The ride had been exhilarating in more ways than one. An explosion of speed and the distinct notion of sitting on top of a volcano with the wind roaring in his ears. Battleaxe’s mane had whipped Éomer’s face as he shifted his weight onto his steed’s shoulders, drunken and ecstatic from the feeling of flying through the early morning’s mist without seeing the ground. For the first time ever and for reasons unclear to him, he had dared to ride the difficult stallion without a saddle, knowing fully well how irresponsible his impulse had been. But after that first wild chase over maybe a league, where Éomer had been but a silent passenger on the black’s back, Battleaxe had surprised him with a level of co-operation he had so far not known from his steed, as he had listened to the commands given only with the pressure of his master’s thighs without trying once to unseat the man on his back.
Back in the stable, another surprise had followed when the great black had – for the first time - allowed the daily grooming ritual without having to be tied to a beam, and without fidgeting around and shying away from his master’s touch. Astonished and pleased, Éomer had soon settled into the routine he had known all his life, humming to himself and his horse as he guided the brush over the dusty hide with smooth, sweeping strokes until it shone like a raven’s wing. Done as it was today, without having to watch out for his horse trying to bite or kick him, it was a very soothing activity, one that deepened the connection between horse and rider and one of Éomer’s favourite opportunities for relaxation. For a while, he had just worked with the brush, his body warming with the activity, and the world had been good and uncomplicated. Done with that, he had then also checked Battleaxe’s legs and hooves, and the stallion’s unusual acceptance had lasted on even then, so Éomer had decided to stay a while longer. He had dreaded the task still waiting for him, and been instinctively pushing it back for as long as he would be able to. The sun had barely been up, so there had still been some time left, but he had known right then that he would not be able to avoid the conversation with Erkenbrand for much longer. The man needed to be released, and he needed to know about his new errand, one that would further complicate things between them. Out of habit and because it was an activity that never failed to soothe him, he had muscled his way into the small gap between the divider and his horse and began to braid the long, flowing mane, losing himself in the process.
He knew not how much time had passed when the sudden noise of many men entering the stables woke him from his complacency. As he looked back over his shoulder, Battleaxe thrust his head up at the ruckus and retreated further back into the security of his stall, thus ending their wondrously peaceful moment. A slight, distant smile spread over Éomer’s lips.
“Thank you, my friend. For the ride, and for your good mood this morning. Maybe we can repeat this tomorrow, what do you think?” Patting the stallion’s muscular hindquarters, Éomer wiped his hands on his breeches and left the stall to greet the arrivals after he had spotted the Dunlending scout in their midst. With a short nod, he acknowledged the man’s surprised glance, and then proceeded to eye the soldiers Thor had hand-picked to accompany him on his difficult errand. Except for two men he didn’t know, all the soldiers who indicated a bow in front of him and then went off to saddle their horses appeared to be of Elfhelm’s éored.
“You have a new horse, my lord?” Thor walked over the two paces to come to a halt next to Éomer and peer into the stall. “What happened to Firefoot?”
“Nothing. Our herds need a refreshment of their Méara-blood, that’s why the big grey is enjoying a stud summer on the open range.”
The scout smiled.
“What a life, eh? Something to be truly jealous of.” He winked and turned his attention back to the black. “I already noticed him when we arrived and wondered whose steed he might be. A magnificent creature.” A small smile. “I should have known he was yours.”
“Indeed,” Éomer nodded, enjoying the brief exchange that kept his thoughts back from the more gruesome business of the day still ahead of him. “He’s special. Difficult, but special.” A deep breath as he turned towards the scout, and the smile faded. “And you are off into the great unknown, Thor? Everything is settled with Elfhelm and Galdur?”
“Aye, sire, everything is set. All that is left to do is saddle our horses, and then we’ll be on our way.” The scout looked tense, which was no wonder considering his dangerous errand. To the Dunlendings who knew him, he was a traitor. They would slit his throat if they ever got a hold of him. The twenty men that would serve as his escort would have a lot on their hands to keep the Wild Men at bay once things turned sour. The black eyes gave Éomer a scrutinising glance, and for a moment, Thor’s formal bearing softened as he said: “I stand by what I told you, Éomer-king. I am deeply grateful for your effort. I will do whatever is in my power to help you succeed.”
Moved by the scout’s passionate statement, Éomer laid a heavy hand on the man’s shoulder in appreciation.
“Just be careful, Thor. Rohan needs you, no matter how this mission goes. You are one of the Mark’s most reliable servants, and it would be a great loss if anything went wrong. Not just for the Mark, but for me, personally. I am glad to count you on my side.”
A slight smile came through the scout’s perplexed expression. Never had he seen his ruler like this. So emotional. So grateful. It would be a tragedy if the young king failed.
“I am honoured to be the one you trust with this errand, my king. And I will make it count, if I have to drag each of the tribal leaders’ backsides behind my horse all the way from Dunland to Edoras.” A deep breath, and just when he saw in Éomer’s eyes the intention to leave them to their task, he added, on the spur of the moment: “You be careful, too, sire. I do not want to come back from Dunland with good tidings to find you –“ ‘assassinated’ was the word that was in his mind, but he thought better of it, “- banished to the kitchen and Marshal Erkenbrand on the throne in your stead.”
The younger man’s jest succeeded in bringing a brief playful sparkle to Éomer’s eyes.
“If they banish me, you’ll rather find me in the stables than in the kitchen. But don’t fear, captain. I can hold my own, and your marshal is here to cover my back. The two of us have braved worse things before. We will be fine.” A last nod, which also included the captain’s men. “Just return safely, all of you. That is all that counts.”
As he exited the stables, the first rays of the ascending sun broke through the morning’s twilight and ignited the roof of the ancient hall of Meduseld to a golden sparkle. Éomer wished that he could take it as a good omen as he walked up the stairs, but his gloomy mood would not lift.
Just as in the summer before the king left the crowded city with his escort to order his vassals to send a part of the harvest to the people of Rohan, knowing their supplies would not last for the winter. Aragorn knew that King Éomer would not want to ask him again for aid, but he was willing to grant it nonetheless since the barns and storehouses in Ithilien were full. The harvest in the western and southern parts of Gondor would start later, but, as he was told, the outcome would be sufficient enough to last until spring. The first wagons with apples and corn were already on their way to Edoras. Rye, wheat, and potatoes would follow soon.
After some days he started his ride back to the city. Since he could not reach every vassal alone he had sent out sentinels with his orders to the farms further away from the city, and when a rider approached him, he supposed it to be one of them. The rider spurred his horse into a gallop upon seeing the king. The horse's mouth foamed, and the rider as well as his steed, was bathed in sweat. Breathing heavily, the short, square-built man bowed when he halted his horse at the king's side.
“Béonon, speak up!”
“I bring tidings from the border,” the young soldier uttered taking off his helmet to wipe his forehead with a gloved hand. A mass of dark hair fell loosely over his shoulders. “The Easterlings are gathering more of their kin.”
“Have they already crossed the border?”
“No.” His horse fidgeted, and he needed a moment to calm it down. “But the vanguard we sent to Dagorlad reported there are more of those people yonder of the settlement they built.”
“Soldiers? Did they wear armour?”
“Nay, my lord. It’s mostly women they saw, and only a few men, but… there might be five hundred by now, and it seems as if more are coming every day.”
Aragorn rested his hands on the pommel and lowered his head for a moment of reflection.
“Are you sure you saw no men in armour?” he then asked. “Could it be that weapons of any kind lie hidden?”
The upcoming wind tangled with Béonon's hair, and he coughed when dust whirled up.
“I am sure, my lord. We saw some large herds of animals I don’t know by name, but no men with swords or bows, left alone cuirasses or helmets. I must admit, though, that the vanguard did not get too close. It was too dangerous. They had guards with the herds. I am sorry, my lord, but this is all I can tell you.”
Aragorn frowned. Even if the people were moving from one part of their land to another it seemed odd to have only a few men among them. And where the tents were built the ground was almost barren. They would not linger there for building up settlements for a longer time since it was against their usual behaviour. The absence of weapons on the other hand indicated that there were not gathering to raid Ithilien. Would they come to ask for land and trade? Still he could not shake the thought that he was overlooking something.
“Well done, Béonon. Ride back to the city to get a fresh horse.”
“Aye, my lord.” The soldier turned his steed and rode on south.
Aragorn and his escort followed slowly.
Éomer was still staring at his breakfast when the dreaded knock on the door disturbed the silence. Bracing for the confrontation, he came to his feet.
Erkenbrand did not look like Éomer had imagined he would as he opened the door and stepped in, coming to a halt under the wooden door-frame with his hands on his back. His bearing was stiff and formal, but all fury and aggressiveness that had possessed him the day before seemed to have been sucked out of the old warrior through the long hours behind bars. He looked beat and tired, as if he had gone the night without sleep, and his usually hawk-like gaze was avoiding his king as he stared right through him unfocused. All the dignity, all the self-confidence the marshal had exuded since Éomer had known the man was gone. Erkenbrand looked literally destroyed, a disgraced warrior, even though he had apparently used the hour between his release and his summons to make himself presentable again. The sight of his defeat pained Éomer, and he was not proud of what he had done, but it had been necessary. He would have to remember that in the course of this conversation.
“Marshal,” he nodded at the older man and offering him a seat by way of gesturing to diminish the awkwardness of the moment for Erkenbrand, but his opposite declined, thereby forcing his ruler to stand, too.
“I was told to report to you, sire.” Even his voice sounded flat, passionless.
“Yes indeed.” Where to begin? Stepping closer, Éomer demanded the attention the marshal seemingly was reluctant to give him, and for the first time, their eyes met. “There are things that must be talked about in the wake of our dispute. You are aware of that, of course.”
A great dread stood written in the Lord of Westfold’s gaze, even if his tone remained dull.
“Will you banish me?”
Éomer inhaled deeply as he came to a halt in front of the older man. So Erkenbrand wanted to cut right to the chase. Which was well with him, because it was easy to figure that this one question must have been burning in the marshal’s mind all those long hard hours he had spent in the dungeon. He decided to answer with a question.
“You insulted the queen, you insulted me, you insulted Marshal Elfhelm, and you accused a high-ranking Rohirrim, of proven loyalty, of treason. And, worst of all, you indirectly threatened me with disobedience. What would you do in my place?”
“Sire, I apologise for the insults. I realise that my behaviour was inappropriate. Your ruling took me by surprise, and fear for our land made me react in the heated way you witnessed. Which of course is no excuse.” A leaden pause. Éomer could tell how hard it was for Erkenbrand to say these words. He nodded in acknowledgement of the warrior’s efforts.
“It is not like I can’t understand you, marshal, yet I am certain that you agree with me when I say that such behaviour cannot be tolerated. I will still have to punish you for that. But the insults are only the minor part, even if other – lesser – people would have lost their head alone for spitting at my wife. Still, I was even more troubled by your insinuations regarding the people under your command. What am I to think about them?”
Erkenbrand raised his head, and his gaze betrayed his utter honesty.
“Éomer-king, you’ve known me since I served together with your father. You should know that I would never do anything to endanger the Mark. For decades, I have been defending it with the blood of my people... with my very own life.”
“That is no clear answer, marshal.” Éomer turned on his heels and walked a few measured steps before he faced his man again. “You made it quite obvious yesterday that you deem my plans a danger to the Mark. So in the light of what you just said, what am I to make of it? That you will oppose me if I let you keep your rank and release you into service again?” His gaze pierced the older warrior’s eyes in an attempt to get below the surface, to read the man. There was at least one certainty: Furious with him or not, Erkenbrand would never lie to him. What he said would be the truth. Their exchange went on for another moment, before the Lord of Westfold finally lowered his eyes.
“I would not actively oppose you, sire, even though I fear that the course you are setting for our land will prove to be a horrible mistake. But no, I would not ride through the villages and tell the people to take up arms and chase the hillmen from their land.” He shook his head. His words brought the faintest smile to the king’s face. It was tinted with relief.
“I am glad to hear that, marshal, because Rohan needs you. Having to exile one of our most esteemed warriors would have meant greatly weakening our defences, which we may need now more than ever.” Éomer turned to approach the silently waiting man again. “I am no fool, Marshal Erkenbrand. I know the path I have chosen will be rocky, and there is, of course, still the question of who equipped our foe and taught them to fight. There’s an enemy we don’t know yet lurking in the back, waiting for us to make a mistake, but I don’t intend to give them such an opportunity.”
Erkenbrand’s expression lit visibly up.
“By way of negotiations with Dunland, I intend to separate our ancient foe from the unknown foe. We’ll isolate them. Undoubtedly, they think they can weaken us by using another people to fight their war, but what if these people suddenly became our allies?” Éomer narrowed his eyes. “We would eliminate both threats with one action, and not a single drop of blood would be spilled.”
“Alas, I fear it will not be as easy as you hope for, my lord. It is a more complex strategy than I would have figured after yesterday, but it is still one that I fear is doomed to fail. People will not let someone onto their lands who has been their enemy for centuries. Their hatred sits too deep.”
“Which is exactly the point we must speak about.” Now for the hardest part. He came to a halt, and his expression intensified. “You are one of them, Erkenbrand. You demonstrated that quite clearly yesterday by losing your composure. You are one of those people who suffered too much from their hands to be able to overcome your hatred anytime soon.” The man’s face dropped in horrid realisation where the king was steering at. “Don’t think that I do not understand you. But if we want to succeed, and thus to thwart our real enemies plot, we cannot afford to take any chances, however small they may be. I have therefore decided to keep you installed as a Marshal of Riddermark, but until further notice, it will be the Eastmark you and most of your men will guard.”
After hearing about Éomer’s understanding for his situation, Erkenbrand had almost believed that the king would pardon him, but his last sentence drained the colour from his face.
“My lord…” No words would come. All he could do in the dawning realisation of what the king’s verdict meant was shake his head in disbelief and shock. “Please…no!” He had never pleaded before. How could Éomund’s son degrade him so much? Did he know what he would be doing to his kinsman by uprooting him, by taking him away from the land he had lived in and served his entire life? Did he know what he would be doing to the people who trusted their marshal with their lives?
“Marshal Elfhelm will take over the Westfold for the initial precarious time. You will exchange your responsibilities. You will thoroughly discuss this with him, and we will mingle your éoreds so that each of you has a few well-chosen men to consort with whenever needs be, but this is how we will do it. The Lord of Eastfold has already been instructed, and Captain Galdur as well. Talk to them.”
“So you’re banishing me after all.” Erkenbrand’s voice sounded impossibly bitter... and the aggressive undertone below was likewise not to be missed. The marshal’s fighting spirit had not been completely broken. His eyes sparkled as he glared at Éomer. “I do not have to tell you what a disgrace this would mean.”
“Marshal…” It had been too easy so far. Something like that had been bound to happen. Éomer met his kinsman’s gaze unflinchingly. “What did you expect? That I’d let your behaviour go unpunished? You know I cannot do so. However, your punishment – which is not even in fact thought as punishment in the first place –“
“You are forcing me to leave my home and my people! What else would it be, a reward?”
“Having you exchange your place with Elfhelm is thought as a means to defend our land most efficiently in what will probably be a very difficult process. I already explained that to you, and I will not say any more. The subject is not open for discussion, Marshal Erkenbrand!” His eyes gleamed, and his voice was firm when he added: “I am sad it has come to this, but you should realise that by letting you keep your rank and not banishing you from Rohan entirely, you have been treated with more mercy than any other man who would have committed the same crime.”
A deep breath. Neither man averted his eyes. It took a great effort for Éomer to calm down enough again to lower his voice to a firm yet compassionate tone.
“Leave now, marshal. Go and seek your men and talk to them. Speak with Elfhelm. When you’re done, send a messenger to your domain and tell the remainders of your éored to hold themselves ready for the transfer to Aldburg. I will give the order for the exchange as soon as we have heard from the Dunlendings.”
For a moment, Erkenbrand stared at his feet, fighting with himself whether he should remain silent or speak out. He chose to speak out.
“What makes you think Thor will come back, Éomer-king? What makes you think those beasts are not waiting for them at the border to lure them into a trap and gratefully abduct the twenty men accompanying him to serve the same purpose as the ones they took before?”
The king met his gaze.
“We don’t know, and we will have to see. I gave you an order, Erkenbrand. Will you go and carry it out, or does our problem continue to exist?”
An eternity passed. At last, the Lord of Westfold gave a curt bow, his eyes never once leaving the king’s, before he turned briskly on his heels to leave.
“It shall be as you say, my lord.”
Vlohiri loved the time of day shortly after breakfast when the maidens went about their work, and the servants left to run errands. Then – if nothing else waited for him – he stole into the kitchen where the cook, a young woman with cheeks red like apples, collected the used bowls and, after washing them, took a rest between the pottery and plates, the pans and cooking-pots. Often within the time he had spent in the prince's house he had listened to her lively chatter and enjoyed being coddled with fresh-baked bread and sometimes a piece of cake. He then sat down, drank milk, and felt at ease. The cook did not know how much the young boy appreciated being there and treated him with utmost politeness. Sometimes Vlohiri missed Narana, and though the woman serving the prince and his wife could not be compared to the stout, elderly Gondorian ruling the kitchen at Deromonor Vlohiri felt drawn to the place and its distinct smell.
But not today. A servant, a meagre looking boy about his age, told Vlohiri to meet Prince Faramir in his quarters, and with a sigh Vlohiri let go the kitchen door to turn and run down the hall. Upon reaching the main chamber, where Faramir welcomed guests and held conversations with the noblemen, the boy heard his voice and another one answering him. He halted at the door left ajar and peered into the room.
“What tidings did Béonon bring?” Princess Éowyn asked, soothing the child in her arms.
Faramir came across from the window, his voice concerned.
“More Easterlings are gathering. There might be five hundred by now, and more are coming.”
“Does anyone know about their intentions? They might not be peaceful.”
“That is what I fear. And what King Elessar fears too” He looked up into her eyes. The child had softened her features, and more than before he thought her to be the most beautiful woman Rohan had ever sent to walk this earth. “Though it could be just a meeting of their tribes for some… festivity. Who knows? Aragorn will not ready the whole army as long as they remain peaceful.”
“There are soldiers among them?”
No. Nothing that indicates that they have come to assault us.”
“Then the king will be right.”
“He sent dispatch-riders. We will know of anything happening at the border.”
Éowyn caressed her husband's bearded cheek.
“He is careful and open-eyed… as well as you. I know you are a good counsellor for him if the situation turns ill.”
“I dearly hope there will be no war ahead of us. We are still recovering from the last.”
“And if it is unavoidable we will fight,” Éowyn stated emphatically. “We will not allow anyone to take away what we earned through so much toil.”
“No, we will not.”
Vlohiri swallowed, hardly able to remain silent. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to calm down. He had been called for so they expected his coming, but he did not want to enter. His cheeks were flushing red.
“Did you not send for Vlohiri?” the princess asked.
“Yes. But the boy could be anywhere.”
“He’ll know every corner and secret chamber in the city by heart before the summer is over. But right now I would appreciate his presence. Ioreth told me this morning that healers from all over the land will gather in Minas Tirith in a few weeks to celebrate the harvest and buy herbs. I suppose the healer you told me about -”
“Lomac from Deromonor you mean?”
“Yes, I think he might come too.”
“Indeed? That would be good tidings for the boy.”
Outside Vlohiri almost cried out of joy, but quickly put a hand over his mouth, took a few steps back before getting to the door again louder, opening it after a short knock. “We just spoke of you,” Princess Éowyn said, greeting him with a warm smile. “Come in.”
Faramir turned and knew at once that the boy had listened to their conversation. Of all things that could be said about Vlohiri he would never be a liar. Faramir let him know with a look, but could not be angry. Deciding how to handle the boy's curiosity he placed a firm hand on his small shoulder.
“Now that you know about the tidings, you might want to know the rest.”
Vlohiri could only give a small nod, too grateful he was for Faramir's generosity and kindness.
Lothíriel had been looking forward to her first Rohirric Midsummer: to host the various riding games like the race and the hunt, to award the winners, to eat and sing and dance with the commoners until the early morning, not caring for tomorrow. Éomer had told her so much about their most cherished festivity of the year. How much it meant to the people, that it was their way of laughing their defiance into destiny’s face even during hard times. Never, not even during the grim last years of the Ring War, had the celebrations been cancelled. It was unheard of. Yet none of the inhabitants of Edoras knew how close they had come to doing so this year.
In the end, Éomer had decided that it would be a bad sign in these uncertain times, and possibly even raise the stakes against himself on the path he had chosen to go. If their ruler was not convinced of a positive outcome, how should his kinsmen be? How were they supposed to trust in his decisions if he did not believe in them himself? So Lothíriel and he had ordered to go through with the celebrations along with all that went with them, even if it seemed to the royal couple to be inappropriate under the circumstances. It had been their duty to the people.
So at noon on June 21st, the King and Queen of Riddermark had made their way down the hill through a corridor of cheering people, despite the fact that there was still no word from their delegation in Dunland. Éomer had opened the festivities with a short, upbeat speech and then proceeded to the ancient balcony from where the royal couple had always witnessed the riding games from the early days of the Mark on. The competitions had been fierce and exciting, yet despite it being the first time for Lothíriel to witness them, she had found herself strangely distracted and distant, much like her husband. They had awarded the winners and runners-up and in the evening all proceeded to the marketplace to light the giant bonfire, the horse and the swan the villagers had built in honour of their monarchs.
A choir of children had sung an ancient song of the Mark while Lothíriel and Éomer had put their torches to the branches and then stepped back to watch them ignite. Watching the flames rise into the darkening sky under the cheering of the people, they had heard the music set in, and it had been dancing, singing, eating and drinking until the early morning hours. It could have been a wonderful night, but the Rohirrim had known their king too well to not see through the unmoved mask he was wearing, and before long, Éomer’s unusual tension had spread like a wildfire all across the marketplace. It had been a strange celebration.
Waking from her contemplation, Lothíriel shifted her attention back to the men in front of her. All were assembled, Elfhelm, Erkenbrand, Gamling and Galdur, to listen to Thor’s tidings. The scout’s arrival shortly before noon had come as a huge relief to all of them, but most of all to her husband. Ten days had passed since they had left, but all the men had safely returned, and while they looked exhausted and their horses’ general appearance told of the great effort that lay behind them, none had been injured. Sending her silent thanks to the Valar, Lothíriel settled against the backrest of her throne to listen. The things she had put in motion were running their course now, and where they would lead them, not the wisest would be able to tell.
“They’re asking what?” Éomer bellowed, and his eyes narrowed in disbelief as he jumped to his feet, too anxious to sit. A flutter of panic raced down Lothíriel’s spine at the sight of the aghast faces opposite her and her husband, and it increased at the sight of her distraught and undeniably angry husband. What were the Dunlendings doing? How could they have done what Thor had said? Did they so not want peace that they thought they had to insult Rohan’s king? How so? Because they had a great army looming in the background the Rohirrim yet knew not of? Could they afford the mockery because they were coming from a much stronger position than anyone in the Riddermark had anticipated?
Biting her lips, Lothíriel’s gaze went to the scout in order to avoid looking at Erkenbrand. What the man had predicted had happened: Éomer was about to lose face if his efforts were met by nothing but insults. He stood with his back against the wall, and what Thor had just said didn’t make his position any easier. It was a horrible thought that in order to prevent her husband from committing a horrible mistake, she had possibly brought him to commit a bad or even worse one. Could she have so misjudged the situation?
Thor did not flinch in the face of Éomer’s anger, even though he was more than exhausted. He had barely eaten nor slept for days in his haste to bring the tidings to his ruler, and his tired, gaunt features were a testimony to the ordeal he had placed upon his own shoulders. His face and clothes were dirty and he smelled strongly of horse and sweat, but he had not lost even a precious minute to bring his news to the king, not even to make himself more presentable. Calmly, distinctly, he repeated his words, knowing fully well how outrageous they had to sound to the king.
“They expect for King Elessar of Gondor to personally guarantee their safety before they’ll come to Edoras for peace talks. They expect for him to greet them at the gate to the city, or they will turn around and head back.”
“What has King Elessar to do with this?” Elfhelm grumbled from the side, his gaze on Erkenbrand, who kept to himself, even though his eyes spoke volumes. No doubt the Lord of Westfold had foreseen complications, but complications of this kind were too strange even for him. “This is between Rohan and Dunland. Why pull Gondor into this?” His kinsman turned around.
“Because they do not trust us. They fear that this is a rather clumsy attempt to lure them into the Riddermark and dispose of their leaders much more easily than it would be if we made an incursion. I must confess that I do see their point. They may be primitive, but they are certainly not foolish.”
“And they certainly revel in insulting us,” Éomer added with a derogatory snort. Anxious, he began to pace the dais, his voice tense. All his instincts were crying out to end this farce right now and join with his marshals again, yet his pride forbade him to give up so fast. After what he had done to Erkenbrand in order to see his will fulfilled, he could not simply change his point-of-view at the first sign of trouble. And would it be too much trouble to send for Aragorn? “Rohirrim do not lie, they should know that. If we wanted to annihilate them, our éoreds would be laying their land to waste right now, and without discussion! Did you tell them that?”
“I did, sire. But they were not convinced. If you put yourself into their place, would this decision come to you easily? To enter the land of your arch enemy only with a small delegation, unable to defend yourself if it were a trap?”
“You certainly understand their way of thinking very well,” Erkenbrand uttered, the first words he had spoken in the council. All stared at him. The scout remained calm. None would be helped if he reacted to the less than subtle insinuation.
“With all due respect, my lord, but that is why I was chosen by our king for this errand. And I will not believe that you do not understand their way of thinking, because you are too much a man of war yourself to not know that the possibility of our offer being a trap is a very likely one.”
“Yet they are not in a position to make demands,” Gamling let himself be heard, looking at Éomer. “They attacked us. We decided to act mercifully in sending them this unheard-of offer, so who are they to set conditions?”
Lothíriel’s gaze remained on her husband. Yet another obstacle to overcome, and one she had not anticipated. The Dunlendings' demands had to be viewed as an insult to Rohan, one that now sat on top of the attacks. Éomer had not been idle while their delegation had been gone; he had ordered their best scouts to undertake silent incursions into Dunland to find out about the destiny of their missing men, yet nothing had resulted from it. For how much longer would Éomer agree to stay on the course they had decided upon before his patience would be utterly spent? Or had it ended already?
“What we need is time,” Éomer finally said, his eyes lowered as if the intricate pattern of the tiles held the answer to all their questions. Lothíriel knew that this was his way of thinking hard. Right now, her husband was unaware of their presence, frantically searching his mind for a solution, while he was fighting his own nature. Some more moments of leaden silence passed until he looked up again, facing the men one after the other and coming to rest on his scout. “And this is what we will do: Thor, you and your men ride back tomorrow and tell them that their request will be honoured – as a unique sign of our good will.” He saw the twitch in Erkenbrand’s face, but chose to ignore the man. “Also tell them that this will be the only concession we’re ready to make. If they come with any more demands, there will be no negotiations, and they will have to blame themselves for what will happen. In the meantime, I shall send another messenger to Minas Tirith with their request. In fact, he should leave right now. Gamling, go and send for our fastest messenger. Tell him to report here for his orders, and he shall be ready to leave Edoras in an hour.”
The Chief of the Royal Guard came to his feet, ready to do as told, but with obvious doubt on his bearded face.
“My lord, we do not know whether King Elessar is even in Minas Tirith! What if he isn’t?” Gamling’s sceptical gaze was hard to bear, as the doubts in the bright blue eyes were the same ones Éomer felt himself.
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it. First of all, we need to get the process in motion, not least of all for the sake of the twelve men they took.” He crossed glances with Erkenbrand and saw all too clearly the man’s thoughts. ‘If they are still alive!’ He nodded. “That will be all.”
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