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Twilight of the Gods: 6. Vision and Rumour
WEST OF DAGORLAD
The day started as grey as Dumarin’s thoughts, but cleared up when the rain clouds passed further north and the sun broke through. Warmth returned to the riders' bodies, and Hilberon finally stopped gritting his teeth to keep them from chattering. Unlike the others, he felt kind of light-hearted. The night's rain had been useful to get a closer look at this strange people he had never seen before. Nothing threatening had happened, and the moments he had thought of some evil approaching quickly vanished from his mind. The weather was dry and warm again, and within hours they were riding southwest and on more fertile grounds he assumed that he fulfilled his task without grievous mistakes. His father would speak highly of him. This would be the greatest reward he could ever get, to see his father happy about his son's actions. With a smile he looked forward to the moment he returned to the White City, tired but eager to tell Hiregon everything about the weeks he had travelled with the king. They would share a meal if his father found the time, and then Hilberon would return to the quarters of the Royal Guard which he yet had only seen the day he had delivered his belongings. It would be a day to remember.
“Would you mind sharing your good thoughts with me? Those are the fewest.”
Hilberon had not noticed that the king's horse had fallen back and now Aragorn's eyes were fixed upon the young man. Again he was caught daydreaming and swallowed not knowing what to say.
“A good thought?” he repeated with a shy glance.
“You were smiling like you thought of something… pleasant.”
Hilberon would not admit the truth. It sounded too silly to be revealed. But he could not think of something else instead. Not so fast anyway. The king was right beside him. Unconsciously he compared himself to his height and stature and sat more upright in the saddle. The king had broader shoulders, but was only a little taller. In the years to come Hilberon would grow, but he was sure he would never gain the aura of power and wisdom and perhaps not even the skills the king was praised for though he had already learnt much for his age. He knew some of the songs sung in Minas Tirith about the day of the battle on the Pelennor Fields and his undying bcourage at the Black Gate. In the past two years many verses had been added and elevated the king to an undaunted hero in the eyes of Evil.
He realised that Aragorn was still waiting for an answer.
“I thought about my father,” he admitted quietly, evading the elder man's glance.
“Your father is a great man.” Hilberon's head snapped around, and he saw Aragorn smile. “I talked to him two days before we left.”
“You talked to my father?” Hilberon echoed, his voice high and sceptical, and then felt sheepish to question the king.
“I did. Now, tell me, Hilberon son of Hiregon the smith, are you as skilled with the bow as you are with dagger and sword?”
It was almost too much to bear. In Hilberon's mind the knowledge that his father had shared a conversation with the king – ‘What were they talking about?’ – and the sudden praise and question about his abilities left him speechless.
“I… I will do what is the wish of the king,” he finally stuttered and managed to bow.
“Very well,” Aragorn laughed, “I was told in the woods we are approaching some deer can be found. Are you up for a hunt?”
Hilberon could only nod.
They left the company behind at the forest's rim with the order to build up a campfire. Dumarin looked wretched and was glad to slip out of the saddle. Tarés was again willing to offer his protection, but knew instinctively that the king would have asked for it if he deemed it necessary. Not for the first time he mused why five men escorted the king if he preferred to be alone. ‘Alone and in danger again, perhaps,’ he added for himself. Without a word he turned to take care of the horses. Halamin gazed after the king and the young soldier, wondering what had led to the ruler's decision to take up such a young man. When Halamin had entered the service as a soldier in the White City he had had to prove himself worthy of such a task, and he could not help himself envying Hiregon's son.
Hilberon felt awkward leaving the others behind. Now the low task of collecting firewood was taken out off his hands. And at the same time the task to protect the king alone if any danger occurred made him swallow with nervousness. Aragorn did not notice the young soldier's uneasiness, and Hilberon quickly adapted to his long strides putting behind his dark thoughts. They trudged deep into the forest where the light grew dim and the sunbeams charmed patterns of different shades of green onto the ground. Hilberon was fascinated by the enchanted beauty of the trees in their splendour and more than hunting he would have liked to walk through this haven. Soon the leaves would change colour and announce autumn, close the circle of year. He had heard stories about the wonderful forests of Ithilien, but what he saw now was more than what he had dreamt.
“Watch out,” Aragorn suddenly whispered and held Hilberon back. They crouched and waited until the doe stepped closer to graze upon the little clearing, raising its head from time to time, but neither seeing nor smelling the hunters hidden. Aragorn encouraged Hilberon with a look. The young man already held the bow in his hand and quickly put on an arrow to take aim. He was aware of the king watching him; aware that this was a test of his abilities; if the king could trust him. He held his breath and the arrow flew, hit the mark. Astonished and relieved Hilberon saw the doe stumble a few steps until it fell down. For a moment longer he knelt and the last seconds passed before his inner eye. He had never before shot a deer and while Aragorn rose, slapping his shoulder – “Good shot!” – Hilberon felt a broad grin on his face. He had not failed the king's trust in him. What a nice story to tell about!
Hilberon hurried to take up the doe and carry it back to the camp. Still astonished that shooting an animal had worked as nicely as hitting the centre of a target, he marched behind the king with his head bowed to conceal his happiness. Truly the king would consider him a fool to almost jump for joy after the shooting of an animal that had stood still until the arrow had hit it. So the pleasure was his alone. And proudly he presented the doe to Halamin, who exclaimed merrily that the days of short supplies were over. Hilberon had never felt better.
This day was a good day.
Halamin rode up to the king and politely waited until spoken to.
“Riding at this speed we might reach the village I mentioned this afternoon. And… if I may say so it would be advised to stay overnight.”
“What have you heard?” Aragorn asked and saw the guard hesitate with the answer.
“It was from this village… the first rumours about the beasts tearing their cattle. As Tarés told you, my lord.”
“But that does not mean it runs true,” Halamin added quickly as if to demonstrate he would not fear to sleep outdoors again.
“We will find out.” And with a grim smile he added, “I would not mind seeing one of these beasts with my own eyes.”
Halamin thought he would mind, but that it was better not to contradict.
Passing through another wooded expanse Hilberon looked up to the green roof. Shattered rays od sunshine flickered through as if playing a melody on the highest leaves inaudible for those on the ground. The day before had been marvellous, and finally he had lived the feeling of satisfaction for having contributed something valuable. Not even Fáred could say anything against a fresh roast and stated that it had been not a meal but a feast. Still Hilberon wondered about the king. Against his expectations Aragorn had rejected to be served first, but ordered the others to eat while he sat aside and smoked a pipe. The young man had watched him. Overwhelmed by his own joy he found it odd that the king seemed concerned and depressed. His gaze had wandered to the east, and through the smoke he had frowned and then, slowly, exhaled.
Hilberon overheard the conversation between Aragorn and Halamin and when the settling came into view the young soldier spurred his horse into a gallop, leaving the others quickly behind. In the thunder of the hoofs on the grass he did not hear the king shout after him but rode on with the intention of doing something good. Men and women at the huts and on the fields nearby raised their heads to see who was coming.
“Hail the King of Gondor!” Hilberon announced loud and clear. “The king is coming!” They gaped at him silently and unmoving, and for a long moment while he slackened the speed of his steed he thought they were deaf. “The king is coming!” he repeated in the same way. He heard the horses behind him and, suddenly, as if by a command, the people dropped to one knee and bowed deeply. Hilberon stifled a smile and turned on the saddle waiting for the king to collect the respect granted. Aragorn and the soldiers arrived and to Hilberon's surprise and shock the king did not seem pleased. Hilberon swallowed hard.
“Raise!” Aragorn ordered the people on the ground halting his horse, and when they slowly and hesitantly followed his command he turned to Hilberon and the others still mounted. “This will be the first and the last time I ever hear myself announced in that way,” he hissed in a voice deep and rich with restrained anger. Hilberon shrunk on the saddle and felt his face hot with embarrassment. The others looked at him, and he wished nothing more than to disappear at whatever cost. “There is no reason for this proclamation. If I do not give the order to call me by name no one will introduce me to others. Did I make myself clear?” He looked from one to the other. Only Fáred dared to speak.
“It will be as you wish, my lord, but what name shall we use if your title and real name shall not be revealed?”
Aragorn ignored the disbelief and the undertone of mockery.
“If there is the need to use one, call me Strider. This was given to me long ago. It will serve well enough.“
Fáred cleared his throat and inhaled for the next question.
“Shall we then deny the knowledge of your… position to others?”
“You will know the moment when secrecy is more advised than the truth, captain.” He dismounted and led his horse into the village. Other people showed respect by letting themselves down on one knee, and every time Aragorn ordered them at once to get up. It was obvious how annoyed he was with their gullible obedience, and when he stopped to talk to a man, who fed the pigs in a fence, he had to wait until the man had calmed down enough to be able to answer his questions without stuttering. In that time the herd feasted upon the feed he had dropped. Everybody else seemed excited in a feverish and anxious way that their ruler graced the settling with his visit. The sudden haste to serve the king in any way he desired caused unrest and soon Aragorn was surrounded by villagers gaping at him and who silently waited for an explanation.
Hilberon walked behind the other soldiers, his shoulders sagged, his head bowed. He was sure the king would throw him out of the Royal Guard the moment they returned to Minas Tirith. Though his behaviour might yet have been tolerated he would not be granted another mistake like that. He banged his head against the saddle. His father would be ashamed of him, and again Hilberon asked himself what his father and the king had talked about. Hiregon might have praised the abilities of his son, and now he would find out that his son was nothing more than a stupid adolescent who acted against the order of the king. Still the young soldier could not deny that he lacked understanding the king's order. Why would a royal highness not want to be proclaimed? Or was there a reason he just did not see in his youthful ignorance?
“Why you look so discouraged?” Halamin asked in a friendly manner, when they unsaddled the horses near a barn. “He did not behead you, did he?” Hilberon found no words to explain how worthless he felt. He was not endowed with the self-confidence needed to forget about the incident quickly. He had never overestimated his skills, but to fail on such a simple matter was hard to accept. “Hilberon, raise your head! Mistakes can be made! A beard cut too short will grow again, as I would say.” The older man slapped Hilberon's shoulder heartily. “Ah, now, come, the king ordered us to share the roast with the villagers. It is a task for us. You can give me a hand.”
“He will throw me back to the stables,” Hilberon muttered, but instead of agreeing with him Halamin just said,
“You know nothing of the king.”
After the meal the man who owned the stud of pigs, Tesestras, eagerly told the story of how he found one of his animals dead in the fence.
“It was almost torn to pieces, I’d say, my lord, sire!” he nodded with his round, red speckled face which lower part was, to his advantage, covered by a thick fair haired beard. “Torn… with mighty claws, I’d say.” He formed his hands like claws to demonstrate it. “Not much left of the innards. That beast would have been really hungry.” He shook his head and rested his feisty hands on his thighs. Together with the king and his men, Tesestras and a friend of his, Ridon, sat near the fire. Five young children had been playing behind them, and just a short while ago they had been called in by their mother. The sudden quietness was only broken by Tesestras' far reaching voice. “There’s quite much meat on my pigs, I’d say, my lord, so… whatever it was it had real hunger! But that was only one… the first it was.”
“Did you set out a night watch after that incident?” the king asked taking the pipe out of his pocket. “Or did that beast come during daytime?”
“No, no, at night. And, aye, we did set out a watch, surely we did, my lord, sire! But… well, the watch was lured away.” He shook his head with a grimace, and it was not hard to tell who the guard had been in that night. “And when he came back the second pig was gone. That was really bad, my lord, sire.” His gaze fell upon his daughter who stood three feet away with a jar that seemed too big for her small hands. She clung it to her body. “Eridana, why you stand there? Serve us! Do it quick!”
Aragorn turned his head. The slender girl was about eight years old, had long fair braids and freckles on her nose. She was hardly breathing. Insecure how to do what she was told she glanced round from one soldier to the other, then made up her mind and went to Fáred, took his cup and filled it adroitly with water.
“Eridana, the king first!” Tesestras reminded her sternly. Fáred already pointed with his chin to Aragorn refusing the cup she offered him, and Eridana stood, with the cup in one hand and the heavy jar in the other, frowning.
“He cannot be the king.”
Tesestras' face flushed in seconds. His head snapped around to his daughter, a surprisingly quick move for a man of his stature.
“Eridana, shut up, you…”
“Hold it, Tesestras,” the king interrupted him distinctively, and the feisty man swallowed his next words. Eridana had to put down the jar; her arm was already trembling. “What made you decide that he is the king?” he asked the girl friendly in his deep voice and continued filling his pipe.
Eridana frowned deeply looking from Fáred to Aragorn. Tesestras opened his mouth for another rebuke, and the king quietened him with a gesture, not even looking at him. The girl had decided.
“He got a cuirass with these symbols, and such a shining helmet… and a long beard. And he is old,” she added with her high voice.
Fáred stroked his long beard with a small smile while the others suppressed a laugh. Tesestras snorted. Eridana took up the jar again and filled Aragorn’s cup hastily.
“Thank you, Eridana,” he said to her, “I will remember that.” She smiled feebly, hurried to serve the other soldiers and her father and almost ran back to the hut, away from the angry glance in her father’s eyes. Aragorn drank and put down the cup to light his pipe with a burning twig. “You have very honest children, Tesestras. I appreciate that.” The feisty man swallowed noisily. From the corner of his eye the king saw Hilberon frown with sudden realisation. Turning to the peasant he said, “How many pigs did you lose?”
Tesestras needed a moment to answer. His gaze had followed his disobedient daughter.
“Ah… four, my lord, sire. I apologise for my daughter. She got no manners. I always say to my wife she is not strict enough with her, I’d say.”
“Do you know of other losses in the settlements?” Aragorn asked ignoring the peasant’s words.
“Some, yes.” Tesestras emptied his cup greedily as if he was not used to talking and his mouth had dried out. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve he then belched soundly. “Grulin told me two of his horses were stolen. Well, perhaps he just sold them and forgot about it. He’s such a drunkard, my lord, sire.” He laughed, but when the king showed concern, the laughter died even faster than it had appeared. “Aye, perhaps it was true then.” The king looked at him inquiringly. “Thárabad said the beast took two goats. That’s a league from here to the west. And Namard lost some of his calves this spring. If it is true what he said,” Tesestras shrugged. His look was still insecure. “It’s a hungry beast, I’d say, my lord, sire.”
Aragorn nodded slightly and blew out rings of smoke.
“Did anyone see it?”
Tesestras' eyes were suddenly wide with fear and he raised his hands in defence.
“No! No one ever got close, I’d say. It’s a sly beast, truly. Would have ripped us too, my lord, I’d say. Might have ripped a man or two already. Or even more, who knows?”
“Why do you say that?” the king asked at once, eyeing the stout man with a frown.
Tesestras swallowed nervously.
“Well, nay, I can’t say, my lord, sire, might be… it’s not only cattle that’s missing. It’s two men also… if they have not just left for a hunting tour that turned ill. And there are rumours…” He waved his thick hand. “Nay, I won’t give much to it.”
“For how long have they been gone by now?”
“Can’t say. It’s just… talk. No one knows.”
Aragorn turned his gaze to the lively fire again and then asked,
“Can you describe the size of the claws?”
“The claws, hum?” Tesestras dared to breathe again, shaking off the mere idea of such a beast in close range of his massive body. “Big they were, I’d say. Really big.”
“Like that of a wolf?”
“No, no wolf, my lord, sire, we know wolves here, don’t we, Ridon?” The man spoken to nodded solemnly and scratched his almost bald head. “See, wolves are common, this beast… no, this was something really evil. Had bigger claws.”
“The size of your hand?”
Tesestras looked puzzled, stretched out his hand and inspected the short fingers.
“Might be, yes,” he nodded. “The claws were far apart, my lord, sire. On the pig I mean. The pig was really badly torn.”
“You saw but one pig that was killed? The others were carried away?”
“Aye, my lord, sire,” Tesestras nodded eagerly. “The others… there was nothing left of them. Not a single trace.” And when he stared into the fire, he added in a lower voice, “But I heard it. I heard it growl. And it was not a pleasant sound, my lord, not at all.”
“I know what you mean.”
It was already light when she woke, a pallid, cold light that told her that it was still early morning. The sun could not have risen for long. For a moment Lothíriel contemplated turning on her other side to try and fall asleep again, but as soon as she closed her eyes, she knew that it was hopeless. She was far too awake already.
Thinking of Éomer and asking herself how he would like a relaxed start into the day after the strenuous afternoon, she turned her head with a suggestive smile. It died when she saw the empty space next to her. He was not there. Where was he? Confused, Lothíriel stretched out her hand to touch the sheet where her husband should by all rights have lain. It was cold… and undisturbed. He had not been here at all last night. Valar, what had happened? They could not still be talking, could they?
Frowning, Lothíriel sat up and placed her feet on the ground, not bothering to feel for her shoes because the tiles were warm where the sunlight fell on them. She stood up and held her breath, listening for any sounds that would give her an idea of Éomer’s whereabouts. Silence answered her. Slowly and inwardly asking herself whether she was still dreaming, she passed through the chamber, vainly looking for telltale signs, then opening the door to stick her head out into the corridor.
Nothing. No voices, no sounds. All were still sleeping. But where was Éomer? What could he be doing at this hour? Was he at the stables, perhaps? Once during the last summer, she remembered an occasion where her proud king had been sleeping in an empty stall next to his precious steed, because Firefoot had been tormented by a colic. Could Firefoot be ill?
The thought of putting on a robe before she stepped out never entered her head as Lothíriel moved silently through the dormant hall and opened the door to the throne room. Usually the rusty hinges screamed and creaked whenever put to work, but today, they performed flawlessly and opened without noise. A few more steps into the middle. She came to a halt in front of the fireplace. An unpleasant odour of cold ash hung in the air. Turning towards the throne and the banners behind it, Lothíriel pivoted, her nightgown billowing in the slight flux of air, but again, there was nothing to be seen or heard. From out of nowhere, a cold draft hit her naked skin.
Suddenly, her heartbeat accelerated, throbbing so hard it felt as if it would burst the top of her skull. It was too silent! There were no birds singing outside. No creaking of the ancient wood Meduseld was built from. No wind, and up here on the lonely hill of Edoras, the wind never stopped! Something was wrong, very wrong! An icy shiver climbed up her spine and nestled inside her stomach, causing her flesh to crawl.
She did not like the sound of her voice at all: shrill, on the edge of panic. And what was worse was that there was no echo, no reflection of the sound from the high ceiling and pillars. It sounded strangely flat. Dead. Altogether false. Subconsciously, Lothíriel’s hands went down to cradle her lower belly protectively. It felt to her as if she could feel her child turn ceaselessly in her womb, equally tormented by the dreadful silence around her... the silence of a tomb.
“Éomer, where are you?” Even more scared now. She whirled around again, anxiety threatening to overwhelm her. “Anyone? Can anybody hear me?”
Nothing. And just when Lothíriel thought the relentless drumming of her heart would cause her to faint, she noticed the smell. A sickening, sweet odour, getting thicker and riper with each step that she took towards the door. There were no doorwardens guarding it. Where were the doorwardens? Where was everybody? Like in a trance, she stretched out her arm. The wood somehow felt false, too. How could this be? And should she really go out and…
The door opened before the thought was finished, and the stench assaulted her with sickening, nauseating power, but the view that was granted to her eyes stunned her even more: They were all here. All of Edoras citizens, more than she had ever seen assembled in one place except for her wedding day. All stood silently on the steep slope, their eyes transfixed towards the west, oblivious to her presence. To her right, at the corner of the dais, she finally detected Éomer, adorned in full mail and armour for a purpose she could not guess, the arm with his drawn sword hanging loosely by his side, but he, too, stared mesmerised into the same direction, not taking notice of her presence. From somewhere behind the mountains, a low grumble began to rise now like the thunder of a very distant storm. Lothíriel followed his gaze... and froze.
Aragorn ineffectively tried to avoid being invited to sleep in one of the huts. Ridon humbly offered his home again, and his wife lit a candle and then scurried out of the single room a moment later. It would have been rude to reject the offer, and with a sigh the king entered through the low door. Ridon was gone a second later. The hut was built out of raw wood on a sandy ground with two simple beds of the same quality. Some baskets in one corner completed the poor furniture.
The king extinguished the candlelight with his fingers, took off his weapons and laid down. He forced his eyes shut, but in the darkness the stench of damp clothes, old leather, musty soil, and straw grew stronger by the minute. The hut was narrow, had no windows, and the roof seemed to be right above his head. Aragorn felt the walls around him like a close confinement. His heart beat faster, and suddenly the ill memory of shackles around his wrists grew so intense he could not stand it any longer. It was useless; he found no rest. Finally he got up, and left the hut to inhale the clear night's air. Wiping his face with both hands he all too vividly remembered his captivity one and a half years ago. For almost three months he had been caged in a small dungeon cell and forced to work in the mine of Deromonor.
Aragorn's hands clasped the upper fence in front of him.
His attempts to escape had failed and he had bitterly paid for it. Finally his fate had rested on the shoulders of a ten-year-old boy who had never before left the castle.
The king's grip went so tight he felt splinters penetrating his palms. The memory of sending this boy on a mission was even worse than the captivity itself. Still he considered it an irresponsible act to have exploited a child that way. But he had had no other options. He would not have been able to escape alone. The guards had watched him closely and not taken off his shackles.
But the boy had survived and even brought back the King of Rohan and Faramir. Without them Aragorn's fate would had been fulfilled in that castle.
The king overlooked the starlit settlement.
The ride back from Deromonor to Minas Tirith had proved to be even stranger than travelling with four Hobbits. First Vlohiri had been shy and hardly spoke a word, but the joy of leaving the dreadful castle for the White City had finally taken him over. He grew bolder by the day. He was interested in everything and asked the soldiers as well as Aragorn a thousand questions per minute, after the king had encouraged him to feed his curiosity. Vlohiri was like a seedling that grew rapidly in the warmth of care. It had been a pleasure to answer his questions for the boy seemed to cherish every detail and did not forget it. But he had shied away from Faramir, would not even want to talk to him. Aragorn had noticed how sad the prince was and had tried to tease Vlohiri that Faramir were much more educated than the king himself, but the boy had made it clear by his reserved behaviour that he would not take the offer. Vlohiri had looked forward to the meeting with Queen Arwen and had sunk to his knees upon seeing her. She had thanked him for his help, and after that afternoon Vlohiri had been in a kind of trance for a whole day.
Aragorn smiled upon the picture in his mind how Vlohiri had stared at his wife with so much admiration and awe that she had finally frowned and asked him if he was not feeling well.
But life in the palace was different from that at Deromonor like the sun from the moon. The boy had found it hard to adept to a lifestyle where he was no longer a servant who ran the building for errands, but a member of the royal family who had his own servant. Without his tasks he had felt useless and had grown unhappy for Aragorn had not had the time to take care of his education as frequently as he wished to. Aragorn had to reign over the kingdom, and many decisions had been delayed due to his absence. When Faramir had taken the boy out into the gardens of the White City to tell him about its history and the stewards, who had ruled Gondor until the king had returned, Vlohiri’s shyness had ebbed away slowly, and he had been seen with the prince more often. Finally Faramir had asked for the allowance to educate Vlohiri in his house. Aragorn had been reluctant to let the boy go, but since he knew that the prince would take good care of Vlohiri he had agreed. The boy had accepted the decision that the Prince of Ithilien would teach him to read and write and to let him learn the lore of Gondor, but the boy as well as the ruler were not completely happy with the solution. They talked alone about it, and Aragorn had to admit that he would not have sent him away if Vlohiri had contradicted. But the boy had made friends with the prince, and so the parting had not been too sad, at least not for the boy. Aragorn had promised to visit him, and the king was sure that Faramir would take the young lad with him whenever he came to the palace. Still Aragorn had hardly been able to hide his sorrow to let the boy go.
The king still pondered over his decision, though it had seemed right at that time.
“Is anything wrong, sire?” Halamin asked getting closer with a torch in his hand. Aragorn woke from his musing and forced himself to open his hands. The guard gazed at the splinters and the marks the raw wood had left on the king's palms. He frowned sympathetically. “Can I be a help in any way?”
Aragorn exhaled looking down on his hands.
“No, I do not think that there is any help for me.” The guard nodded curtly. The king sensed his hesitation to retreat and asked, “Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?”
Halamin looked up to his ruler, who seemed to be in a sad mood. The soldier would not want to sound insubordinate and searched for the right words. When they came he seemed to walk a thin line.
“My lord, I know I have no right to speak to you like this, but…” He inhaled deeply, but before he could continue with his plea the king raised his right hand slightly to quieten him down.
“There is no need to worry about Hilberon's doing today. I did not intend to punish him. Though he should follow orders and not his ideas.”
“Agreed.” With a curt bow Halamin was about to retreat when the king added,
“But sometimes orders restrict a noble heart too much.” A pause followed when Aragorn's thoughts returned to Vlohiri. Without the boy's ignorance of prohibitions the King of Gondor would not be able to watch the starlit night. Inhaling deeply he glanced at Halamin. “You are a good friend to him, Halamin. So tell him that I do not intend to lift the duty of serving the Royal Guard from him. I will think about it again if he rides up to a host of Haradrim with the same intention.” A smile tugged at his lips, and Halamin was relieved.
“Very well, my lord, I think he will understand.”
He woke with a start, not knowing what had caused him to surface from the black, bottomless pit he had finally fallen into after an eternity of lying awake and staring at the ceiling with his mind racing. Lothíriel had already been asleep when he had finally sneaked into the chamber in the dark after a long, private talk he had with Gamling following Erkenbrand’s retreat. The marshal had righteously felt beat after the ride that lay behind him, and when the rain had abated, both he and his captain had bidden them an early good night and gone down the path to the inn where the rest of their comrades were spending the night.
For a moment, Éomer continued to lie on his back, unmoving. Tasting the atmosphere. And even if he could not put his finger on what it was that had woken him, his instincts were crying out. Something was wrong. He opened his eyes to the moving pattern of moonlight and shadow on the ceiling, breathing silently through his mouth and rubbing the bridge of his nose with his fingers to chase the last remainders of sleep away. Listening. Straining his ears for anything out of the ordinary. Muffled noises, screams, footsteps... anything that would not belong into Meduseld at the dead of night. Still intently listening, he turned his head to the left to see whether his wife had likewise been woken by the strange atmosphere... and looked at blank white sheets. Lothíriel was not there.
His heart jumping into his throat, Éomer turned with a jolt – and saw her standing at the window, the silken, blue night-gown flowing over her delicate frame like water, shimmering in the pale moonlight under the veil of raven-black hair. A brief moment of relief washed over him, but the very distinct notion that something was off would not cease. What was she doing there in the middle of the night? What was she looking at? He sat up.
“Lothíriel?” The sound of his own loud voice startled him, and he lowered it to a whisper. “What are you doing?”
She did not respond. He tried it a little louder.
Nothing. A cold feeling spread in his stomach. She had to have heard him. Why was she ignoring him? He swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Lothíriel, what is wrong?”
Now even the air seemed frozen. With a growing feeling of foreboding, Éomer came to his feet. He had to be dreaming. This could not be reality, even if the cool tiles beneath his bare feet said something else. He swallowed and stepped up behind his unmoving wife, grasping her shoulder to turn her around and face him.
She would not let herself be turned! Rigid like a marble statue and just as unyielding, his wife stood rooted to the ground. Not turning her head, not answering, not acknowledging his presence by the slightest sign. The sight of her inanimate face chased a chill down Éomer’s spine. Lothíriel’s eyes were open, but there was no life in them. She was not even blinking as she continued to stare out of the window towards the mountains in a trance. Reflexively, Éomer followed her gaze towards the snow-capped summits. They looked eerily silver-blue in the moonlight, unreal, and there was mist rising from the meadows below, but otherwise, there was nothing to be seen, no matter how hard he looked. He took another step forth that brought him in front of his wife. “What is there?”
“It is coming...” Her voice seemed to come from a distant place and trailed off, blown away by the breeze that blew through the open window, her eyes looking through him as she raised her hand. “There...”
The horizon turned red. At first Lothíriel knew not what to make of it. It was but a dark red line that covered the horizon from one edge to the other, like a strange shadow. Then it began to rise, and she recognised the motion, the sparkling reflection of its moving surface. It was a wave. A single red wave rolling their way, still leagues away in the distance... but moving steadily, and oh so fast towards them, ascending into the pale morning sky as it did so... bringing with it the stench of decay. A tidal wave of blood.
It was too much for him. Too much to see her like this, entranced, unresponsive, staring at something that was not there. Was she possessed? What was wrong with her? Right there and then, Éomer decided he had enough as he seized Lothíriel’s shoulders and shook her, frantic to wake her from this eerie state.
“Lothíriel, wake up!”
Dark eyes stared through him as if he weren’t there, devoid of expression. Empty. Without thinking twice, he lifted her up and started towards the door, yelling for their healer...
The sky was a red, moving, reflecting wall, dwarfing the mountains. Dwarfing even Edoras as it rolled towards them and still rising. None of the mesmerised onlookers turned to flee, because they all understood instinctively that there was no escape. The wave would crush them, and who was still alive after it had tumbled down upon them would drown in the ocean of blood. The sweet, coppery odour was overpowering now, and over the growing roar Lothíriel heard for a moment the horses screaming in the stables. They were wild with terror, not hypnotised like the men and women surrounding them and craning their necks back to stare at the frothing crest of the red wall as it blotted out the sun ...
“Yálanda! Gamling!” Éomer raced through the corridor, his inanimate wife in his arms, his heart racing. He had never thought he could be this afraid. “Help us!”
The wave smashed Edoras like the foot of a giant, the impact shaking the lonely hill to its core. Such must have been the flood that brought the end of Numénor, Lothíriel thought numbly as she watched the red flood churn up the hill, while the plains the Golden Hall commanded had already vanished under the frothing liquid. This time, the Valar had chosen to destroy Edoras. Its people had angered the ancient gods, and now their doom was upon them.
People screamed and fought to rise from the brutal current that threw them against rock or huts, tearing everything down that stood in its way. Already, the wooden ruins of the Rohirrim capital crashed against the bottom of the dais, the blood rising faster than any flood she had ever seen. Oblivious to her imminent death, Lothíriel turned to Éomer. He was near now, his expression that of a shattered man as he looked upon his drowning kinsmen.
“You brought it about yourself,” she heard her own voice say with cold finality. He turned his head to look at her. “This is your punishment.”
For an endless moment, they stared at each other, and she saw dawning comprehension in his defeated eyes. Then the flood reached Meduseld, and everything turned red...
A crimson rivulet ran from Lothíriel’s nose, down to her lips, colouring them red, her eyes staring unblinking into the void. The sight froze the king to the core.
Up ahead, the door to the healer’s room. Almost there! Squeezing each ounce of strength he had left into his legs, Éomer sped up... and suddenly noticed a movement! Lothíriel’s head had turned just the slightest bit to look at him, her stare no longer empty. It stopped him dead in his tracks, and for a moment, relief was so great it was almost painful - until he noticed the icy chill in her eyes.
“The slaughterers shall be slaughtered...”
Dark eyes stabbed against his, their expression hard and unforgiving, so utterly unlike Lothíriel that Éomer almost dropped her in shock. Her voice was clear and firm, its tone that of a judge passing his verdict. There were no emotions in the words that she spoke, neither satisfaction nor compassion. For a moment, it deemed Éomer as if a higher force had abducted his wife’s body to utilise it for its errand, to look at him and to speak to him through her mouth, and he could not for the life of him move.
Up ahead, the healer’s door opened and a question was shouted his way, but the King of Rohan heard it not. The hard stare stayed on him for a moment longer, freezing him to the core. Then, suddenly, Lothíriel blinked, the cruel expression gone as if he had been imagining it, and the dark eyes rolled back into her head until only the whites could be seen. The body in his arms slackened ...
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