The next day saw the Rohirrim and Gondorian leaders assembled in the throne room of Meduseld shortly after sundown, yet aside from Aragorn, none of the council’s participants knew what would be revealed. It had been the king’s call, and all eyes followed Éomer as he entered the hall together with his wife to take the few steps up to his throne.
“Gentlemen, I thank you for your attendance, all the more as the call came on short notice.” His glance found his Gondorian friend and rested there for a moment, before he continued, well aware that his next revelation would stir up a heated discussion among the assembled men. “We all spent the day in the wake of the assassination looking for answers. I have, and I know you have done the same. Yet for all our efforts, I regret having to admit that our search and questioning has not resulted in the identification of the murderer. Whoever it was, he was possessed of stealth and skill, and the very thought of harbouring an attacker of such ruthlessness under my very roof leaves me with much to ponder. Our scrutiny of the murder will not end here, but to counter the plan the assassin was obviously following, we need to act quickly and determinedly. I will not let him win, and I will find him, mark my words!”
His gaze swept over the expectant faces. It was time to reveal his plan.
“It may or may not surprise you to hear that I intend to remain on the path I had chosen before. By tomorrow morning, an hour after sunrise, we will ride after the Dunlending delegation in a last attempt to convey our sincerity to them.” The eyes in front of him widened in dismay, especially Galdur’s.
“But – sire…”
Éomer cut him off forcefully, his glance piercing the Westfold captain and daring him to utter but a single word of protest.
“On the way to Dunland, we will assemble three full éoreds that have been notified already by a messenger I deployed earlier today. They will be waiting for us along the way. If we don’t reach Durden and Woldro before they pass into Dunland, we will follow them over the border and attempt to reach a continuation of the negotiations.”
“But they will attack us!” Galdur insisted, not intimidated by Éomer’s warning. “After what happened, they will see this as a wonderful opportunity to unleash all of their newly learned skills on us!”
“I must agree, sire,” Elfhelm let himself be heard for the first time. Eru knew he had wanted to see Éomer succeed, but it was over. His friend had to realise that. “It would be too great a risk. They would be waiting for us, ready to strike with all the force they could muster.”
“Not to mention how it would look if the King of Rohan rode after these primitives to…” Galdur bit on his tongue before the words came out, yet Éomer had heard enough to end the sentence all by himself. With blazing eyes, he stepped down the dais.
“… to lick their boots? To crawl before them? ’Tis what you mean, Captain Galdur?” His tone was steel as he came to a halt in front of Marshal Erkenbrand’s second-in-command. The older man’s fair blue eyes met his in defiance.
“It is what the people will say, my lord.”
“And it is what you would say, too, captain, is it not so?” Éomer’s stare did not sway from the object of his anger. He was on eye-level with the tall Westfold soldier and mercilessly impaling him with his gaze. “Rest assured, captain, that I am well aware of how the people, and my marshals, think about this particular issue. Yet it is about time that you, and everyone else here, too …” he briefly released the man from his focus to include the others as well “… realises that it is not your decision to make! It is mine, and it is a well-considered decision, not one made on the spur of the moment. I firmly stand by it, and I will neither discuss it, nor will I tolerate disobedience, no matter who it is that thinks he can oppose me.” His glance returned to Galdur. “Did I make myself clear, captain, or will we have to determine yet another man to represent your realm in these proceedings?”
The warrior seemed to be nearly bursting under the pressure of all he held back. Éomer was determined to end this mockery here and now, to either break the captain’s resistance or grant him the same treatment he had already given to a soldier of much higher esteem.
“You seem to think that you are in a position to allow yourself the same bluntness as the former Lord of Westfold, captain, but you are mistaken! I would not have let any lesser man than Marshal Erkenbrand, whose great achievements for the Mark stand unrivalled, speak in the councils the way he spoke. If you, Galdur of Westfold, think you can utter your disrespect in the same manner, you will find out that you are, in fact, a lesser man, and that there will be consequences to disrespect and disobedience! If you are willing to face them, continue in this manner. If not, you follow my orders without discussion from now on, you refrain from sharing your dissatisfaction and your evident disgust with the situation with your men, and you will cease to stare at me in this disrespectful manner at once! Am I understood?”
Long seconds crept by in silence until finally; Galdur lowered his eyes, his face burning.
“And what do you choose?” There was no other solution; he had to break the man’s resistance publicly. The captain had left him no choice.
“I will obey, sire.”
For another leaden moment, Éomer let his gaze linger on his rebellious kinsman, tempted to replace Galdur nonetheless, because he felt uncomfortable with what the man might do once they had reached the realm of Westfold. But then he thought better of it, and before another moment of doubt could overcome him, he pivoted on his heels and ascended the steps of the dais again, for once avoiding Lothíriel’s concerned gaze. Erkenbrand’s second-in-command was an experienced and valiant warrior with great strategy skills and a good understanding of his enemies. He was well respected among the men of his éored, and having him replaced, too, in the wake of the marshal’s banishment, would bring the riders close to rebellion. He could not afford further disputes, and the way the captain stared at the pattern of tiles on the floor now left Éomer confident that his admonishment had broken the man’s resistance. Satisfied, he turned back to the others, realising at the sight of their uncomfortable expressions that his strong words had had their effect on them, too. It was time to end this.
“Marshal Elfhelm, you will go and tell your men to hold themselves ready to leave by tomorrow morning. Captain Galdur, you will do the same. Consult Gamling for provisions and everything else you might need.” His gaze found his counsellor and fellow brother-in-arms of many years. “Gamling, you will see to it that the men’s requests are quickly met. When we leave tomorrow, I shall leave Rohan under your command, and Captain Féofor and his éored as your protection. You have my absolute trust.” A curt nod at the older warrior. “Whenever possible, we will send errand-riders to keep you informed on the proceedings.” With that, his gaze found his Gondorian friend.
“King Elessar, you offered to accompany us if I remained on this path, yet I will not hold you to your word. The path to Dunland is long, and it may be treacherous, and from what I have been able to gather during our conversations, you are being needed in your own land…”
“I stand by my word, Éomer.”
“Then I thank you, my friend. Rohan thanks you. It is a great comfort in these times of uncertainty and hardships to know that our ally stands firmly by our side, not only in our battle against famine. Blessed was the day when Eorl and Cirion forged the strong bond between our people.”
“Gondor, too, has a lot to be grateful for, Éomer-King. We are only repaying what you gave us so willingly.”
“I do not see it this way, and neither do the people of the Mark, yet know that we are grateful for your help.” Éomer nodded in acknowledgement and then turned back to face the others. It was late, and there was nothing left to say. He inhaled deeply. “I declare this meeting over.” He stood and watched as the men rose to their feet. For a moment, Elfhelm seemed inclined to stay until the others had left, supposedly to tell his friend of many years what he thought about the rigorous manner in which he had forced his will onto his kinsmen, but a brief glance of the dark eyes warned him off. Quietly, the newly appointed Marshal of Westfold followed the others outside.
The silence they left behind was oppressive. From behind, Éomer heard his wife leave her place, and the next moment, she seized his hand, pressing it compassionately, knowing what kind of strain the quarrel with his most trusted warriors had laid upon her husband. From the bench next to the dais, Aragorn rose slowly.
“Your captain was right,” he said, looking back. “Your people will not take this well.”
“They neither know what happened here, nor why we will be passing through their territory, and I am determined for it to stay that way.”
“They already know, Éomer, there will be no secret once you reach the éoreds. Word will spread, no matter how hard you came down on Galdur. Not even Elfhelm was content with your decision, and I know that he is the most loyal friend you have. You should keep your eyes open.”
The brown eyes narrowed.
“What are you saying, Aragorn? That my own people would seek to – what, assassinate me?” Éomer snorted, taken aback by his friend’s insinuation. “The very notion of that is unknown to a Rohirrim. Our people have always followed their king, no matter what. There wasn’t even mutiny when Théoden was under Wormtongue’s influence!”
Aragorn nodded, briefly meeting eyes with the queen. Her eyes looked huge in the flickering light, and it was obvious that his words troubled her, even if her husband seemed unperturbed by the prospects.
“I hope your trust in the loyalty of your men is justified.” He felt Éomer’s suspicious glance upon himself and decided not to stress the issue further. If his friend was already in the mood to question even his words, there was nothing to be gained. “You are seeking foes where there are none, my friend, yet it might just be what you will have to do from now on.” He turned to Lothíriel. “I bid you a good night, my queen.” He bowed and, with a last glance at the Rohirrim King, turned around to leave.
Outside the Golden Hall, Captain Fáred halted beyond the threshold. Frowning, he turned to his king.
“You might consider my plea too bold, my lord, but since we do not know what we have to expect in Dunland I want to ask your permission to stay at your side with the Royal Guard.”
“Speak more clearly, captain,” the king replied in a reserved tone. The guards for the night passed them by, and Fáred waited until they were alone on the dais. The sunset was beautiful, but the captain had no eyes for it. During the addressing of the marshals and captains about their departure the following morning he had thought thoroughly about their upcoming journey. And the perils lying ahead.
“It is the utmost interest of the people of Gondor that their king must return alive and healthy. For that reason the Royal Guard was once founded, and I am willing to serve this purpose to whatever end.” Aragorn frowned, but now that Fáred had started the king let him continue. “In contrast to our ride through Northern Ithilien I would prefer to accompany you on your excursions. Dunland cannot be considered a safe land to enter. The people will be full of hatred and may be aggressive. My men and I have come with you to protect you, my lord, not to be left behind where we are of no use.” Fáred searched the king's face for a sign of resistance, but his leader just acknowledged his statement so far. The captain breathed deeply. “And I have learned that sometimes secrecy is more advisable than pride. The situation might demand us to take advantage of unusual methods.”
Aragorn shook his head slightly.
“I cannot allow this, captain. The action of my army and my own are my responsibility and shall not be burdened upon your shoulders.”
Captain Fáred bowed curtly but continued nevertheless,
“Your life, my king, is the one I have vowed to protect… with my own life if it comes to this.”
“Captain, I am honoured by your loyalty.”
But Fáred was not satisfied with the answer.
“My loyalty is granted, my king, but the more I have to stress that this loyalty lies not in weapons alone. I do possess more than my sword to keep you away from harm. And I will take any action I consider unavoidable to stay true to my word.” He bowed lowly and stepped back to turn at the steps and leave for the soldiers' quarters.
Fáred dreaded the thought that his king would be blinded by his own mercy.
He woke early, but when he squinted against the morning sun flooding into the chamber, Aragorn saw his wife standing at the foot of the bed. She was dressed in a silvery gown embroidered at the sleeves and neck, and he realised she had been watching him sleep.
“Did you not rest?” he asked quietly and stood to embrace her.
“It is rest enough for me to be close to you,” she whispered, and when he was about to withdraw, she held him back. “There is no need for an explanation, Aragorn. I already know.”
With a frown of regret he let go of her and dressed in the clothes he had worn on the way to Edoras. Once more he would cast aside the garment of the king he had become to wander again as a ranger of the north.
“I want you to return to Minas Tirith,” he said closing the leather cords on his jerkin. “Ten of my men shall escort you back.”
Arwen handed him his sword and held it a moment longer when he wanted to take it. Her eyes rested with determined candour on his face.
“Wherever this journey may take you, on your way back you will come to Edoras. We will meet here again.”
“Though I would wish for this kind of return, my lady, you are safer in the White City. If you ride later, and the City is besieged, there will be no safe passage.”
“There is no safe place I would wish to stay at as long as you are in danger, beloved.” He cast down his eyes, and she could so plainly read his mind as if he had spoken aloud. “Do not send me away. Prince Faramir is a warrior of great renown. He will make the right decisions if it comes to battle. And the Lady Éowyn will prove herself in the defence of the City if need occurs. My place is at your side, and I will not abandon you.”
He hesitated. There was no way to tell what would happen once they would have entered Dunland territory, and the strength and skill of the enemy's first attack, which Marshal Erkenbrand had described, still worried him more than he had revealed. Finally Aragorn gave in. If fate would allowed they would meet again.
The morning had arrived too soon and after a night of little to no sleep. The light was still grey and the mist hanging in the valleys and Éomer was already up, dressed in the leathern riding clothes he usually wore when he took out Battleaxe. There would be no need to wear his chain mail and harness for as long as they would be travelling within the Mark. No skirmishes were to be expected on their own soil, and so he was storing his belongings in the saddlebags along with his helm, bedroll and supplies. The black seemed to be having another one of his bad days and was fidgeting and shying away from his touch. Adding to his master’s dark mood as he readied the stallion with the help of an experienced stable-hand while his éored waited outside.
Dressed in a simple blue gown and a cloak she had thrown over her shoulders to mask that her outfit had been assembled in haste, Lothíriel watched her husband from the aisle, inwardly in turmoil but taking care not to let Éomer see. A cold, clammy feeling had nestled in her stomach while she watched him fighting with his steed. This was the first time she would stay behind while Éomer rode into what could potentially end in a battle. For the first time, he was leaving her with the distinct possibility that he would not return. Her mind was reeling with the grim thought, yet could not entirely grasp its meaning. On one hand, she was glad that Éomer was making the effort to follow her proposal, to see her dream fulfilled, but on the other hand, she felt guilty for sending him into an adventure of unknown consequences. What if she sent him to his death? Would she be able to live with this knowledge? If anything happened to their king, the Rohirrim would hate her, if they didn’t already. She would hate herself!
‘You should keep your eyes open, Éomer.’ Lothíriel remembered Elessar’s words from the previous night, and they still made her shudder. By steering her husband in the direction she had, had she estranged him from their people? She knew by now that her influence had made her an unwanted person at least here at Edoras, but were the people’s disappointment and anger so great that they would rebel against their ruler? Éomer had dismissed the idea as ridiculous. Lothíriel wished that she could feel the same conviction. Nervously, her fingers played with the little token she had made for her husband, a thin leathern wristband with an interwoven curl of her hair. She wanted him to take something of her with him when he left. Her father had told her once how, long before she had been born, he had hidden in a cave over several days after his troop had been ambushed by Haradrim. Wounded, he had lasted until reinforcements from Dol Amroth had finally found him, almost spent. The thought of her mother had kept him alive, Imrahil had claimed, his face soft with loving remembrance as he told the tale. The thought of her, and a strand of her hair she had woven into a band of similar design as Lothíriel had now made for Éomer. She hoped he would not need it the way her father had needed it back then, but to know that a piece of her accompanied him into the unknown was a soothing thought. Yet still her fingers were knitting the piece of leather ceaselessly as she watched him prepare to leave.
They had not come to Edoras to part The pain of letting her husband ride on yet another journey which could turn out to be dangerous clearly showed on Arwen's face though she tried to hide her concern. Aragorn could not be deceived. He kissed her passionately, knowing they would be far away from each other for weeks to come. He could not make any promises to return soon, and she would not ask for them.
“You knew, did you not?” he then asked her, and she cast down her eyes.
“It was not foreknowledge. I have not been given the ability to know the future, but I had a premonition that you might not return to Minas Tirith in a short time.”
Aragorn exhaled, still holding her in a tight embrace. From outdoors the sounds of the morning could be heard. The soldiers saddled up their horses and the captain's clear voice ordered them to load the packhorses.
“Will we ever be able to enjoy our lives, Arwen? Will it ever be possible to live through a year and look back to say it was good and rewarding? I dread the image that for all the fights I have fought only darkness will await me.”
Arwen met his dreadful thoughts with a small but nonetheless encouraging smile.
“You have to look at yourself, Aragorn. Obstacles have to be overcome, quarrels have to be settled, but only you can judge your deeds. Only you can decide whether what you did was rightly done. If you can look back a year and say that your decisions had been for the right cause – why should that not be reward enough?” Closing his eyes he cocked his head to enjoy her hand at his cheek. “Do not fear the darkness, my love.”
At last, Éomer seemed to be ready to leave as he turned around to face Gamling, his expression inscrutable, and Lothíriel braced herself. It was the marshal she was seeing now, not the king. The warrior on his way into battle, expecting the worst and readying himself for it by storing superfluous emotions away where they would not hinder his decisions. She felt proud of his calm readiness, his decisiveness; yet had she been granted the choice, she would have preferred him to stay.
There was nothing left to say between the two men, and so Éomer simply nodded as he laid his hand heavily on his counsellor’s shoulder, mutual agreement visible on their faces.
“It helps to know that Rohan is in good hands while I’m gone, old friend,” the king began, uncharacteristically informal, but after all, they were alone in here. The éored was waiting outside. “And not only Rohan, but my wife, too.” His eyes went over Gamling’s shoulder to look at Lothíriel. He lowered his voice. “Keep her safe for me, Gamling.”
“She’ll be as safe here as in the Valars’ lap, Éomer. Do not worry for us, only see that you return safely. It is a high goal you have set yourself, but you are the right man to see it fulfilled. Once we have peace, people will quickly see how wrong they were for opposing you. The times may be hard now, but ultimately, your effort will be worth it. Of that I have no doubt.” Gamling saw the gratitude in his king’s eyes and smiled, already moving towards the exit as he knew that his liege would want to have the last moment before leaving alone with his wife.
Thankful for his counsellor’s quiet understanding, Éomer turned to his queen.
She nodded, her voice caught in her throat. This was the moment she had been dreading ever since she had fallen in love with him. She’d known that as he ruled a people who always had to struggle, the day would inevitably come when he would have to ride away into battle, leaving her behind. Inhaling deeply, she stepped forth, and Éomer nodded to the stable-hand to lead Battleaxe a few steps away. Letting go of the reins and opening his arms for his wife, he held her close, kissing her goodbye with a heavy heart and memorising her flowery scent for the time they would be separated. For a small eternity, neither one could speak.
It was he who collected himself first. “I will be back before you miss me, love. I promise.”
“You will not be able to keep that promise, my lord,” she said, fighting to get the words through her tightening throat. “For I am missing you already.” Again their lips met, and already in the middle of the kiss she sensed how he prepared to let go. The moment when he took his hands away hurt her bodily. It would not be right to make it even harder for him to leave. It was his duty to accompany his men on this errand, and Éomer would not have wanted it differently. He was a man in his prime, a warrior by heart, not an old man content with being confined to the security of the great hall. Blinking the tears away, Lothíriel reached into her pocket. Her fingers closed around the wristband, squeezing it, then she laid it onto his palm. “Please, take this with you, Éomer, and do not remove it for as long as you are underway.” In wonder, he held her gift up, at once noticing the strands of shiny black amidst the brown leather stripes. Their eyes met, and Lothíriel smiled as she saw the question in the deep brown, still fighting the onslaught of tears. “This way, at least a part of me will always be with you. It’s a tradition of my family. Once it saved my father’s life, and if things go ill, may Valar prevent it, I hope it will do the same for you.”
His expression showed her how deeply moved he was, before he looked down on his wrist to fasten her gift around it. From outside, the chatter of the waiting riders and the sound of their horses seeped into the stable, waking Éomer from his reverie. Stroking his thumb over the lock of hair, he looked up.
“Nothing will happen, my queen. I promise you that, too. Three weeks from now, we will be standing on top of the hill and gazing upon Rohan, and we will be looking forward to the first peace with our neighbours our land has ever seen.” He exhaled. It was time to go. “I bid you farewell, queen of my heart.” With a last tender kiss, he turned away, as if he knew he would never leave if he didn’t force himself now. He mounted his stallion with one fluent move and spurred the horse into a gallop.
The sound of Battleaxe’s steps reverberated in the emptied stable as Lothíriel stood and watched her husband disappear, the bright sunlight first melting the detail away and reducing Éomer and his steed to a silhouette; then she heard his shouted order and the thunder of hoofs… and he was gone. The silence that followed was deafening.
“Be careful…” she whispered. The way back to Meduseld had never seemed so long to her.
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.