The next morning the King of Gondor entered the throne room of the Golden Hall together with King Éomer and his marshals, who would attend the negotiations. Aragorn and Arwen, who had stayed behind with Queen Lothíriel, had spoken the night before about the behaviour of the Dunlendings. Their habits at the table had been questionable, but the Queen of Gondor would have been the last to complain about table manners. Knowing well that the hillmen were not trained with knife and fork she had avoided glancing in their direction, and her husband had gone one step further by putting down his set of cutlery to eat with his fingers, a gesture the Dunlendings had understood. Only once the conversation had lightened when Aragorn had declared that the delegation would be allowed to take supplies home with them after the parley. The eagerness of Durden to learn about the contents and size of the gift had been cut off by Grodes however. The leader had thanked the King of Gondor the best way he could and then had turned back to his plate.
Now the hillmen already waited at the table, which had been set for the negotiations. Without any courteous reserve they had helped themselves to tea and water after they had already feasted on the breakfast. A pack of human wolves, Éomer thought, wondering whether this kind of behaviour would also be employed during their negotiations. By coming here, what were they counting on getting?
Grodes had brought Durden and Woldro with him, and the three men eyed the kings and marshals doubtfully. Rohan soldiers were placed along the walls, and every move the Dunlendings made was being watched with the utmost caution. So far, Grodes contemplated, they had been treated with reserved politeness. No one had touched them or yelled at them, and yet none of them had been able to shake off their uneasiness. The gazes of the armed guards behind his back were almost piercing Grodes, as he stood up to greet the opposite party in the peace talks. Earlier this morning, Woldro had stated that he would consider himself lucky if they were allowed to leave Edoras unharassed at the end of the negotiations. Durden’s reply had been that he would fight his way out if necessary, but the others had only laughed grimly. Within Meduseld a Dunlending would be dead the second his hand moved toward the hilt of his sword!
“Good morning, gentlemen,” King Éomer said upon reaching the nearest end of the table. “I hope you found rest last night after so many hard days on the road, and even if our first encounter yesterday afternoon still took place in an atmosphere of hostility, it is my firm belief that all of us here at this table will achieve something our two peoples have never seen before. I am determined to make the greatest effort to make it work, and I sincerely hope that that is your intention, too.” He nodded and sat down, his glance telling Elfhelm, Galdur and Gamling to follow his example. Grodes indicated a greeting before he and his kinsmen likewise lowered themselves to their bench, staring at the younger man who had brought them Éomer’s offer. In his function as interpreter, Thor took the place in the middle of the long table opposite King Elessar, who was still standing and looked from one party to the other, waiting for them to fall silent.
“Gentlemen! We have come here on the invitation of King Éomer of Rohan. We have come here to leave the past behind us. We have come here to negotiate for a solution to end the feud between your two peoples.” His gaze found the Dunlending delegation. “You asked for my attendance, so the rules are quite simple. There will be no accusations, no hateful threats concerning times which have passed. If there is a will strong enough on both sides of this table, the future for your peoples will be brighter than your past.” He saw Grodes mumble something unintelligible in his own tongue and cast a quick glance to Éomer’s former scout and now captain, yet Thor averted his eyes, unwilling to be questioned about the contents. “You are here of your own free will, so even in the case that this meeting brings no results, you will be free to leave whenever you want. Éomer-king proved his reliability by letting you pass through his land. It will be the same on your way back. To avoid any misunderstanding, Thor, whom you already know, will translate for you.” He turned to Éomer. The Rohirrim King had set his jaw and seemed barely able to remain calm. The incident upon the arrival of his guests still lingered on his mind, and he found it impossible to maintain his self-control in the face of Durden, who was staring at him with disdainful black eyes. “As the host, Éomer-king will speak first.” Aragorn sat down again and reminded his friend with a mere glance to calm down and begin.
Éomer rose slowly. Long weeks had passed since his wife had first introduced the idea to him of laying down their weapons and stretching out a hand in peace to a people they had fought against for ages. Now that the hour had arrived to let her idea become reality, he thought about his speech. Would the men at the other side of the table understand? Would they be willing to lay down their weapons too?
“Grodes... Woldro...Durden...” He let his intense gaze wander over the expectant, sceptical faces. “I thank you for accepting my invitation and travelling the long way through the Mark, which – to you – is enemy territory. It is a demonstration of trust, which I must admit, I did not expect. By this gesture alone, you have given me hope for a good outcome of our talks, for our two peoples have sought to kill each other for far too long. Never have we been openly at war with each other – not a war followed by a peace. Yet a war it was nonetheless. Raids of one side led to retaliation by the other, and both of our peoples suffered dearly.”
“We know who started it,” Durden hissed poignantly, and Aragorn silenced him with his stare.
Fighting to ignore him, Éomer continued, though his voice was strained.
“The beginning of this feud lies with our ancestors and none of the living can decide who started it. But we who live now hold the possibility to end it. Let us seize it with both hands.”
Grodes frowned and quickly spoke to Thor, who translated in a low voice. Lifting his eyebrows, the tribal leader then nodded and returned his gaze to the king, who paused to look at his Gondorian ally now, his expression growing stern.
“Yet before any offers can be made or concessions be agreed upon, there is one important issue that remains to be settled beforehand.” He held Grodes with his stare. “Where are my men?” he asked, his tone shifting from reasonable negotiator to enraged leader without transition. “Where are the men you abducted during the raids on our westernmost settlements?”
The tribal leader stared back, clenching his teeth. His eyes narrowed, and Durden seemed ready to answer all too eagerly if Grodes would not seize the opportunity himself.
“Have we come here to hear this?” the hillman uttered in his own tongue, and Thor translated. The Dunlending lifted his bearded chin and shifted his gaze to Aragorn. “Is there a necessity to discuss this now?”
Éomer leant forward, his palms supporting his weight on the table. His glare gave away his mood even though he fought hard to control his temper.
“Is there a necessity, you ask, Grodes? I assure you that without that information, you will gain nothing! I demand to know where they are. And whether they are still alive! Tell me and show your intent to work for this peace, or we might as well cancel this council right now!”
Durden snarled something in Dunlendish, and while Éomer quickly stared at Thor to make him translate the curse, Aragorn stood up, his adamant look telling the interpreter to remain silent.
“Gentlemen from Dunland, please, calm down. The question is justified and deserves an answer. Since the king refrained from retaliating immediately, but instead invited you for these talks, you owe him information about the well-being of his people.”
“Was it not said that we leave the past behind?” Durden cut in, glowering at Éomer. The two opponents seemed ready to jump at each other’s throats momentarily. “Shall we not look to the future?”
“I will not repeat myself,” Aragorn answered adamantly. The Dunlending growled, and once again, Thor stared down onto the table, swallowing, unwilling to be even asked to name the insults Durden had just uttered.
“They are not here, and they are alive! This must be enough for now,” Grodes reluctantly admitted, annoyed by the king’s forcefulness, yet also uncertain about how to proceed since King Elessar had ordered him to answer, though he preferred to remain silent. Éomer shifted his attention back to their leader, his eyes blazing.
“King Elessar was speaking of the ancient past. This was a recent event, one that still stands between us, and thus you shall answer me: Where are they, how are they faring, and when will you release them?” He had vowed to remain quiet and reasonable, to not ruin his own plans with angered words, even if they were justified, but the nature of his opposites made it hard to stick to this restriction. Out of the corners of his eyes, he saw Elfhelm let out a breath, his broad face inscrutable. The tension in the room was still mounting, and if Grodes and his men would not comply, the council could possibly end badly. If he hit too hard, the delegation would leave, and he would never see his abducted people again. Yet if he allowed them to keep this vital piece of information to themselves, the chance was that the Dunlendings would interpret it as weakness and try to extend his courtesy to the rest of the parley’s issues. He could not allow for them to grow too bold. It was a fine line he had to walk here, Éomer realised. “Tell me at least where you keep them!”
Picking up the Rohirrim King’s growing agitation, Grodes exchanged worried and questioning glances with Durden and Woldro, and their ensuing conversation was held so low that not even Thor was able to understand a word. Aragorn sat down and waited silently while Éomer caught Elfhelm's look. The older marshal's apprehension was obvious to his former apprentice. In his opinion, the young king was sticking out his neck for everyone to cut it off by initiating the peace talks, and although he stood firmly behind his king, he could not hide his doubts.
Obviously having reached an agreement with his kinsmen, Grodes shifted his attention back to the Rohirrim King, and his voice sounded surprisingly calm and reasonable as he spoke. Thor translated.
“We keep your men in a safe place, Éomer-King. They are unharmed, but we will not deliver them before we have reached our land again. They are our guarantee to return home safely.” He countered the Rohirrim’s glare with a stare of his own.
Éomer set his jaw. It was a trite answer, and for a moment he was willing to shake Grodes until he would spit out the truth, but instead, he took a deep breath and locked eyes with Aragorn, who waited for a sign whether he was to proceed with the negotiations.
“That guarantee was already given by King Elessar and myself,” he stated, unable to hide his disappointment. “You should be aware, Grodes, that your obvious distrust in my given word could be considered a serious insult, but for the sake of this council, I will let it stand and just hold you true to your promise that my men will be set free the moment you reach Dunland again.”
“I will stay true to my word,” Grodes said flat-voiced, his expression unreadable. Durden on his right side did not look content with his leader’s decision, yet remained quiet, and Woldro avoided Éomer's fierce stare altogether.
“It is more than you deserve,” Durden growled.
“More than we deserve?” Éomer instantly fixed his eyes on the Dunlending. “More than we deserve?” His anger flared, and neither Aragorn’s alarmed look nor the vow he had silently taken could hold him back. “Are you saying that we deserved those raids – the killing, the plunder, the abduction of our people? How? By only making you lay down your weapons after your defeat at the Hornburg and let you go unharassed? Or by giving you food when you asked for it in winter?”
The King of Rohan ignored Aragorn's warning.
“You raided our settlements with weapons and fire! You deliberately planned this strike for months, training yourselves in swordplay and organised fighting, or shall I rather say you sought out someone to teach you? You stole our supplies in times of our own need! Tell me, how did we deserve this? It makes me want to spit in disgust at how you’re honouring King Théoden’s mercy, repaying generosity with death!”
“Every time you invaded our lands we paid dearly for the few things we might have taken!” Durden shouted back, likewise standing now, and the guards in the back of the room tensed, ready to jump at the Dunlending in case he made the smallest attempt on their king. “You always took ten for one!”
“Gentlemen!” Aragorn stood up and raised his hands to both sides while the accusations went on, rising to angry clamour when the parties tried to drown out each other. “Gentlemen, calm down!” he repeated louder. He waited a moment, facing the opponents one after another. “Do not break the rules of this parley once more, Durden of Dunland.” The tribal leader held the king's stare. “Or I will make you leave this hall and allow Grodes to choose another of his company to sit at his side.” His gaze found Grodes, and the leader grudgingly accepted with a curt nod. Aragorn turned to Éomer. “I do remind you too to lead this meeting with respect, Éomer of Rohan.” Their silent exchange went on for another long moment, before his friend also gave him the reluctant sign of his acceptance. Aragorn turned back, his gaze wandering over grim-faced Rohirrim and stubborn Dunlending features. “Now that we have heard the answer to the whereabouts of the missing men from Rohan, King Éomer shall proceed.” He sat down, not without a warning glance at both leaders. He would not allow either of them further room for insults and old hatred.
Éomer needed a moment to gather his thoughts and clear his head. The outbreak of emotions had been as needless as it had been unavoidable. He could not recall any lore in which Dunlendings and Rohirrim had sat together at a campsite to share a meal or even water, yet both sides had passed on uncounted stories about the cruelty of the enemy. Taking a deep breath, he looked up again, tensing. He was about to make a proposal that would change everything, but when Durden pinched him with his stare, he was not at all certain whether it was really wise to do it. Indeed it would be far easier to send the quarrel-seeking hillmen back to their land and make sure they would never leave it again. Instantly he thought of Marshal Erkenbrand and his will to oppose him if it came to a peace with Dunland. Éomer had never wanted to punish the old warrior so hard, and if he faltered now, all efforts, quarrels, and personal toil would have been in vain. Thus he began, uncertain, but determined to see it through.
“Neither of our lands is blessed with abundant fertility.” He paused, granting Thor the time to translate. He could allow no misunderstandings now. “We have always had to work hard to sustain ourselves, and in the wake of the Ring War, it has become even more difficult.” Durden opened his mouth for another rebuke, but Grodes nudged him to listen. “Dunland is rough territory… cultivating the land is hardly possible, as it mostly consists of rock and only little soil. Rohan on the other hand…” He looked at Gamling. “Rohan is at least partly fertile, but our people are few. Too few to work the land as it should be worked. Thus it is my decision to grant your people a part of our land on the eastern shore of the Isen to plough and harvest.”
Silence fell over the hall. Not even the guards stirred or made a sound. It was an atmosphere of tense expectation, the moment the King and Queen of Rohan had worked for. Now it was on Grodes and his men to decide what to do with the offer. The tribal leader looked stunned, unsure whether his ears had heard right. Again he asked the Rohirrim interpreter to repeat the words, and when he had heard them a second time, his eyes found Éomer’s in open surprise. He found nothing but truthfulness in the king’s face. Yet it could not be true! He parted his lips, but was bereft of words. If anything, the leader had expected to hear accusations and the order to stay out of Rohan till the end of days. Yet when the accusations had started, the King of Gondor – to his astonishment – had ended them with determination. And he had not only admonished Durden, but the King of Rohan as well! And now… Grodes swallowed and emptied his tankard, needing more time to recover from the surprise and think of a reply. Truly an answer was expected, but what should he say?
“It is a trick,” Durden whispered into his ears.
“A Rohirrim cannot be trusted,” Woldro whispered on the other side.
“He lures us in to kill our people,” Durden stressed, louder now. Wanting for the Rohirrim King to hear him.
Éomer held on to the edge of the table so hard, his knuckles turned white. While he had certainly not hoped for cheers, let alone praise from the other party, he had at least expected some signs of gratitude, all the more since the offer was something his own people refused. Yet all his unheard-of proposal seemed to inspire were more insults! Valar, what had they expected to hear? That he would give them the rule over Rohan?
“We settle, and then your soldiers come to kill us, is it not so?” Durden sneered while Grodes still pondered.
“If we wanted to kill you, our éoreds would be laying your lands to ruin right now,” Éomer rebuked, slowly but surely feeling his restraint wane. He did not tell Durden what else the offer implied: If he would not place soldiers along a Dunlending settlement in the Mark, it would not last a week. “Why would we have taken the pains to send a messenger to you twice in the last few weeks? If we had wanted to kill you, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it – you would be dead already.”
“And how much land would it be?” Woldro, for the first time since the beginning of the council, finally faced the king, uncertain of what to think. He was as surprised as Grodes, but still cautious and on the edge of disbelief. “How shall we know you do not betray us?”
“Wait!” Grodes interrupted. His face looked bewildered and deeply moved. He was suddenly excited; the meaning of the king's words had sunken in. “Let me answer.” Durden huffed, but fell silent. Grodes stood up, matching Éomer in breadth but not in height, but compared to the King of Rohan the man from Dunland looked the way his people were regarded as: a primitive. “Is what you say the truth?” he asked, his eyes on the taller man.
The King of Rohan seemed to grow and his look had never been more earnest as he raised his chin.
“It is the truth, Grodes of Dunland. I offer your people land to cultivate and use of the harvest to sustain yourselves. I offer you peace instead of war. Life instead of death. I want both of our peoples to survive. No matter what you think, the Rohirrim are no slaughterers.”
Grodes wet his lips and stroked his hand over his beard, his mind reeling with possibilities. Never had he heard more tempting words; but words that harboured such great danger at the same time. If he agreed now, he would either lead his famished people to prosperity… or to their ruin. It was the hardest decision he had ever been forced to make, and the impatient glances of the Rohirrim present did not make his duty any easier. No one had prepared him for this. The strangers from the far-off lands had said nothing of this. They had only stressed their demands, and now he stood here, forced to decide over the future of his people. Forced to decide whether he would accept the hand of peace and live by the rules the Rohirrim would set. He turned to Aragorn, searching for help from the Gondorian King.
“You know about this offer?” he asked, and Thor translated since the words had partly been uttered in Dunlendish.
“I know about it, Grodes, and I assure you that the King of Rohan speaks the truth.”
“But you are his ally, are you not?” Durden asked, still warily eyeing Éomer as he sat down. “You would not say that Éomer-King was a liar.”
Aragorn eyed him sternly.
“It was your people who asked for my attendance. You could have chosen someone else to lead this parley so I assume your leaders did not decide by chance but considered me impartial.”
Durden fell silent once more and averted his eyes, but Woldro was not easily convinced.
“It is a nice word to say: peace,” he stated in his tongue, and Thor hurried to translate. “But it is hard to fill with life. How much land are we talking about? How many people? All of us? What will you grant us? And what do you guarantee?”
Éomer inhaled deeply, finally feeling a first, tentative spark of hope. The first obstacle – that the Dunlendings would outright reject the mere idea out of disbelief – had been overcome, but now he had to face them with the details. Seeing Galdur’s stern expression to his right, he began.
“I cannot allow all of you – not even a whole tribe – to settle on our lands, not until I am convinced of your peaceful demeanour.”
“Convinced?” Woldro replied and his bushy brows hit the mass of hair which hung in thick knots onto his forehead. “How shall this be done? Do you think…”
“You are right, Woldro of Dunland,” Éomer interrupted, “when you say that this peace will take some time in its making. We have come so far now to agree that there have been misgivings on both sides. Yet our tragic history cannot be reversed all of a sudden, and I cannot risk to let you settle with hundreds of people on our lands. Not yet.”
Woldro's dark eyes narrowed, but it was Durden who spoke.
“I understand, Horse-King! You expect us to work on the land and then you take away the harvest. That is why you not want many of us to come!”
“If your settlers remain peaceful, more may be allowed to follow. And you should know better than to accuse us of stealing, Durden!” King Éomer closed his blazing eyes, betraying his inwardly raging temper.
The Dunlending understood the unspoken message and bared his teeth in defiance.
“You speak of peace, strawhead, but you think just another way of revenge!” he shouted over the long table and stood up. “You will only be satisfied once all of us are dead, and since you doubt your victory in a fight, you try it this way now! You cannot be trusted!”
“Sit down,” Grodes hissed annoyed and pulled his man back at the sleeve. Unprepared, Durden fell on the bench, but freed his arm with an angered growl. A quick glance at the King of Rohan made clear that their host had the same difficulty restraining himself. Again he had risen to lean over the table, fuming.
“You dare to speak of trust, Durden? You? You have done nothing but utter provocations for the duration of the council, but this is the worst! In the wake of your defeat at Helm’s Deep, we let you go unscathed. We trusted you to keep the cease-fire that had lasted for two years! You broke it! My people died! Who are you to utter but a single word about trust?” Éomer would have liked to spit, but held the impulse back at the last moment.
It was then that Grodes took a deep breath and rose to his feet, silently asking Thor to translate his words.
“Éomer-King, your offer for peace and land has deeply impressed us, but… I cannot deny that we… have doubts. Forgive my friend, he is not able to… understand your offer, or see its possibilities.” Grodes exchanged a glance with Durden, but the tribal leader had already received an unmistakable warning from King Elessar and kept his mouth shut.
“I will grant you time to discuss it among yourselves,” Éomer replied, forcing himself to sit down again. “I did not expect you to come to a decision today. As it will determine the future life of your people, I am aware that it needs time to be considered and viewed from all sides.”
“More details would be useful, Éomer-King,” the tribal leader added thoughtfully, scratching his beard. “How many people? Where? And how do you make it safe for us?”
Since Lothíriel had asked him to leave the path of violence, Éomer had given thought to the actual realisation of his wife's ideas. Now was the time to lay everything on the table to allow the other party a thorough look at it.
“I cannot allow for more than a hundred and fifty people to come at one time. In fact, that would be the most we could let into the Mark, and I hope to have your understanding for this measure. I am certain you would handle the situation no differently were you in my position.” He nodded to himself. “Of course no weapons will be allowed. The people you send should have the skill to build huts and know how to set a field and work on it. Our people can help once special questions arise, but by and large, you should be able to sustain yourselves.”
His face lowered so that Éomer could not see the hillman’s features, Durden growled something deep in the back of his throat, and the king paused until his opponent had fallen quiet again; now that his opposite’s kinsmen finally seemed to listen, Éomer felt less inclined to respond to the Dunlending’s continued insults. He already knew that his next sentence would awake the man’s anger anew. “At the same time, a part of an éored will be placed along that new settlement.”
“Warriors?” Durden boomed. “You put your soldiers around the settlement? So they watch us work and kill if they don't like what they see? You keep us like… like slaves?”
It was getting tiring, regardless of the feeling that the other two finally seemed to be listening. Éomer faced Durden sternly.
“Without my soldiers nearby your men won’t last two days! Or do you think my people will welcome you after what they have suffered through your hands? Didn't you listen yesterday? Didn’t you see their glances?”
“We listened, and we saw indeed,” Grodes stepped in, once again ordering his companion with an urgent glare to remain silent. It raised Éomer’s spirit to see that the man seemed to grow weary of his kinsman’s provocations too. “And we understand that your goal is to protect your people… and mine too.” He swallowed, still pondering on how to decide. “So… a hundred and fifty… They would not bring much with them, Éomer-King.”
“The settlers and my men would help you during the first weeks with food, wood and tools; everything you would need to settle in. But then you would be on your own.”
“But our tribes count more than three hundred,” Woldro objected. “There is no way to…”
“You will have to determine on your own who you send,” Éomer replied in a tone indicating that he would not allow the discussion to be led in that direction. “I said a hundred and fifty, and I will not yield from that number, so don’t try. You speak with your people and send who you want.”
“And where to?”
“East of the Isen, still close to your border. The land is fertile there, our own settlement is half a day's ride away. If you remain peaceful…”
“What’s the price?” Durden cut in poignantly, his bushy brows knitted and his chin lifted, and Éomer sighed inwardly. Had the man not realised by now he was the only one of his people still opposing the opportunity he was granting them? “All that you say sounds… generous. I don't believe generous. I don't trust generous. The Rohirrim…”
“There will be no further insults,” King Elessar reminded him, and the admonished man growled the rest of the sentence in Dunlendish. Thor deliberately preferred to remain silent.
“But the question remains.” Woldro stared at the King of Rohan. “Why you do it? Why you lure us to safety?”
“I am not luring you.” Éomer's voice sounded strained. Never had he thought that he possessed such a great amount of patience as he was displaying today, yet all seemed vain. Could the accursed hillmen not believe him for once? Here he was acting against his marshals and people, sticking his neck out to solve this ancient quarrel, and all they could do was bicker and insult him? “I made an offer, and I will stay true to my word. You can either accept it and send your people or return to Dunland empty-handed. It is your decision.”
Grodes sighed and exchanged glances with the other leaders at the table. Back in Dunland, the people from the far-off lands were waiting for their return. When no one had cared, they had promised help and had brought weapons and men. They had enabled the hillmen to fight… and win! What were they supposed to do now? Wouldn’t the strangers become enraged once they came back, having concluded an unlikely peace with their ancient foes? Grodes read in Durden's eyes that – no matter whether this parley would take hours, days or weeks – he would not change his mind. For the first time in history they had attacked two Rohan settlements and had won so quickly that the lore about that night would be heard for years. Why should they now leave that path of victory for an offer that could be a trap… or sheer desperation from the Rohirrim’s side?
He glanced over the long table into the king’s eyes, trying to read them. He was impatient, yes, and angered by their questions, but at the same time Grodes found an urgency in the younger man's features that puzzled him. It had been the Dunlendings who broke the cease-fire, and yet Rohan had not responded with troops. And the King of Gondor's behaviour did not indicate that he was just aiding his ally to lead the Dunlendings to their doom. For good or bad, he was almost inclined to believe the sincerity of their offer.
“You are not truly considering believing him, are you?” Durden, apparently upon having sensed his leader’s mood, hissed, silently enough to avoid being overheard by Thor. “The moment we set foot on their lands they will kill us!”
“They could have killed us before,” Grodes retorted. “And what about his people? They seemed angered by his decision. He is acting against their will! No one invests so much if he is not serious about his offer.”
“They will control us,” Woldro insisted from the other side. “At best, we can expect to be put to work like… prisoners.”
“But the king is right.” Grodes looked at Woldro. “Their people will kill us if the king leaves us unprotected.”
“You believe him?” Woldro lifted his brows, astonished. “You truly believe him?”
Grodes sighed again. The king on the other side had rested an elbow on the table and was talking quietly to his own men.
“What if he keeps his word?” He faced his companions, willing – for once in his life – to believe the word of a Rohirrim. “What if he really needs people to plough the land? Did you not see when we came here? Much of this land could be set for fields, yet it lies barren! They might have the grain, but no men to put it in the soil.”
“Grodes…” Durden frowned, “this is a useless risk…”
“Yes, it is!” He went on to repeat his accusations until King Elessar addressed them again.
“Are there more questions to be answered?”
Durden shot Grodes an angry glare, not caring what the Rohirrim King would think if they quarrelled among themselves.
“There are more questions,” Grodes stated as calmly as he could, but straightening to make his demand clear. “Many more.”
The negotiations went on, and as Durden had realised at last that he would not be able to hinder their chosen leader in believing the strawheads’ offer, he grumbled to himself, arms folded in front of his body, speaking more to his ale than to his companions. And with Woldro's support, Grodes brought Éomer to reveal yet more details of his plan, further and further overcoming his scepticism and replacing it with hope and excitement. He had the distinct feeling that these could indeed turn out to be historic days. During a break a meal was served, and when they later retreated into the room they had been granted, both parties were left with the notion that something had been set in motion.
Aragorn breathed through deeply and emptied his tankard. He felt exhausted, yet content with the outcome. Having sat the whole day, he filled his pipe and walked out of the hall to smoke and let his eyes rest on the city of Edoras in the evening's soft light. The negotiations had been as difficulty as expected, and yet they had not been ruined by ceaseless slander. At the end of the day, Aragorn had been satisfied to see the first hints that the Dunlending leader had actually listened. He hoped Grodes would accept the offer once they met the next morning. The king considered it a wise choice to have granted Grodes the leadership. He appeared less hostile than his companions.
Blowing out rings of smoke, Aragorn became aware of Éomer's tall frame. The young king looked wretched, his shoulders sagged. The mental strain he had been under for the duration of the day clearly showed on his features. In the course of the council, he had surprised the Gondorian King with his patience in the face of the constant provocation. With the merest hint of a smile, Aragorn invited Éomer to open the conversation.
“They retreated into their chambers,” the Rohirrim said with a sigh of relief, and briefly looked over his shoulder, where the Royal Guard had taken position inside the hall. None of their guests would leave their room unnoticed. Still he could not shake the feeling of uneasiness. To let the Dunlendings stay in his house meant to be vulnerable in the city's core. “I hope they'll stay there until morning, but as they appeared to be quite affected by our wonderful ale, I deem it unlikely that they will roam the hall this night.” A wry smile. “I must say I couldn’t have organised it better. The thought of twelve drunken Dunlendings snoring on the floor leaves me much more comfortable than if they had been wide awake and alert.” Despite his attempt of appearing light-hearted, concern was still visible on his face.
“Are you content with the negotiations so far?” Aragorn asked quietly, studying Éomer's bearing. He knew that the King of Rohan still doubted the path he had chosen to thread, but also understood that he could not afford stray from it now without losing face both to their foes and to his own people. For better or worse, Éomund’s son would have to throw in his entire will and power to bring what he had started to a good end. His position would be severely compromised if he failed.
“I suppose I should be,” Éomer said at length, running a hand over his hurting, tense neck. “Durden and Woldro won't listen, but Grodes does, even if I cannot tell whether I succeeded in actually convincing him. It might show tomorrow. The others will probably try to talk him out of it before the council reconvenes. We’ll see what his disposition will be then. Although I do not know why they even hesitate in the face of my proposal. Never have they been offered such a gift, but yet they are still seeking the worms in the apple.”
“Imagine their position, Éomer,” Aragorn reminded his friend carefully. “Such a generous offer must wake suspicion. You knew that before. And you did not count on these negotiations to come to a good end swiftly, did you? They have as much reason to distrust you as you have to distrust them. They did not reject your offer. It gives me hope that there will be a way to find peace.” He watched the smoke rings dissolve in the breeze before he faced his friend again. “Tomorrow, after they will have talked with each other, we will know more.”
The noises of early morning slowly seeped into Lothíriel’s conscious. At the same time, she became aware of a stream of warm air being blown against her neck in regular intervals, and a weight on her waist. She opened her eyes to golden sunlight, and her hand slid down to find strong fingers neatly cupping the curve of her rounded belly. She held on to them, the feeling of closeness bringing a sleepy smile to her features. For a while, she just revelled in it, not giving a care for how late it was or a thought of what the second day of the negotiations would bring. For a while, it was just Éomer and her, and the thought of the night before deepened her smile as she slowly, cautiously turned around in his arms to not wake her exhausted hero from his much deserved sleep. As she came to rest on her other side to gaze into his face, she wondered how peaceful he looked. Gone was the tension he had been carrying around inside for weeks, gone the worry and frustration, if only for a mere few hours. Valar, what she would have given to see him always like that, not weighed down by the responsibility for his people all the time, even if he would never admit what a toll his inherited duty was taking on him. He was still very young to be a ruler of such a vast land, and in sleep, it showed. Only in sleep, Lothíriel mused, somewhat sadly, her eyes lovingly wandering over the landscape of Éomer’s peaceful features. Perhaps she would see this expression of his more often once his child had been born. Children, she knew, had their ways of softening even the fiercest warriors, her own father being an excellent example of that as the maids she had grown up with had told her.
Her head soon became too heavy, and so she rested it on her arm as she continued to revel in the sight of her fitfully sleeping Rohirrim king, gently smoothing a strand of flaxen hair out of his brow. He stirred, and a low, unwilling moan escaped his slightly parted lips as Éomer opened his eyes. Still heavy with sleep, his reaction to waking up to his queen’s face was slow: A drowsy, lazy smile that caused Lothíriel’s own smile to deepen as she wriggled against him, kissing the tip of his nose and relishing in the warmth of his body.
“Good morning, mightiest man of the land... How is your disposition today?” As an answer, his arms tightened around her and then slid down from her bare shoulder blades to the small of her back. Only now Lothíriel noticed that she had not even made it back into her night gown the night before, and a slight chill caused the skin of her bare arms to crawl. She smirked as she let her fingers glide over his broad chest and looked up suggestively. “You mean you have recovered? Is that what you want to tell me, my lord?”
“It means that even half-asleep, I am ever at my queen’s command.” He stole her breath with a kiss that was at first gentle, but soon filled with intensity as her lips responded to his touch, yearning, urging. “And I will not let my stamina be questioned...” He moved to show her, when suddenly he froze. For a moment uncomprehending what had stopped him when he was almost crushing her with his weight, Lothíriel opened her mouth... and then she heard it too. A distant clamour, voices shouting from another part of the hall, too far away to be intelligible, yet there was urgency to their tone which sent an icy chill down her spine. The dark eyes in front of her face filled with dread while they both listened breathlessly.
“Something is wrong,” Éomer pressed, pushing himself off her and reaching for his nearby clothes, acting with a speed that had been honed by years of experience.
“The Dunlendings?” The voices were drawing nearer, and among them, the heavy drawl of the hillmen’s delegates could not be mistaken. Lothíriel swallowed and gathered the blanket around her for some warmth as she sat up. “What could possible have happened?”
“Something serious, by the sounds of it.” He slipped into his trousers and shirt, fighting with leather bands and buttons as he tried to do everything at once. From outside the corridor, the muffled sound of approaching steps was not to be overheard. The next moment, a heavy knock disturbed the silence of the room.
“Sire? Sire, are you awake?” It was Gamling’s voice, and as Éomer hastened towards the door and opened it, still barefooted, the clamour of voices further back increased in volume and anxiety. The wiry Chief of the Royal Guard looked devastated, and his words robbed the Rohirrim King of his breath: “Éomer, something horrible has happened during the night: The leader of the Dunlending delegation and one of their guards have been murdered... inside their chambers!”
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