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Twilight of the Gods: 5. Strange Foes
WEST OF DAGORLAD
Dumarin was more than grateful the king had not intended to crawl upon this people with all his men behind him. His arm hurt, and he felt his own weight as a heavy burden. It would not have been easy for him to follow his ruler. To be precise, it had not been easy at all to stay in the saddle. He had sweat the whole day and shivered at the same time. But he had not told the king; the shame to admit that he were not able to fulfil his duty would had been too hard to bear. He felt a cold running down his spine for he had been on these dust-leaden plains before. On the day of the final attack Dumarin had been with the squadron sent out north along the Mountains of Shadow to throw back the remaining Easterlings. It had been a hard fight for the dark people in their strange armour with double-bladed polearms and scimitars were skilled in the use of their weapons. They had slaughtered many Gondorian soldiers before they could be thrown back. With horror Dumarin remembered that an Easterling had torn off the ring of a dead soldier to stick it quickly into his belt. It had been the moment he had considered his enemies less than men. They were beasts to him, not worth to survive. Dumarin had hewn the enemy next to him to get after this man, but the fight had turned and he had lost eye contact. He still regretted that he had not been able to retrieve the token. It had seemed such a cruel act to rob a dead man that Dumarin still felt wrath in him only thinking about it. So if the messengers' reports turned out to be true and the Easterlings were about to cross the border he would – if his arm would not hurt anymore – volunteer to serve in the forefront of the battle.
With that grim thought he sneezed and looked up to the dreadful greyish sky still sending rain down as if it wanted to make up for the fortnight of dryness in one day. He let his gaze wander alongside the stone formation. The king and his guard were slowly moving eastwards using every cover they found. They were but small shadows in the glooming darkness and through the curtain of rain quickly gone. The horses snorted and one of them neighed lowly. Dumarin searched his saddlebag for the second flagon which was filled with wine instead of water. He needed an encouragement right now and some medicine against the pain in his arm. He drank and upon closing it squinted to peer through the rain.
Two yellow eyes looked at him.
Dumarin yelped with surprise, dropped his flagon, grasped his sword, but was too late. They were already gone. He rose with an effort, his heart thundering in his ears, griped the hilt tight while pressing his back against the stone. With his left hand he wiped the water from his face. Breathing shallowly he looked in all directions and when he found the courage took a few hesitant steps to look after their belongings and the horses. And while the steeds stood as wet and miserable as their owners Dumarin found the saddlebags of the packhorse open and partially emptied. He was sure to have secured every item they had brought with them. He shivered with fear and would have fled the place if he had not been on duty. The thought that he might die if he tarried was pressing. Hastily he stuffed the dried meat and the fruits back and looked over his shoulder. He could see and hear nothing but the rain, but that did not soothe him.
Hilberon, wet to the bone like the others, drew up his nose and wiped one strand of his long hair out of his face. The silent, clammy march proved useful. Daylight was gone, and the grey clouds still spilled enough water to almost drown them, but their approach was much easier than he had thought. He could already see the lines with tents in which entrances, covered by layers of cloth and supported by stakes, small fires were maintained. Behind one of the first tents a pile of polearms lay, and beside them, knotted to thin stakes, banners hung loosely and wet. From afar and hardly audible the neighing of horses could be heard. Only a few people moved between those tents, clad in dark tunics. They did not carry bows and arrows, not even swords, and moved quickly to avoid getting soaked. To Hilberon their outlines appeared neither impressive nor threatening, and the young man grew bolder by the minute. His heartbeat slowed down, and he wondered if the king really intended to call his army for an attack only because this people had moved closer to the border. In that case the soldiers present would be the vanguard and would set out to gain whatever knowledge could be gathered about the enemy. The young man wiped his face again and watched a person approaching a tent. In the fire’s glow he saw the face of a short woman, slender and dark haired, but older than the one Fáred had killed. She squatted and took up a rolled-up leaf from the smouldering rim of the fire. Perhaps something to eat was in it for she carried it into the tent and did not come back. Hilberon’s stomach rumbled enviously. His meal belonged to the past and since Aragorn had not allowed them a fire the night before they had only eaten little of the dried meat which never filled his stomach sufficiently.
“More women,” Halamin whispered at his side, and Hilberon nodded. “That’s not an army. Who knows what they are up to,” he added disparagingly. Turning to Aragorn Halamin saw concern in the king’s eyes nonetheless. His brows were furrowed, his lips pursed, and his eyes had not left the first tent for some time. The guard was insecure what the king was up to. Would he get any closer? Even in the darkness this would be risky. But in all the stories Halamin had heard about the deeds of Aragorn under different names the man seemed to have never feared a danger, but had been a master of strategy and anticipation. His actions were disciplined and effective. All praised his courage and stamina. Still Halamin thought it to be too bold to linger in this place any longer. Despite the bad weather they might have guards on duty, and only five men, experienced or not, would not stand very long. He looked over his shoulder. Tarés snorted with disgust, and Fáred squeezed his eyes almost shut against the water running down from his forehead, but beyond them Halamin could not see. Even when the rain grew less the night enclosed them. The small fires were the only light within leagues. Halamin felt suddenly uneasy, as if a great danger was coming up to him. He felt the need to crawl somewhere and hide and not come back before daylight returned. The thought of staying here made him shiver, and he glanced at the others to see if they felt the same. Tarés might; he suddenly looked over his shoulder just to make sure no one stood there. Fáred frowned deeply and seemed alarmed, but did not move. Hilberon was absorbed by the sight of the tents, and had crouched closest to the rock protecting them. He was shivering, but Halamin could not determine the reason. The king suddenly stirred and rose halfway, the hand on the hilt of his sword, closely watching their surrounding. Halamin felt the same urge to stand up for a fight and swallowed hard. Was it true, they were being watched? Aragorn inhaled slowly and deeply, his face tense, the grip firm on the black hilt of Andúril, ready to strike at whatever got closer.
Nothing happened. Halamin felt the need to flee subside. He could breathe again, and the fear of detection reduced to a tolerable level. Aragorn waited for another minute while water dropped from his hair and beard until he regained his position. The unrest remained.
From out of the darkness behind the tents another person appeared, halted shortly at the fire to take up another leaf and then entered the tent. It was unclear if it was a woman or a man, but he was taller and broader than the woman they had seen before. He wore a uniform which was accurately made, and he carried a sword in an artfully crafted scabbard at his left side. Two men clad in simple tunics followed the procedure and entered the tent. Only the knees of one person could be seen through the half-closed entrance. That one put the leaf in front of him and waited. Hilberon was so curious to learn what they were doing that he almost forgot about his cover. The firm hand on his shoulder made him stop. Startled he looked back. Aragorn shook his head slightly, and Hilberon blushed, glad at the same time that in the darkness no one would see it. They waited for another hour, but the men and women did not leave the tent again except to put some twigs into the fire. No more movement was to be watched outside.
Aragorn felt uneasy. It was true what the messengers had reported, but still the reason seemed unclear. A hundred tents might be the beginning preparation for an attack or simply a people's choice for another place to live on. From his excursions he knew the Easterlings were nomadic and moved on when the soil was no longer fertile. Rhûn did not endure the extreme temperature as Harad, but living here was rough, and only those who claimed a place with water supply their own survived. It was hard to imagine that these people should prepare themselves for a war. They would not have had the time to recover strength to be an equal opponent to the army of Gondor, and from what he had seen more women than men lived among the tents. Still Aragorn could not deny the possibility.
Before sunrise they went back, shivering and weary in their wet clothes, eager to light a fire to get warm again. Upon reaching their scanty camp they found Dumarin waiting for them wide-eyed and upset.
“I saw two eyes in the darkness, my lord,” he reported with fright in his voice pointing westwards. “Yellow eyes. They were fixed on me.” He could still feel the evil that had evaporated from whatever thing that had lurked him long hours ago.
“Where?” Aragorn asked, alert at once, and stepped closer. “Who was it?”
Dumarin swayed and took a step back.
“I did not see him… or it. It was gone the moment I drew my sword. But I was ready to fight it!”
Aragorn was repelled by the smell of wine on Dumarin and frowned.
“Are you sure of what you saw? Where exactly was it?”
Dumarin pointed to a place a few feet away. Aragorn walked past the others to examine the ground.
“Stay where you are,” he ordered and let himself down on one knee. “Was there anything else you saw?” he asked without looking up.
Dumarin evaded the other men’s mocking stare while they packed their belongings and saddled up.
“This… thing opened a saddlebag,” he muttered and knew instantly how stupid it sounded. The king rewarded him with a frown. “I know I closed all bags,” Dumarin insisted. “I know what I saw. I was not drunk.” But he did not reveal the fear that had pervaded to his bone.
“Are you sure it was an animal?”
“My lord, no man has such eyes!”
Aragorn nodded slightly and concentrated on the ground again, but the rain had washed away every trace of a creature that might have walked this ground.
“Where did it go to, Dumarin?” Tarés teased. “Did it vanish into thin air?” Dumarin growled an unfriendly reply, and Tarés laughed. “Yellow eyes in the darkness, hum? What else? A dragon's breath on your face? Flames out of its mouth?” He shook his head and fastened the girth on his horse.
“I do not lie, Tarés, so don’t accuse me!” Dumarin flared gripping the hilt of his sword.
Tarés raised a hand.
“Peace, Dumarin, my friend. But then tell me where this thing came from or what it wanted. Why was it able to open a saddlebag? Was it a beast with hands like a man? One that likes dry meat?” He shook his head again. “Whatever you saw I assume it to be on the bottom of your flagon.”
“You know naught!” Dumarin grabbed the saddle to lay it on the horse's back. “You were not here!”
“But what we saw was enough,” Aragorn ended the haggling, and his men turned to him. “We will ride back. Halamin, take us to the nearest village.” He led his horse westwards, and the Royal Guard hurried to follow him.
Dumarin exchanged wrathful glances with Tarés and Fáred, who seemed unwilling to believe him. Snorting, he murmured to himself that he was no liar, and a shiver still crawled down his spine when he thought about the sudden yellow gleam in the darkness and the feelings that accompanied it.
The silence had not lifted when he returned. The members of the council were still talking to each other, but with low, muffled voices, as if they were too afraid of saying the one thing that was on their minds aloud. Afraid to make it true if they talked about it. And when they picked up his advancing footsteps, the men fell silent again. There was now only the sound of the thunderstorm outside, rolling through the sky and the leaden atmosphere in the great hall. For a moment, blinding whiteness lit up the darkness behind the windows, followed by a furious growl. Still no rain. This was bad. After weeks of scorching heat, everything was so dry that a single spark would be sufficient to ignite Edoras. The weather certainly did nothing to improve Éomer’s mood as he performed a sharp left turn and strode down the corridor towards the benches where the others still sat, waiting for their king and looking at him expectantly.
“I was very unsure about letting the queen hear about the attack from the start,” Erkenbrand felt inclined to say when Éomer’s gaze passed him, instantly earning him the king’s full attention. “As she is in such a very delicate state now, it certainly was a very daring move… too daring, maybe. How is she faring?”
“The queen is well, Marshal Erkenbrand, “Éomer declared rather forcefully, annoyance sparkling in his eyes. “However, the day was very exhausting for her, which is why she is resting now. Be assured though that Lothíriel is quite aware of the fact that there is not only bliss in the world. She can well deal with grim realities, and since we are ruling Rohan together, it is her good right to hear first-hand about everything that is going on in the Mark.”
“I was merely concerned about her well-being, Sire,” the Lord of the Westfold defended himself, sensing that he had already committed a mistake by sticking out his neck at the wrong moment.
“I understand that, marshal, but I would still prefer not having my decisions openly questioned by you!” There was a distinct edge to the young ruler’s voice now, and a hard look told the seasoned warrior that he had just crossed a boundary. He nodded as a sign of apology and lowered his head.
“I apologise, my lord. I forgot my place.”
Éomer let his gaze linger a moment longer on his marshal before he finally turned around and walked the few steps over to the wooden, artfully carved throne. Usually, he still felt uncomfortable sitting on it, but something about Erkenbrand’s lack of respect told him to stress his position just a bit more. Even if his marshal was the Mark’s oldest and most experienced warrior and certainly one of its most respected men as well, he was not the mightiest man in the realm of Rohan. The decisions to make were not his. Éomer let himself fall onto the wooden seat, and looked deliberately not at Erkenbrand.
“I heard you talking while I was gone. Has anything of importance surfaced, or shall we continue where we stopped?” A shadow fell on his face which was only lit by the flickering fire as he scanned the round. It was Gamling who answered.
“There is nothing new, my lord. I suppose we still have to concern ourselves with Captain Galdur’s observation, even if the very thought of the subject is apt to freeze our blood.”
“Aye, Gamling...” Éomer inhaled deeply, his fingers – unbeknown to him – working the armrests of the throne which were sculpted in the shape of horse-heads. “Fitting words indeed. They certainly freeze mine.” He finally noticed what he was doing and clamped his hands around the rests, not wanting to give his anxiety away quite so clearly as his gaze wandered to the one man who hadn’t talked so far. “Captain Galdur, you saw them load the men onto horses...”
The captain, a rugged-looking man with slightly wavy, very fair hair and very blue eyes, perhaps a little older than himself, nodded in confirmation, and Éomer saw on his left cheek a cruel, winding scar that marred an otherwise even face. Like his marshal, the man was dripping silent intensity and anger despite the long, exhausting journey lying behind him.
“Aye, Sire. I saw only those two being carried away, but I have no doubt that this is what also happened to the other men who disappeared.”
“I see...” Another thunderclap, much closer this time, echoing forever as the mountains cast the sound back. And finally, the beginning rush of rain as the sky opened. At least one worry off his mind, Éomer thought bitterly, even if it was only the smallest one. From outside, very faint shouts reached his ears from the city below where everybody ran now to take cover. “Have you, or anyone you know, been to Dunland this year? Is anything known about their situation?” His gaze strayed back to Erkenbrand. It was not his intention to anger the man by ignoring him. And the marshal understood.
“I had scouts there for a while, mainly to keep an eye on Isengard. To make sure that no one would try to take it as his. We cannot afford more trouble from that direction.”
“And what did they see? Anything that could be of help in understanding why the situation is back to the way it had been for centuries for no apparent reason?”
Erkenbrand shrugged. He saw no use in discussing the Dunlending’s motives when it changed nothing on the action that had to be taken. It was nothing but a waste of time, and the way things looked, they could not afford to waste much more. The next attack could only be a matter of days, and here they sat discussing what could have provoked their foes? He reigned in his temper. The king was already in a fey mood. He would not again serve as his target… unless it was absolutely necessary. Erkenbrand was not afraid to confront the son of his late friend Éomund. He knew that the facts spoke for him.
“We know they had a very rough winter because they asked us for help, and I believe they even came all the way to Edoras, too. As for now... The tidings were that Dunland was plagued by the same unfortunate weather we experienced. A long, hard winter, the late spring and very dry summer... if possible, it’s been even drier there.”
Éomer narrowed his eyes in thought, his fingers again subconsciously working the carvings of the armrests. The taste of bile stood already in his throat, and everything he heard pointed more towards the horrible suspicion he was harbouring.
“So their situation would be worse than ours... or could be.”
“I deem that quite likely, yes. If you add to that that they’ve never been adept farmers …”
Éomer cut his eyes back to Galdur. The big question. He hated having to ask it aloud, but there was no way around it. Inhaling deeply, he made a mighty effort of clearing his mind of the gruesome images that welled up. He needed to remain able to think. Thoughts of his butchered kinsmen would not help him to achieve that goal.
“Captain Galdur... have you, or anyone you know of, ever heard of cannibalism among the Dunlendings?”
The question had been standing in the room for some time now, and still it forced the blood out of the men’s faces. None of the warriors, no matter how battle-hardened they were, wanted to think about what their captured kinsmen were going through, perhaps at this very moment. The captain glanced at his commander before he answered, clearly uncomfortable with the question:
“Sire, do you mean …”
“What I mean must be quite clear, captain! Do the Dunlendings eat their captives, yes or no?”
A very deep breath. Another glance at Erkenbrand. Galdur’s situation was not made easier by the recognition that the king’s mood was on a rapid decline. It had taken a while to get a hold of all members of their council during the afternoon, and the resulting delay had left both the marshal and Éomer in a state of anxious impatience for hours until they could finally get started. Now it was also getting late, the air in the throne room was bad and they had done nothing but discussing catastrophic tidings for as long as the council had lasted.
“I cannot say, Sire.”
The king’s eyes narrowed.
“You have never seen or found anything that would indicate it, you mean?”
“I certainly wouldn’t put it beyond them, my lord,” Erkenbrand took over, not liking his second-in-command’s insecure tone. They needed decisions here, and whatever suppositions would bring them about, would have to be made. The danger to the Westfold was too great for further delays. “In the light of these new events, I would certainly deem everything a possibility. They would need to have a very good reason for taking the men alive though, because abducting them would be much more trouble than killing them! And what else would they want to do with their captives? Let them plough their non-existing fields? Use them as human shields against our attacks to keep us from retaliating?”
“There could be another explanation,” Gamling interjected in an effort to work against the growing anxiety in the throne room. “A somewhat less disturbing one, in my opinion. And the question still remains of who it was that taught them to fight… and who gave them the weapons.”
“Either way, we cannot very well forget about our kinsmen, my lords” the marshal insisted, unhappy about the new interruption. “Even if they are held captive to prevent us from attacking, we still need to find a way to free them.” He looked at Éomer, urgency in the grey eyes. “Sire, we cannot afford to wait much longer if we still want to rescue them. I could send a messenger back to the Westfold tonight with the orders for an incursion, but the truth is that we cannot know what would await the troops once they’ve crossed the Isen. I cannot leave any of the border settlements unguarded, and that would leave me with a force of no more than one full éored for the errand.” He took a deep breath.
“Which would be a high risk indeed, because the Dunlendings – or whatever foe – would be expecting the attack and be prepared,” Éomer finished for him, liking the way Erkenbrand was trying to push him towards a decision less and less. He had always known the older man as a stern and swift warrior who would answer even the slightest provocation by his foes in a most resolute manner to discourage others from potentially joining. From the days when he had been but a lad, Éomer had always admired his father’s friend for the way he kept control over the most endangered part of the Mark. Perhaps this man’s fierce determination was the very reason why the Westfold was still populated and belonged to the Mark. Perhaps it was the only way to deal with the Dunlendings. But whereas Éomer, Third Marshal of Riddermark, would have followed that great warrior gladly into battle without questioning, Éomer-King knew that he bore a greater responsibility now, a responsibility for the entire people of Rohan. In this position, he could not afford to be rash in his decisions. It was not hard to retaliate against people one was openly at war with… but their quarrel had been over for two years. Did Erkenbrand not see that, or was he simply too disappointed and angered to do so?
“Yes, Sire. We would need a considerably greater force to reduce the risk…” The marshal left the sentence hanging intentionally, but Éomer refused to reply to the open invitation.
“And now you want for me to grant you more troops here and now, after only this one council. You expect me to decide over this matter in the course of only one afternoon.”
Erkenbrand did not flinch from his piercing gaze.
“I remember from your times as Third Marshal that you never were one to tarry with your decisions, Sire. And time is important, as I’m sure we all understand.” Éomer remained silent, which the older warrior took as an unspoken invitation to continue. “Éomer-King, forgive me for being so forward, but there is only one path to choose if we want Rohan to last, as far as I can see it,” he declared forcefully. His grey eyes swept the council-members’ faces one after the other for approval and came to rest on his king. Following his instincts, he stood up and stepped forth, hands clasped behind his back. “With this heinous act, the Dunlendings have proven themselves untrustworthy even under the best circumstances. There can be no lasting peace with them! They gratefully accepted King Théoden’s mercy at the time because they had expected us to kill them. But it is not peace they want. They want our land, it’s as simple as that. And as long as they have it not, they will attack us again and again, until they have either failed and their people have vanished – or we have vanished!” Another meaningful pause. The Lord of Westfold was a well-versed speaker, Éomer had to give him that, but he could not tolerate the insinuated solution to their problem. He stood up, too, stabbing his dark eyes against Erkenbrand’s grey as he stepped down the two stairs and came to a halt in front of his marshal.
“Are you saying we should strike first, then?”
A leaden pause. All eyes were on the marshal now. Further in the back, Lothíriel held her breath, her back pressed against the pillar that was giving her cover.
There was not the even the slightest quiver of insecurity when Erkenbrand answered, his authoritative voice carrying through the hall.
“Aye, my king. And I assure you that I hate that course of action as much as you, judging from your expression. Like you, I’m a warrior. Warriors, at least in the Riddermark, live by a strict code of honour. We fight only against those who attack us! We only fight against other warriors! We spare the old, the women, the children. It is the law… and yet we shall have to break it, or Rohan will cease to exist. We cannot continue to be attacked and lose the lives of our men, retaliate and then move back, waiting for them to come at us again whenever we are not prepared to meet them. Our people have diminished too much for us to take the chance to lose yet more men in these endless raids. And if we kill only their warriors and let the young live, the problem will raise again in a few years time, as soon as the children have grown. We cannot afford this. This time, when we strike, it has to mean the end of the threat... and the end of the Dunlendings. To end this once and for all, we need to eradicate their people!”
Behind her pillar, Lothíriel put a hand to her mouth to keep herself from crying out in dismay. Closing her suddenly burning eyes, she felt with all distinctiveness how her breath exited her lungs in the wake of the marshal’s horrible suggestion. A huge black hole of despair seemed to open up right in front of her and suck her in. ‘Eradicate their people? Slaughter innocent women and children?’ Her people would
commit such an unthinkable, monstrous act? For an endless moment, her throat was too tight to breathe as she strained to hear Éomer’s reply. Hoping that he would yell at the marshal, spit on him even for suggesting the murder of an entire people. ‘Please, Éomer, say something! Tell that man how much he disgusts you and that he should ride home and never harass us again with his bloodlust! Please, say it!' Yet she heard nothing.
“Eradicate their people?” Gamling muttered in shock, his eyes wide and his gaze shifting between the marshal and his king. He refused to believe what he had just heard. It went against everything he – and the Rohirrim as a whole – believed in! A brief side glance showed him that the captain of the Edoras-guard shared his outrage. “Lord Erkenbrand, you cannot seriously…” He paused when he saw the hard expression on the old warrior’s face and a hand rising to silence them. This was between the king and his marshal.
Éomer stood motionlessly opposite the old warrior, unblinking. Taking on the challenge. Fighting a silent battle of wills with his childhood idol with only three feet separating them and trying to read between the lines. Erkenbrand meant what he had just said. He was dead serious about the issue, and he expected his king to share his view. Yet he could not comply. Not yet. Not like this, with only a minute to decide and no solid facts, no better than the toss of a coin.
“You would go yourself? You would wield your sword against women and children?”
“It would be the hardest deed ever asked of me, but for Rohan, aye, I would do it. It is them or us, my lord.”
Their silent battle continued, with neither man giving way. After what felt to Éomer like an eternity, Erkenbrand finally averted his eyes, but the king was under the distinct impression that it was only to please him, not a gesture of true obedience. The old warrior knew very well that angering the king would not get him what he wanted. So Éomer took a deep breath and likewise turned away to look at the three men who were eagerly waiting for the outcome of the confrontation further back. They were waiting for him to tell them his verdict. Would he sentence their westerly neighbours to annihilation? Would he agree to soil his warrior’s honour with the blood of the innocent?
“The hour is already late,” he began, attempting to bring the thoughts in his head into some kind of order, a task that was not made easier by the howling storm that chased around Meduseld now. Yet it deemed him a fitting atmosphere for an ending of this day in such gloom. “Too late to come to a decision about a question of such weight, I’m afraid.” His gaze returned to his opposite, and he saw the beginning frown in the grey irises. “This decision, Lord Erkenbrand, cannot be made rashly and in haste. Be assured that I do understand how pressed for time we are, but I will not command the annihilation of an entire people on the spur of a moment.”
Further back, Lothíriel exhaled in relief, even if her husband’s reaction was not the one she had hoped for. He had not yet ruled out that possibility entirely, even if she thought that she might have heard the same dismay and reluctance she felt underneath his words, somewhere between the lines.
“The spur of a moment?” Disappointment and anger shone in the marshal’s eyes, but the king’s determined expression kept him from venting his frustration more clearly. “If we wait too long, your people will die, my lord!”
“There is nothing we can do tonight for those twelve men no matter what we decide, for we are too far away to help them,” Éomer objected, his tone final and insinuating clearly that this subject was no longer open for discussion. “We can only hope that our fears will not come true, but it is not in our power to prevent their fate if they do. What we must focus on instead, is decide how to best protect the people they may have given their lives fighting for. In order to do this, I want to hear at least two more opinions, and Erkenbrand,” he cut off the older man’s imminent objection, “… you will not change anything if you continue to insist!” There was a warning sparkle in Éomer’s eyes, and it was clear enough for his opposite to clamp down his teeth and reluctantly swallow his words. Satisfied, the king turned to his counsellor.
“Gamling, tomorrow, at first light of dawn, you will send our fastest messenger to Aldburg. I want for Marshal Elfhelm to come to Edoras with every man he can spare without leaving the city defenceless... and I want for him to bring along Thor, his captain. It is especially important that he comes, too! The messenger shall then ride further east and gather the Eastfold’s éoreds, bring them here, too, and tell them to keep themselves ready.” He turned on his heels, speaking to the banners and no longer seeing his fellow kinsmen anymore, his mind reeling with thinking of the orders he needed to give. “Furthermore, I want messengers deployed to all parts of the land to alert all villages and settlements and their éoreds, telling them to expect further orders shortly.” A curt nod. “All villages of the Westemnet will immediately deploy their éoreds to strengthen the protection of the Westfold’s settlements and patrol the border. It is not to be crossed yet, that much must be clear!” He spun on his heels, his gaze once again seeking Erkenbrand and employing his most authoritative tone. “Any captain who thinks he must enter Dunland on his own accord and thus endanger his men against my orders will be severely punished. Is that understood?”
“It is understood, Sire.”
“The reinforcements will report to your domain, where they will be assigned a territory to guard. Marshal, one of your men shall ride back to accomplish that. I will lend him a fresh horse for that task.”
“Aye, my lord.” Erkenbrand swallowed. His expression said that he was at least partially satisfied by the king’s ruling, if not entirely. “And in the meantime we will wait here for Marshal Elfhelm and his men to arrive to… decide the further fate of the Mark?”
Éomer raised his chin.
“It is all I can grant you for now, marshal.” The two men nodded at each other, their quarrel temporarily adjourned. “That will be all.”
Taking off her shoes in a hurry to make her way to the private chambers unheard, Lothíriel silently sneaked back. Her mind was reeling from the revelations she had witnessed and which still left the taste of bile in her throat. Éomer … she had to talk to Éomer! He could not seriously consider such a crime, could he? He had sounded taken aback by the marshal’s suggestion, aye, but not disgusted enough. He had not entirely ruled out the possibility. So did this mean that he was still considering that course of action? He could not be!
In all haste, Lothíriel changed into her nightgown, tense and expecting to have her husband walk in on her at any moment. What would she say then when she should have been sleeping? That she had been unable to sleep and was just in the process of getting dressed again to join their company? Wouldn’t he see through her lie? Word was that the Rohirrim could always tell a falsehood from the truth, for they themselves never lied. What was she to do?
Her mind still reeling and with a furiously beating heart, she slipped under the covers. Yet it was hard to close her eyes, for as soon as she did, the horrible images Erkenbrand’s words had planted into her mind rose to the surface. Of fire… of screaming, tortured men, taken to another land to serve as food … of women and children, their faces dirtied and bloodied, running from a great host of mounted warriors with readied lances and swords coming after them, her beloved husband leading them…
It took a long time for her to finally succumb to emotional and bodily exhaustion, and even then, Éomer had not returned to their chambers…
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