My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Twilight of the Gods: 42. Brief Moments of Repose
Chapter 42 Brief Moments of Repose
On the morning of the fourth day of their ride, Aragorn went down to the small creek they had camped at. His sleep had been filled with nightmares, and only with Arwen's help had he finally found some rest. Now in the morning's mist he had left her, but neither the sight before his eyes of the meadows lying dark green under the paling sky, nor the fact that more than three éoreds had joined them, soothed his troubled mind. He dreaded the thought that Ithilien could have been already assaulted, and that he had left the burden of ruling his kingdom to Prince Faramir, even though Denethor's younger son certainly possessed enough experience to be trusted with this task.
From behind steps approached, and he heard Éomer's familiar deep voice.
"Even the King of Gondor cannot be in two places at the same time, brother."
Aragorn shed out of his sweat-soaked shirt and cast it aside.
"I know, but…"
Éomer reached him and halted, watching the older man pensively, his hands tucked in the pockets of his leather tunic.
"Without your coming to Edoras there would have been no negotiations. My campaign for peace would have been doomed from the start. It was you who rendered it possible, and I will forever be grateful for your dedication to our cause." He watched as Aragorn exhaled and, crouching in the grass, washed his face with cold water. "Do not doubt your decisions." Éomer stooped and continued with conviction. "Without Ridasha's confession about her people's intentions, nothing would have been gained. You encouraged her. And it was your intervention that finally convinced the Dunlending tribal leaders to seek peace. Will you not see that?"
Aragorn turned to him, unwilling to accept the praise.
"I led my men into that trap. I lost my captain of the guard on that way."
"And the same would have happened to me," Éomer replied, aware that no argument would be good enough to lift the older king's self-accusation. "You stayed true to yourself, Aragorn, you wanted that peace as much as I did. And with the Valars' help, we will ward off the attack - if it has even begun yet. The way from Dunland to Rhûn is far on foot, and we are travelling very fast. We might even reach Ithilien before them."
The King of Gondor lowered his head, resting his forearm on his knee. Still the weals the rope had caused were visible, and he would not forget how deplorable his men had looked during the week of captivity.
"By Béma, what is this?" Éomer suddenly exclaimed. "Those cuts on your shoulder. How did this happen?"
The bitter smile the King of Gondor bore upon turning made Éomer frown.
"Harishdane did this on the second night." He grabbed his shirt and stood, and grimacing he added, "With that she claimed me to be her slave."
"Her… slave?" Éomer echoed, stunned. The word's implications tasted poisonous. Slightly shaking his head to himself, he recalled what his brother-in-arms had reported about his abducted kinsmen. Having travelled the leagues between Dunland and Edoras in a pained daze, it only dawned on him now that Aragorn had never spoken about the incidents of his own captivity. "You say this was done to…"
Aragorn held his friend in his stare, pressing his lips tight while he twisted the cloth between his hands.
"Yes, Harishdane wanted me to be taken to Rhûn to belong to her tribe." The Rohirrim inhaled deeply, but lowered his eyes when the older man's stare became fierce. "We will find her and her kin and make her deliver your men. They shall not suffer any longer."
Éomer was about to answer when the dull sound of hoofs on the wet grass claimed his attention. The Rohirrim guards jumped to attention. A moment later a rider approached out of the mist, halting his steaming horse and shouting to the guard nearby,
"I have tidings from Ithilien! Take me to King Elessar immediately!"
The soldier slid out of the saddle and bowed to the king. Whether he was surprised to see his ruler bare-chested could not be guessed, since his bearded face was burning with urgency.
"I was sent by Prince Faramir three days ago from Ithilien," he reported breathlessly, and gratefully accepted the water-skin from Tarés. Seeing Queen Arwen exiting the tent, he briefly bowed to her, but then faced his ruler once again. "His men were attacked five days ago near the borderline." He swallowed. "They came at night, my lord, shortly before the break of dawn."
"Easterlings?" Éomer asked.
"No, not in the first place. There were some kind of… beasts of prey. No one had ever seen anything of their likes before. They attacked the horses first and then us. And then the army of Easterlings approached. They took us by surprise."
With a terrified expression Aragorn turned to his friend.
"So Harishdane has already reached Rhûn," he muttered under his breath and thanked Halamin with a nod for the shirt he had brought. "We have to hurry." He faced the soldier again. "How is Prince Faramir faring? Could he counter the attack?"
"Nay, my lord, he ordered us to escape their superior forces south immediately, and sent a messenger to Osgiliath."
Aragorn put on the shirt.
"Did he send someone south to the Lebennin too?" A brief nod. "That is well. But they will need at least three days to get there. Where is the prince now?"
"I cannot tell, sire. He sent me away on the fastest horse to meet you half-way."
King Elessar dismissed the soldier and turned to his friend again.
"So the attack has already begun. We have to make haste. Will you still accompany us?"
Éomer gave him a grim, determined smile.
"Even if you had to bind me on horseback, friend, you would find it impossible to leave me behind."
The dispatch-rider had announced the arrival of the kings, and the guards were well prepared to meet them. On the Pelennor Fields servants had gathered with hay and oats for the horses, and water and food for the Riders from Rohan. The circumspection was well received, and the riders quickly dismounted, knowing there would only be a short rest. Stable-boys took those Gondorian horses which would stay in the city, while most of the soldiers remained outside the walls with the other steeds. Their king, however, was expected in the first ring.
The Pelennor Fields
Not even the relentlessly gleaming sun could chase away the shadow which had settled in the Rohirrim king's mind, and followed him around while he directed his grey gelding toward the solitary mount in the middle of the Pelennor. He had not been here for long months, and he felt the distinct need for a few moments of solitude; a few moments away from the tense atmosphere of the camp full of men preparing to ride into battle. As he approached, Éomer became aware of the unusually long and green growth on the howe he was headed for, and the sight of it soothed him. Briefly his wandering gaze also touched the dark patch of burnt grass and soil further behind it, but he quickly averted his eyes, unwilling to stir up the memory of the gruesome sight he had been confronted with in the midst of the battle. The image of the gently swaying grass on the little mount before him painted a subconscious, melancholic smile onto Éomer's face as he brought his steed to a halt, his eyes gliding over the engraving on the stone which had been set there:
"Faithful servant yet master's bane,
Lightfoot's foal, swift Snowmane!
Lost in thought, the young King of Rohan stared at the writing, his mind wandering back to the dreadful day that could have easily been the end of mankind, had it not been for the unbreakable will of his uncle, his sister and Aragorn. This place was as much a memorial to their courage as the burial mounts back at Edoras were to their kings of old; Éomer felt the need to draw from the atmosphere of respect and solemnity that surrounded it for the battle he was headed for. Cautiously slipping from the saddle, he let the reins of his horse go, knowing it would not venture far from him. Quietly he stood at the end of the mount, the palms of his hands gliding over the gently swaying stems in a gentle caress, the world retreating into the background.
"What would you do, now that history repeats itself, uncle? Are we forever doomed to fight? Is there no way out of this vicious cycle?" Éomer fell silent, reaching out with his senses for a notion of his father and uncle looking down upon him now, longing for their reassurance. On impulse, he bent his knees and sat down in the grass, a solitary shape amidst the wide fields of the Pelennor.
"Captain, what are the tidings from Ithilien?" Aragorn demanded to know from the captain of the guard as he rode into the first ring, not bothering to dismount.
The soldier, a tall man with a dark brown beard, looked up to him, and though he was surprised to see his ruler in such desolate shape, his voice remained strong and considerate.
"Prince Faramir and his men called the reinforcements from Osgiliath, and stand a day's march north of the city."
"They stopped their approach upon the army's arrival. Seems they are outnumbered now. The errand-rider reported them to be about eight hundred strong."
"Eight hundred." Aragorn frowned, but asked, "What about Prince Faramir? Is he unhurt?"
"As far as I know, yes."
"Only few since Prince Faramir ordered a quick retreat. Some horses were lost, though. The tidings were brought in yesterday, so I hope nothing has changed yet."
"We will see. Give the order to all the men to be ready for departure in two hours." Aragorn spurred Rohyren up the rings of the city, Arwen close at his side.
"Let me ride with you to the first camp," she pleaded, feeling an urgency to stay at his side that she could not explain to herself, but he only cast a stern glance.
"The journey that lies behind us might have turned ill, and I will not risk your life by taking you with me. Not this time, Arwen. You have to stay here. Even if we lose the battle, you can defend yourself within these walls for a long time."
"I would not wish to," she replied, and the sadness in her voice made him flinch. "You risk much yourself by riding out to battle in the state you are in. You suffered too much to fight on the frontline."
"I was away for too long." He stared at her. "And I will not rest here while others fight for me."
She lowered her chin, knowing that no argument would change his mind this time.
They reached the sixth ring, and amid the stable-boys rushing out to meet them stood a young boy with an untidy mass of blond hair. Upon spotting the king dismount he ran to him, grinning all over his not so clean face.
"Aragorn, it is you again! – I could not believe it when I saw the riders approach." Suddenly he realised what he had done and sank on one knee. "Oh, my lord, forgive me. I was rude."
Though weary and worried about many things, Aragorn laughed and pulled him up. He took him into his arms to hold him tightly for a moment, ignoring the bewildered glances of boys and men standing around.
"I am happy to meet you again too."
"It is good you are back," the boy mumbled, but then his gaze fell upon Arwen, and he stepped away from Aragorn to turn to her. Bowing deeply he said in fluent Sindarin, "It is my greatest honour to meet you again, Arwen Úndomiel, Queen of Gondor."
Arwen smiled and blessed him.
"Your linguistic abilities are unbelievably good," Arwen stated, and gently smoothed a strand of hair out of his face. He did not know where to look, suddenly aware that king and queen were staring at him, and that all other people had fallen silent. "You have learned so much, Vlohiri. I am proud of you."
Aragorn felt warmth in his heart which he had not felt for a long time. Vlohiri had not only grown several inches outwardly, but on the inside, too. The features of the boy were slowly giving way to adolescence. And though he was yet to be considered young, the experiences he had already made were different from those of other boys, and they could be seen. For him and for all other people living in the City, Aragorn knew he had to ride out and defend the freedom they enjoyed. He dearly hoped that no further horrible experiences would be added to those of the Ring War in the memory of its inhabitants.
"And I am proud of him too," a dark yet friendly voice said, and only when some of the horses were led away did Aragorn see a small, stout man, older than anyone knew, standing at the other side of the stable's entrance. "My greetings to you, King and Queen of Gondor." He bowed low and there was a sparkle in his eyes when he rose again.
Aragorn lifted his brows in astonishment over seeing the old man.
"Lomac! I did not know you would come here."
"I often wander through the land," Lomac explained, stepping closer while Vlohiri took the reins of both Rohyren and Brego to lead them into the stable. "I heard your reign is fertile. And that your people regard you with respect." The king granted him a mocking bow, knowing the old man's humour. "And that your queen is the most beautiful woman a man could hope to set his eyes upon," he added, his brows raised, and the short glance at the back of the boy indicated his source.
"You have business in the city?" the king then asked.
"Yes, and you have yours, I suppose. Thus we should both go and see our duties fulfilled." They bowed politely to each other and left in different directions.
A few steps away the king halted and turned back again.
"Lomac?" The healer looked back, and his right hand stroked his long grey beard. "If you leave the city without a visit to the great hall, the king's wrath shall be upon you."
Lomac bowed deeply, but his answer bore a smile.
"I should never raise the king's wrath in any way or at any time. I will be there when needed."
Éomer knew not for how long he had been sitting on the plains with his mind wandering, and endlessly twisting a piece of straw between his fingers, when the faint sound of an approaching rider woke him from his reverie. Disgruntled by the prospect of being disturbed even against his clear orders, he straightened. Soon, however, the sight of the familiar light-boned grey racing toward him and the sparkle of the sun on long golden hair flowing in the breeze replaced his frown with a joy that made him laugh.
"Éowyn! I should have known you would find me here. Forgive me for not riding into the city, I felt I did not have it in me today." He opened his arms and embraced his sister as she jumped out of the saddle before Windfola had even stopped, grunting as she gave back some of the fierce passion he was greeting her with.
"And you knew I would come to see you anyway. Is it not so, brother?" Her musical laughter was a wonderful sound to his ears, one he was still not accustomed to hearing. By Béma, they had not seen each other for a long time, Éomer realised as he became aware of the little bundle on the mare's back. How old was Elboron now? A little over a year? Sensing her brother's distraction, Éowyn followed his gaze and smiled. "Aye, I brought Elboron with me. He likes riding, and I thought you would want to see him. After all, he sees his uncle far too rarely."
"Of course he likes riding; after all he is half-Rohirrim!" Éomer chuckled, not having missed the dark shadows under his sister's eyes, despite the joyous mood over their meeting. Éowyn had to be sick with worry over her husband, who was defending the Gondorian border against a foe of vast number and unfathomable recklessness. Following her efforts to take the small child from the mare's back, he lowered his voice to ask: "We only know what the messenger told us. Are there any more tidings from Ithilien? How is Faramir faring?"
"The last we heard was that the two armies had come to a halt opposite each other, with neither daring to attack. I fear it is a sign that our enemy is waiting for something to happen, or for reinforcements to arrive." Éowyn's joyful expression had vanished from her face and been replaced by deep concern. The lines on her brow deepened as she scrutinised his rugged appearance. Éomer decided not to deepen her worry by telling her how great the force of Easterlings they were faced with would be.
"But my brother-in-law is well?"
"Aye. Aye, at least he appeared to be well last night. Of course I cannot say what happened today, as we haven't heard anything yet. But you..." She stretched out a hand for the almost-healed cut on his brow. "You were in a fight."
"I am well, sister. These are only scrapes. We met before with the foe who awaits us in Ithilien now, but we defeated them. And I am confident that we will emerge victorious again."
Éowyn seemed unconvinced while her fingers gently caressed her child's cheeks, holding him tight in her arms while he played with her hair. Her dark eyes looked even darker than usual when her gaze found Éomer again.
"I had hoped for it to be over, Éomer. I wouldn't have thought that war would find us so soon again. What have we done to anger the gods?"
"I do not know."
A mutual silence spread between them, then Éowyn held the little bundle up.
"Would you like to hold him? The two of you need to get better acquainted, after all, you are relatives, and our family is far too small to grow up as strangers to each other." A playful sparkle briefly lit up her brooding glance. "You also need to practise for your own child. What would Lothíriel say if you dropped him?"
"I am not that clumsy," Éomer protested, gratefully holding out his hands to be handed his curious nephew. Familiar dark eyes stared at him in wonder, and a tiny hand scratched over his beard. "Hail, Prince Elboron of Ithilien. May I take the freedom to say that you look like your mother?" The child giggled, obviously greatly intrigued by his facial hair, and the sound brought a smile to the king's face. Éowyn smiled with them, but it was tinged with melancholy, joy overshadowed by uncertainty.
"It is hard having to stay behind. It still is, even if it Elboron who keeps me here. I have a new responsibility now, but knowing that Faramir is in peril while I do nothing..."
"That is not true," Éomer objected, fascinated with the little human in his hands and the little fingers that explored his face now that he held his nephew within reach. And yet it was still impossible to imagine that he would be a father himself soon enough. "The thought of you and Elboron being safe behind the walls of Minas Tirith will be a source of great comfort to him, I am certain of that. I know it will be for me once we're riding off. It is that thought that will enable us to keep our minds on the battle." He was still troubled by what he read in his sister's eyes as he handed the child back to her against Elboron's mild protest, and his gaze became piercing. "Éowyn, you are not thinking of riding with us, are you?"
Similar brown eyes met in a battle of wills between sister and brother. At first, defiance was written in the younger sibling's expression, but it quickly changed to resignation.
"No." She shook her head and caressed her son's cheek until Elboron grasped her finger, giggling merrily. "I know my duty lies here, brother. I would never abandon him." She looked up. "Yet it is still a cruel fate to be left behind, doomed to wait for good or ill tidings. I could think of no harder punishment."
"Aye. I fear I understand that better now that I have my own wife waiting for me back home. And yet it would be the worst imaginable punishment for us warriors to return from battle to find that something happened to our families." The image of Éowyn's lifelessly-strewn body amidst the other slain Rohirrim and his uncle pushed up forcefully from the dark well of his memories, and it took supreme effort to force it back. He would not allow himself to think of that day today. Over his sister's shoulder, Éomer saw another rider headed their way, and he tensed, knowing what the messenger had been sent for. It was time. He took a deep breath.
Following his gaze, Éowyn turned, and her expression froze. She, too, knew why the man was coming, and her complexion was almost white as she took the step that separated them, her free hand reaching for his face.
"Be careful, Éomer. I know that you cannot promise me anything, but I want you to return. You must return!"
"If it is in my power, I will." He gently kissed her and his nephew on the brow and then faced the approaching messenger, already whistling for his steed.
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