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Twilight of the Gods: 40. Preparations
Chapter 40 - Preparations
It was hard for Lothíriel to stand back and wait while the healers busied themselves with her husband. She would have wanted to help, to lend a hand to Yálanda and her helper by bringing new bandages, or hot water, or whatever they needed to tend to Éomer in the best way. However, as such errands were deemed inappropriate for a queen even in the court of Rohan, she was doomed to feeling ineffective and helpless. At the very least, she would have liked to be at Éomer's side and help him endure the procedure by cradling his head in her lap and whispering soothing words of comfort while Yálanda worked on him, but the old healer had chased her away from the bed, claiming that she was in the way.
Banished to the foot end, the Queen of Rohan anxiously watched and waited to be allowed near the man she loved, occasionally flinching at the sight of the crude criss-cross pattern of thread and the deep shadows of bruises all over his body. The feeling of foreboding that had struck her so violently on the plains surfaced anew, combined with a sense of despair. All the blood she had seen, the deep knowledge that somewhere, something was happening to Éomer and she had helplessly been doomed to witness it. It was a cursed gift she possessed. And yet unexpectedly, the Valar had at last shown their mercy by giving her back her loved one alive. For this, she would be eternally grateful, no matter what condition Éomer was in.
Her lips pressed together, Lothíriel watched impatiently as the healer finished redressing the wounds after having bathed them and pulling the coverlet over her utterly spent patient before turning toward the queen. The deeply-lined face shone with reassurance as the woman took her hand, sensing the unspoken question behind the anxious expression.
"It is not as bad as it looks, Lady Lothíriel. The cuts may have been painful, aye, and I understand that they are a gruesome sight to your unaccustomed eyes, but the king has had worse in his life. None of the wounds are serious, and good care has been taken by someone who knows about healing." She briefly turned her attention back to Éomer, who was lying with his eyes closed, resting at last with the aid of a potion she had given him. "Nay, my lady, all your husband needs now is rest, and in a few days, he will be as good as new. There is no need to worry." She gave Lothíriel's hand a good squeeze and then gestured for her helper to follow her outside.
Taking a deep breath, Lothíriel stepped up to the side of the bed. The healer's words had been comforting, yet she could not help but continue to worry. Éomer looked so exhausted, so frail... She extended her hand as she cautiously sat down on the mattress to gently brush a strand of golden hair from his face. Just what had happened in Dunland? An overwhelming surge of guilt flooded her while her gaze followed the line of stitches on his brow and the outline of slowly fading bruises on his cheeks and jaw. Her well-meaning but ignorant idea had almost cost her husband's life. And what good had it done? Her eyes began to burn, and her vision blurred.
"Lothíriel?" Rough fingers seized hers and held them captive, his thumb stroking the back of her hand. "Come here..." Brown eyes focussed on her face, and there was even a weak smile in the corners of his mouth as Éomer gently but insistently drew her toward him. She gave in willingly, content with being in his presence. Slowly lying down next to him and cautiously nestling against his body, revelling in his warmth, Lothíriel's fingers wandered caressingly over her husband's marred features. Moving even closer, she leant on her elbow to kiss first his brow and then the tip of his nose, intending to work her way down to his lips, but discarding that idea when she saw him flinch under her touch. A low groan escaped him that pierced her heart.
"Oh Éomer, I should never have persuaded you to go. I feel so terrible..."
"Don't." He kissed her brow, attempting to turn on his side, but thinking better of it after the first movement. At last, he settled for moving as close to her as his aching body would permit. Resting his head against her neck, he closed his eyes and bathed in her scent. "You should be proud of yourself."
"Proud? For almost sending you to your death?"
"You didn't send me, and I am far from dead, Lothíriel. I am merely tired after the long ride, and after a good night's sleep, the world will look different. What matters is that we found the leaders, and we talked. And we found out that we were all part of a great conspiracy, which has now been unveiled."
He told her. Of Galdur's treason. And of the Easterlings' scheme to occupy Ithilien. "And that is why we need to make haste to get there. They may already be under attack. We will ride on tomorrow."
Lothíriel had listened to his tale with bated breath, but his last words made her speechless. She sat up rigidly.
"You... you will ride into battle? In this state?"
"It's a necessity, Lothiriel. Our foe will not wait until we are ready to meet them."
"You heard what Yálanda said! You need rest! Shall I have to remind you that you could not even walk by yourself when you arrived? What could you do on a battlefield, except get yourself killed?"
"We will not reach Gondor for another five or six days. I can heal on the way, and all I need to feel better is a good night's sleep." His gaze was determined, and Lothíriel knew that any attempt to change her husband's mind would be in vain.
"Heal on the way?" She echoed with a deep frown, unconvinced. "You are not being honest with me, my lord. You are not even being honest with yourself. You know that riding is not what your leg needs to heal."
He pulled her back onto the bed.
"The do not call us the horse-lords for nothing," he breathed into her ear, wishing to end her objections by means of distraction. "We Rohirrim fight on horseback. There will be no need to walk on the battlefield."
"And what if you become unhorsed, my lord? What then?"
"My horse is far too stubborn to let anything happen to him. Now please, I am tired and in no mood to negotiate, even with you." He underlined his statement with the shadow of a smile, barely able to keep his eyes open. "Will you watch over my sleep, love?"
She took a deep breath and with it, knowing that no matter what she said, it would not change anything, swallowed her objection.
"Aye, love. That I can do." She laid her head on his good shoulder, her arm on his chest, the curve of her figure gently pressed against him. "Sleep well, my mighty king..."
They had been treated with politeness, and since their position had been defined as strangers but not captives, Ridasha and Gishvané had been allowed to sleep in one of the guestquarters the Golden Hall provided. Yet a guard had been assigned to stand on the other side of the wooden door, and when Ridasha rose in the early morning upon hearing voices another guard made clear with his look that she would be eyed closely with every step she took. She felt uncomfortable among so many Rohirrim, who regarded her as the source of the Dunlendings' raids on their homeland. And she felt alone again. During the two years in Dunland she had longed to return home, to be with her kindred again, and now she would return – but she did not know to what kind of life she would be condemned. The King of Gondor wanted her to stop the invasion of Northern Ithilien, but she did not know how she could do this. It was a task far too great for her to master! Harishdane, once getting back to Lomarin, would continue to fulfil her plan, and all Easterlings would follow her. Ridasha herself had longed for the time when the sharos would graze on Ithilien's soil. How should she tell her kin that they should refrain from that intrusion and go back to a land that would not sustain them?
Feeling beat she crossed the hall and passed by the doorwardens. They too looked at her, and without words made her understand that their orders were to let her walk freely… as long as she did not attempt to leave the city. She did not go further than they could see her. The peasants stared at her with obvious distrust, but she had lived through their scrutiny the day before and ignored them. These people were at home here, they needed not to face their own kin in hatred and despair. They had what she wanted to achieve. A child looked at her with big blue eyes, grimaced and ran back to a hut nearby, laughing.
Ridasha turned her back on him, unable to stand the sight any longer.
After a short breakfast and an exchange of news that had not been told before for lack of time and urgency, the kings readied themselves to leave for Minas Tirith. The riders from Gondor had changed their horses and were awaiting their ruler.
Halamin considered himself lucky to have slept one night in comfortable quarters before having to take on life on the road again. Hearing from Tarés, their new captain, that they would only stop briefly at Minas Tirith on their way to war in Northern Ithilien he was stunned; not as much as Hilberon, however, who dropped his tankard that very moment.
"It's a soldier's life," Halamin shrugged, but handed the young soldier a cloth to wipe his trousers dry. "We come and we fight, and then we return home. Did you forget that?"
Hilberon swallowed. His face was pale and not even the embarrassment of having drenched his garments changed that.
"I… I know," he stuttered, but could not believe his own words. He had longed to return to his father, and now this would only be a short moment to let him know he was still alive, before he would leave again to fight in Ithilien.
"See, you wanted to become a soldier," Halamin stressed with a hearty slap, "and now you get exactly what you wanted."
"Who will we face?" Dumarin mumbled from the other side of the table they were standing at.
"Easterlings," Tarés replied curtly.
"Should have killed them all when we had the chance." He turned his attention to his breakfast, and none of the others talked with him again.
"So it will be those we watched that night?" Halamin asked, and Tarés nodded. "How many? Say they don't need us if it's just a few hundred."
Tarés frowned and looked down into his tankard.
"No, the king would not make haste then. But… it could be up to two thousand by now."
Hilberon's eyes went wide, and his jaw dropped. The night they had watched them near Dagorlad there had been less than three hundred. How could so many have come during their absence? But then he recalled the long time they had already spent in Rohan and Dunland. He clamped his mouth shut when Tarés shot him a glance.
"Two thousand," Halamin echoed shaking his head. "The king knows this? Who told him?"
"The Easterling woman… Ridasha."
"She knew it all the time! And said naught! And now…" He made a gesture when words failed him.
"We summon the éoreds on the way."
"Good." Halamin nodded with determination. "We will fight those Easterlings and make them not forget."
She could not resist. Though the three were exhausted from the long march and longed to rest and eat, Harishdane and her two fellows departed from the way to examine the Gondorian campsite. It was still night, but their eyesight was superior to that of men, and they could clearly see the outlines of tents and guards. Small fires were maintained in between the rows, and, crouching, the leader carefully edged closer. On one of the tents a banner hung motionless in the cool night air, and she dared to move closer. Beside her, Sisune inhaled deeply. The horses were hobbled nearby, and the Easterling knew of the imminent danger of alarming the animals. So she halted, giving her leader the opportunity to stretch out and get to that tent. Slowly Harishdane slid forward, taking in the scents of firewood, horses, and men. Low conversations could be heard, but they did not matter to her. Again she waited in the darkness behind a tent, smirking. Those men were so easy to stalk! She had done so on the eastern side of the River Isen, and now she was sitting amid their camp close to the border. If she had wanted and if it had not been for her tiredness, they all could have slipped into their tents without the soldiers' knowledge. But she would not risk it. She had seen that the men were not overly watchful. She did not know exactly for how long the Gondorians had been waiting, but she assumed that they had expected to fight soon. Now their will to take up a challenge was lessened. Again she allowed herself a malevolent grin which, in her current shape, looked all the more threatening, even if there was no one to see it. She would teach them a lesson in warfare they would not forget.
Slowly and stealthily she retreated, signalling to her companions, and they all escaped into the prevailing darkness, eager to reach their own camp near Dagorlad. They ran most of the time, exhausting themselves to their limits. Harishdane dreaded the moment she would have to confess that not everything had worked out the way she had planned it, but still she was sure that her goal could be achieved. With the first rays of light they passed by the guards at the sharos and reached the rows of tents, panting, but glad.
Lomarin was immediately woken and came to greet them. He bowed and let his head be touched by her before he straightened. In his features Harishdane could read the questions at hand, but he had learned that it was not wise to be curious at all times.
"You look exhausted, my leader," he said politely, "has your journey been so long and hard?"
"You know exactly how long the way is," Harishdane rebuked and grabbed the water-skin a woman delivered. "And you know how exhausting it is to stay in that shape." She drank, handed the water to her fellows and inhaled deeply, gazing over the many tents that had been set. Slowly the camp rose to the new day. She had hoped it to be better.
"Are the others behind you?" Lomarin asked and looked into the direction the three Jásheni had come from. "You outran them?"
Her first instinct told her to reply something haughtily or to simply ignore him and move on, but their approach would have to be different now, and the captain needed to know.
"We were ambushed by Rohirrim," she growled angrily. Sisune and Nisenur drank, but remained silent.
Lomarin looked at her, utterly shocked.
"They came to free the Gondorian King, but they would not have succeeded if it hadn't been for traitors among us."
"Traitors!" Lomarin's dark eyes widened as he was overtaken by puzzlement, and he opened his strong hands to indicate that he did not understand. "But how? Who?"
Harishdane spat on the ground.
"Ridasha and Gishvané. They allied themselves with the enemy and helped the Rohirrim to attack our soldiers."
"By the blessing of Úshemor, why should they have done this?" Lomarin swallowed hard. It was unheard of that an Easterling had ever betrayed his own kin.
Harishdane was loath to give further explanations, but went on,
"They made friends with the Gondorians and betrayed us to save themselves when the Rohirrim came. The others are dead… and Asentis too." The memory stung, and a surge of wrath swept through her. She would repay Asentis' death with many Gondorian lives, and once she had achieved that, she would concern herself further with Rohan. The murderer had to die, and she would find a way, even if she would have to find and pay an assassin to do it.
"And their king is free again." Lomarin shook his head, lowering his chin. "These are very bad tidings. Can it be then that those cursed women of the Mushéni tell the enemy of our plan?"
"Quite likely. Ridasha was very fond of the king and will do everything to gain his… benevolence." Harishdane lifted her brows, and Lomarin understood.
Cursing viciously in shék he straightened.
"We have to act fast then. Faster than we thought we had to."
"We will be very fast." She took the fruits the woman was handing her, and continued after the first bite, "We saw that poor army yonder. What can you tell me about them?"
"They will not stand against our combined forces," Lomarin growled in his throat, eager now to move on. "There are about five hundred, but they have stayed there for weeks. They don't expect us. Not now. And certainly they do not expect the manner of attack you proposed."
"Are the Jásheni assembled for the vanguard?"
"They are indeed."
"Today we will rest and eat. At night we prepare to go to battle."
On their way to Edoras they had hurried, but now they were in need to press the horses even more to reach Minas Tirith a day early if possible. Aragorn glanced at his wife riding next to him. With her eyes set on the road and making herself as light as possible in the saddle, she was a soothing sight to him. He had not known how much he had missed her until he had embraced her the day before, still feeling a hint of guilt at having collapsed in her arms. He needed not worry that the long and strenuous ride would demand too much of his wife. He had seen her ride long before and knew about her abilities. His attention was drawn to Éomer. Lothíriel had spoken strongly against her husband's decision of accompanying them onto the battlefield, but a single glance at the Rohirrim King this morning had confirmed to Aragorn that only chaining him to the pillars of Meduseld would have hampered Éomer from riding with the host. When all her arguments had failed, the queen had made the attempt to convince the Lord of Westfold to add his considerable weight to the discussion, but he too had shaken his head and digressed. All words had been futile, and at last Lothíriel had helplessly watched her husband prepare for another hard ride, this time to aid his friend. And while Elfhelm had expected his king to share the saddle with him again, Éomer had instead chosen one of the docile learning horses for himself. His great black stallion was tethered to the back of his saddle, and galloped behind them.
Looking over his shoulder, Aragorn saw Hilberon, and Ridasha clinging to his waist as if she would die the moment she let go. The young soldier had offered her the second steed he had brought, but she had preferred to hold on to a person instead of a saddle. The grimaces of discomfort the young man made caused a fast fading smile on the older man's face, and he quickly turned his head away again before Hilberon looked up.
With the grace of her kin, Harishdane moved through the campsite, giving orders and overlooking the preparations. With the fall of night the Easterlings had gathered their equipment from the tents, where armour and weapons had lain hidden for weeks, safely stowed away from the ever watchful scouts of the Gondorian army. Now the stealthiness would finally come to its end. This night Harishdane and her kindred would fight the first battle. She had hoped it would be easier and that this one confrontation would be the only one they would have to brave. Regretful over the bad turn of events, she stood and looked at the cart with the diagonal cross mounted on it. Victory would have been easier if the King of Gondor had been taken to the battlefield as their captive. Harishdane grimaced with disappointment. Who would have dared to loose a single arrow at her kinsmen if this would have led to the death of their ruler? They would have submitted themselves quickly, willing to give in to save his life. The leader felt her anger rise again. Now the fights would be longer and hardened with the loss of many lives. Still in the end, she knew, they would emerge victorious.
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