengeful Dunlendings. But her blossoming hope was crushed a moment later.
"We demand revenge, King of Rohan," Durden stated. "We want peace with you, but not with them! They betray us and must pay for it! They must die for their deceit!"
"You will either accept the king's offer or retreat at once," Aragorn decided, cutting in before Éomer could answer. "He already declared what will be done with the captives. You have no right for demands, Durden of Dunland. Lead this parley according to the rules or leave the camp with your men." Woldro and Durden stared at the King of Gondor for a seemingly endless moment. He held their gaze unflinchingly, demonstrating his will and the power to accomplish it. "Grodes had sensed that there is a chance to change the future of your people. Now, let us hear your decision."
Woldro turned to Durden with the slightest of nods, and the older man inhaled deeply.
"Let us hear your proposal, Éomer-king."
"Double the night watch," Elfhelm ordered when Thor passed him by, and the young man nodded before he left. Elfhelm turned to Aragorn, who rose from the edge of Éomer's cot. The young king was already fast asleep, utterly spent after the long ride and the extensive and complicated parley. But judging by Aragorn's hollow eyes, Elfhelm thought that the King of Gondor would sink beside his friend at any moment. Both men needed a break urgently, yet were too stubborn to admit it. Elfhelm saw it with concern, but knew not what to do. Time was pressing, yes, but what good would the two kings be on the battlefield if they almost fell from their horses out of exhaustion? Yet he was certainly in no position to mention his opinion to the Gondorian King. "The guards reported that the Dunlendings left the area. Do you want them to be followed, sire?"
"No. Let them leave. Just secure the camp."
"Aye." He watched Aragorn wipe his face with both hands, and when he dropped them the king swayed before catching his balance again. "Your tent has been erected close by." Elfhelm waited for the man to follow him outside. "Your intervention came at the right moment, my lord."
"I wished these questions could have been settled at Meduseld."
"I am convinced that if it hadn't been for that traitor, you both would have succeeded."
"A traitor?" Aragorn echoed, gratefully accepting the water-skin Halamin provided. "Who was it?"
"Captain Galdur, my lord. We only found out when he tried to murder our king."
For a moment Aragorn stared into the fire, stunned by the news.
"By whose order?" he then asked and drank.
"He said he acted alone." Elfhelm shook his head as he recalling the night of Galdur's confession. "He said he could not watch how Éomer led the kingdom to doom."
"It must have been devastating to Éomer."
"It was a dreadful night, yes. But you should rest now, my lord. Tomorrow we'll head for Edoras."
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