CHAPTER 23 – Facing the Enemy
After a march in the utter darkness Halamin came to a halt, and Hilberon stumbled into him. The pain in his right arm from the inflicted wound had grown since he had hit and ripped it at the rough wall. It had been the moment he had almost fainted, and only the stab in his back had propelled him further. More blood had oozed out; he could feel it like a worm wriggling over his skin. Now he touched and smelt the hard leather of Halamin's jerkin in front of him, and from behind shouts he did not understand resounded. One of the hillmen was bellowing back, and Hilberon craned his neck to see more. Some feet ahead a torch lit the tunnel and the rocks which had fallen from the ceiling, blocking their way, leaving not enough space for a boy to crawl through. More clamour, angry and commanding, echoed from the walls, and since they could not go on, the strong hand of one of the captors pressed Hilberon down. He sat, leaning against the wall, and Halamin was forced down beside him. A swarthy hand tested if the gags were still in place before the man moved on. Another shout to the Dunlendings followed, whereupon a second and third torch appeared nearby. Two men approached, dragging the unconscious king with them and putting him down on the left side of the path. A short, bellowed conversation followed, and while the broadly-built men moved forward some slender persons, whose faces Hilberon found strangely familiar, guarded the prisoners.
Halamin pointed with his chin to their ruler lying opposite to them. They could see his face in the dim light, but he was still unconscious. Halamin looked up to one of the strangers, clad in a dark tunic and trousers, which were quite simply sewn, but not ragged as the Dunlendings' clothes. The lower half of his face was covered by a red scarf, and the dark eyes did not give away whether it was a man or a woman. From the outer appearance Halamin assumed that he was of the same race as the woman Captain Fáred had shot in Eastern Ithilien, but then he dismissed the thought: What should an Easterling do in Dunland? The stranger watched the prisoners intently, and it was simple enough to see that from this position no escape was possible. Then he stooped over the unconscious king to take the knife's scabbard from his back and hide it under his tunic. Hilberon watched in stunned disbelief, but when the stranger pierced him with his stare, he shivered and looked down upon his hands. What had they gotten into? Where were those men heading for? What would happen to Halamin, Fáred, and all the others he could not see in the darkness behind them?
The Dunlendings carried the rubble past the soldiers, grunting and growling in their tongue. When they moved forward again, Hilberon saw the king stir. From his temple to his left eye and down to his bearded cheek blood had spread and clotted. When Aragorn tried to open his eyes it seemed to be with effort. And once he could see the outlines of the dimly-lit tunnel and the men standing in it he jerked up his head with a cry, muffled by the cloth in his mouth. Hilberon thought the king to be in great pain, and flinched compassionately. Aragorn lowered his head again, raising his hands to his face, touching his temple, but at the same moment realising that his wrists were bound. In the torchlight the young soldier saw fear in his ruler's eyes, but it could not be. Halamin had told Hilberon about King Elessar and the courage and stamina the man possessed. It was impossible to think of him and fear at the same time. It had to be a trick of the light, and when he looked a second time the expression had changed. Fully conscious now the king was surveying the tunnel, their captors, and the barrier which had been cleared away, with keen eyes. Hilberon thanked the Valar that the king was still with them. With him the obstacles would be overcome, and they would all return to Gondor.
The mouldy, stifling air in the tunnel was now, after the hillmen had carried away the barrier, pestered with the sharp stench of sweat and wet clothing. The captives slurred over the stony path, bowing their heads from time to time when the ceiling turned low. They were only moving slowly, resistant to their captors, who pushed them now and then, and needlessly poked the tips of their knives into their backs, growling and menacing, but knowing at the same time that the prisoners should not be harmed. It had been a demand the strangers had made, but the hillmen would have preferred to neglect it since one of their men had been killed in the ambush. Woldro and Url had been very clear: No one was allowed to kill a prisoner. So far the agreement had worked, but with the dead body of their kinsman the lust for revenge grew.
Harishdane longed for fresh air and the clear sky above her. She despised the uncared-for paths through the mountains which were always covered with rubble and other jagged stones, but had quickly learned that it was the fastest way to reach Dunland if one needed to avoid Rohan. It was the stealthiest, too. She had walked it before many times, and together with Asentis, her second-in-command, she was the only one who knew all the secret side paths and hideouts the Dunlendings had discovered or built within the last hundred years. She could follow these trails and always find a place to hide if necessary. She knew that after the seemingly endless darkness, light shone yonder on the mountain, and that they were close now. They would reach the lowest peak before nightfall, and after another mile through the rough surroundings a small plateau would serve as a campsite. She could hardly wait to see it, and yet she did not outrun the group to reach the open range first. Too valuable was the one prisoner to leave him to these unrefined hillmen. They were good workers and, in some ways, willing to listen, but she would not trust them.
The Dunlendings had become aware of the king being awake and had pulled him to his feet. Pushing and shoving they made him walk in front of one of their comrades, ignoring that their prisoner was swaying. With a deep growl the hillman poked the king's back when he fell behind. In the darkness Aragorn was fighting the feelings that desperately wanted to surface. He had to control himself and find out what had happened after the moment he had passed out. He had to concentrate on the way ahead and remain watchful. The guilt of having misled his men weighed him down. He had known about the danger and had proceeded nevertheless. The Dunlendings’ tribal leaders had set a trap for his men, and he had foolishly stepped into it. Guilt mingled with rage when he thought about his soldiers being led like cattle through this narrow tunnel. Again he had made a choice to the ill fortune of his company, and he could do naught to change their fate at the moment. The darkness enclosed him, and the feeling of fear returned. Fear. He must not think of it. For the sake of his people Aragorn had to remain sombre and alert. He must not give into the memory of the threat that darkness and constriction meant to him. ‘Do not fear the darkness,’ Arwen had said upon his leave. He wondered if she had seen his fate, and for a short time the thought of his wife calmed him.
Hilberon felt his right arm again, but the pain that had followed the numbness of the second hit was not easy to endure. He clenched his teeth and went on, sometimes almost falling into Halamin in front of him, sometimes lagging behind, only to be pushed forward again, stumbling on through the darkness. He knew not for how long they had been trudging through the tunnel or where it led to. He wished for nothing more than to get rid of the gag and ropes to fight those men keeping him hostage. Through his fear he felt rage growing. He wanted to do something and not be taken far away from his home in the hands of these wild men. At Edoras rumours had spread that the strange men from Dunland had abducted some Rohirrim for unknown reasons, and some peasants had said that the Dunlendings would eat their captives, but Hilberon had never thought to live through the same ordeal of being shoved around like animals in a herd. He only knew that with the king among them this captivity would not last long. He trusted his ruler, though he had never been at his side during the Ring War. He trusted in those deeds the stories told of, and the confidence Halamin and Tarés had always voiced. They would not fail. They would return home again. Another hard push and a growl from behind; he should move faster, but he just swayed and tripped over a pile of loose stones on the path. A big hand grabbed his shoulder, steadied him, only to order him harshly again. He did not understand a word. The young soldier closed his eyes for a moment, then moved on.
Not more than twenty feet away, daylight could be guessed through the narrow exit of the tunnel, and, finally, Harishdane left the company to reach it first. She climbed through the hole and, halting on a rock high enough to overlook the valleys beyond, inhaled deeply. The sun set as if it was dreading the thick clouds floating in from the south, and orange light covered them with patches of dark gold. But the clouds would not lose their rain over the mountains. Not on this evening anyway; she could always smell it when rain drew near. With her hands pressed on her hips Harishdane sucked in air, relieved and... satisfied. The first part of the always-strenuous journey to her homeland was fulfilled. Surefooted she jumped down one step from her lookout as the Dunlendings pulled the prisoners out of the tunnel one by one, caring little if they hit their heads. She could see Sisune, a rather young woman of her kin, following the first two captives, and as usual, she averted her eyes obediently as was the rule. Harishdane knew about Sisune’s loyalty, and it added to her lifting mood. Bound like this the captives were no more than cattle, and Harishdane could not wait to see the faces of her kinsmen upon delivering them to serve her tribe. It would be a day of pure bliss, a day closer to the fulfilment of their common goal, and, again, she allowed herself a moment of contemplation surveying the row of men squinting into the light. The hillmen made them walk faster since the terrain was clear to see now, and the men obeyed the continued threat though their eyes shot fierce glances at their captors. An older soldier with a mighty reddish beard shoved a Dunlending aside, and the captor pushed him forward even harder, making him fall on his knees. He got to his feet again, willing to take up the challenge again, but the next soldier, younger and rather fat but with more sense for the situation, took his upper arm and signalled him to move on. Harishdane waited for the one to come, and when he emerged from the shadow, held forcefully by Url, who almost threw him on the path, he became aware of her. She stood proud and erect in the sunset, unflinching under the menacing stare of the king. She mocked him with her glance, challenged him, so sure she was that no harm could be done to her since Asentis came after the ruler, shoving the resisting king further on the path his men had already taken. He looked back with a threat in his grey eyes, but she only returned a radiant look of victory. Then the moment was gone, the king turned the next curve, and Asentis bowed curtly to Harishdane before he quickly strode behind the prisoners.
ON THE PATH
Thor straightened, pressing one hand against his back with an unconscious grimace, while his dark eyes swept the rugged landscape for the umpteenth time to no result. Midday had come and gone; by now they had advanced much further into the mountains than they had expected to in their search, and it was well into the afternoon. Only a few hours of daylight still remained in which to find their ally.
At first, the trail made by Elessar and his men had been easy to pick up and follow, but on their ascent, hard rock had soon replaced the last remains of soil, and no more tracks had been found for hours now. Occasionally, their entire group had halted and strained for noises that carried well in this barren, rocky territory. However, apart from birds and a few other animals, they had found nothing moving. Desperate for a sign of life from his friend, Éomer had finally shouted, and the echo had carried his voice through the mountains... to no reply other than the wind.
The men had stared at each other then, the worry in their expressions deepening. King Elessar must indeed be very far away to neither hear them nor be able to answer. That... or something had happened to him and his men. Under the best circumstances, they were close by and gagged, or someone was holding a knife to their throat to prevent them from answering. Under the worst circumstances... the King of Gondor and his guards were already lying somewhere on the side of these mountains, slain and left as fodder for the crows.
It was this image in his mind that brought Thor back to reality and made him take up his task with renewed effort.
In the waning daylight the hillmen hurried their prisoners through narrow pathways, under overhanging sharp-edged rocks, and through ancient and dry gullies which were only wide enough for two men to cross at the same time. The path wound through many curves, through gorges and under arches, and ever again even smaller paths crossed it. Hilberon did not know where they led to, but when he looked back he knew that even if he had been set free at once it would not have been easy to find the way back to the tunnel.
Aragorn had been aware of one of the slender persons who could not be of Dunlending descent a few feet in front of him, and upon seeing the tall woman on top of the hillock he knew who had taught the hillmen to fight and equipped them with the necessary weapons. The Easterlings had aided the primitive hillmen, but the reason was still unclear. Turning his head he got another glimpse of the leading woman who bore an expression of arrogance. She did not wear any armour, but only a dark red tunic with fitting trousers and soft leather boots, and from a distance she had not been recognisable as an Easterling, but he was sure to have seen her figure among the tribal leaders on the ledge. She was responsible for the ambush and the capture! Suddenly and with growing fury he realised that the Dunlendings were only willing helpers, and that the whole time Éomer and he had been looking in the wrong direction. They both should have known that another evil stood behind the hillmen's actions, but they had not pressed hard enough to find out. But what had that woman offered the tribal leaders? The expulsion of the Rohirrim? Victory over their foes? Still the king did not understand why men were abducted if those reasons applied. Aragorn could not determine how, but he would do anything necessary to free his men and end the Easterlings' conspiracy.
The wind sped up, whirling round the stones and over hillocks ahead, on which the prisoners could sometimes see the slender woman standing and peering into the distance. The gusts tangled with her black, sleek hair and billowed her loose-hanging tunic, but she seemed to enjoy being outdoors, lifting her chin and inhaling deeply. The way of the group led over the top of the lowest mountain and then, with the light almost gone, further down again, forcing the prisoners to be careful not to miss their footing, since they could hardly hold onto protruding stones. The Dunlendings did not care, but roughly pulled a soldier down when he did not walk fast enough. He fell with a muffled scream and was shoved forward, while the Dunlending huffed. In some places water dripped from a source unseen, and the captors filled their water-skins without letting the group halt or even sharing the water. Hilberon’s tongue felt as dry as the cloth sticking in his mouth. He was already weary, his feet hurt, and even more pain flooded from his arm up to his shoulder. He stumbled down the steep path and halted briefly at a corner before a hillman rushed him on. The way seemed to be filled with never ending threats and hurts. While he did not know if he could survive this ordeal, Hilberon thought about his father and what he would say if his only son did not return home. The picture in his head showed him a man in grief, waiting day and night at the gates of the White City until he finally realised that the one he longed to see would never cross the Pelennors again. Hilberon pressed his lips tight and forced himself on. He would not make his father grieve.
Halamin looked back over his shoulder, his expression likewise worried and weary. Behind them and the slender woman, who kept a shimmering token under her dark brown tunic, the king was pressed forward. Halamin grimaced at seeing him battered like the others. Though the soldier was afraid of what would happen to them, he was filled with hatred as well. As far as he had understood they had come to these mountains to parley with the Dunlendings, and now they were betrayed and captured! Far behind the others Tarés and Fáred trudged, both drenched with sweat, but at the same time vigilant and determined. The day’s march had been long already, and their captors still pushed them forward, unrelenting. Hilberon followed the king’s gaze uphill. The tall woman, who seemed to be the leader though she was of another race, stared at the King of Gondor, her face a mask. However when her eyes narrowed she revealed her hatred, and Hilberon turned away from the threat these eyes bore. His heart was pounding suddenly, and without knowing why or how, he felt a deep fear as if he could not defend himself against an evil lurking around the next corner; it was as if he were meant to lose a fight for his life. He swallowed hard, and, unbeknownst to him, the group had slowed down. Only with a sharp order from another Easterling did they gain speed again.
At nightfall they reached a plateau amid a rock formation which looked like a mass of thick spikes shooting off the ground. Between these roughly hewn pillars the northern part of the Misty Mountains could be seen, covered now by darkness and clouds. Torches were lit, and Asentis, tall and wiry unlike the rest of his kin, stacked the firewood they had carried with them to kindle a fire. The prisoners were gathered to sit on one side of the campsite, and though they had covered much ground during the long march, the gags and ropes remained in place. The Dunlendings still feared that shouts could be heard by the enemy; for in the long hollow paths an echo was carried far. But Url also did not want them to talk with each other. Had they not said that those Gondorians were dangerous? That they might use their voices like wizards? He would not take any chances. So he nodded to three of his men to guard the prisoners and turned away from them.
Though they were out in the open again Aragorn could still recall the dreadful feeling he had experienced in the long darkness. He could not escape the memory of the two days he had spent in the lowest part of the dungeon at Deromonor. He had seen nothing and had only heard the sounds of scurrying rats, centipedes, beetles, and other many-legged creatures in that room, which had been almost too small to stretch out his legs. His ribcage felt too tight to breathe and he forced his mind away from the impression, concentrating on their surroundings, pretending to examine the wound on his temple while he surveyed the campsite. Dunlendings and Easterlings were outnumbering his men, and since they were armed and most of them unharmed the king's guard would not be able to stand up against them. He glanced over his soldiers. They were weary, tired, and many of them had scratches and bruises. Another wave of guilt hit the king. Had he not been able to look through this plan? Why had he not seen it form in the beginning? The traitor at Meduseld who had killed Grodes could have been one of his own kin! The negotiations had been meant to fail from the beginning. It had been a part of the plan! But still Aragorn had believed that a change of perception was possible. He had been so willing to mediate between Éomer and Grodes that he had neglected the Dunlendings' history: the hatred was stronger than any will to overcome it.
On the other side of the fire Harishdane stood with Asentis and Sisune, both listening intently to her orders. She didn’t need to do more than whisper, and while Sisune nodded obediently Harishdane faced Asentis. The young man of no more than twenty-five winters, who was clad in a dark brown tunic with black trousers and boots instead of his otherwise impressive armour, had been her favourite partner since the plan to deal with the Dunlendings had been evolved. He was taller than the usual male and equipped with a strength that did not show for he was as slender as were all of their race. With warm affection she remembered the fights he had won for her tribe. He had been the hero of the Easterlings’ ritual fight – the scásh - against an older and far more experienced fighter from the western shore of the sea. It had been a long fight, but according to the rules neither of them had been allowed to change weapons or leave the circle once they had entered. And Asentis had finally won. ‘Asentis Henosina – Asentis the Mighty’ they had called him henceforth. Harishdane had then decided that only he would be worthy to stand beside her, and so far he had more than once proved his qualities. Gently the leader’s hand stroked over the long, black hair behind his ear, then touched his muscled shoulder. His expression softened at the contact he had missed during the entire day. He longed for more but knew it was impossible at the moment. Harishdane rewarded him with the hint of a smile for his understanding and took back her hand while she continued talking.
Url growled into his beard that he would not allow them to exclude him, and on his stout legs crossed the gap with heavy steps.
“You tell me, Harishdane, what you talk of,“ he demanded in broken Westron. Harishdane did not answer, but dismissed her followers with a short nod. “Tell me!“ Url repeated. Though Woldro had told him to obey that woman he did not wish to be treated like an outcast. He knew not exactly where the sudden rush of fear an hour ago had come from, but his instincts told him not to take his eyes off the leader of those strangers.
“We will rest only till first daylight,“ she said in her husky voice that was neither a man’s nor a woman’s. “Then we will go on. Some folk of mine await us. Rest now, Url. Don’t let anything happen. Keep the watch tight.“
Url was hardly able to restrain himself from shouting at her. He knew she was lying!
“Aye, we watch. And you?“
But Harishdane had already left.
The fading daylight commanded an end to their search for that day, and both Rohirrim and Gondorians trod down the steep mountain path with low spirits. Éomer stayed on the outcropping he had chosen to survey their efforts until he was certain to be the last one before he followed them. He cast a last desperate glance at his surroundings for a sign they might have overlooked. But yet again, the place did not betray its secrets under his scrutinising stare, and with a brusque motion, the Rohirrim king turned to leave, his face grim and his mind flowing over with all sorts of dark images.
Where was Aragorn? How could he and his men have simply disappeared without leaving the slightest trace? Were they dealing with wizardry here? That his friend had fallen prey to some ill scheme was obvious to Éomer. Even in the exhilaration of the hunt, his friend would have thought to leave some clues behind for them to follow. Yet there was nothing. No tracks, no disturbance of the ground or foliage, nothing that would give them even the slightest hint that someone had used this path, and now that night was drawing closer, the mountains lived up to their name and veiled everything under a thick white blanket again, making it impossible to see until the morning. No, they had to abandon the search for now.
His jaw set and his lips a thin line, Éomer descended the uneven path to the place where he had ordered his men to pitch camp. Fires had already been lit and bathed the atmosphere in an orange veil of flames and mist as he kicked in frustration at the ground, sending a cascade of gravel and small rocks tumbling over the side. Faces turned his way as he reached the camp, but as his men had learnt to read their former Third Marshal’s expression quite well, none dared address him. None except Elfhelm, who was just exiting one of the larger tents in the middle of the camp and strode his way over to his commander with unmistakable urgency on his face.
“You did not find him,” he stated the obvious, yet even so casting a brief glance over Éomer’s shoulder as if to see for himself. “Thor already told me.”
“There was nothing,” Éomer grumbled, coming to a halt, his hands unbeknownst to him clenched into fists at his side. “Not even the slightest sign of them. As if the earth opened up and swallowed them. Curse those Dunlendings! We should never have split up!”
Elfhelm inhaled. He felt the same uneasiness about the King of Gondor’s disappearance, but there was another matter Éomer would have to concern his mind with right now.
“I am certain we will find something tomorrow. They can’t have simply disappeared.” He took a deep breath. Elfhelm lowered his voice, as if he didn’t want for the men next to them to hear. He hated having to bother his brother-in-arms of many years with another grim matter. “Galdur is dying. Tolgor has been with him since you left, and he says that the captain won’t last the night. Even though we didn’t draw the spear from the wound, he’s getting weaker and weaker. It can only be a matter of time until he’ll lose consciousness. If you still want to interrogate him, you should do so now.” He could see that the captain-turned-assassin had been the last thing on the king’s mind. Too much had happened this day, and even the attempt on his own life had been pushed back in Éomer’s mind behind the abduction of the Gondorians. Until now.
“Aye. You are right, Elfhelm.” Wiping his brow, Éomer’s tired gaze swept the camp. Several men were looking his way, their expressions strangely guarded. Had anyone witnessed the assassination? Had someone seen Elfhelm throw that spear at his own man? What were his soldiers thinking? Waking from his dark contemplation, the king gave himself a nudge to proceed. “Let’s get it over with. Come with me.” Motioning for his friend to follow, Éomer strode over to the tent and pulled aside the flap to enter. The thick stench of blood, sweat and vomit greeted him, and instinctively, he held his breath as he took in the small space. Their healer was sitting on the ground next to the cot where the captain had been laid, resting his back on a saddle that had been deposited there for just that reason. Upon the king’s entrance, he stood up and bowed.
“It is good you have come, sire. I fear he won’t hold out much longer. He must be bleeding inwardly.” Both men’s gazes went to the wounded man on and under the pile of blankets. He was looking up to them, but his gaze was distant, and his drawn expression clearly indicated the pain he was in. Sweat beaded his face. Upon seeing the king though, a white-hot sparkle once again ignited the veiled blue eyes, and his lips twitched in disdain. Seeing such open hatred on the face of his once trusted soldier sent a sharp pain through Éomer’s gut. He had to literally force himself to avert his eyes from Galdur to look at the healer. “Leave us alone.”
“Sire…” The man gave him a curt nod and departed. For a moment, leaden silence hung in the air as Éomer paced the narrow space in order to rid his mind of the gruesome thoughts accompanying Aragorn’s disappearance.
“Captain…” he took a deep breath and exchanged a glance with the silently waiting Elfhelm before he directed his gaze towards the wounded man. “I admit it is hard for me to comprehend what happened. I trusted in you to watch my back, but instead you tried to stab it. Why? Because you wanted to avert the peace with Dunland?”
“Your plan will be our ruin,” Galdur breathed, hissing at the pain the words inflicted in him. “It means our doom! Everyone sees it but you! I had to try to avert it at all costs. That’s why I killed that filth at Meduseld! You allowed them to soil the Hall of Kings! How could you? You let them disgrace our most sacred place! Something had to be done, and since you banished Erkenbrand, it was my responsibility. I failed, but at least I die in defence of the Mark! It is an honourable death, which is more than you can expect!”
“Killing your king is an honourable act in your eyes?” Elfhelm pressed from behind, both furious and shattered. He had foreseen something like this, but that it would be Erkenbrand’s always trustworthy and valiant second-in-command… An even worse thought sprang up in his mind, but before he could utter it, Galdur, with his eyes on Éomer, spat:
“Destiny was against me, but someone else will take my place, son of Éomund, and it will be soon! You’re not worthy to be our king! Your father would have been, and you would have been during your times as marshal, but something happened to you when you wed that witch from Gondor. Something that made you turn traitor on the people under your care!”
“You will mind your tone, captain, no matter what!” Elfhelm boomed from behind, but Éomer did not look at him, and when he spoke, his tone was strangely low, not furious as the marshal would have expected in the face of the uttered insults. Squatting next to his fallen man, the king gazed intently into the pained eyes and shivered at the unrelenting disdain he read there.
“You think me a traitor for wanting peace for our people?”
“Peace? You’re leading us to our doom! All know it but you! Have you not seen the people’s faces as we rode through the villages? Have you not noticed how your men look at you? They’re still obedient, but it can only be a matter of time. The marshal tried to stop you, he tried to make you see, and for all his pains, you incarcerated him! You disgraced a man who gave his blood for the Mark more often than anyone can count! You’re a disgrace to Rohan! Curse you, slave of Gondor!” The strength for words left him, and so Galdur, in making an effort at collecting what was left of his strength, raised his head and spat into Éomer’s face.
“Captain!” Elfhelm stormed forth, but was stopped by the king who rose from his crouch, slowly, as if he weren’t fully there. Trancelike, he raised a hand to wipe the blood-speckled saliva off his cheek. The way he moved, Elfhelm thought with horror, he might as well have been hit over the head with a club.
“Leave him be, Elfhelm. He is already dying.” Éomer’s voice betrayed nothing, but the expression on his face was one the older man had only seen once before – in the Houses of Healing at Minas Tirith, when they had been waiting together for the healer’s verdict for Éowyn, not knowing whether she was already dead. Valar, Éomer looked dead right now, Elfhelm thought, his stomach twitching. Deadly pale and wounded to the very core. Utterly destroyed, where he should have been righteously outraged. Éomer swallowed, trying to force his shock-numbed mind into action as he turned to the captain again.
“I take it you acted on Erkenbrand’s orders then, both at Meduseld and here?”
“Marshal Erkenbrand would never order regicide, Éomer-King,” Galdur breathed, hardly able to make himself understood. His teeth clattered, and his body began to turn numb, washing away the agony he had been in for hours. Death was around the corner. The Ghost Horse would come soon to guide his soul up to the realm of his forefathers. “The marshal would never betray his ruler. He’s too loyal for his own good. No, it was my responsibility alone. Your death, sire, is the only thing that would still help the Mark. That, or you stepping down.” He coughed, and a red rivulet welled up on his lips and began to flow down over his left cheek. Breathing became difficult. “Have the grace to denounce the throne before you become the first King of Rohan who is murdered by his own people.”
“Éomer?” Elfhelm had enough. The unthinkable was happening: the king was being shattered to pieces right in front of his eyes, and not by violence, but by words. Éomer had been under enormous strain for weeks now, but so far he had managed to appear convinced and strong to the men that served him, but right here, right now, Elfhelm could see the end of his former apprentice’s mental strength. First the battle with the unexpected turn of events, the assault on his life by one of his most trusted men, followed by Aragorn’s disappearance and now the discovery of the depth of the disdain his people held for him. Enough was enough, and he had to end it right here. Rohan could not afford for its king to lose his self-confidence now. Even if Éomer’s decision had been questionable, the path they were travelling now was too narrow to turn and head back.
Tugging at the younger man’s sleeve to get his attention, the marshal pressed, “You don’t have to hear these insults from a filthy traitor, Éomer. Leave. You know what you came here to learn, and there is no use in staying longer. Let him die like he deserves to without granting him the satisfaction of insulting you further.” He shoved the king out of the tent without meeting resistance, and faces turned their way.
“Thor?” The dark-haired scout had been sitting by the fire, looking their way, and upon Elfhelm’s gesture came to his feet and met the older man outside the tent in which Éomer had just disappeared.
“You spoke with Galdur?”
“Éomer did. He wouldn’t talk with me earlier. Listen, you have been sitting with the men for a while now. Can you say anything about their disposition? For I do not like the glances they are giving the king and me.”
Thor’s eyebrows twitched.
“I’d lie if I said the mood was good.” His eyes went to the tent. “He should have addressed them, or maybe you should, marshal. There were one or two men who witnessed what happened, and they spread the word. The men are quite distraught over being left out.”
For a long moment, Elfhelm stared at the men that were left sitting by the fire, well noticing how they avoided his glance once their eyes met. At last, he nodded.
“Aye… I agree it would be better. But this is the king’s decision, and the king’s speech to give, if he deems it necessary. I cannot interfere with that, and I wouldn’t ask it of him today, either. The day has been rough enough for him as it is.” Another pause, then the grey eyes returned to his scout as he motioned for him to turn his back on the men further back. “Still, it would probably be for the best if we kept watch in front of his tent… and mine, too.” Seeing Thor’s perplexed expression, he added, “I do not believe it will be necessary, but I want to take no chances. One attempt on the king’s life was more than enough. I think I know one or two men of whose loyalty to Éomer I’m convinced, and if you know one or two more…”
“I think I do.”
“Good. Summon them, and then we will determine a watch plan for the night.”
Captain Fáred looked up to the guards and the other men, who unfolded their blankets on the stony ground to sleep. The wind had calmed down, and those, who were allowed to rest, quickly closed their eyes. He counted ten to be still awake, and with a short nod to Tarés and Halamin he indicated what they would do. What they had to do. And they would fulfil this duty without delay.
Hilberon had seen the king being pushed among the soldiers already sitting with their back to the cliff. They were not given enough space to lie down, so they all sat with their legs drawn up. Crouching their ruler had looked tired like all of them, and had grimaced with pain, but he had been watchful when the Dunlendings and their company had settled down to rest. Hilberon assumed that he already thought about the same idea as Captain Fáred. The fire had burnt down, and on the tall grey stones shadows danced in various shapes, sending those off-guard to sleep. Without the wind nothing more than a few whispers and the crackling of the fire could be heard. The three guards still stood where Url had commanded them, and now and then they shot their prisoners hateful glances from under bushy brows.
Halamin nudged the young soldier in his side to make him turn his head. Captain Fáred now had the attention of his soldiers nearby. There was never more than a look and a nod between the captain and his king. Then Fáred pointed to the hillmen closest to them, turning his head only slightly to not wake the guard's attention. Tarés returned the almost imperceptible nod as well as Dumarin and Halamin. Hilberon swallowed. He concentrated hard on not moving his head more than necessary. His heartbeat accelerated. So much was at stake here, and he knew what the captain was up to. It was the only thing and their duty to do it. It would be the moment to prove himself worthy of the honour of serving in the Royal Guard, and also the chance to free the king. Fáred let his gaze wander back to Aragorn, who frowned, his look intent. He indicated that the captain should remain still, but Fáred was confident and would not hesitate to go on. His index finger, unseen by the guard to his left, pointed the way they had come, and now, realising that the captain would not give in, Aragorn gave a short nod. Fáred's eyes seemed to shine in the fire-lit darkness, and though there was danger ahead he almost seemed to smile to himself. Hilberon had never seen the captain so proud and determined. It lifted his heart to know that they would do something. They would take out the guards and somehow provide the king time for his escape. Suddenly he was excited, and the fear that had encumbered him the whole day fell off.
The same moment Fáred was on his feet, quicker and more agile than any had expected. He hit the guard to his left square in the face with both hands, and while the man stumbled back two steps Fáred grabbed his sword and whirled around, wide-eyed and grimly determined, ready to strike the third man on watch and cutting through cloth and skin. The guard yelped in pain. The soldiers leapt to their feet, rushing the enemies near the campfire, pushing hard against those who were not yet fully awake. Some grabbed stones to hit their opponents, some tried to seize a dagger or short sword from them, and within seconds the Gondorians were entangled in fights.
Aragorn rammed himself against the guard to his right and, with the man's knife in his hands, aimed at the next, knocking the enemy out before he could even think of drawing his sword. The king ran down the pathway south through which the group had entered the plateau, fighting another Dunlending who blocked his way. Shouts were coming after him, growling commands in Dunlendish as well as in another tongue Aragorn found strangely familiar. Leaving the unconscious hillman behind, he jumped down a step, and passed through a narrow arch. Tearing down the gag he quickly gazed back over his shoulder. He breathed through his mouth, feeling his heart beat fast. No one was following him. The fire was already out of sight, and he could only hear the punches and blows, the clanking of metal on metal. He was loath to leave his men behind, but he would return as quickly as possible. Though it was unlikely that he would find the path at night he was certain that he could reach the tunnel - and behind it Éomer and his men - till noon the following day. He felt much lighter now. Breathing heavily he used a moment to slow down and turn the dagger in his hands to cut the rope.
It was the moment the pursuer in the shadow had waited for.
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.