In the settlements further south and west they heard the peasants' stories about something wild attacking their cattle. Aside from the obvious fear these people had, no tracks could be found, and the men told the king that the attacks had stopped one cycle of the moon ago. The beast had not been spotted a single time, but every villager had a picture in his mind that was crueller than the one before. The description of the dead pigs and calves resembled those of Tesestras, but in most cases the animals had been stolen and not ripped apart in the fence. Aragorn heard from a very upset trader that two of his horses had been taken within weeks though he had watched them carefully. At the time one horse was stolen he had been distracted by other sounds, and the king was about to believe that the horse-thieves his men and he had encountered were collecting all steeds in eastern Ithilien. The king's concerns that the rumours bore some truth had been right, and he fell silent during the last two days of their ride.
“Thieves and beasts,” Fáred growled when they rode on in the morning's mist. “And no one has seen naught.”
Tarés looked grim when he nodded.
“And we come up with naught! No beast to follow, no thief to…” He interrupted himself hastily for the king was too close by. Lowering his voice he continued, “Well, we cannot set out guards everywhere to find this… thing, if it even exists. Perhaps it’s just a bigger wolf. That's not unheard of.”
“Aye, I agree.” Fáred stared at the king's back. “And the thieves we know. We just have to get there and get our horses back.” The captain waited for a reprimand, but Aragorn did not seem to be listening at all to the conversation behind him. Dumarin rode closer to Fáred's left side and followed his captain's gaze. They both let their horses fall back while Tarés rode on straight.
“What do you think comes out of this?” Dumarin asked lowly.
Fáred eyed him cautiously.
“What do you mean?”
“There has to be a decision to make, has it not? What is your opinion?”
“Mine is not asked.” He nodded with his chin to Aragorn. “It is his to decide what the army will do.” But Dumarin knew the tone well. Fáred was still angry, and it did not take him long to utter his doubts. “I knew what the steward would have done,” he hissed, and his beard trembled. “But the King of Gondor will not follow those great footsteps. He has not done so when two traitors had to be sentenced, and he will not do it now with these horse-thieves. I can tell you that much.”
“So you do not think that the people in the east will cross the border?”
Fáred's voice was rancorous toward the king, but still low.
“There is no strength left in them to stand a single fight! They are but thieves! They have moved here to steal from our honest kinsmen! Could be that they brought in that… beast, whatever it might be. Perhaps they want the villagers to flee and leave everything behind! Who knows what these boorish people are up to! To end this threat it would be the best to throw them back further east, to vanquish them once and for good, but…” He made a gesture with his hand and exhaled. “He won’t, Dumarin, he won’t.”
Hilberon, close behind the two men, felt the urge to defend the king and his decision to come, but he lacked the words and knew from experience that Fáred would never let go of his point of view, even with the right arguments at hand. Only the king ruled over Fáred's actions, and, as Hilberon had seen himself, even this did not work all the time.
Hilberon thought about the journey they had accomplished. He had made mistakes so his narration to his father would not be as shining as he had hoped it would be, but he had learnt a lot and shot a doe, which was, in his eyes, something he would stress. It still made him proud, at least in this case, that he had not disappointed the king. The forests of Ithilien in their splendour still lingered before his inner eye. There would be a lot to tell about those forests, the lights, the smells, and the sounds. He wished the king would say that they had to ride out tomorrow again. Then he called himself foolish. The king would be happy to return to the White City and his wife. If there was any living being in Gondor that could make the stern looking king happy it had to be the sight of his beautiful wife. Queen Arwen was even more beautiful than the forests he had looked on, and for a moment he recalled her face. During the coronation many of the Elves had been present, and they all had looked fair and untouched by age, but Arwen had been shining like a crystal.
But Hilberon also wondered about the ruler's actions during the ride and had to admit that Aragorn did not resemble the man he had imagined. All the kingly attitudes were amiss. Aragorn neither wore royal clothes nor slept in a tent. Wherever the group had gone to the king went first, he had never sent Fáred and his men as a vanguard. He did not even want to be called by his given name and title! Hilberon frowned and intended to take this subject to his father since he did not know whom else to talk to. Softly he started to hum, could not even recall who had taught him the tune, but it lighted his mood.
When they crossed the Rammas' great gate Tarés was relieved more than he could tell. He had been worried since the incident with the horse-thieves that some of them would return to avenge their dead companion. Halamin had thought the same, but their wish to stay close by the king was impossible to attain. Aragorn had made it clear without words that he did not need the soldiers to ride with him; that he never wanted them to be at his side. Tarés had hardly slept to be up and close to the king if an attack would occur. Fortunately, the ride back had been uneventful aside from the pig-breeder, who had talked too loud and too much, regardless the diminishing interest of the listeners.
Looking at the riders ahead of him, Tarés recalled the day when the news of the king’s abduction had reached Minas Tirith. It had shocked the citizens. Tarés had been in the palace and present the day the king had ridden out for a hunt with only three men he knew well. Tarés' friends had shaken their heads in disbelief, but more because of the ruler's unusual behaviour than out of worry. The war had been over and the first six months of Aragorn's reign had passed without alarming incidents from the eastern and southern borders. So the soldiers as well as the people had relaxed and gone about their businesses. But after the king had been reported missing for more than a week the unrest had grown. Lady Arwen had kept her head high and taken over the royal duties without delay, but fear had spread like wildfire that the King of Gondor might have been killed. Tarés had heard those fearful whispers when he returned from the northern lands after a useless search for the king. The long weeks of waiting had begun and every rumour he had heard had been more terrible than the one before. The city's inhabitants had lost their faith in the strength of their king, and despair had gripped their hearts. Winter's arrival had drowned the last hopes for a safe return, and Tarés had seen many women weeping on the streets. Then, all of a sudden, Aragorn, Éomer, and Faramir with their soldiers had ridden up the first ring of the White City, and all who set eyes on the group had been stunned before they had been able to cheer.
Tarés exhaled, let his gaze wander over the plain before him. In the distance the shining white walls could already be seen. His memories still lingered on the day of Aragorn's return to the palace.
The soldier had been standing at the palace's gates, and it had been his greatest pleasure to welcome his ruler back and to open them up for him. But Tarés' smile was lost in the shock upon seeing into Aragorn's face. The king had been a mere shadow of his former self, and though he was smiling and seemed happy to be home, the months he had been away had taken something from him. Tarés had steadied himself to not let show what he felt, but in his heart he had prayed for the king. In the weeks to come the Royal Couple had only shown themselves on important events like the spring festivities. Aragorn had looked healthier then, and Tarés had sworn to himself that he would accompany the king on his next ride. He had been with the king at Edoras for the marriage of Lothíriel of Dol Amroth to the King of Rohan, and he had stayed at Aragorn's side when he had ridden out at the end of summer to look over the harvest and decide how many wagons with food supplies would be sent to help the Rohirrim. Now, again, Tarés felt the strain end. He hoped the king would not decide to ride out tomorrow again.
It seemed like ages to Éomer before the healer finally came out of the royal bedchamber where she had treated the queen. Dressed in a simple woollen tunic and tights he had quickly grasped before Yálanda had chased him out of the room after he had carried her back. He had been pacing the corridor restlessly, hating to be shut out when he was being consumed by a deep fear for his wife. Every now and then, Maia, his wife’s maid she had brought along from Dol Amroth, had left the chamber for various errands, and he had been able to get a brief question in, but all in all, he knew very little of Lothíriel’s state as the sun rose over Meduseld.
Almost jumping at the old woman in his anxiety, Éomer cut off her path, not caring what Yálanda thought of his manners.
“How is she? What is wrong with her?”
“Easy, young king, easy!” The ancient, wrinkled face turned towards him as the healer grasped his hand to squeeze it reassuringly. Under other circumstances, Éomer would have felt embarrassed or angry over being spoken to like a small child, but right now he was too worried to care. “Your wife is resting now, sire. As far as I can see – and I have examined her quite extensively – there is nothing seriously wrong with the queen. She claims to have a severe headache and feels a bit weak, but apart from that I found nothing wrong with her. It must be her delicate condition. Some women suffer from that during their pregnancy. It is nothing unusual.”
“Nothing unusual?” Éomer shouted, hardly able to believe his ears. He ripped his hands out of the woman’s clutch and took a quick step back to glower in disbelief at the old healer from his superior height. “She fell into a trance in the middle of the night! She sleepwalked and hardly reacted to being spoken to, and when she did, it was something very disturbing and blood came out of her nose! She fainted! How can this be normal, woman? Tell me!”
“No need to shout at me, my lord,” Yálanda objected indignantly, the grey eyes unflinching under his angry stare. “I understand you are worried, and I understand that what you experienced was rather unsettling, but again I assure you that a condition of sleepwalking is nothing uncommon or even dangerous. Look, the pregnancy has left the queen in a very emotional state, and it is quite natural for her to take matters to heart she would otherwise not have thought twice about. Her mind is filled with new impressions, and she cannot just shut them out at night.” Her eyes narrowed. “Mayhap your wife overheard something yesterday that could have troubled her? Have you, perchance, told her anything that might have been too much for her to hear in her current condition? I heard there had been an unexpected council with the Lord Erkenbrand...”
Éomer felt heat creep into his face.
“It could be,” he muttered then, his bad conscience clearly showing. Oh, why had he allowed Lothíriel to attend their council? Had he been utterly mad? He swallowed and stared over the healer’s shoulder for a moment, anger changing to guilt. “ But it was her own wish. I thought not-“
The woman shook her head.
“No, of course you didn’t think that it could harm her, and how should you, if the only woman you had ever known in this regard had been your strong sister. Your wife, however, is not so strong, sire. You cannot let her know the things you discussed with Éowyn. You understand that now, don’t you, my lad? But do not needlessly torment yourself. No further harm has been done, and if she stays in bed today and rests, the queen will be well again quite soon. Now, I would have liked for her to rest right now, but she insisted on seeing you before she took the sleeping potion. Just remember, be gentle with her. She can use no further excitement today. And don’t stay for too long, either. She needs the rest.”
“Aye…” He nodded obediently, anxious to see his wife and willing to do anything the old woman demanded from him even if she would command him to walk on his hands and knees. Without further ado, he burst into the bedchamber…
She felt frozen despite the heavy blankets the healer had given her to wrap herself into. Bodily and emotionally wrought out, despite the strengthening potions the woman had made her drink. The whole chamber still smelled of them despite the open window, and from the other side of the door, she could hear her husband’s muffled voice. Somewhere behind her eyes, her head was throbbing like a rotting tooth, but the pain paled in comparison to the emotional distress she was under as the door opened and Éomer stormed into the chamber, his face a mask of worry that only added to Lothíriel’s toil. Her poor husband. Since yesterday afternoon, his world had crumbled and been turned upside down, and now even she contributed to his torment. How much she hated herself for her weakness! And how much she loathed the fact that she would worsen his ordeal by what she was about to tell him!
“Lothíriel! Sweetness!” Her sight clearly distraught him, and the missing night’s sleep showed clearly on his face, even when she fought to show him a slight, encouraging smile as proof of how much better she felt already. But of course, the attempt was idle. The mask of worry did not lift from his face as he sat down on the edge of the bed, taking her into his strong arms and gently pulling her to his chest. “You scared me.”
She closed her eyes and allowed herself to revel for a moment in the comfort he provided, eagerly responding his embrace and burying her face against his shoulder. Her eyes stung and there seemed to be a lump in her throat, caused by the knowledge of what she would have to do. What she would have to tell him. Would he look at her like this ever again – so loving, so concerned for her wellbeing – after he had heard her out? She needed his comfort now more than ever, but the danger of losing it was undeniably there. Somehow, she could not see him taking well what she was about to reveal. He was a man who stood firmly in the world he could see and touch, not in the elven world of enigmas and mysteries, notions, sensations and hidden meanings. Finally, after another long moment of shared closeness and comfort, Éomer pulled away to look at her, his fingers carefully smoothing back a strand of black hair behind her ear.
“You are still so pale…”
She caught his hand.
“Éomer... it means nothing. Do not worry overmuch for me. My face may be still white, but I am already much better.” This time, she knew she had managed that smile, for he returned it, however weakly. Oh, how much she loved him! How much she wanted not to do this! Curse Erkenbrand! Curse the Dunlendings! And curse her elvish blood!
“My head is aching, but Yálanda is certain that there is nothing else wrong with me. Your child is still well, my king. Would you like to say good morning?” She moved his hand down to her lower belly and let it rest there. For a moment, they both remained silent, and Éomer’s gaze glided over her silken gown to the position of their hands, lovingly caressing the slight curve underneath and finally showing the first honest smile she had seen from him for almost a day. It did not take long, however, for him to look up again with that concerned expression again. The night’s events had been too unsettling for him to be easily forgotten.
“Last night… I knew not what to do. You wouldn’t wake up. I was afraid I had done damage by shaking you. I thought I hurt you, and when that blood came out of your nose…” he stopped and stared, for there were still a few drops of it visible on her gown. The sight froze him.
“It is nothing,” she breathed into his ear, leaning forward again to kiss his cheek. “My nose has always bled easily, it is nothing that should alarm you. Do not worry for me, my great warrior.” Smoothing a strand of his fair hair out of his face, she inhaled deeply. She would have to begin sooner or later… and if she waited much longer, she knew that she would never be able to summon the necessary courage. Inwardly bracing for whatever reaction would await her, Lothíriel let go of her husband and leant back into the thick pillows, the seriousness of her expression an indication to Éomer of what was to come. “There is, however, something that we must talk about…”
Lines formed on his forehead as he looked up and studied her face, the worry deepening again after a brief moment of relief.
“Your dream?” Her expression told him that he was right. “You remember it, then?”
“It was no ‘dream’, Éomer,” she hesitantly began and stared at the blanket on her legs, her heart beating furiously. It was still early, at most two hours after dawn, almost as in her vision. The sheer thought still sickened her. “No normal dream, at least…” Another deep breath to collect her courage, and then she looked him squarely in the face. “It was a vision.” She could see the word getting stuck in his throat. Saw him go rigid.
“A… vision?” Her claim caught him completely off-guard. “Of what?”
“Of Rohan’s end.” There now, it was out. She held her breath - and felt a sharp sting when she detected a notion of growing consternation in her husband’s eyes. They narrowed, and it was obvious that he knew not how to take what his wife was telling him. What was he thinking? That she had hurt her head worse than she was willing to admit? That she was talking nonsense, still under the influence of her horrible nightmare? It was disturbing how his eyes were all surface all of a sudden. They wouldn’t let her in anymore. For the life of her, she could not tell what he was thinking. So she told him. Of the wave. The people’s death-cries. The horrible feeling of foreboding and impending doom. And she ended with the one conclusion that could be drawn from it.
“Éomer, if you seek to exact your revenge on the Dunlendings, if you follow the marshal’s request… something terrible will happen to Rohan. I know it.”
His expression froze, and the silence between them turned chilly. From one second to the next, an unbearable tension filled the room.
“You - you eavesdropped on us?”
She could tell that she had committed an unforgivable breach of trust in his eyes. There was no way of denying it. His suddenly estranged expression hurt her more than she could say as he backed away, but she could not afford to let herself be intimidated by his anger now. This was too important. For the good of the Mark, and for the good of all the innocent women and children whose lives were at stake, she had to convince him. So she took a deep breath and answered to his accusation best as she could. Following intuition, her feelings, not reason.
“I had to.“ How was she supposed to make him understand what her feelings in this matter were? Unaware, her fingers were tying the blanket into knots as the king suddenly stood up and took a few paces back to bring some space between himself and his seemingly unstable wife. “Éomer… they are my people, too. I care for them as much as you do! The Mark is my home now. It is the land our child will grow up in. I need to know what its future will look like, and if possible and necessary, I want to have a hand in it, too!”
He was still looking at her as if he was having trouble coming to terms with what she had done, as he turned around at the foot-end of the bed. Shaking his head in utter disbelief.
“I would have told you! All you had to do was ask, not acting out some lie to me and then sneak back, as if you didn’t trust me! Do you honestly believe I would have kept what we were discussing at that council a secret to my own wife, to the woman I am ruling this land together with? Do you have so little faith in me?”
She raised her eyebrows.
“You would have told me about your plans to eradicate an entire people? Really?”
“By removing you from the council, I intended to spare you from having to hear about the possible purpose of the captives the enemy took, but since you seem to be more concerned about our foes’ well-being: There are no such plans as of yet.” Anger and disappointment swung in his voice, and he still appeared to be stunned from hearing her confession. “You are getting ahead of yourself and worry about things that have in no way been decided yet! And worse yet, you accuse me of things I haven’t decided!”
“But Erkenbrand –“
“Erkenbrand wants me to punish our enemies as hard as possible, aye. He’s pressuring me and I understand why, but if you had been listening more keenly, you would have noticed that I delayed my judgement even though we are hard-pressed for time! It should have told you something about me, my queen. I am not a man who will sentence a people to annihilation on the spur of a moment. I am a warrior, not a slaughterer… nor an Orc! I am aware of my responsibilities, and the way other people look upon Rohan is one of them. ”
She remained silent at that, at the same time feeling a twinge of relief and somehow being bothered by his choice of words.
“Like I said, I have not yet decided … but I will have to eventually, and before long, too. The marshal was right at least in one regard: We cannot afford to wait much longer. If everything goes as expected, Elfhelm and his éored will arrive here by tomorrow evening, and I will hear his opinion, too. Then we will hold a second council, and only then shall I decide how we react to the provocation.”
Lothíriel’s usually delicately swung lips formed a straight, bloodless line at that.
“You cannot tell me that you are not leaning towards accepting his suggestion, Éomer!” she claimed, raising her voice and even surprising herself by her forcefulness. “It is written all over your face!”
“And what do you want to hear from me, Lothíriel? What do you expect me to do?” Frustrated, Éomer exhaled noisily and leant over the foot-end, his hands resting on the wood. “We did not force them to attack us! We had peace with them for almost two years, we even gave them food when they came asking for our help, although we could hardly afford to do so at the time! And yet they repay us by training for war, by raiding our villages and killing and abducting our kinsmen for Eru-knows what purpose! What else should I offer them other than retribution, Lothíriel? A place in Meduseld? A throne at my side? The entire Westmark with all that’s in it? Tell me, for I do not know what you want to hear!” His fingers were clutching the wooden railing so fiercely now that his knuckles turned white, when suddenly, the door opened and let in a very distraught, angry healer.
“My lord, have I not specifically told you –“
“You will leave this chamber at once, Yálanda,” Éomer pressed in a dark voice without taking his eyes of his wife. “This is between the queen and me.” A moment of silence. No footsteps. No movement. His head snapped around. Had everyone gone mad today that they thought they had to object to his orders? “Move it, woman!”
Usually, it was the healer who barked at people. Once she got angry, no one dared to resist her. Usually, her knowledge and wisdom and greater age lent her all the authority and respect she needed in her dealings with the Edoras court, but never had a king, neither Éomer or his predecessor, shouted at her like that. Intimidated and indignant, she moved back, but – upon summoning what was left of her courage – turned around once more before she left to say: “You would be well-counselled to remember what I told you, Sire! If you continue to speak to the queen in this fashion, you may jeopardise the child after all!” Another glance at the young king’s furious expression was all that it took to finally convince her to leave. Again, there was silence in the chamber, but it was clear to both present parties that it would erupt into another heated discussion momentarily. Both combatants were merely rearranging their weapons for the next round.
It was Éomer who spoke first, his voice lowered as he heeded the healer’s advice, but nonetheless dripping intensity, his hands still on the foot-end of the bed and his words acid.
“Tell me, Lothíriel What shall I do? What would the Queen of Rohan do if it were her decision? Reward the filth for that heinous attack? Our people may have difficulties understanding that.”
“You are being overly dramatic, my lord,” Lothíriel, to her dismay, heard herself saying. Valar, what had gotten into her to speak with her husband like that? And Éomer did not like her tone, the sparkle in his narrowed eyes told her that beyond doubt. The Lothíriel she had been until the evening before, the gentle, if slightly emotional young woman, had been replaced by the Queen of Rohan, a woman she had not known so far. A determined, unafraid woman with an iron will and a firm idea in her head of what was right and what was wrong. Somehow, from the inside, the younger woman watched in awe as the new Lothíriel dared to oppose the king himself. “Of course you should not reward them! But you should also not punish the innocent for the sins of a few.”
“The sins of a few?” All good intentions of not shouting at his ill wife were a long-gone memory all of a sudden. “You call a host of two hundred warriors ‘a few’? Two hundred of them who meticulously worked out that plan over weeks, if not months, for it to be so efficient! This was no spontaneous action, brought about by a sudden fit of hunger! They had been planning to hit us the hardest they could for a long time! Will you not see that? How can you expect me to be merciful and simply forget?” He fought for breath and glared at her, until the built up tension became too great and he spun away, taking a few paces towards the window, fists clenched and in desperate need to unleash some of the accumulated frustration and anger. Her suggestion was preposterous! How could she not see that herself? He turned back to add: “People would spit into my face for that! I would be disgraced! I would lose my face, and rightly so!”
She swallowed, somehow incredibly disappointed. Feeling hollow inside. Empty and saddened. It all culminated in one last sentence, for she had no other words left, and her voice sounded hoarse and throaty when she said:
“And this would be your greatest fear, sire?”
It was the final touch. The worst she could have possibly said. Éomer’s expression turned to stone. It took the last remainders of his restraint to clamp his teeth down and turn on his heels to leave the chamber, throwing the door behind him that the thunder reverberated through the Golden Hall…
When the group of riders reached the open gates the guards cheered, and many citizens on their way to the gate welcomed their ruler with joy. Aragorn held Brego back and just looked into the first circle with the great fountain in its middle and the stone figures representing the kings of old. The city wall and gate had been rebuilt by dwarves and were now stronger than before. The circles had been restored and houses repaired so that it seemed the storm on the city had never taken place.
But he knew better. After the War of the Ring the White City had almost laid in ruins, and it had taken supreme effort by every bricklayer, joiner, and smith to turn those ruins back into homes.
Aragorn let Brego move on slowly. The soldiers who had overtaken him dismounted and were greeted by friends and relatives. He looked out for the one woman waiting for him. And there she stood at the right site of the gate, walking up to him in a dark red gown, which hems touched the ground she walked upon with bare feet. Her long black hair was tousled by the wind. She wore no jewels, and the dress was plain except for the soft-falling cloth it was made of, but to Aragorn's eyes she was the most beautiful woman one man could call his wife. Quickly he dismounted.
“Arwen…” Saying her name and knowing she was there was relief in itself. Aragorn had never been impulsive. He had never been overthrown by his feelings. But upon seeing Arwen after the long weeks of riding and tracking he seemed to have forgotten about his restrictive demeanour. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her passionately.
“Aragorn, my love, welcome back to your home,” she then said lowly in Sindarin. Her embrace, her kiss, simply her presence made him forget everything else. He heard the soldiers talk, he heard the chatter on the market place in front of them, he heard the horseshoes' hollow sounds on the paving, but he was not aware of them. He looked into Arwen's eyes and saw her smile with relief and joy. He kissed her again and felt it was an apology for again having left her. She was a comfort to his troubled mind, and she knew it. He could judge by her expression that she had already read his mind. Aragorn sighed and, closing his eyes, held her tighter, not willing to let her go. It felt good enough to stand here for the day to pass. Brego neighed behind him, and for a moment Aragorn realised that Hilberon had walked up to the steed and now led him away.
Aragorn did not know how much time had passed when one of the guards cleared his throat near the entrance.
Arwen lifted her head and with an almost mocking smile whispered,
“They want to close the gate for nightfall, my lord.”
“Do you really think they would shut out their king?” he answered the same way.
Arwen turned and took Aragorn's hand in hers. Her eyes shone with a playful delight that lifted the king's mood more than any word uttered.
“They might. The king himself gave the order to close that gate during the night. And the king should not be questioned.”
Dumarin had gladly dismounted and sent his horse with Hilberon to the Royal Stables. Looking after the young apprentice, who led away the king's horse and the two others, he thought that it had not been too bad to have the lad on the ride. After all Hilberon had never complained about any work he had been assigned to. And Hilberon had caused some moments of laughter too. Grinning to himself Dumarin moved his aching body to the next tavern. Walástes, one of the guards at the main gate, who was built like a rock of the rampart, was already sitting there with a mug of beer and welcomed his friend, who fell on the bench beside him. A group of soldiers passed by, chatting lively, and some peasants smelling of wheat and straw, made way for them. They almost stumbled over the legs of other guests, who had been lucky enough to find a seat in the crowded and smoked-filled place. The noise of their chatters was deafening.
“You had a good ride?” Walástes asked good-humouredly and scratched his chin through the mass of his brown beard.
Dumarin snorted and shot a look at the younger man.
“Do I look like I had one? I do not. So don’t say it!” He ordered a beer for himself and a second for his friend, and after brooding over it for a moment he added, “Nay, it was no good ride. There are horse-thieves up in the northern lands, and some wild animals are tearing the cattle of the peasants.” He exchanged glances with Walástes, who looked concerned. “But we came back with naught. Could neither catch the beast nor the thieves… though we know who they are at least.”
“Up in the north?” Walástes frowned. “Don't say the Easterlings returned.”
“Yes, I say that,” Dumarin nodded and emptied the mug, which had been placed in front of him a moment ago. He wiped his mouth with his dirty sleeve, and sighed deeply about the simple pleasure. “But what comes out of this knowledge I cannot tell.”
“What will the king do? He must have said something.”
Dumarin slammed the empty mug on the wooden table.
“He was upset about the death of one of those thieves. Fáred shot that bastard. What was right, I think. Now, tell me, Walástes, what does that sound like?” Walástes looked puzzled and did not answer at once, and Dumarin nodded to himself. “Right what I thought.”
“What about that wild animal? A big wolf? Did anyone see it?”
Dumarin belched and ordered a second beer with a nod to the innkeeper.
“I saw that beast one night, my friend, I saw it.”
“You did? What did it look like?”
Dumarin dwelt over it until his mug with fresh beer arrived safely at the table. He thanked the stout man, who had three more mugs in his big hands, then slowly turned his head to Walástes.
“It had yellow eyes that shone in the darkness.” He drank and noticed Walástes' frightened look. His voice dropped to a whisper, and he leant sideways to his friend so he could hear him in spite of the noise around them. “It was a big beast. Fearfully mighty. Could have hewn me, but I had my sword ready.” With a grimace he swallowed another mouthful of beer and sat down the mug. “I would have beaten it, but then… it just disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” Walástes exhaled with a whistle. “I do say, my friend, if it was such a big beast you were lucky.”
“Aye, you might call this luck. But I…”
Walástes nodded with his chin to the open door for Fáred had just entered the dimly lit room and spotted them. Snorting like a bull he shoved aside two lads on their way out, so he could reach the table and sit down opposite the two men.
“Walástes, tell me about the weeks we were gone,” he ordered and signalled the innkeeper that he wanted a beer.
“Captain, I…” Walástes swallowed his reply seeing the stern face of the older man. If he was on duty or not only the captain decided. Fáred need not say anything. “Aye, the weeks you were gone…” The soldier gave a short summary of the daily duties, of how many men were sent out to work on the fields, now that the harvest had begun, and about the minor incidents the guards had had at the Rammas.
“Good,” the captain nodded when Walástes had ended his report. Fáred's beer was served and he took a mouthful. “The city is in better shape than the rest of the kingdom.” Walástes and Dumarin glanced at each other while Fáred stared down into his mug. Dumarin got another beer and drank greedily. He was more than happy to be back in the civilised part of Gondor where it was plain and simple to get a beer when a refreshment and reward was needed. “Something's brewing up there west of Dagorlad,” the captain stated gloomily. “The best would be to strike hard and fast. When you get to the horse-thieves I bet the king's crown you catch that beast too. Perhaps they sent it to haunt our people!” He drank and smacked his lips. Then he remembered that the two soldiers sat right across the table. “Well, what’s that beast, Dumarin? You say you saw it.”
Dumarin swallowed so much beer that the rest ran over his beard, then put the mug down, belching.
“Might be a wolf,” he grumbled, unwilling to repeat the truth of that rainy night to the captain. He still felt goose bumps on his arms when thinking about the sudden fear that had had seized him.
“So, a wolf then. But why did it not attack you… or the horses?” Fáred cocked his head. “Nay, there is no wolf or beast such as this unless in your imagination.” Fáred saw Walástes frown and said slyly to him, “Did he tell you about those two glowing eyes in the darkness? Those that suddenly disappeared?”
Dumarin bit his lips. The beer had been tasty and satisfying, but the company of the captain was not.
“I know what I saw!” he replied heatedly. “It might even have been a Warg! Since their masters are gone, who knows what they are able to! Who knows how many of these creatures survived and now rove the northern lands! Do you know it, Fáred? Have you seen it?”
“Sit down!” Fáred ordered harshly, and Dumarin, who had not noticed that he had gotten up, let himself fall on his seat again after hesitating a moment. He looked into his mug, but it was empty again. “All that you saw was but an image… triggered by too much wine. Which I suppose you should better leave behind the next time, or your service for the king will end right before we saddle up again!” Fáred's voice had risen to a level that drowned out the chatter. Suddenly the three soldiers were the centre of the guests' interest, and he heard some murmured words like ‘Warg’ and ‘beast’. Fáred gritted his teeth and tried to calm down. He could hardly remember the moment when he had lost his temper in front of his soldiers, and he truly regretted it. “Well, I think, Dumarin son of Doran, you had enough beer for tonight,” he continued in a lower voice, well aware of the listeners. “Go home. Your next shift will be tomorrow at dusk.”
“Aye, captain.” Dumarin rose with an effort and swayed before he was able to move his feet to the door.
Fáred emptied his mug and sat it hard on the table. The chatter at the other tables returned to its liveliness now that the main object of the captain’s anger had left.
“The king should throw him out himself,” Fáred murmured before rising. Then he quickly left.
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.