The Lord Hardorn was gone the next morning when most awoke, as were the four men he'd called after him and Eregiel, the ten men of Rohan ordered to meet with him the previous evening, Dorlin, and the King. Well, Ruvemir thought, that answered the question of who the fifth man of Gondor was to be. The King himself was going to find out what was going on among the folk of Dunlending. The Lady Arwen only shrugged when questioned as to why the King himself had gone along. "He is Ruler of both Gondor and Arnor, and he intends not to send others always on duties he himself should see to," was all she would tell.
Éomer considered following after but decided not to do so. "No," he said at last, "I will trust him. He has always been a canny leader of men."
All were nevertheless tense all that day, and most folk rested uneasily that night. Midmorning the next day scouts rode in from the west, and shortly after noon they could see a double line of men returning. Ruvemir recognized the stained and hooded cloak, the hunting bow he carried in his hand, and quiver as they came close enough to recognize individuals. Eregiel was similarly dressed as a Ranger of the North, and there were more men, apparently from the fortress north of Orthanc, with two additional men, hands tied to their saddlebows. Aragorn's face was grim, and he gave a significant nod to Éomer once he reached the highest levels. There was, Ruvemir realized as he hadn't when the King had dismounted at the gate, no tack on the grey horse--the King rode Elf-fashion with the ease of one raised in the tradition. Aragorn whispered in the ear of the great grey horse, who allowed himself to be led off by a waiting Rider, and stood to the side as the two prisoners were untied from their saddlebows and assisted in dismounting, then directed pointedly up the stairs to the hall.
Éomer led the way inside Meduseld, his own guards falling in around the prisoners, and they were brought to the end of the central firepit nearest the throne. Due to the coldness of the day a fire burned brightly, and Ruvemir, standing to one side, decided that this placement was intended to make it uncomfortably warm for the two men rather than out of any concern for their comfort. Aragorn entered behind the prisoners, his bow still trained on them, his face dispassionate. Ruvemir had the distinct impression the King was taking a feral pleasure in the situation, however. Éomer mounted his throne, then signed to the leader of his own men to report, once all were inside the Hall and finally still.
"These two were found among the Dunlendings, my Lord King, inciting them to again take up arms against us, and assuring them that the reports of the tree giants of Fangorn Forest were only tales intended to frighten them and keep them in quiet subservience. We brought eighteen others with them to Orthanc, where they received more than adequate indication that report itself was false, and they were sent back to their own people to give evidence of this and to warn them that the Kings of Arnor, Rohan, and Gondor will not allow such rebellion."
"Are these of the people of the Dunlendings themselves, then, Ælfred?"
"One was originally, my Lord, but has been gone from his people five years now. Strider here tells us the other is of the people east of Rhun."
"I see. An attempt to draw off the allies of Gondor when those folk make their next attempt on the folk of Rhun and the Lord of Gondor rides forth to their aid in a few months time, then."
He turned to the enemy agent. "And what do you have to say for yourself?"
Strider himself barked a command in a harsh dialect, and the man standing before them shot him an angry glance and said something back.
Éomer looked at the Man attired as a Ranger and lifted an eyebrow in question. Strider gave a harsh laugh. "What he said was rather rude, Éomer King," he explained, "and carried no word of information."
The eyes of the King of Rohan became hard. "I see. Shall we show him how we react to such rudeness in Rohan, then?" He turned to his men. "Tie him to the hall post near the firepit, and make certain the fire will be quite warm near him, then." He turned to the other man. "How long have you been in the pay of enemies of Rohan, Gondor, and Arnor?"
"I don't know what you mean," the man said sullenly, looking away.
Éomer sighed. "Oh, I believe you do know what I mean. Who bought you first--the agents of Mordor or those of Saruman? Not that there was that much difference at the end, I suppose."
"No one bought me."
Strider said something in Rohirric, and the King considered. "Well, then, that we shall see. Strip him, then--to his small clothes."
The man looked uncomprehending, but found he could not fight the Gondorian soldiers who now followed the orders of the King of Rohan. Soon he stood wearing only a rough loin garment, and about his neck was a pendant of a hand, and burned into the flesh of his arms were both the symbol of the White Hand and that of the Red Eye. The young King examined him closely. "Which was the first purchaser of your soul, I suppose, is of less interest than the fact you served both at the end. We have had experience dealing with both forces, however, and have no patience with either. Nor do either of your prior Lords exist any more. So, once you lacked guidance from both your masters, you turned to other masters among Men. Why do you so hate the folk of the Free Peoples of the West?"
"Free?" spat the man. "You serve the desires of fell wizards and monsters!"
"Fell wizards?" Éomer was shocked. "You think Gandalf Greyhame was a fell wizard, you who wear that?" He swatted the pendant of the White Hand. "Gandalf never sought to breed Men and Orcs together, never destroyed life to wanton purpose, never sought to rule anyone."
"Yet is he not the puppet master for Rohan and Gondor?"
"Puppet master?" Éomer looked to Strider and said something in Rohirric, to which the Ranger replied with a laugh and a quick few words.
The Rohirrim in the gathered crowd all laughed. "I would have loved to see Gandalf Greyhame attempt to rule either your uncle or yourself, my Lord King," one said.
"Call him forth and question him," challenged the prisoner.
"I would greatly desire to do so," Éomer said, "but those who have gone to the Undying Lands do not return." The man stilled and looked shocked. "Yes, he has gone into the West. He was sent for one purpose--to teach us to stand against Sauron. And, unlike your masters--" with a dismissive gesture toward both Hand and Eye "--he remained true to the purpose of both his creation and his mission. Have you become so divorced from reality you cannot see the difference between that which is in accordance with the One's Will and desire to rule others at all costs?"
"I saw the tree monsters myself this morning...."
"You dare to call Ents, among the eldest of the One's children, monsters? Have you not fought alongside orcs and trolls?"
"Be quiet, you." He turned to his officer who'd traveled with Hardorn. "His voice sickens me. If he speaks again without being questioned, gag him. Only the One brought Ents into being, while the foul crafts of Morgoth, Sauron, and now Saruman have twisted creation into the shapes of trolls, orcs, and Nazgul. And he dares to dismiss Ents as monsters!"
Strider made a comment in Rohirric with a twisted smile, but his eyes still watched the prisoner with deadly purpose. Éomer answered him briefly, but straightened. "I have been reminded that you did indeed answer a question then, although not one truly intended to be answered," he commented. He nodded to Strider. "He has great respect for the Ents of Fangorn Forest, and you may have noted they respect him as well. He does not take well to them being called monsters. For hundreds of years they remained within their own borders, not troubling themselves with the doings of Men, Elves, Dwarves, or other beings; but when Saruman began attacking their trees they came forth and assisted in relieving him of his power. And in the end, we are told, he fell at the hands of his own creature, when he was given the last chance to repent his actions and choices and perhaps regain the status from which he began, but instead chose to belittle and threaten." He spat. "That is what you chose to follow--a betrayer, a wanton killer. He lost his very nature following the paths of Morgoth and Sauron."
"Who is he, then?" asked the prisoner with a sideways shake of his head toward Strider.
"He leads the forces of Arnor on loan to us this day." He turned to Lord Hardorn, today arrayed in the black and silver of Minas Anor. "Did you learn what you needed to know, then?"
"Yes. Fortunately the treachery had not flowed too far as yet, and those who went against the trees of Fangorn will not do so again. The folk of the Dunlendings will not trouble us again for some time, I hope, by which time they should be sufficiently accustomed to the overlordship of Arnor they will not think to do so again."
"So it is indeed to be hoped. They have a land far more fertile than ours, yet they have always sought to take Rohan from us. I do not understand them."
"Nor do we, Éomer King."
"Take this one to his quarters below the Hall, and see to it he is secured. We will let that one remain where he is for a time." With a nod, two of the King's personal guard escorted the man out. "Have you taken a noon meal, Lord Hardorn?"
"No, but we do not mind that. Bringing these two out of the land of the Dunlendings was enough."
One last time the King of Rohan spoke to Strider in Rohirric, and listened to the answer. He nodded, then turned to his own folk. "Have Godwyn bring in the meal I ordered prepared when word came these were returning, and do it swiftly." He turned to those who'd been part of the riding. "Sit and be at ease for a time." He turned to Strider. "I think, my Lord, you can now unstring your bow and replace the arrow in your quiver. As you are in my land now, I order you to eat a meal and relax along with your men. I suppose you did not sleep all last night." Strider gave only a grim smile in response. Éomer gave him a considering, evaluating examination. "I think the look was more apt when your beard was less full, you know." At which Aragorn finally laughed aloud. Ruvemir smiled at the laugh, and looked at the picture of Strider the Ranger he'd been capturing in his new sketch booklet against the day he would fulfill his next commission.
It was late afternoon when they finally questioned the Easterling again, and this time he was apparently more forthcoming. Éomer sat on his throne while Aragorn, still attired as Strider, sat on the Counselor's seat. Apparently his command of the Easterling's tongue was excellent, for he was able to interpret it fully for the King of Rohan. This time the hall was all but empty, although many watched from the doorways. At last the questioning was over, and the Man led away to be incarcerated below the Hall. Hardorn and Eregiel and the two officers from Gondor, Dorlin, the Steward and his wife, and the Prince of Dol Amroth and his son joined in the council, and at the end all nodded in agreement.
Éomer's voice lifted at last. "Then we will have our troupes ready to lead to join yours in Osgiliath the end of April, my Lord Aragorn Elessar. We do not like this business, that those who would attack Rhun know so much of the friendship of our peoples and yours. And I grieve that this will take you from your wife's side so soon after the birth of your first child."
"Those who foment war do not care for such niceties, my friend. But I thank you for thinking of it. If our children are to grow up continuing to know freedom, however, we will need to be willing to fight those who oppose it." And all at the table and most watching from the doorways nodded agreement.
Two days later the party from Gondor prepared to leave for Minas Tirith once more. Half the soldiers and one of the officers remained in Rohan, going to join the garrison northwest of Orthanc; and five of those from the garrison took their place behind the King. Now there were two coaches, and the two prisoners had been brought out, gagged, hooded, and bound, and tied once more to their saddlebows to go back to Gondor with the King's party.
Before they left Ruvemir gave a gift to the King of Rohan, a figure of his wife smiling, to which both Éomer and Lothiriel responded with pleasure. Ruvemir gave them a figure of a dog he'd carved, one lying on the floor, curled with head near tail. Both were thanked profusely for their gifts, and at last they were set off on the last leg of their journey.
Seven days later at sunset they came over the ridge northeast of the city and looked down on the fields of the Pelennor, and they were home.
As they rode into the city, the coach in which they rode dropped back from the line, and once through the second gate turned aside into the drive of the King's Head. There at the door, wrapped in the shawl he'd bought her in the fall, stood Elise, and Ruvemir fairly flew out of the coach to come to her side. Looking up into her eyes, he put his arms about her and kissed her very, very deeply.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.