They rode eastwards with the first rays of sunshine. The open plains gave way to bushes and tall trees, and the grass beneath them was thin. Soil shone through where the leaves grew thick and kept sunlight from reaching the ground. It was a peaceful place, and they rode slowly. Squirrels rushed up the bark and disappeared among the branches, and Hilberon watched them for a while. Within the walls of Minas Tirith trees were few, and he had always longed for the restricted time his father had had for him to lead him beyond the Rammas. He remembered vividly how excited he had been to see all the wonders of Gondor in two days. It had been a journey to remember though in the eyes of an adult it would not have been extraordinary. It had been for a boy of ten. And he had been grateful ever after that his father had taught him so much about the land and its people. Hilberon relaxed a little. The King had not reprimanded him for his thoughtlessness the day before, and he regarded himself lucky. Fáred had not been so generous. His look would have stalled a wild boar, and Hilberon had braced himself against the captain’s accusations, but none had been uttered. Now he felt at ease with the exception of the king’s behaviour at the moment.
Aragorn hung over Brego's withers and studied the ground. He had done that from the moment on after he had mounted and was unaware of the sceptic looks the five soldiers exchanged. Hilberon worried that the king might be sick, and while Tarés and Halamin talked in a low voice, Fáred and Dumarin stayed behind. Being experienced in the work of war, they knew that they had to keep their eyes open and be vigilant at all times. Often they turned in the saddle and looked back the way they had covered.
Fáred was the oldest of the five men, and he had seen many wars in the past twenty years. With broad shoulders and chest, a mighty reddish beard, and a deep voice he was an impressive soldier and well respected among his men. He had been chosen to be the captain of the Royal Guard, but though he held a certain power he never commanded his men in a loud or harsh voice though his rumbling was sometimes mistaken to be offensive. Only on the battlefield he yelled loud enough to even drown out the enemies drums. Under his command the walls of Minas Tirith had been defended long enough to give its people a chance to survive. He could not shake off the memory of the attack. Haradrim, Orcs, and Ghants had marched up to the Pelennor Fields, and Grond, the biggest ram ever built, had finally splintered the main gate. He remembered the terror the enemies had spread among the soldiers, and even Mithrandir had not been able to lend them enough strength to be without fear when the foes broke into the first ring of the city.
Fáred shook his head, took a deep breath and, again, looked back over his shoulder. They were riding slowly on a path among trees, which were standing wider apart. The view was excellent and far. After the mist had risen the riders were able to see almost as far as the Anduin in the south, while east of them the Morannon loomed. Half a league away a hill spread out, covered with grass, flowers in their bloom, and high-growing dark green bushes. Something caught the sun and reflected it in a silver ray of light. Dumarin tapped Fáred's arm.
Aragorn lifted his head, too, but the reflection was gone the same moment. He turned to Dumarin, who quickly told him what he had seen. The king dismounted and the others followed.
“We may be watched,” Aragorn said still looking toward the hillside ahead of him. “We will find out tonight.” Without another word he trudged on, quickly now, and those who knew him as ‘Strider’ would have said he honoured this name he had once been given. But instead of walking directly east, he deviated north to move around whatever kind of man stayed there. Though he could no longer follow the tracks on the grass he hoped to remain unseen and get a chance to close in at nightfall. When he looked back over his shoulder he saw four stern faces and insecure one. Hilberon had not dared to speak or even look at the king since his suggestion to build up the tent the day before, and so Aragorn had given him time to get comfortable again. Hilberon had not spoken with any of the other men, but kept his guard as trustful and on alert as the others. Still he behaved as if he was walking on a knife's edge.
Aragorn let his gaze wander east again. Only with elven eyes he and his men could have been spotted in the wilderness, and now that they had dismounted they were even smaller. But the winds came from the west, and any creature with a better sense of smell than men would catch their scent. He hurried even more and soon heard the grunting of the guards behind him. Used to sit on a saddle the soldiers rode in chain mail and cuirass, pauldrons, and greaves, a habit Aragorn never had taken up. The vambraces he had kept from Boromir were the only protection he wore. He was used to travel light, having done so for many years while trudging the lands in the north and far to the east. Now it was as much his advantage as it was to the disadvantage of his company. Only Hilberon followed without complaints, strong enough in his youth to take up whatever challenges the journey provided. Aragorn smiled at him briefly, but the young man dared not to return it. He even lowered his head and evaded the friendly gesture. The king sighed inwardly. Hilberon had not been a man recommended by Fáred. The old warrior preferred experienced men in his company and had proposed Tindalon who was known for his bravery. Fáred had hardly been able to conceal his disappointment when Aragorn had chosen Hilberon instead. But he could not keep quiet about it. While saddling up he had again spoken for Tindalon. ‘He is much wiser and knows far more than that young lad. He has only seen seventeen winters yet.’ But Aragorn had fastened the bridle and stated, ‘Last time I saw Tindalon he was not aware of anything else but his mug of beer.’ Then Fáred had said no more.
The group slowed down again after half an hour, and Dumarin sighed with relief. He was the heaviest of them, and though they all were only wearing light armour without the hauberk and other protections it was a strain to do more than walking. But he kept his thoughts strictly to himself, and though he was sweating like he had not since the days of war he would never have dared to complain. He followed the king, and if the lord had run for another hour he would have run too, as long as his stout legs would have carried him. Dumarin knew his duties well. And these duties included the defence of the king against every kind of danger that might occur, may it be men or beast. But with three men and, alas, an apprentice it would not be an easy task if more was about to happen than a mere flicker of light on a hill.
To access the hillside from the north it was unavoidable to pass the outer rim of the Nindalf. Midges by the thousands swarmed the warm and humid air, tormenting the wanderers on their way. The soil grew soft, and more often than not their boots stuck in the mud. Dumarin cursed silently. This was no place he longed to be in, and not for the first time he asked himself why the king had decided to ride out on his own when he had captains to do this. Which might not have spared himself from leaving the City, he thought. Life in Minas Tirith during the summer was a pleasure compared to this slimy mud hole. In the City music reigned, it was never too dry or too humid, and the streets were nice to walk on. In the old days of Denethor’s reign Dumarin never had to run far on his errands, and he thought it was quite a pity that the old man was deceased.
Fáred stared northwards where big black birds were circling. Aragorn had seen them too, but suddenly gave his men a sign to come to a halt. He crouched and examined the ground. This time Hilberon stayed well behind him, just looking upon the tracks the king had found, but without understanding them.
“Five men marched here, from east to west,” Aragorn muttered and turned his head. “They were in haste.” He rose and followed the footprints to the west while his horse fidgeted and stepped sideways to avoid sinking in the mud again. “They had light steps. Either they did not carry much weight or they were only little taller than children.” He took a deep breath and turned to his men. “How far away is the next farm?”
“More than a day-ride south, my lord,” Halamin said. “No one settles here. It's no soil to grow wheat on.”
Aragorn had already turned back to the footprints. They could have been three or four days old and would have filled with water and vanished if they had been deeper. The soles bore no mark, but they had all worn the same sort of boots and marched in single file. Again the king let his gaze wander westwards. The Nindalf extended to the horizon and partly consisted of swamp fields, an unpleasant terrain to walk upon and pestered by midges and other insects. But whoever had used this way knew that he could do so without being detected.
“We will follow these tracks eastwards,” he decided and took Brego's reins again, his eyes still fixed on the wet ground where he trudged on. He seemed undisturbed by moisture, heat, or midges while Fáred blew air over his forehead hearing Dumarin panting behind him. He felt sick marching through these lands. In the dampness the air was filled with strange stenches of rotting plants and foul water, animals crawled through the muddy soil, their feet splashing through the water. Though he had only heard of the Dead Marshes he thought he was already too close to it. It was told that dead people were in these waters, and he shivered at the mere thought. Here now he would have preferred to hurry, but the king took his time trying to read the signs and find their meaning. Grudgingly Fáred moved on behind him.
They marched on well until after noon, did not stop to rest or eat, did not linger to watch the black birds which seemed to feast upon something lying among the plants. They only heard their croaking all of the time as if they were mocking them. It was straining their nerves. Hilberon felt uneasy in this strange land. He had never been far away from the City. His father was one of the smiths, a tall and hard man who was used to deliver quality work and demanded the same of everyone else. Hiregon was a good worker and his name was well known and recommended in the City since he had not only the skill to hammer horseshoes, but could also forge swords. Under his guidance, for his mother had died when he was but a small child, Hilberon had grown up learning all about swords, knives, axes, and horseshoes. He had been able to judge a horseshoe's size correctly when he was eight, and the soldiers knew him well and always tousled his hair when they brought in a horse to shoe. When he was only ten years he had learned how to throw a dagger into the middle of a target, and when he had turned fourteen he had been a better man to wield a sword than others of his age, not to mention his ability to distinguish between a good blade and a poor. But Hiregon had also taught him to be a decent young man, to tell the truth and never stand back when bravery was needed. He encouraged him to search for higher goals than being a smith. And perhaps because he had been too young to fight in the Ring War Hilberon decided to become a soldier and use the sword his father had given him for the right cause. But the road to become a soldier was covered with obstacles. Wherever he went and whatever he did he was judged to be too young and inexperienced. He took those judgements without contradiction for in his heart he knew he was better than the older soldiers thought. Still he had been surprised and speechless when he heard he had been called to be a soldier of the Royal Guard, the youngest ever to be chosen. The task seemed too great to master and again his father had taken him aside and told him to follow the rules he had learnt and use the skills he had acquired. With a slap of his mighty hand on his shoulder Hiregon had sent his young son to greater tasks than running around Minas Tirith for errands. Straightened up Hilberon had accepted the work given, but again felt his heart beating faster when he got to know that the king himself had chosen him and now ordered him to ride out with only four more men. Only the pride of his father, who almost had tears in his eyes upon hearing the news, had made him take the challenge.
Now he was walking behind the king and hoped that he would fulfil the expectations both his father and the lord had laid upon his shoulders.
Life seemed to grind to a crunching halt as they walked down the dusty path into the city, with people stopping in their tracks or pausing, no matter what they were doing, to glance at the rare sight of the royal couple. Their expressions were joyful and friendly, but still Lothíriel could not help tensing at being the centre of attention, and the pressure of her fingers digging into his arm alerted Éomer of his wife’s state of mind. The blacksmith and his helper, who had been in the middle of leading a heavy-boned horse into one of the stalls, now stood and looked their way in expectation. Nodding his appreciation to them, Éomer turned his head to brush his lips over Lothíriel’s cheekbone and then whispered into his queen’s ear.”
“No need to be so tense, my lady. They are merely relieved to see you well, nothing more.” Steering his wife over to the smithy for something to distract her anxious mind with, he said aloud: “Bergfinn, my friend…! Whose horse is that you are leading there? It must be absolutely the heaviest beast I have ever seen! Can it even run?”
The old blacksmith laughed and desperately clapped his hands against the sides of his leathern apron to clean them, while his young helper looked intimidated at the arrivals and anxiously concentrated on tying the horse’s halter to a beam.
“It is Soldrás’ steed, my lord, and he would be very upset to hear that his strongest plough-horse has become the source of the king’s ridicule!”
“Aye, it certainly looks strong enough to draw Meduseld from its foundations. Maybe I should apologise to it then, do you think?”
Bergfinn smirked. The young king appeared to be in an exceptionally good mood today. That was well, because he knew Éomer’s other moods, too. If he was in one of those and one was the justified object of the king’s anger, that person was well counselled to hide in a very dark place and hope not to be found.
“I would indeed deem it appropriate, sire.”
“What is his name?”
“Cempa, my lord.”
“Cempa? Champion?” Éomer raised a brow at that as he mustered the broad, heavy animal, which ignored him completely. “A fitting name for one so strong, I deem.” His hand landed heavily on the horse’s brown hide, stirring up a mighty dust cloud. “My apologies, Cempa. I knew not of who I was talking.” His brow furrowed as he noticed his queen’s strangely contorted face. “Lothíriel?”
Her violent sneeze interrupted him and caused the men to look the young woman in wonder before Éomer grinned.
“Now, that was finally a sneeze worthy of a true Rohirrim, my queen! Not one of those suppressed little gagging sounds that always made me wonder whether you were getting enough air! We may make a true woman of Rohan of you yet!” Laughing at her indignant expression, he took her in his arm. “I am sorry, my lady. It was not my intent to do that... or to mock you.”
“You think that is funny, my lord?” she retorted, freeing herself of his grasp and clapping her delicate hand on Cempa’s muscular hindquarters, stirring up a dust cloud herself which was aimed at her husband. Éomer, however, was not disturbed by it, and the amused sparkle in his eyes teased her silently. Apparently, he had succeeded for now to let her forget her thoughts of woe.
“I believe you could stick an entire horse up his majesty’s nose and he still would not sneeze, my lady,” Bergfinn laughed, his weathered, tanned face looking like old leather. “Your husband truly is a real horse-lord.” A cautious look at Éomer. “I hope you will not take this as an insult, Sire, but there has been talk among the people that you must be part horse, in fact, for your way of handling and understanding them is quite unique even for our people.”
Now it was Lothíriel’s turn to laugh, while Éomer looked as if he was unable to decide whether he should join in or feel insulted. After all, it had been a compliment… a very Rohirric one, and one which only the old smith he had known since his childhood could have dared to utter, but a compliment nonetheless. And it had managed to cheer up his queen, as well.
“You have no idea how right you are, Bergfinn,” Lothíriel smiled, slowly warming to the playful banter, while she gently patted Éomer’s arm. “You should see him with this huge, black beast he’s been trying to tame for months now! If I didn’t know any better, I would have sworn they were twins! They certainly share more than just a few character traits!”
“Lothíriel!” Éomer’s eyes sparkled, but his anger was only acted. She saw that and understood. Even though they had been married for only slightly less than a year, she had quickly learned to read her husband’s moods, a task that – due to his very Rohirric nature, truthful bordering on bluntness – was not too hard to accomplish most of the times. Only rarely had she seen him trying to conceal his real thoughts, usually when he wanted to keep troubles away from the people that came to the court asking for things he could not give them, or reported sightings of things that troubled him.
“But, my Lord, is it not the truth?” she asked, innocently batting her eyes. “After all, Battleaxe is the strongest and most intimidating one of his kind… “ She turned her head and whispered into his ear for only him to hear: “...and also the best-looking one, there can be no doubt about it. All things which remind me very much of you, my dear husband.”
“Very elegant, my lady,” Bergfinn laughed, turning to the king, who sternly eyed his playful wife from under his eyebrows. “And how truly wonderful it is to see you in such a joyful state. There had been quite a few concerns regarding your well-being over the last few weeks, but apparently, you are feeling quite a lot better today.”
“Yes indeed,” Lothíriel replied, feeling slightly embarrassed over having caused these hearty, open people concern for no good reason. “Thank you very much, good man. And how should it be different on such a fine day?”
“Indeed.” Éomer felt likewise enchanted to see his wife in such a cheerful state, even if he was unable to tell how much of it was real. After all, she had been crying in his arms only a short while ago. But at least she was making a good effort. He was grateful for that. He did not want for the people to talk about Lothíriel behind his back, and of course her strange behaviour had stirred up all kinds of questions. If even he had been unable to understand her melancholy and need for seclusion, how were his people supposed to? Stealing her arm back, he steered her back towards the path. “It looks to me as if we are keeping our only blacksmith from performing a very important errand for the people of Rohan, my queen. Let us be on our way and no longer disturb this man’s peace.”
“Has she seen it yet, my lord?” The old man blinked conspiratorially, causing Lothíriel to wrinkle her brow and peer at the man at her side.
“I am in the process of showing it to her. Don’t spoil the surprise, or I might just have to...” Éomer pretended having to think about a very harsh punishment for such a despicable crime. “I don’t know... throw you in the dungeon until Midsummer has passed to keep you from running around ruining yet more people’s surprises?” He blinked. “I’d say that horse is getting impatient having to wait for your service, blacksmith. Better see to it before it decides to leave and draw the entire smithy down the hill! I would be loath having to walk all the way to the bottom each time I need your service!”
Bergfinn bowed and laughed.
“Aye, my lord! We cannot let that happen, can we?” He turned towards the shy young lad helping him. “What are you standing there, swallowed up on your tongue, Folgard? The king and the queen will not eat you if you greet them!”
The youth flushed to a deep crimson and lowered his head, muttering something neither Lothíriel nor Éomer understood, and looked impossibly relieved when Bergfinn sent him into the smithy to fetch their instruments, shaking his head to himself.
“You must excuse that lad, my lord. He usually dwells in one of the more rural settlements in the Eastfold and has only been here for a few days to learn the craft. The surroundings still intimidate him. He did not mean to be rude.”
“I know how he feels,” Lothíriel sighed, tugging at Éomer’s arm. “My husband can be a very imposing presence. Even I am still awed by him on occasion.” She met his eyes and saw that he had understood her loving ridicule. “Now, please, my lord, can we go and look at the surprise you have for me? I do not feel comfortable with the thought of everyone knowing about it except me.”
“I suppose we should go and heal this condition, then?” Éomer teased further, immensely enjoying his wife’s playful mood.
“Aye, my king. I would like that very much.”
Éomer gave a curt nod to the blacksmith before he steered Lothíriel further down the path for good.
“You must excuse me now, Bergfinn. Urgent matters of the state call me to duty.”
“Don’t they always, my lord?” the smith smirked, turning to mind his business again, too. “I wish you a wonderful day... and you too, my queen. It was wonderful to see you again.”
His little ploy had worked even better than he could have hoped for, Éomer mused as they walked down the slope arm in arm, with people greeting and smiling at them wherever they went. With each step that they took, he felt Lothíriel relax, until the unexplainable tension had entirely left her and she smiled back graciously at the folk, accepting their good wishes and apparently enjoying herself very much. They had almost reached the bottom of the hill now, where most of the huts and little businesses were and the path led towards the broad marketplace, which was crowded with people. Children shouted and charged through the narrow alleys playing and duelling with their wooden swords. A group of them nearly ran into the royal couple in their pursuit of the supposed evildoers, with one of the lads stumbling and landing on his stomach in the dirt.
“Oh my,” Lothíriel laughed and bowed down to lend the boy a hand in getting up. “Your horse has thrown you! Quick, see that you catch him again!”
“Thank you, my lady,” the lad beamed as he wiped a dusty hand over his sweaty brow, dirtying it up even more in the process. From the other side of the path, his friends stood and observed, grinning, as he charged with a battlecry after them. Lothíriel’s eyes followed them until they disappeared behind the next corner. With the Valars’ help, her own child would run around playing such wild games with the others in a few years. She smiled at the thought and felt Éomer’s pleased gaze on herself. Joyfully, she squeezed his arm to let him know that she had noticed his attention... and to tell him that his idea of taking her along to show themselves to the people had been a good one.
“Éomer?” she breathed, wanting to tell him how glad she felt in this moment, when they reached the vast marketplace, and in the middle of a ring of stones stood something that made the queen’s eyes widen in awe. “Oh, Éomer... It is absolutely beautiful!” Lothíriel let go of his arm to approach the great pile of twigs and branches, still green and elastic because they had been cut only three days ago. They had been bent into two shapes with the help of white and golden bands: a rearing horse and a swan with spread wings and a proudly arched neck, easily three to four times man-sized. Eager to examine the work of art from all sides, Lothíriel slowly walked around it in a circle, occasionally sticking out her hand to touch the wonderfully worked curves, while Éomer stood back and smiled to himself, satisfied over seeing his young wife so animated. From the corners of his eyes, he noticed how the people around them had stopped to wait for the queen’s judgement for their work.
“Does this mean you like it then, my queen?”
Her dark eyes sparkled, and even from a distance, Éomer could see how touched Lothíriel was by this simple gesture.
“It is wonderful!” Her gaze wandered upward to the horse’s head. “What shall we do with it once the celebration is over? Build it up on the backside of the Hall, or leave it here?”
“We will burn it,” he said instead, throwing her off. “There will be nothing left of it to build up anywhere.” The stunned look she gave him was almost amusing, but he knew better than to let it show. There was nothing he could have done anyway. Even kings were well advised to keep the traditions of their people unchanged.
“But that would be a crime!”
He shrugged, very aware of the bemused looks of the onlookers behind them.
“It’s a tradition. For good luck.”
“Another tradition?” Her eyes still on the figures, Lothíriel slowly walked back to him. “I realise that I was not aware what a superstitious kind the people of this land really are.” She shook her head in objection. “This is far too beautiful to be burnt.” Her gaze went into the on-looking crowd and fixed on an older woman who regarded her with a gentle, knowing smile on her weathered, wrinkled face. “Is there anyone here of the artists who built this?”
The woman nodded.
“Aye, my queen. Most of the people here had a hand in this.”
“And you would really want to see this beautiful piece of work burn?”
The smile broadened.
“Aye... it will make a lovely bonfire. And a very special one, too, to celebrate the first year of our rulers’ union.” Lothíriel seemed at a loss for words as she turned around again to look at the statue of twigs, as the woman continued: “We could make you another one, Highness, if you like it so much. One that we will not burn.”
The queen turned back.
“Would you, good woman? I would be much obliged to you. What do you say, my lord? Where should we keep it?”
Éomer raised an eyebrow at the unexpected turn of events and opened his mouth for a reply, but before he could utter a sound, horns rang out from the front gate and a voice cried out:
“It’s the Lord Erkenbrand! Open the gate!”
Erkenbrand? Erkenbrand? Unexpected as a thunderclap out of a clear blue sky, the cold hand of fear seized Éomer’s stomach. This had to be a mistake! The guards must have had mistaken the older warrior for someone else! What business would the Lord of Westfold have at Edoras at this time of year, except… bringing bad tidings?! No! No, it could not be true! His kingdom was still on its knees in the aftermath of war, they could not afford yet another conflict!
“Éomer?” The pressure of Lothíriel’s hand on his arm told him that his wife was feeling the same anxiety. Suddenly, the air seemed too thick for breathing as the sound of a group of riders approaching the marketplace from the gate reached them. “What could he be doing here?”
“I cannot say,” he mumbled without looking at her, his throat almost too tight for his words as he slowly, like in a bad dream, stepped into the centre of the place. He had been through this kind of experience so often since his youth that he already knew what was to follow. Life in the Mark had been like this since he could remember. You were enjoying life for a limited amount of time; weeks, sometimes even months with nothing bad happening, allowing yourself to be lulled into a false feeling of security and to lower your guard, only to have reality hit you over the head with all brutality. There would never be a time when life in Rohan would be entirely safe. Never.
As the royal couple and their kinsmen still looked on, the riders came into view. Their sight was an even worse sign of trouble than what Éomer had anticipated and caused his skin to crawl: A group of five riders, led by Erkenbrand, burst from the narrow ally into the marketplace in a swift trot that looked forced nonetheless. Their horses were lathered in foam and Héfalas, the marshal’s grey stallion, confirmed in his red-veined eyes and sweat-darkened hide that they had been ridden to the point of exhaustion as they stumbled into view behind him. Their deep breaths and the shingling and creaking of their riding gear filled the leaden silence with an unnamed dread. All of a sudden, a black cloud seemed to hang over the marketplace. Something very bad had happened. Telling Lothíriel to stay back for he knew for Héfalas to be a difficult animal only his master could entirely trust, Éomer stepped forth to seize the grey’s bridle.
“Marshal Erkenbrand?” Sweet Eru, the man looked ready to collapse right along with his steed! “What brings you to Edoras? What has happened?” The faces of Erkenbrand’s men – sweat-beaded, hollow-eyed, grim - chased a shudder down his spine. The tension became unbearable as Éomer prepared for the worst. Erkenbrand’s weathered, lined face turned to him as the oldest marshal of the Mark brought his snorting horse to a stand.
“My apologies for bursting into your preparations like this, Éomer-king, but I bring bad tidings. Four days ago, a great host of Dunlendings crossed the River Isen and raided the two nearest settlements, stealing their provisions and stock. We lost eighteen men. We managed to throw them back, but only with great difficulties. The Westfold is burning, Éomer-king. War is upon us again!”
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.