Chapter 48 Home
Lomac rubbed the base of his nose with thumb and index finger, and gladly accepted the cup of tea Vlohiri handed him outside the king's chamber. The boy did not need to ask, for Lomac's worried expression told him there was no change. He glimpsed through the door slit into the room. Queen Arwen had not left her husband since he had been brought to the City by men of the Royal Guard. She kept talking to him, but still he had not woken, only murmured in his dreams. The healer had been able to give him some tea, but more could not have been done for the ruler. For a day and a night Vlohiri had hardly slept, in order to be present when needed. He knew there were wardens to take over, yet a voice in him would not quiet down, and he felt unable to leave.
Lomac pressed the empty cup into the young boy's hand to light a pipe. "Now, lad, serve her some tea if you don't mind," he said, blowing rings of smoke into the air.
"Yes, of course." He entered the dimly lit chamber, and only when he spoke to Arwen did she turn her head and smile gratefully, taking the cup. Vlohiri could have cried simply looking at the queen's sorrowful eyes. She had been so glad and joyful when he had first met her, on the day he had arrived at Minas Tirith with Aragorn. She had laughed, and all men standing around had livened up by the sound. Never before had Vlohiri seen a being so beautiful and radiant with bliss. He would have stared at her the whole day if she had not spoken to him. The more it grieved him to see her so sad. He wished to be able to do something for her, but like her he could only wait for the king's recovery. "He is strong enough," he mumbled, and though it had not been meant for her to hear, the queen nodded slightly. "He will make it through."
"Your hope is blessed." She drank and handed back the cup. "You look very tired."
He turned the cup in his hands.
"I would prefer to stay, Queen Arwen."
"And I will not send you away."
"Thank you." Vlohiri put down the empty cup on a small table and remained at the wall covered with furs. They both fell into a heavy silence while outside in the hallway, voices and steps could be heard. People were pacing by the door, and the boy recognised the deep voice of the captain of the Royal Guard when he asked Lomac for news about the king's wellbeing. Vlohiri felt a strange comfort, knowing that this time Aragorn had not been alone in his ordeal. His soldiers had accompanied him the long way, and by what he had learned from Hilberon and Halamin during their brief conversations, the king had suffered, but not given up. This, too, was comforting to know, and with admiration he looked into the king's still face.
It seemed to him that his plea for Aragorn's awaking was finally heard by the gods, for the king stirred and moaned suddenly.
"Arwen…" He swallowed and slowly turned his head. He blinked, but needed a moment to see her clearly.
"I am here, my love." She squeezed his hand reassuringly and placed a light kiss on his brow.
Inhaling deeply he recognised the surroundings. A moment later he urgently asked:
"What about Éomer and Erkenbrand? Did the Easterlings surrender? Is the fight over?"
"They did, and their leaders were killed," the queen assured him quietly, but nonetheless with unconcealed joy over his recovery. "Faramir has taken over command, and sent them back north. They await your final verdict. And Éomer is here in the House of Healing. He will recover," she added, seeing his worried expression. "As well as the marshal. He suffered a head injury, but it was not severe. Éomer…"
"I almost killed him," Aragorn breathed, and the horror shone in his grey eyes. "But I could not stop myself." With deep regret he looked into Arwen's face. "Only you could. You prevented me from killing my friend." He shuddered and looked away from her, and though he tried to free his hand, Arwen still held it to let him know she understood. "I heard Harishdane's commands in my head. I heard her malice. But I could not resist. It was you, who made that possible."
"She had already poisoned you with the marking."
"Poisoned?" he echoed in shock, turning back to her. He flinched at the pain the sudden movement caused him.
"Yes, but you were already treated at the base camp."
"How was that possible?"
"Because I lean my ears to interesting stories." Lomac entered with a genuine smile and closed the door behind him. "And it always proves worthy to have spent the time." He glanced over his shoulder. "And the truth shines through every cloud that might cover it." He stepped closer, and behind him Aragorn could see the fair top of Vlohiri's head. The healer stooped to uncover the scar on the king's neck.
"Lomac… it is you again," Aragorn whispered hoarsely.
The old man raised his bushy brows while he lowered his chin to look at the wretched face of his ruler with a mocking smile. "I was ordered to not leave the city without a visit to the King's Hall. Now, here I am." And after examining the marking he asked, "The wound is healing now, my lord. Does it still hurt?"
"It is getting better."
"And will get better still," the healer answered, and by his glance Aragorn knew he had looked through the lie. "Your body fights the poison, my lord, and it is a good sign that you are awake. Though you have to rest for a while longer."
"How is King Éomer faring?"
"One of the fellow healers of my order took care of him." Lomac ineffectively tried to hide his smile. "My friend says he looks like he was caught in a tavern brawl. He has suffered numerous bruises and scratches, and even some cuts besides the leg wound he received earlier, but obviously you were able to avoid wounding him severely."
"I wish I could have avoided fighting him at all," the king answered gloomily.
Lomac was earnest again when he stated:
"There is nothing to feel guilty for, my lord. When I heard from Tinungelen about the powers of those poisons, I feared you would lead your army to doom." Both king and queen stared at him, and the healer moved uneasily on the side of the bed. "No, now it did not come to this."
Aragorn pressed Arwen's hand.
"It could have?"
Lomac shrugged and his beard twitched when he answered, "It is a strong spell she used to break your will. It might have been worse indeed," he continued, and instantly knew he should not have spilled this knowledge, but Tinungelen's report had been disturbing even for a man as old as Lomac. "But to the good fortune of all of us, your own resilience and the strength of your queen were enough to fend off that evil." He covered the wound with fresh cloth and rose from the bedside. "Rest and do not worry anymore." He turned to the boy. "If you have not yet slept, lad, go and fetch some tea, please. And then," he stopped Vlohiri in mid-motion, "you will see to your room by order of the healer. Or I will find some really nasty work for you to do!"
Vlohiri grinned and ran to the kitchen. Lomac left the room, closing the door behind him.
Exhaling Aragorn turned to his wife. "How did I get here?" he asked after a long kiss.
"Your men brought you here the day before yesterday." With a smile she added, "And they frequently ask the doorwardens about your wellbeing. Your captain was willing to camp outside the hall if I had not told him to seek some rest himself." Aragorn did not return the smile.
"What tidings from the battlefield? How many men did we lose?"
She briefly told him about the events after Harishdane had been killed, and when she ended, Vlohiri brought a tray with cups and a pot of tea. He put it down, careful not to spill the liquid, or make any sound to interrupt the conversation.
"Where is Ridasha?" Aragorn inquired; afraid that the woman might have been killed during the ongoing fights.
"She is still with Faramir, and they will both return to the City shortly."
Aragorn noticed that the boy hesitated to get closer, and with a knowing smile Arwen rose to excuse herself and leave the room.
"Do you want some tea?" Vlohiri asked, and had to clear his throat and repeat himself to be understandable. "I cooled it down a little." They looked at each other, and both were flooded by the same memory. The boy trembled suddenly, fighting the tears coming to his eyes. The royal chamber seemed to dwindle and leave them in the cold and scantily furnished room of the eastern tower. Vlohiri could even recall the smell and the sounds omnipresent in that dark castle he had once called his home. He approached the bedside, trying to resist the feelings that occupied his mind.
"Do not worry about me, my friend," Aragorn stated gently and held the boy with his stare. "I am a prisoner no more."
"I do worry," he replied almost inaudibly, and put down the cup on the bedside table. He held out a hand to help the king sit up and rearrange the pillows behind him. Leaning back, Aragorn noticed the tears on the boy's cheeks, which he hastily wiped away.
"Don't be ashamed, Vlohiri," he said, holding fast to the boy's arm. "It is your brave and gentle heart that guides you, and for that gift many men will envy you."
MINAS TIRITH, FIVE WEEKS LATER
A deep restlessness had taken possession of Éomer. An inner urge that had consumed his thoughts and occupied his attention ever since he had left the House of Healing to stay with his sister, where he had rested some more, doomed to ineffectiveness. Like being tended to like a helpless child, it was a feeling he detested. Sentenced by his weakened condition to stay behind, while Elfhelm had assembled the men of his éored to ride for Rhûn and free their abducted kinsmen, Éomer was aware that he had been horrible company for his unselfish hosts, with only little Elboron occasionally succeeding in bringing a smile to his haggard, brooding face. After he had no longer been strictly confined to his bed, Rohan's ruler had frequently found himself wrapped into a thick blanket and gazing out of the eastward window of his room, at hours at times staring at the ragged outline of the Shadow Mountains, which was where he was when he heard light steps approaching from behind.
The familiar voice caused Éomer to turn his head, while his hands remained on the railing of the balcony. Éowyn wore a slight smile as she approached him, but her eyes were serious as she laid her hand upon his arm. She knew of her brother's restlessness and could well imagine how trapped he felt in this proud but cold city of stone. She missed her new home in Ithilien, too. Yet with the conflict solved and their men freed from the slavery of the Easterlings, the chances for a soon return had thankfully risen for the both of them.
"Your impatience to leave is getting more obvious with each passing day, Éomer. The Mark's call must be strong indeed, judging from your wistful expression."
Éomer's gaze shifted back to the view far below him. He nodded.
"Aye..." He inhaled deeply as he followed the path of a flock of geese travelling south. "Aye. It is. We have been here for a long time. Summer has almost passed, and I spent most of it away from Lothíriel. I did not even have the time to think much about her, or imagine her face, and her voice... yet the very thought of her back in Edoras, separated from me, is almost more than I can bear." Unconsciously, his fingers were playing with the band around his wrist, a little gesture that was not missed by Éowyn. How much Éomer had changed since he had found love in the arms of the princess! For long years, it had solely been her he had confided in during his weak moments, keeping his doubts and troubles from everyone else for fear they would be misused. For years, Meduseld had been a place that forbade showing weakness, because malevolent eyes and ears would mercilessly have seized the opportunity. The constant demonstration of strength had been essential in keeping the White Wizard's influence on the Rohan court at bay as much as possible, even they had not been able to keep it out. Like all other men of high rank under Théoden's reign, Éomer too had learned to uphold a facade of strength at all times, and to see him now confess his homesickness and deep love for his wife moved Éowyn.
"It will not be long now before you can be with her again. Think of that. Tomorrow you will be on your way home, and Lothíriel still has some time before the babe is due. The opportunity to see your child grow within her has not yet passed. The greatest changes are still to come. You will not be too late to experience the early joys of fatherhood, Éomer, trust me. I know." She was delighted to see his expression light up from the gloominess he had been wearing all these past weeks. "And will it not be a comforting thought that your heir will be born into a time of peace which our people have never before experienced, and that it was your and Lothíriel's doing? I know it would make me content."
"Aye," he nodded, his expression growing distant again. "That would be wonderful. Yet it is still too early to speak of it. No treaty has been concluded yet, neither for Rohan, nor for Gondor."
It was time to spill her great news.
"No, but there will be. Elfhelm wasn't the only one to return to Minas Tirith yesterday, and he isn't the only one who brought good tidings with him." She had his attention. "Elessar is back. He came to talk to you. Will you see him?"
Glancing in disbelief at his sister, Éomer turned away from the embrasure.
"Aragorn is back? Why did you not say so? Of course! Where is he?"
"Talking with Faramir in the gardens. Come, I'll bring you there. I just thought you needed a few quick words of comfort, first, since you looked so lonely out there on the balcony. I know Elessar won't mind waiting that short moment." She rushed down the stairs to the ground level and led her still slightly limping brother through the chambers to their little private garden, pulling the curtains aside from the open door for him. "There they are. See, he doesn't look impatient to me at all." Smiling at Éomer's slightly sour expression, she stayed back with the excuse of having to look after her sleeping son, feeling content. For the first time in months, she had the distinct notion that destiny was finally smiling down upon both Rohan and Gondor, and that a permanent change for the better lay within their grasp. All that was left to do was seize it.
MINAS TIRITH, ONE DAY LATER
It had been a while since the city of Minas Tirith had seen a procession of such splendour passing through its streets. Not since the coronation of its king had the full Royal Guard been assembled to accompany their rulers, as well the commanders of their ally, all the way down from the sixth ring to the city gates. The silver sound of trumpets announced the riders to the waiting people, and excitement rose at the sight of the banners of Gondor and Rohan rippling proudly in the wind.
First came the two kings, each flanked by their heralds holding up the standards of the White Tree and the White Horse upon Green, half a length back. Both men were adorned in their full regal attire, save crowns, as they directed their steeds through the crowded streets and over the flower-covered ground, nodding and waving at the cheering people. Their ruler's bay stallion seemed oblivious to the strange ceremony, whereas the Rohir's great black beast snorted nervously at the indignity of having flowers thrown in his path and people yelling close by, and none dared come close to the mighty horse.
The rulers were followed by Queen Arwen on her Elvish horse, and even though the citizens of Minas Tirith occasionally saw her, all eyes stared in wonder at the light and grace radiating from her, and faces lit up in wonder.
Next came the two Rohirrim marshals who, together with their king, had led the joined forces to victory again, and while they held themselves upright in the saddle, their broad shoulders squared and solemnly eyeing the crowds, people looked at them in awe and intimidation as they passed by. The respectful silence given the two warriors finally erupted into shouts of joy at the sight of the city's dearly beloved son and steward, who was accompanied by his beautiful Rohirric wife and their infant son. Slowly the procession wound down toward the mighty city gates.
The great place was crowded, and it seemed as if all citizens of Minas Tirith had assembled to see the Rohirrim off as a sign of gratitude. Wherever Éomer looked, people were hurrying down the streets to join the crowd, cheering and laughing. The events of the past summer had once again deepened the bonds between Rohan and Gondor, and it was a good feeling to know that the oath Aragorn and he had taken was strong and vibrant, and helping both their lands to survive.
Behind the opening gates, the Rohirrim could already see his fully assembled host eagerly awaiting their leaders, their camp broken and the men ready to leave at their king's order. Smiling to himself as he waved at the cheering crowd, Éomer exchanged a brief glance with Aragorn and found his brother likewise content. Against all odds, they had reached a good ending for all parties involved, and what they were faced with now was a wide field of possibilities, uncharted territory for them to define. It was a challenge he felt up to and eager to take on, all the more since the dispute he had had with Erkenbrand had been settled, and the marshal had fully redeemed himself with the selfless act of shielding his king without regard to his own life. In the Houses of Healing, the two warriors at last had been able to see eye to eye about their conflict, and the older man had vowed to give it his best try to make the peace with their western neighbours work, even if he still had doubts. Knowing the utter sincerity of his marshal's promises, Éomer had then promised to restore Erkenbrand's title as Lord of the Westfold upon their return, a few words which had left the rugged hero of the Mark speechless and overwhelmed with joy. And a day earlier, Elfhelm had returned from Rhûn, his face gaunt and burnt from the sun, but the grey eyes glowing with pride because in his tow had been their fifty-two abducted kinsmen, likewise exhausted, but otherwise healthy. Yes, it certainly seemed like all was finally turning for the better.
The deafening noise of the crowd followed them as they passed through the mighty gate of the White City, and from outside, more noise was rising from the riders, who were celebrating the arrival of their king. His heartbeat involuntarily accelerating at the sight and sound of his cheering kinsmen, Éomer turned his stallion and gallantly extended an arm to his sister, holding her close for a moment while he gently kissed her brow.
"So this is farewell at last, I fear, little bird. At least for this time."
Caressingly, Éowyn's slender fingers trailed down the side of his face.
"Promise me that you will not let another year pass before we see each other again, Éomer." She held his hand back as he straightened in the saddle, preparing to let go. "We need to stay close to each other. Elboron needs to see his uncle as he grows up." She lowered her voice. "And I need to see my brother. Will you promise this to me?"
He smiled, cupping her cheek with his hand.
"I promise, Éowyn. As soon as Lothíriel and our little one are strong enough to travel and the weather and the state of Rohan's affairs permit, we will visit you. Meanwhile, the doors of Meduseld are always open for you should you decide to come visit us first." He recognised Faramir's chestnut steed behind his sister's and added, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes: "I even go as far as saying that you can also bring your husband along, if he so wishes, although there may still be some folks at Edoras who will not welcome him, since he stole the Mark's most precious flower from us."
"That is very generous of you, Éomer-King!" The Prince of Ithilien exchanged a playful glance with his wife. "Very generous indeed!"
"It is a character trait we Rohirrim are known for," Éomer grinned, already turning toward the Royal couple, who had said their farewells to Elfhelm and Erkenbrand and were now looking at him. His expression turned sombre as he tilted his head in a slight nod. "Yet against Gondorian hospitality and generosity, we would be hard-pressed to even come close." He indicated the long line of carts that were leaving the city to accompany them on the long way to Rohan. "This food will greatly help my people in the coming winter, Aragorn, yet you are giving it away so generously that I fear for your own folk. Are you indeed certain you can spare all of this?"
The older man dismissed him with a little gesture.
"This is but a small token of our gratitude. I am certain that we can spend even more as soon as the harvesting season is over. This is but the first delivery. Our harvest was blessed this year, my friend, so do not trouble yourself."
Éomer nodded in appreciation, but his smile faded slightly as he eyed the Gondorian more closely. There was still a shadow on the king's face, like the distant memory of a threat too horrible to think about. Aragorn's expression was much like he suspected his own looked, Éomer mused. They both had been released from the healers, yet would still need time to let all that had happened fade into the realm of distant memory, to a point where speaking of it would no longer bring back the haunting images. Noticing the unusual glance his brother-in-arms was giving him, Aragorn shifted in the saddle.
"Your people will celebrate your return, and the manner of it, too. You set out to achieve the near-impossible, and you return triumphant, and yet it is not solely your skill on the battlefield that is responsible." He straightened, and his expression left no doubt that he meant what he said. "The warrior has become a king. Where it would have been a lot easier to travel the well-known path of retaliation and wrath, you were brave enough to explore an unused road. Théoden and your father would be proud to see what kind of king you have become, Éomer, son of Éomund."
Éomer couldn't remember when he had last blushed, but he felt heat creep into his face now at Elessar's praise.
"No matter what you say, it was you who encouraged me to remain on that path. I would have given up after what happened at Meduseld. I was convinced of their guilt, and I would have ordered the attack. Without your wisdom, we would not be here now."
"And without the once again selfless help of your riders, we also would not be here now." A slight but honest smile spread over Aragorn's face as he reached out for his friend. "We both helped each other in our need. Neither stands in the shadow of the other. Leave it at that, brother." He grasped the gloved hand Éomer was extending toward him in response and clasped it tightly. "Whatever the coming days may hold for us, I face them with a sense of hope because of the tight bond between our people. Let us ride into a bright future together."
"May the Valar hear your words, friend, and look favourably upon us all from now on."
The embrace was returned, and for a few heartbeats, the surrounding noise ceased to exist as the two kings shared a moment of realisation of the power of their friendship. It was Éomer who woke from it first, sensing his men's impatience to be on their way and return home as fast as their horses would carry them.
"Alas, the road is calling for us, I fear. It is almost midday, and the distance to the first camp is still long. We must be on our way." He nodded at the Elven queen, a gesture she returned with a gracious smile. "Lady Arwen… it was a pleasure having you as our guest in Meduseld, even if the reason was not a pleasant one. I do hope that we may be able to greet you in our halls again very soon, and not because a serious cause demands it. Lothíriel and I will be glad to welcome you in the Riddermark."
"And I will be delighted to return," said the Gondorian queen. "Yet for now, nothing else remains for us but to wish you a safe journey. Our thoughts and good wishes will accompany you and your men, Éomer of Rohan. May you reach your home safely and swiftly, for I know at least one person in the Golden Hall who will be pacing her chambers in anticipation even as we speak. Please give my sincerest regards to Lothíriel, and tell her that her companionship was a great source of comfort for me in those dark hours we had to endure."
"I will gladly do so, my lady."
"And please, take this along for her." Arwen removed a small package, elaborately wrapped in coloured cloth, from the pocket of her riding gown and handed it to the Rohir with a mischievous smile. "But she is not to open it until after the birth of your child. You must promise me that, my lord."
Furrowing his brow at the queen's secretiveness, Éomer accepted the gift and carefully placed it in his saddle bag.
"I will see to it, Lady Arwen. And even if I do not know what it is yet, I thank you for it." Still irritated by the Elf's amused expression, he narrowed his eyes. "You would not happen to know whether we are expecting a son or a daughter, would you?"
"Sometimes, letting yourself be surprised is better than knowing in advance, my lord," Arwen replied with a cryptic smile, and when Éomer's questioning glance went back to the saddle bag where he had just stowed her gift, she arched her eyebrows demandingly. "My lord, you promised not to open it!"
He lifted his head.
"Aye, that I did. And I am a man of my word, however hard it may be in this case." He cleared his throat and became aware of his stallion dancing impatiently underneath him. "I also gave my word to my men that we would return home as quickly as our horses would take us, and as I do not want to break that vow, we must ride now."
"Rohirrim!" Expectant silence answered him as Éomer felt the attention of the entire host of riders directed at him. Even the horses seemed to listen breathlessly, and he raised his voice. "We're riding home!" One arm shot up in the air as he spurred Battleaxe to rear. "To Rohan!" And with an exuberant yell from five hundred voices, the great host of mounted warriors thrust their steeds into a hunting gallop, the dust cloud they stirred up still hanging in the air long after they had disappeared beyond the horizon.