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Twilight of the Gods: 4. Uncertainty
When the sun set they had reached the hill again and the land rose steadily before them. It was drier now, but the tracks were still clear. Near a group of bushes and larger stones that would protect them from being seen Aragorn came to a halt.
“Here it turns south. We shall wait till nightfall to get any further.” He took saddle and bridle off his horse and let it graze. Wearily the others followed and hobbled their steeds before pitching a camp. “No fire,” he ordered when he saw Fáred already searching for stones to put around the campfire site. “We do not know who might roam this hill.”
Dumarin and Fáred exchanged glances, then Dumarin spoke.
“Sire, whoever walks here cannot be a threat to us. We are six men who can defend ourselves well.”
“And who tells you, Dumarin son of Doran, that there are no more than six men against us? Caution reigns over pride,” he closed sternly and turned to Halamin. “I will take you and Hilberon with me tonight. Take off your armour and sword. We shall be as quiet as possible.”
“We will creep up on them, my lord? Without weapons?” Halamin frowned. It was never heard of that men of the Royal Guard did not openly confront an enemy. For him it was a disgusting thought. But when the king only answered with another stern look he shed out of his cuirass and chain mail and put it on the ground. Hilberon did the same and felt relieved. Looking down on the heap of armour he thought about not putting it on again. The weight felt too heavy. It seemed more like a burden than a protection. And he saw no reason to protect himself in this wilderness. He straightened his jerkin, fastened his belt with the dagger attached to it, and was ready to leave.
“We do not want them to be aware of our coming.” The king took off his sleeping roll and all of his weapons but the Elvish hunting knife. Halamin nodded and tried to show an imperturbable face. “And yet we do not even know who we expect – if they have not already left.” He gently stroked Brego's mane and forehead and talked to him in Sindarin. Halamin, who still watched him, wondered if the horse truly understood his master's words for he neighed lowly at the end and grazed on when Aragorn turned away from him. In the last glimmer of daylight the king looked at his men. “Whoever passed by we do not know of their intentions, they may be good or bad. Fáred, Tarés, and Dumarin, you stay behind and watch over the camp and horses.” He saw the older soldier's reluctance and added, “Keep quiet and only defend yourself if there is danger upon you.”
Fáred bowed curtly. Dumarin was exhausted enough to lay down where he stood and would not contradict. Let alone Tarés was uncomfortable enough to speak up.
“My lord, you should not walk yonder without a proper guard. If it is as you assume there might be more danger ahead of you. And we are of no use if you leave us behind.”
“Hilberon and Halamin are a strong enough help if any is needed.” But his look told him that he was used to take care of himself alone and Tarés inhaled and bowed deeply.
“Of course it will happen as you wish, my lord.” He sat down with Dumarin at the campsite, his back supported by a sun-warmed rock, and reached for his water-skin. He was disappointed to be left behind, and he feared for his ruler, but he would not dare to utter a word against the king's decision. Still he could not shake the feeling that he was needed and damned to be helpless when it came to a fight. After the king's abduction not even two years ago all soldiers of the Royal Guard had been told by captain Fáred that they had the responsibility for the king's well-being. But how should Tarés and the others fulfil this task if they were left behind?
Aragorn looked at the three soldiers for a moment. They were used to serve the late steward of Gondor, and Denethor's demands had been different from their tasks now. Dumarin would always serve without question, but lacked the stamina needed. Fáred was experienced in the defence of the city, and his bravery was unquestioned. Tarés preferred to fulfil his work by staying as close as possible to the king's back, a soldier ready to keep away any harm from the ruler. The king could not wish for a more loyal company to serve him, and still he remembered yearningly the companionship of Gimli and Legolas, their strength and will, their skill and wisdom. The time of war had been hard, but friendship had lightened the burden. He wished they had not left the White City.
With a short nod to Hilberon and Halamin Aragorn turned and left the campsite.
The king led the small group slowly southwards for half an hour. The wind had diminished, the sun sunk with a last golden shine beyond the Nindalf, and they walked hunched over to avoid being seen though the light lessened in the minutes they walked over the grass. When the scent of fire reached them, Aragorn ordered the two men to lie down. The thicket they had entered provided cover, but also bore the danger of sounds for neither Hilberon nor Halamin were used to crawl noiselessly. Aragorn lay flat on the ground, his eyes fixed upon the small fire shining through the bushes in the distance.
“Wait,” he whispered and was gone in seconds, his belly pressed against the soft soil. Darkness fell upon the land as he moved forward, halted when one of the two figures at the fire stirred, then moved on slowly. He waited patiently to get around the camp and then closer, breathing the musty scent of soil, leaves, and bark. Another half hour had passed when he reached the end of the thicket to watch. The shades in the dark did not speak, just sat and stared into the flames. They wore dark red tunics and trousers, leather cuirasses with red and gold patterns which shone in the fire's gleam, and their black hair was bound to the back of their heads but for one strand that hung alongside the temple of their tanned faces. On the forehead of the one whose face Aragorn could see a faint symbol drawn in red and black. Around the neck a chain hung with large black and grey feathers, parts of brown fur, and a little, round piece of metal on it. On their backs they carried quivers with a dozen black-feathered arrows, and their belts contained short knives. The bows lay on the ground beside them. Aragorn wondered why none of them slept. Were they expecting someone else?
When one of them spoke it was low and in a tongue Aragorn did not understand. The second answered, and the voice was raspy like something had happened to his throat. Still they did not move. From what he saw Aragorn found a resemblance to the Easterlings he had seen at the Black Gate the day all had come to an end. But it could not be. The armour was a little different, the helmets were missing. Still… The Easterlings were defeated and driven back to the Sea of Rhûn. And why should they have returned? The first figure stirred and added another twig to the dying fire, whispering words and making a gesture to the adjacent thicket with his free hand.
Another minute crept by in silence.
All of a sudden a loud and eerie cry was heard from the northern side of the thicket. The figures were on their feet at the same moment, exchanging curt words, grabbing their bows and running into the direction the cry had come from. Aragorn stood and hurried after them, jumping over the fire to avoid his companions to be attacked. Pushing away lower branches he leapt over a root he could barely see, and hastened on. Another cry followed, closer now. Menacing. Voices rose - one belonged to Halamin. Aragorn stumbled and fell, but it was his luck. An arrow whistled by, missing him by inches. He pushed himself forward, gained speed again through thorny bushes whose long branches tried to hold him back. Halamin yelped in pain. In the dim light of a quarter moon Aragorn reached Halamin and Hilberon. They both looked frightened and were out of breath, but unharmed.
“What happened? Where are they?” Before Halamin found words a third cry alarmed them. It was one of pain. “Fáred!” the king exclaimed and ran on. The two soldiers followed swift, ignoring the uneven ground that made them stumble and fall every few steps. Fear that they might be too late made them run even faster, but when they reached the place Fáred stood on top of a rock like a ghost of revenge, arrow and bow ready bent in his hands.
“One of these beasts hit Dumarin!” he shouted upon seeing them. “But I will get one of them!”
“No! Hold your fire!” Aragorn shouted, but the arrow had already left the string. With the precision only long experience can grant it found its aim quickly. The shadow in the distance fell on its knees, and then, after a moment, lay motionless on the ground. The king had come too late. He snatched the bow out of Fáred's hand. “I ordered you not to!”
“I did what I had to do!” Fáred spat on the ground. “They stole a horse! And the others got away on it, I’d suppose! Stinking bastards!”
“You fool!” Aragorn threw the bow down. “Can you not listen?”
Fáred pressed his lips tight to avoid any word of dissension to slip from them, but his angry stare turned to Dumarin who sat on the ground and held his right arm grimacing with pain. Blood oozed through the fabric and the soldier looked miserable. Aragorn cursed under his breath, but spun around to find the person lying face down on the ground twenty feet away. He knelt beside him. An arrow stuck out of his neck and a single line of blood had trickled down to the ground. Fáred had hit to kill. No breath was left. Hilberon knelt on the other side while Halamin came after them, panting, with his sword ready.
“They might come back,” he muttered. “Try to avenge him.”
Aragorn shook his head slightly.
“They are gone.”
Halamin looked down at the slender figure in the woollen dark tunic and leather cuirass over it, rough trousers and dark, long-worn boots. A simple bow lay beside him, dropped from his hand, the quiver, engraved with black symbols, hung loosely over his shoulder.
“Good gracious, it’s just a boy!”
The king turned the body around and was stunned. For a moment the three men gaped at the soft features surrounded by black hair.
“No, it is a woman.” Aragorn's shoulders sagged, and he closed his eyes for a moment. Sighing deeply he murmured a prayer in the Elvish tongue he had learnt so long ago. He knew Halamin and Hilberon watched him in astonishment, but he did not move. He felt a loss he could not explain. At Helm’s Deep King Théoden had ordered many young lads to fight, and Aragorn had felt the urgent need to protect them all; to not let them lose their lives in this very fight for their freedom. But not all had survived. He had not been able to save them all. And though the time of war should have taught him not to feel sorrow about a person he had not even known, the young woman’s face, so smooth and fair, not marked by old age or despair, revealed a vulnerability that touched his core.
Fáred reached them, and upon seeing the body searched for an excuse.
“A woman? But, my lord, I did not mean to… I did not know…”
“The harm has been done and cannot be taken back,” the king said in a low voice heavy with frustration and grief. Gently Aragorn pushed a strand of hair out of her face. As he had seen on the other stranger her forehead was decorated with dark red symbols, and around her neck she wore a thin leather cord with pieces of fur, two long, curved claws, and a broad silver ring with a dark red gem in its middle. In her hair stuck a broad wooden comb with engraved signs, coloured in black. A work of art, now lost of its use. “There was no need for this.” Exhaling he turned to the waiting captain and his anger flared. “Are you not skilled enough, Fáred, to stop without killing? This was such a needless act! Will you now tell me what she knew? Where she came from, or why she tarried here? Are you able to explain what we desire to know?”
Fáred evaded the king's fierce stare. He felt disgraced being yelled at, and swallowed hard on the humiliation. His answer was hardly audible.
Aragorn rose, an impressing figure, even more in his undisguised anger. Fáred immediately stepped aside. He seemed small and beaten.
“The war is over, Fáred son of Folentis, and you should better know it.” The king turned and when he passed he added, “Bury her. Do not let her lie here for whatever beast.”
To call the atmosphere in the great throne room of Meduseld strained would have been an understatement. The heated, humid air of the late summer afternoon seemed thick enough to cut through and had a metallic taste that told of the approaching thunderstorm, but it would not just be rain and lightning that would assault Edoras tonight. The assembled council consisting of the king and his wife, Gamling, chief of the Royal Guard, Féofor, captain of Éomer’s personal éored, and Erkenbrand and his second-in-command, Galdur, had been summoned in all haste. The men had at first been irritated by the queen’s attendance, but then proceeded as usual when they had seen Éomer’s warning gaze. The queen wished to know what was going on in her land, and her questions would be answered.
Only the sound of Éomer’ steps could be heard echoing through the twilight of the hall as he restlessly paced the corridor, too anxious to sit while he listened to Erkenbrand’s report. As usual, the marshal’s recapitulation of the events left no doubts; his words evoked clear and frightful images.”
“They had waited for the new moon to cross the Isen under the protection of darkness, and they moved swiftly and stealthily, quite in contrast to their usual way of attack. A great host of Dunlendings, all moving in order and with a purpose. They also appeared to be well aware of the guards’ positions, so that is another hint that this raid has not been a spontaneous, ill-planned undertaking of the likes they usually engage in. They took them out before the alarm could be raised and then assaulted the sleeping people in their huts.”
“How many men are we talking of?” Éomer inquired, his lips a grim line and his jaw set as he stared unfocussed into the sickly greenish light just outside the hall. The air was standing, there wasn’t so much as a breeze outside that could move the grass.
Lifting his damp hair from his sweat-drenched neck to cool his skin, Éomer took up his pacing, his expression that of deep thought. This appeared to be the first serious threat to his people since his becoming their ruler, and he was not certain whether he was ready to face it. In his days as marshal, there had been times when he had been looking forward to picking a fight, but ever since his captivity by Grima Wormtongue, Éomer had felt a strange reluctance towards the thought of battle and bloodshed. To his immense surprise, he had actually found himself enjoying the rare calm times Rohan had experienced since the end of the war. Was it just that he had grown unaccustomed to the intensity of conflict? Was it battle-weariness? The knowledge that the shoulder injury he had sustained during his ordeal had left him weaker, not the unstoppable warrior he had once been? Or a natural development caused by maturing, of his participation in so many battles in his still young life?
“I did not see the full attacking force myself, sire, because there was only a smaller group of them left when my éored arrived, but Captain Galdur spoke of at least two hundred, my lord.” The older man paused to grant his king a moment to truly grasp the meaning of his words, and saw their devastating effect as Éomer turned around to face him, slightly paler than before. Now he knew that this was no isolated occurrence which could be neglected. That this organised attack had to be the beginning of something greater, something infinitely more dangerous. “And they struck without warning. Everything about this attack was different than what we have been used to from battling Dunlendings for decades. Usually, they are nothing but a bunch of primitive, club-wielding wild-men, easily overtaken by a force that’s considerably smaller but better structured and armed. But this group… they were organised! They followed a strategy, and they were armed with swords, bows and lances – and knew how to use them!” He reached for his tankard and emptied it.
Inhaling deeply, Éomer came to a halt in front of the greying warrior who was sitting on one of the benches and studying his expression intently. Not that there was much to study, Éomer mused, nor anything to misunderstand. It had to be obvious how he thought about these catastrophic tidings, because each of Erkenbrand’s revelations so far had felt like a punch to his gut. Somewhere in the back of his mind, even if he knew how unlikely it had been, he had hoped never having to hear anything about a quarrel with their western neighbours again.
“If what you say is true…”
“It is true, my lord! I saw it with my own eyes! This was an organised and well-trained army we were dealing with! We lost eighteen men in the attacked villages, and over twenty soldiers of my éored were wounded in the fight. We experienced great difficulties at throwing them back over the river, and even so, I assume they only went to store their loot and then come back for more later. I left the remainders of my éored to patrol the river fords and ordered for reinforcements, but we cannot afford to just react. We must take immediate action!”
The eyes of all present lay now on their king, waiting for his verdict. The silence deepened.
“I do not like it,” Éomer finally muttered, slightly angered at the marshal’s interruption, and turned on his heels to take up his pacing. Nothing was adding up, and the implications of Erkenbrand’s report were too horrible to think about. “If some wild folk like the Dunlendings suddenly know about strategy and possess weapons other than stones and wooden spears … then there must be some other enemy behind them! Someone who taught them! Someone who has access to weaponry, an enemy we know not yet. I will not believe that they learned the art of war all by themselves in such a short period!”
Erkenbrand remained silent. The same thought had crossed his mind, too, but he had wanted for his king to evoke those frightening images in his head by himself. They would be more powerful this way, and they would inevitably lead Éomer to the one decision the seasoned warrior wanted to hear from his ruler. There was no other way to react to such a heinous attack, and while the king’s expression was still mostly dominated by consternation and confusion, Erkenbrand was relieved to catch the familiar undercurrent of white-hot fury underneath. Ah, yes – this was the Éomer he knew, the hot-tempered, fierce warrior who refused to take insults from anyone! The true son of the late Marshal Éomund of Aldburg. He needed that man now! Rohan needed him! This was not the time for reflection and considerations; this was the time for justified wrath. Hesitation could easily mean Rohan’s end, especially if some yet unknown enemy was involved.
“Marshal, are you certain that they were, in fact, Dunlendings?” Féofor, the captain of the Edoras-based éored spoke into his thoughts, the man’s expression deeply dubious. What was that inexperienced apprentice thinking? That he could not tell a Dunlending from an orc? Or a horse from a goat? Erkenbrand ground his teeth, but bit back the harsh words coming to his mind. Féofor, for all he knew, had been born in the Eastmark and never left it. So who was the one who could not tell one thing from another here? “Could they not have been...” the lanky, malnourished looking man shrugged, “… I don’t know, another people we have not met so far? The whole land of Enedwaith and their inhabitants is virtually unknown, could they not have come from there? This would explain their unexpected mastery of strategy and weaponry, too!”
“Enedwaith is not unknown,” Éomer opposed, his tone more frustrated than anything else. His eyes were fixed on the banner of his house that hung behind the throne without really seeing it. The greatest king Rohan looked down on him now, waiting for his successor to find the right decision for his people. He pivoted on his heels. “We sent scouts there many times before. It is a barren land without forests or fertile soil, impossible to live of. They never found people there. The land is bereft of life.”
“Captain Féofor, I have fought against these primitives my entire life. Trust me when I say that we are dealing with Dunlendings here!” Erkenbrand pressed, finally giving up on not letting his annoyance with the man show. Eru alone knew why Éomer trusted such an ignorant man with the protection of Edoras. Certainly Féofor had to have his qualities, but experience it was not. There was enough tension in the hall already, but he was not about to let himself be questioned by that untaught youth in front of everyone? He had not been there. He had not seen what they had seen. Of course they were all trying to find a logical explanation for what could not rationally be explained. But what if there was none?
After all, there had been no trouble from their neighbours since Éomer’s predecessor had pardoned them in the wake of the Helm’s Deep battle. They had even been allowed to travel through the Mark to ask for help during the grim winter with none of the éoreds harassing them! The Rohirrim had believed their eternal conflict had ended. So what in Eru’s name had provoked the Dunlendings to once again wage open war against them? Greed? Need? The times were hard for both their lands, and probably even harder for the people in the hills, but hard enough to forsake the mercy King Théoden had bestowed upon them and try to satisfy their need by means of violence again? Had they decided now that they would no longer plead for the crumbs from Rohan’s table when they could take everything by force?
“And it could not have been a, however great, rampant group?” Gamling let himself be heard, unwittingly smoothing his thin red beard with two fingers. “One or two tribes who are not in agreement with the others, outsiders to their own people even?”
Erkenbrand had always respected the older, wiry warrior. Quite against the usual Rohirrim temperament, of which their current king was an excellent example, Gamling had only rarely acted on the spur of the moment. He was a thinker, a pensive bright mind, and that Éomer had named him as his counsellor after the war had been quite justified in Erkenbrand’s opinion. He would have to be convinced to take the action Erkenbrand would be asking for, not just persuaded. But then again, the decision to go to war would not be his call to make, and the Lord of the Westmark hoped that he could count on his king in this matter of life or death. All he would have to do to drive Éomer to this decision was feed him a few more horrible details.
“Two-hundred men? Armed and trained as they were?” The marshal shifted his attention to the chief of the Royal Guard. “Alas, no, Lord Gamling. I deem that impossible. We all know the usual size of Dunlending tribes, and we know the way they usually fight. This attack was alarmingly different… as alarming as something else they did...” He turned back to Éomer who was following the discussion from the middle of the corridor and now stared at him with a mixture of growing anger and discomfort, waiting for yet more bad tidings to be unveiled on this gloomy summer afternoon. From outside, a low growl penetrated into the hall, but no one seemed to notice.
“What do you mean?” Éomer was loath to hear yet more ill news, his expression showed it clearly enough. “What did they do besides stealing, plundering and burning our villages … and killing our people? What else could they have done that was possibly worse?”
Erkenbrand knew he was very close now to achieving what he had come for. The worst was yet to come, and already the king looked ready to jump into the next saddle and head off for the Westfold even in the middle of the approaching thunderstorm.
“I cannot tell whether it is worse, yet, actually,” he then confessed with a calculating glance at his second-in-command. Galdur’s expression spoke of confidence in his marshal. A very loyal man. “But it is rather peculiar.” He swallowed and then met Éomer’s inquisitive gaze. “Apparently, the Dunlendings did not kill the men in the villages. Not unless they absolutely had to. Instead, they took them with them.”
The silence deepened to the point where it became unbearable. Somewhere to their left, a servant was moving through the hall to ignite the torches in the deepening twilight.
“They did what?” There was profound confusion in Éomer’s eyes and the furrows on his brow deepened in disbelief. His hands dropped to his sides as he felt the tiny hairs on the back of his neck and on his arms rise. Erkenbrand could not be serious!
“The men disappeared, my lord. Of the eighteen men we lost, twelve could not be found. Captain Galdur here saw two of them being wrestled onto stolen horses by the attackers, and they were undoubtedly still alive, their hands and feet bound. And since many more have gone missing in the wake of the attack...” He took a deep breath. “My lord, I cannot tell you how much this observation worries me.“
“Why should they take the men and …” Èomer interrupted himself as a terrible thought came to his mind. An image he just could not accept. Outside, a deafening twin thunderclap ended the expectant silence and rolled through the humid air like the growl of a hungry dragon. The suddenly pale faces of the other council-members told the young king that they had read his expression and were thinking the same. And his wife looked too sick all of a sudden to hear any more of what was going on in Éomer’s mind. He reached a decision.
“Lothíriel?” He went the few steps over to her and lifted her hand from the armrest of her throne, giving it a slight comforting squeeze. Why did it feel so cold to his touch? Terribly worried eyes looked up to meet his gaze.
“Aye, my lord?”
“I want you to go and lie down. You do not look as if you are feeling well, and your hand feels frosty. Let me accompany you to our private chambers.”
His tone was caring and low, but there was no way for Lothíriel to miss the determination on her husband’s face. He did not want for her to hear their discussion any further. And while she was certain that she did not want to know more details either, there was also the insistent voice in the back of her mind telling her that she should hear what was going on in her kingdom. What to do? She could hardly object to Éomer’s wish in front of his men. There had to be another way. She forced herself to give him a weak smile as she came to her feet, gratefully accepting his arm.
“It is very considerate of you to notice, my lord. I was thinking I could make it through to the end of this council, but I fear the strenuous day has gotten the best of me. Indeed it would possibly be best for me to follow your advice and seek a little rest.” A curt, graceful nod at the present men. “My lords, if you will excuse me?”
The other men nodded politely, but only Gamling returned her smile with a slight expression of worry on his face. She liked Éomer’s counsellor. Most of the times, when her husband was away on some errand, it was him she liked to seek out for company and conversation... first her maid, then him.
“Be well, Queen Lothíriel. Should I send for the kitchen to make you some tea?”
She raised her hand.
“Thank you, dear Gamling, but no. I have what I need in my chambers. Let us not needlessly disturb our servants. Once in a while they need a little rest, too, like we all do.” Another meaningful glance, and then Lothíriel allowed Éomer to lead her away to the private chambers, the sound of their steps on the tiles echoing through the silent hall.
“Please, Éomer... I am not ill or weak. I am merely a little tired. There is no need for you to accompany me all the way to our chambers when your presence is urgently required elsewhere, and no need to send for the healer or the kitchens, either. I need nothing but a little rest, as you said.” She let go of his arm as if to demonstrate to her husband that she was indeed quite capable of walking alone. The little assuring smile she had wanted to add died before it could break through, as she looked at Éomer’s serious face. Never had she seen him as distraught as this. In the one year since she had become Rohan’s queen, she had learned about their people’s eternal quarrel with their western neighbours, but this was the first time she saw what the immediate threat of war did to people, even to such a battle-experienced warrior as her husband. ‘War-mongers?’ She knew now that it was not true.
“You look very pale, Lothíriel. Are you certain that there is nothing I can do for you?”
“Aye, my ever-concerned husband. I am certain of that.” She rose on her toes and kissed him, not wanting to be the cause for yet more of his sorrow when the situation was already looking dreary. He took her hands and gently kissed her back, his gaze still contemplating her condition as she continued. “You need not worry for me. I am upset as you, but that is only because I, too, fear for our fellow kinsmen.” Another kiss. “I will go and lie down now, and you go back and decide how to best help our people. I have every confidence that you will find the right way.”
Éomer’s gaze said that he appreciated her effort at comforting him before it strayed to the door to the side-wing, the entrance to their chambers. Behind them, he heard the mumbling of the waiting men. Lothíriel was right – he was needed there. He embraced her once more, and his fingers smoothed her silken dark curls as he deeply inhaled her flowery, comforting scent.
“I am sorry this wonderful day had to end like this. I had very much enjoyed seeing you laughing again after all these weeks of melancholy, my beautiful swan. But now... I do not know where this will take us...” His expression betrayed his fear that the days of peace were over for good. He looked downright dispirited. Dismayed to see her husband like this, Lothíriel took his face in her hands and firmly shook her head.
“Speak not like this, Éomer, please! You and your marshals will set it right. I am convinced that the good times for our land have not yet ended. You will find a way to make the threat go away, I know it.” She let him go, and he gave her the little nod she had become so accustomed to, before he turned on his heels to head back.
Saddened to see her beloved in this gloomy mood, Lothíriel stood and watched until Éomer disappeared behind the column of pillars. She swallowed, experiencing a moment of uncertainty. Should she really do it? Éomer would be angry with her if he found out... and it would possibly undermine his authority if the other men found out, too. But she could not help it, she had to know, and if she was not allowed to listen one way, then she would have to think of another.
“My queen, would you like for me to …”
Lothíriel turned around, a finger on her lips and determination in the dark eyes as she eyed the maid who had addressed her. Motioning for the female servant to go about her business and not mind her, Lothíriel stealthily made her way back towards the middle of the hall to take cover behind a pillar... and listen.
Hilberon shivered. Upon returning to the camp site he bandaged Dumarin’s knife wound while the soldier muttered curses ceaselessly when the pain hit him. After that the young soldier rinsed the blood from his hands with some water and still heard the echo of Aragorn's harsh words in his mind. He had never seen such wrath. The times Hilberon had been with the king before the ruler had been benign, polite, and calm. Seeing him so tense and angry made Hilberon shrink at the mere thought how he would be treated for any act of disobedience.
Dumarin grunted something that might have been a ‘thanks’ and turned to sleep.
Sitting with his back to a rock and his sword at his side Hilberon looked back to Fáred, whose face was still contorted with anger. Even in the dim light of the waxen moon the old soldier seemed flushed. To avoid any eye contact Fáred turned abruptly and went on his guard. Tarés and Halamin were about to bury the young woman, talking lowly with each other. Hilberon had not had the heart to stay and help with that duty. The moment he had seen her harmonious and so young features he had felt a fist hitting his stomach. He had not been able to breathe. The woman might have been his age. For the blink of an eye he had seen himself on the ground, slain by some stranger whose face he had not ever set eyes upon. Now the woman was dead. With one single arrow her life had ended in the wilderness of Ithilien long before her time should have come. Who would mourn her? Hilberon shivered again when another dark thought came to his mind. Would her comrades come back to avenge her? Would they meet others of this people unleashed in their anger? And would the Royal Guard be able to stand against them?
“What happened out there?”
Hilberon was startled and looked up, wide-eyed. Aragorn stood in front of him; the young man had not heard him come. He swallowed his sudden fear while the king crouched and stared at him with his piercing grey eyes.
“I asked you.”
Hilberon nodded curtly, and with a deep breath recalled the incident.
“We both lay there where you left us. We did not move, nor made a sound. We saw nothing. Then... then this… shadow was above us. And when he saw us…” He swallowed. The memory of the dark brown eyes surrounded by white in an aggressive face made his heart beat faster. The king's inquisitive stare did not make it any easier to continue. Hilberon's voice sounded hollow. “He gave that loud and strange scream. He hit Halamin who was next to him, but… not bad. Just pushed him when he started getting up. And then ran on.” Hilberon shook his head. “Like he could see at night. He was fast. And then the other two followed. In a way… they ran over us. We did not stop them. Could not. Perhaps we should have…” He looked up. Aragorn seemed deep in thoughts. “We could have prevented Dumarin from getting hit.”
Aragorn did not answer, but stood and turned. Looking back the way they had come he said lowly,
“No, we could not.”
Hilberon was puzzled, but did not dare to speak. He looked at the king's back. The dark red shirt he wore under the sleeveless jerkin was old as well as the black woollen trousers and boots. Boots that his father would never had allowed his son to wear, so worn-out and darkened by mud that Hiregon would have assumed the owner to be poor. The young man could not find any explanation why the king preferred such clothing to his royal garb. Hilberon had seen him on the day of the coronation. Aragorn had been as kingly as a man could be, and that, Hilberon thought, should be the way at any time. Who would then notice that the king had arrived if it was not by his outer appearance?
“This was meant to be.”
“My lord?” Hilberon's face and mind were blank. He assumed he had not paid attention and chewed on his lower lip, uneasily awaiting a reprimand.
Aragorn looked back over his shoulder.
“It does not look like this happened accidentally.” Still Hilberon could not make anything out of this answer and frowned. “Tarés said there was one man at the horses when the first cry resounded. He cut the rope and led one of them away.” Aragorn's lips twitched. “Then that woman came. She would have taken another horse if Dumarin had not interfered.” Hilberon saw regret mingled with anger in the king's features. Aragorn exhaled before turning away. “They were only here to wait for us.”
The loss of a horse was regrettable. Fáred divided the tent and supplies the sixth horse was carrying on the others so he could mount in the morning. The king hardly spoke to him and if he did his words made clear how angry he still was with the captain. Fáred's lips were pressed to a thin bloodless line, and no one dared to talk to him. They rode on in silence until noon. The weather changed, dark deep-hanging clouds were coming up from the south, their speed indicating that soon the wind would freshen up.
Fáred watched the other men's backs for a while, still growling and ill tempered. He had not slept much during the past night but had wondered about the king's strange behaviour. That woman – he supposed she came from Rhûn – had tried to steal a horse, an act that condemned her to die on the spot, but the king had mourned her like a lost friend. For as long as Fáred had been able to wield a sword or bend a bow he had been told that thieves were nothing more than scum that should be erased from earth. They had no right to live on. Under Denethor's reign thieves had always been treated in that way, and there had been no complaints about it. The harsh reply by the king he served now injured Fáred's self-confidence and – more than that – his pride. He was looked upon as a wise and experienced captain, and Aragorn's disgracing words had lessened his status. However Fáred thought not only about his reputation, but about the meaning of Aragorn's demeanour. By all means, the king should not show pity in sight of an enemy! He should be forceful and determined, quick in his decisions and as hard as just in his actions. Fáred shook his head slightly. It might be that his own reputation had taken a scratch the night before, but the king's bearing might hurt his own position even more.
Aragorn searched for the tracks of hoofs and men. Downhill they turned north-east, and on the plain stretching further to the eastern horizon which marked the border of Ithilien the grass had already set up again, and the tracks were lost. Aragorn halted his steed and dismounted, not willing to give up. He searched for another hint to the whereabouts of the remaining strangers. He knew that nothing left without a trace and that those of men or horses should be easily found. He strayed from the main route, his eyes fixed on the ground, taking his time, and finally came up with a small piece of silver, a chape lost from the scabbard. He held it in his open hand. Squinting he stood and let his gaze wander from north to south.
“They rode hard, further to the east, trying to cover as much ground as possible.” He turned slowly and stood by his horse. “Halamin, did you hear about horse thieves lately?”
“Nay, my lord. But if we ride south we could ask the villagers.”
“We will.” Putting the chape into a pocket under his belt Aragorn mounted again. “But first let us see if it is true what the messengers told.” He spurred Brego into a gallop and led the small group further to the border. With the hours passing, the ground changed from soft green grass with trees and small creeks to dry turfs with low bushes to hillocks, which looked even rougher and were bare of any undergrowth. Huge stone formations forced them to slow down to ride around them and be more vigilant than before. The wind turned south and whirled up sand, but also brought with it an unpleasant smell that filled their lungs and made it hard to breathe. The gusts felt like smoke, biting their lungs, and dimming their view. In the moments the wind lessened in speed Aragorn could only make out rows of white and red tents of different shapes and sizes in the distance. They were hard to count, but there were no more than a hundred. Riding closer he saw in front of those tents some light brown animals with heavy fur, larger than calves, grazing on the dry soil. Herders were with them, keeping the cattle close together, but they were unaware of the Gondorian soldiers.
Coughing, the king slid out of the saddle ordering the others to do the same. A look at the sky confirmed the weather change. The dark clouds that had not lost their loads over the White Mountains were drawing near. Already the smell of leaden wetness was in the air mingling with that of smoke arising over the Morannon and pouring down over the hillocks and plains.
The king led his horse by the reins alongside the hillock to a group of large stones which stood out like watchmen frozen in their movement. From afar thunder rolled. Another gust blew sand over the hard ground, and squinting, he turned to his men.
“We will get closer at night.”
In that moment the rain started pouring down on them.
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