39. Back to Edoras
Chapter 39 – Back to Edoras
No attack had taken place, no bargain been concluded, and when the morning waned, Ridasha finally believed that the King of Rohan would stay true to his promise of not granting the Dunlendings their revenge by killing the Easterling captives. Her friends and fellow tribesmen and women had lived in fear finally for the last night, she hoped. She looked around. The mist had not yet risen, and it was cool on the ground. Pulling the blanket tighter around her, Ridasha watched the soldiers prepare for the crossing of the Isen. She had never before been close to the mighty river that divided Rohan and Dunland. The richness of grass and bushes, of trees reaching high up to the sky impressed her, and she walked down to the water. Already the first horses were being led through the ford, and she watched the soldiers ahead on the other side. Through the mists, the shapes of many horses and tents could be seen, and shouts of welcome echoed through the continuous sounds of the river running westward. Ridasha shivered and wrapped herself tighter in the cloth. Éomer-king had forced her to reveal the conspiracy, but from the parley she knew that this alone would not be a sufficient verdict for her people. What else lay ahead? Her gaze strayed along the river's edge. The young soldier, who had so courageously thrown himself against Asentis, was filling his water-skin, holding the reins of his already saddled horse beside him. It was a mighty steed he had to handle, and when she moved closer, the horse thrust his head and snorted, drawing the young man's attention to her. She halted immediately and turned back to the campsite. She knew she should be glad to be still alive after the frightful evening her kin had lived through, but her fear remained a silent and oppressive guest in her mind.
A part of the éored was ordered to remain at the fords to secure the shore until the last decisions concerning the Dunlendings' possible settling in Rohan would be made. Shortly after sunrise, the main host moved on into the Westfold and stopped around midday at one of the settlements which had been raided by the hillmen. The people had already started to repair their huts, but the remnants of the assault were still painfully obvious, the stench of burnt wood lingered in the air, and the fences were mostly empty. And while the peasants stared in surprise at their ruler and the strange group accompanying him, the riders dismounted, gathering the Easterlings in the centre as before. The strangers looked fearfully at the rough-looking inhabitants, who rewarded them with angered glares once a soldier revealed in curt, whispered words their role in the raids.
On his makeshift crutch Éomer limped to one of the huts, and his people along the way bowed to him. Ready to aid his king, Elfhelm stayed at his side, only once briefly glancing over his shoulder to where King Elessar was asking the high priestess and Ridasha to follow him. Carefully, the King of Rohan lowered himself onto a stool and, when he was able to breathe again against the agony, called the chairman of the settlement to him.
"Your settlement suffered a lot, Fárlaf," he addressed the old man opposite him. "Supplies have already been sent your way, but that will not be all. These men and women we brought here will stay to work for you and help with the harvest."
The thick brows and mighty grey beard made it hard to tell the old man's expression, but when he spoke, the words came with reluctance.
"My lord, these… dark people shall live here?"
Éomer could understand the elder's resentment and sighed inwardly, but the matter was not open for discussion, and his words and expression made this clear.
"They will live here for some time and carry out your orders to remedy the damage they have done." He found the eyes of the high priestess resting on him. Even though the verdict condemned her people to remain under the hostile guard of the villagers, she seemed relieved. "You will tell them where their help is needed and they will follow without discussion." The look the old man cast at Ridasha and Gishvané prompted him to add, "…and they will only be ordered to work, Fárlaf. They will not be hurt in any way. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, my lord. Of course, my lord." came the obedient reply, and the old man looked truly hurt by the insinuated assumption that they would kill the Easterlings once the king was gone.
"Captain Thor will stay with some of my men and disperse the Easterlings to the next settlement if their help is needed there, too. I expect you to assist him in any way that you can." The chairman nodded and left when Éomer dismissed him, but not without casting a sceptical glance at the people from the east. "High priestess, you will tell your kindred about my decision," the king then ordered Gishvané, whose expression had visibly lightened. "My people will follow orders, and if your tribe will do the same, all shall come out of this experience unscathed."
"Yes, Éomer-king, I will tell them immediately. And we thank you for your wise and generous decision."
"But you and Ridasha will accompany us to Edoras," Aragorn stated when Gishvané rose. "You will come with us to Ithilien, so you should choose one of your followers to head your people while you are gone."
Gishvané bowed deeply; glad to bring at least some good tidings to her kindred.
"Munteseri will speak to them in my place." She left, and Ridasha felt the urge to ask why she, too, would have to ride to Ithilien, but she remained silent until the conversation between the noblemen ended and they decided to ride on to the next settlement. There were still a few hours' worth of daylight left, which none of the men were willing to waste. They would proceed deep into the Westemnet to spend the night there.
Overlooking the preparations for the night, King Elessar stood near one of the fences, smoking a pipe. His thoughts travelled to Edoras, where Arwen would wait for him. He looked forward to meeting her again, but at the same time knew that she probably had heard tidings from Gondor, which would sadden her mood and make her anticipate his return with even more anxiety. He hoped that the dispatch-riders had already reached Rohan's capital.
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Ridasha approaching. When she halted, he turned, asking,
"Did Gishvané inform your people?"
"She did." Ridasha quickly bowed to him. "They will do as the Rohirrim King orders. They are… grateful." Aragorn nodded silently. "He gave them a task, which was generous of him. Did you…?" She broke off, lowering her gaze to apologise for her bluntness.
"We talked, yes, but King Éomer needs not my counsel to come to a decision."
For a moment she silently watched him smoke, then gathered her strength to quietly ask,
"Why did you not reveal your identity while… while you were captured?"
Aragorn exhaled and deliberately turned to face her. Ridasha could hardly stand the sorrow and regret in his grey eyes.
"What would have changed if I had done it?" He paused, holding her in his stare. "As we both know Harishdane had planned this assault. She used the hillmen to lure my men and me into that trap. What could I have gained by telling you or the Dunlendings who I was?" Ridasha did not know the answer, as odd as his behaviour seemed to be. "Would I not have worsened our fate? My captain gave his life to protect me, and I will honour his deed by mourning the loss."
"I did not know that," she admitted, her voice but a breath. For a long time they stood silent, watching the Rohirrim, but without really seeing what they did in preparation for the evening's meal. "Why do you want me to go to Ithilien? I am but a soldier, no one with influence like Gishvané."
"You saw what she saw, and I want you both to try everything to keep your people from attacking Ithilien. There must not be more bloodshed."
"Harishdane will probably reach Rhûn before you can. And Lomarin will have readied all soldiers under arms…"
"Yes, this is what I fear, Ridasha. I fear that the fight has already begun."
With a fading smile Ridasha recalled the moment Thor had learned that she would leave for Edoras instead of staying with the rest of her people in the Westfold. She had looked into his dark brown eyes searching for words to explain, but knew at the same time that they would probably not meet again. Her wishes for him were countered by Thor's praise of Harolyan, who would carry her for the last part of the journey, and she considered it a truly Rohirric way of speech and manner to say farewell. He had helped her onto the great stallion behind the young Gondorian soldier, and his face had been unreadable. Though he had been friendly at last it had not lightened her mood. Her friends and the rest of her kin had to stay in the Westfold, and though they would be safer working for the Rohirrim than she would be by riding to Ithilien, it had been a hardship on its own to leave the men and women behind.
Now she peered past the soldier's back to look at the plains. Vast green meadows spread in front of her eyes for as far as the eye could see, the grass rippling in waves by the constant wind. It was soothing to the eyes and reminded her of the Sea of Rhûn, and she calmed herself with the thought that, for a few days, she would be safe.
His feet were still in the stirrups, his body, used to long rides, moved with every step Brego made, but with every mile horse and rider covered the king bent forward even more. King Elessar had let go of the reins and held himself on horseback by his balance and, Tarés thought, by the horse's knowledge of his rider's weakness. For the better part of the afternoon Brego had followed the other riders in direction and speed, and Tarés and Halamin had gained up on their ruler in case the king swayed too much. They had exchanged glances, but knowing their ruler, they had stayed behind a horse's length, unflinching under the bewildered stares of the Rohirrim. And while they were still on the open plain, Halamin urged his steed to Brego's right side in time to keep King Elessar from falling. It was only a moment to wake up the rider and let him regain his composure, but the king appreciated Halamin's attention nevertheless. When he turned in the saddle only to find Tarés on his left side a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth and through his weariness he indicated a bow to the guard. Tarés grinned and could not hide it when Halamin met his gaze. It would not be for long, and their journey would be over.
It was a strange discovery to find his emotions upon returning home mixed, Éomer mused when he saw the first golden glint of Meduseld in the distance. He should have been exuberant at the prospect of seeing Lothíriel, of holding her in his arms again and revelling in her closeness, but the more they advanced, the more gloom and dread stole into his thoughts and tainted what he had been looking forward to for days.
He knew that his wife would be dismayed to see him in this state, and she knew that only grim circumstances would ever force her king to abandon his own mount and ride with another man to steady him. He had, in fact, attempted to ride alone this morning, much to Elfhelm's chagrin, his sense of pride crying out at the prospect of entering Edoras while being held upright by his marshal. His strength had lasted for two hours before it had utterly deserted him, and even though his old friend had not said anything, the expression in his eyes left no question open as to what he had been thinking when Éomer had at last been forced to assume the same indignant position he had been forced to endure for days now. He hated to be carried around like a helpless child.
Left without a task while Elfhelm directed Éon, Éomer's gaze had then travelled repeatedly to his Gondorian ally, and it seemed to him that the other king, too, had finally reached his limits. Flanked by his guards, Aragorn had repeatedly sagged in the saddle in a way that had indicated that the King of Gondor had not been fully conscious, and once the men had even prevented him from falling. Pressing his lips together, the Rohirrim had watched the scene for a moment longer, inwardly knowing fully well that it would be madness for them to spend only one night at Edoras before they would continue their frenzied ride for Gondor. It was not only for his and his friend's condition; most of the men who had accompanied them to Dunland looked wretched, exhausted beyond measure. Some he had left behind in their realm of the Westfold, instead having summoned fresh forces by means of the various messengers he had sent back to Rohan after they had learned of the Easterlings' plan, yet there were enough left of his kinsmen who would accompany him on both parts of his journey. They had covered the distance from Edoras or Aldburg to northern Dunland, and now must manage all the leagues between there and Ithilien, only to give battle to a vast attacking force upon their arrival. No, he could not feel joyous indeed. Nor would Lothíriel, once he told her of this new danger.
Shifting uneasily on the unsaddled horseback, Éomer knew that Elfhelm had to have sensed his growing discomfort by now, and he was grateful that his former mentor chose to remain silent. Two hours later, with the exhaustion of the ride once again threatening to overwhelm him, the now near sight of the lonely hill and the Hall of Kings finally filled him with relief, if not joy, and the sight of horses racing toward them on the great road told him they had been spotted. Straining his eyes even more, Éomer saw wide cloaks billowing and long dark hair flowing in the wind, and he knew who was preceding the little host. A warm feeling spread from the middle of his body, and he found himself laughing in pure joy as his wife's delicate features became visible behind her mare's whipping mane.
"Lothíriel!" He tried to straighten, tried to improve his posture, but the agony rising from his injured leg left him breathless. There was no way to pretend to his wife he was feeling well. She would see and she would know.
Soon the riders were close enough to make out details. Lothíriel was wearing a dark green gown, embroidered in gold, under a fitting cloak, and a golden ring held back her black curls, and Éomer deemed he had never set eyes upon a more welcome sight. The relieved and joyous smile on his face was still resisting the substantial fatigue he was feeling, but the one his wife had been wearing vanished upon seeing him riding in front of his marshal, being held upright by Elfhelm's strength. She spurred her mare and reached the host quickly, cutting through the soldiers who welcomed her with an expression of utmost worry on her sweet face.
"Éomer…" She reined her horse in alongside Éon and reached out to touch her husband's face. Instead he caught her hand with his left. "By the Valar, what happened to you?" Her eyes widened at his wretched appearance, and then briefly turned to Elfhelm as if she suspected she would sooner receive an honest reply from the older warrior than from her husband.
"It is nothing. We have returned, and that is all that counts."
"And I am grateful that you did," she stated, unable to hold back the tears her eyes had been brimming with ever since she had received the tidings of the éored's return. The relief she was feeling was too great for words. "When the riders announced your coming, I could not wait in the hall."
"And I am glad you have come." It was an awkward position, but he had to turn around on Éon's back to lean to the side and wrap his arms around his wife despite his body crying out in pain. Kissing Lothíriel under the whooping shouts of his éored, his fingers smoothing the silken strands of black, it was all he could have wished for at this moment. He was content. "Lothíriel... it was the thought of you that brought me back."
The sight of Edoras resting peacefully on its hill was comforting, but when Aragorn watched the riders approach from the gate he could not believe he was seeing his wife among the Royal Guard galloping up to the group. Arwen's posture on Asfaloth was a sight so wonderful he would never forget, and he slackened Brego's pace, letting the other riders pass him by. He noticed Halamin's grin out of the corner of his eye, and that he spurred his own steed to gain on Tarés and Hilberon. Coming to a halt close by, Arwen elegantly slipped out of the saddle, a sad but nonetheless genuine smile on her lips. His dismount was less graceful. He found himself embracing her with the strength he had left, and she laughed, a sound clearer and more enjoyable than spring water. It took him a moment to realise that they were both kneeling in the grass and that he was clutching her so tightly it must hurt her. Perplexed, and with a mumbled apology, he let go.
"Do not apologise, Aragorn, just hold me!" And under tears she renewed her embrace, holding him like she would not let go, and he buried his face on her shoulder, giving in to the bliss of being close again to the woman he had vowed to protect. "I feared for you. I feared you had given in to the darkness." He closed his eyes, and wished he could close them to the memories of the days and weeks lying behind him. He did not answer, but pulled her closer, indulging in the scent of her hair and skin, her warmth, and simply her being. Gently she stroked the back of his head, and when her sight cleared of the tears she had spilled, the host had reached the great gate in the distance; the neighing of their horses was nothing more than a faint sound among the wind rustling the grass. "You overcame your worst enemy," she whispered in his ear, and felt him shudder. Leaning back she caressed the lines of his face carefully, taking in for the first time how tired and marred he looked. "You had many fights to win, my love."
"And it is not over yet." He made it back to his feet, wishing he could elude his fate for a few more days.
"I already know," she said rising, "but you have to rest… at least for a short while."
He gently cupped her face and kissed her. He had abandoned all thoughts of her, but the joys of touching her and speaking to her again overwhelmed him. For a while he would be granted to cherish the company of his queen.
Hilberon had arched his brows, unable to believe that Tarés – the soldier always so close to the king that he would hear every whisper, let alone catch him when he swayed – had left Gondor's ruler with his queen somewhere beyond the safe walls of the city. But he kept the questions to himself, dismounted and helped the Easterling woman out of the saddle they had shared. She thanked him and stood, not knowing what to do or where to go, amid the many soldiers talking and laughing with their comrades, and Hilberon faced an awkward moment, for he too did not know where to send her. He knew he had to take care of Harolyan, but when he pulled the reins of his horse she followed him into the stables. Her eyes were big and of the darkest brown he had ever seen as she gaped at the city's buildings and the many steeds stabled under the spacious roof. Grunting he left her alone; only briefly looking back over his shoulder when the King of Rohan was welcomed with even more cheers and loud shouts by his waiting kinsmen near the portal of the Golden Hall. Hilberon grimaced observing the king being lifted from his marshal's mighty bay. Rohan's ruler could hardly walk on his own, but though his face glistened with sweat and he seemed to be at the end of his strength, he made it somehow into the hall, his anxious queen at his side. After the long days of riding, the wounded man would need a place to lie down immediately.
When Harolyan had been taken care of, Hilberon left the stable. The Lord of Westfold came to meet them and invited the Easterling woman to the guest rooms, and with the smallest of smiles she bade Hilberon farewell. He hardly heard her and did not react, for at the same moment he could see the horses of the King and Queen of Gondor approaching, and he joined Halamin and Tarés, who were already standing on a vantage point to observe the couple. Tarés sighed deeply, and Halamin slapped his shoulder heartily.
"Don't tell me you ever doubted he'd make it!" he laughed, but the older man turned to him with a concerned expression that was only slightly softened by a weary smile.
"You sound like him already," Tarés grunted, nodding with his chin to Hilberon. "He sings and hums and will forget about all this in a month."
Hilberon felt the urge to defend himself, but Halamin was quicker.
"Aye, that's the way the ignorant youth does it, right? And who should blame him? Maybe it's us taking this all too seriously." He turned to Hilberon to grant him a round of slaps with every sentence. "You did right, young one. You fought for your king, you stayed true to yourself, and you returned. What a soldier's life, hum?"
"If you don't stop beating his shoulder he'll need a healer right away."
Hilberon pressed his lips tight to suppress the laughter, but the sparkle in Halamin's eyes told him that his good mood was being appreciated.
"Well, that healer should stay and rest a while," Halamin muttered watching the Royal Couple enter the city on horseback, and he could not stop himself from thinking that they were the strangest couple he had ever set eyes upon. Even the peasants first stared at the dishevelled looking man and the fair lady with the benign smile before the cheers roared. Slowly they made their way uphill, and Tarés stood near the king's horse when he dismounted, ready to help. With a deep breath, the king laid a hand on Tarés' shoulder.
"Well done, captain, you have my back when it comes to it." Tarés bowed lowly and took Brego's reins after the king had spoken some friendly words to his horse.
Halamin was allowed to lead Asfaloth into the stables, and the men watched Aragorn and Arwen climb up the stairs, content to have accomplished at least one part of the mission.
Gamling had briefly summarised the events that had taken place during Éomer's absence, but since there were no tidings from Gondor to report, both kings retreated into their chambers soon after an early evening meal.
Having endured the weeks with as much self-control as he could muster, Aragorn's breakdown was unavoidable.
"Let me help you with this," Arwen offered when Aragorn sat on the edge of the bed unwilling to move any further. She unbuttoned his shirt when he woke from his musing.
"I am sorry for having brought so much pain upon you."
Arwen placed a gentle kiss on his forehead.
"It was that pain that told me you were still alive. And I will not complain for I knew you would return to me." She pushed the garment over his shoulders, and he slipped out of the sleeves. "In a way I was with you, Aragorn." His gaze was filled with a silent apology as his fingers touched her pale cheek. Though she would not tell he knew that she had suffered. "It was not always pleasant, but I would not change my gift of the connection with you for any riches of this world." She caressed his beard and let her hands travel down his neck, but stopped when he flinched and avoided her touch, inhaling sharply through clenched teeth. "What is it, my love?" He needed not to argue to leave it alone. Compassionately she smoothed a strand of his hair aside to look at the scar. "Does it still hurt?" But she knew the answer when her fingertips touched to still rough edges and he shuddered.
"It has not stopped hurting since the night it was done." He looked up to her, but did not admit that the pain had increased on her contact.
"Who did this to you? And why? It looks like a… sign... nothing that happened in a fight."
"It is a tribal marking of the Jásheni," he told her quietly and unbeknown his fingers found the wound on his neck. She took his hand in hers and waited until he recalled reluctantly and with the least details the incidents during the quest for the tribal leaders in Dunland. "If it had not been for Éomer's search Harishdane would…"
She put her fingers on his lips, silencing him.
"Do not think about it, Aragorn. That future did not come to pass. You are free. You are going to defend your land and defeat the evil the Easterlings bring to Ithilien. You know that I trust you. You have to trust yourself."
When he lay down to come to rest beside his wife she held the contact a little while longer, calming him, easing the dreadful thoughts still lingering on his mind. Finally he could close his eyes and sleep.