1. Chapter One
A tip of my cap to Steve McDonald's "Sons of Somerled" Celtic CD, the closest I've found to the music of the Rohirrim, "rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains."
ASHES, EAST WINDS, HOPE THAT RISES
We left the enemy's reeking ashes as carrion for the crows, and regretted only the good earth thus fouled. A blow struck - but not enough. It may never be enough. I am twenty-seven years old, and I have lived to face the end of days.
Even the Moon hid her face as we waited in the dark, and we let the enemy see our watch fires and know that their deaths came with the dawning. Aye, and even the night that shielded them was no comfort when they found my Riders' blades and arrows in the dark. Then red dawn brought us battle and red dawn saw us victorious, even though my King forbade our very presence there. Yet the Enemy has trod too long and too boldly upon our lands - our lands! - and not a man among us hesitated. We hunted them down like fleeing dogs, and slew them as we found them. Their chieftain at least dared await me at the edge of the Fangorn, and there we fought and there he died, and black my sword is yet. Regret lies only in the fifteen men who will not ride back with us. Fifteen men, good and true, are gone, gone into the Shadow that creeps like a thief upon us, and twelve of our best horses lost, as well. Ah, let us sing of the fallen sons of the Riddermark, for thus we must remember them. Sing weeping, sing proud, and let us remember who we are, though soon all the world may forget us . . .
I have forgotten when we did not fear. I have forgotten when we did not have such skill at building mounds for our dead and pyres for the enemy. I have forgotten when my King was bold and I was a free man, and the Rohirrim knew no master. Our master now is fear. The Enemy is ever around us, and where once our horse herds were tended by stripling boys, now we dare post only warriors. It is horror to even think of it, these magnificent animals who have known only the touch of our loving hands since they first stood to suckle their mother's milk, lost to the enemy's foul, cruel governance. They take the black horses. Black as their purposes, I deem, and they leave us only the old and lame blacks, now. They leave us penned and hemmed by fear and doubt and half-heard tales, and whence comes our counsel? Whence comes our hope?
My presence here is in defiance of he who is both my king, my uncle and my foster-father. Where once he would have led us with sword and spear, he listens now to one whose words sap his will like a wasting sickness. Not even Théodred his son can win his ear, though he commands the Westmark and awaits what Isengard may send. Théodred shares my fears, and if blood and friendship were not bond enough, now we find ourselves united against enemies both without and within. Too often we must plan our defenses between the two of us alone, for seeking our king's guidance gains us only the mechanizations of the Wormtongue; do nothing, wait, delay.
Not four days ago came word of orcs down from Emyn Muil upon our eastern marches, and yet even then that false counselor bid my king be still. Thus I called my men in darkness and we fled away like thieves to find the foe we should have marched on openly, and here I wet my sword in payment for their audacity, and for all that has been taken from us. We have heard no word from lands south. The shadow grows to the east, the raiders from the west become bolder, and the dark-winged messengers of evil fly brazenly across our lands, yet no news has come. Boromir of Gondor borrowed one of our horses weeks ago, but of his errand we hear naught, and his horse has returned riderless. Of the many things that could signify, none are good. We must presume he found no aid for any of us, and perhaps we will fall together and separately, Rohan and Gondor and all the free lands.
But I shall fight. My Riders shall fight. So long as we breathe, so long as we have homes and loved ones to defend, whether our King leads us or sickens and fails upon his throne, we shall fight. We fight, but alas, the victory we carry back is bitter. Would that I could bring instead some joy or promise. Yet none comes. Hope lies in ashes, even as we left the bones of our enemies.
We are done now with burning and burying. I turn to my lieutenant, whose taut, still face must mirror my own.
"Come, Éothain. We must away home."
He nods, once, and says wearily, "To whatever awaits us there."
Yes, he fears and despairs even as I do.
The land at least is unchanged. How I love this country of my fathers. My heart beats within its earthy breast, and my spirit soars to see the sweeping expanses of grass that ripple beneath the hand-stroke of the wind, like waves running across a golden sea. Even in these fading days of February, when spring is but a soft green blush, the long hills rise and fall before us in soft heaves of space and distance, and the great blue dome of sky arcs unhindered above us. To the thunder of our hooves we fly between heaven and earth, and lack only wings to leave mortal dust behind.
And I am proud of them, these men who ride with me. My kinsmen, my brethren, their spears like a forest and their faces fierce as eagles'. If I have no other joy, at least I have them. We ride now at a swinging trot, the powerful reach and surge of Firefoot's gait thudding into my bones as my own heartbeat, and if I should die so, there could be no better death. Let there be but one perfect day, one perfect battle, and I will regret nothing. No other hopes have I, any more.
Then from the day and from the sleeping plains, and from beneath our very feet a ringing voice cried out, where none but empty grass had been.
"What news from the North, Riders of Rohan?"
It was as if the earth itself suddenly rose up in human form - if indeed mortal these three strangers were. Clad in grey, they appeared in our vision from lands that could not have concealed a lone fox. However, we had seen too much to let shock overcome us, and at a mere lift of my hand my éored wheeled into the running circle of attack. Be they Men or be they sorcerers, these intruders would know our measure. I will credit them, these strange three held fast before our rush, and they remained still and watchful as we closed around them. The heavy circle of our horses huffed and stamped, as one hundred and five spears and bows fixed upon our trespassers. However, two of them did not even rise to their feet, while the first stood facing my spear without as much as a blink.
Aye, and a closer look might gentle his manner. I nudged my horse forward until he could have touched my spear point by simply raising his hand. Speaking in the Common Tongue, I addressed him plainly.
"Who are you, and what are you doing in this land?"
"I am called Strider," he said calmly. "I came out of the North. I am hunting Orcs."
Hunting Orcs? The three of them afoot and alone? He either was mad or thought me a fool, and we had not time to bandy with either. I dismounted in the same moment Éothain leaped down beside me, and I handed him my spear. The stranger bore a sword at his side, and I let him hear the ring of my own good steel, ere I faced him.
And the shock of his gaze nigh stopped the breath in my throat. Grey eyes he had, unblinking and impassive as the stare of a hawk, and I had the ridiculous sense that if a man offered him anything but truth, he could flay that thought naked with a mere glance. Suddenly I was very glad of the bare blade in my hand, although looking into those eyes I doubted very much that swords would ever be enough, against this man. My wits had scattered like quail, and I seized upon the first thought to settle.
"At first I thought you yourselves were Orcs," I said, and drew courage from the cold, watchful readiness of my Riders. "But now I see it is not so. Indeed, you know little of Orcs, if you go hunting them in this fashion. They were swift and well-armed, and they were many. You would have changed from hunters to prey, if ever you had overtaken them."
I may as well have spoken to carved stones, and my unease grew. Who were they? This one was without question their leader, neither young nor old but grim with care, and the simmering power of his presence could not be denied or underestimated. I would know his purpose here, if only by the strength of our spears.
"But there is something strange about you, Strider," I said, and met that grey hawk's stare once more. "That is no name for a Man that you give. And strange too is your raiment. Have you sprung out of the grass? How did you escape our sight? Are you elvish folk?"
"No," he replied mildly, and might have been responding to a query about the weather. "Only one of us is an Elf, Legolas from the Woodland Realm in distant Mirkwood. But we have passed through Lothlorien, and the gifts and favors of the Lady go with us."
The one named Legolas stared back at me, his princely face as remote and flawless as the face of the silver moon, and I felt the small hairs crawl on the back of my neck. Many were the allies of the Enemy, and not all were foul to look upon. Nor had we heard aught from the realms of the elves that gave us reason for trust.
"Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood," I replied. "As the old tales tell. Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favor, then you are also net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe."
Enough, then, of dancing with words! If their leader would not speak plainly, perhaps the other two could be goaded.
"Why do you not speak, silent ones?"
The bearded one rose - or at least so far as his short stature permitted - and leaned his hands upon the sturdy haft of his ax. Nor did I see welcome in his snapping dark stare.
"Give me your name, horse-master," he growled. "And I will give you mine, and more besides."
"For that," I replied. "The stranger should declare himself first. Yet I am named Éomer son of Éomund, and am called the Third Marshal of Riddermark."
I should have known none of this strange company would know respect, and this other simply stood himself more squarely.
"Then Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of Riddermark, let Gimli the Dwarf Gloin's son warn you against foolish words. You speak evil of that which is fair beyond the reach of your thought, and only little wit can excuse you."
Fool, and thrice fools! We should have hoisted them on our spears as spies and been done with them, and I felt the rumble of matching temper among my men, surrounding us. Speech came to me only through the hot coils of tightening anger.
"I would cut off your head, beard and all, Master Dwarf, if it but stood a little higher from the ground!"
Between two blinks the Elf was on his feet with an arrow nocked to his drawn bow.
"He stands not alone. You would die before your stroke fell."
And suddenly, one of us was about to die.
"Your pardon, Éomer!"
My sword was stayed only by Strider leaping between us and the hand he raised, empty and without harm offered.
"When you know more you will understand why you have angered my companions," he said quietly. "We intend no evil to Rohan, nor to any of its folk, neither to man nor to horse. Will you not hear our tale before you strike?"
I looked again into his face, and there I saw . . . something . . . in his eyes. I cannot give it name but it reached to me like a hand on the shoulder. Suddenly I wanted to believe him - bless me, I did, and that urge brought me the rarest sort of discomfort.
"I will," I said, and let my sword drop to my side. "But wanderers in the Riddermark would be wise to be less haughty. First tell me your right name."
"First tell me whom you serve," he countered. "Are you friend or foe of Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor?"
Almost I could have laughed, to find my own suspicions turned so neatly against me, if it were not for the keen stab of pride that came with it.
"I serve only the Lord of the Mark, Théoden King son of Thengel," I replied, and spoke more besides.
Aye, I would have him know who my true and only lord was, and though Théoden sickened from the evil draining us all, he would ever be my lord and king, and I would ever be a champion to him and our people. We serve no allegiance to the Black Land or any other, and that I spake to this Strider plainly. Around us lapped the dark sea of other people's wars, and none of it was of our making. It seemed precious little to ask that we be left to our own lives and freedom, even as our fathers had lived before us. Sad it was that hospitality had fled from among us, but now I wished these strangers gone from our land, and all that and more, I told him.
"Come!" I said, then. "Who are you? Whom do you serve? At whose command do you hunt Orcs in our land?"
If I had hoped to see him give before my demands in the least, I was terribly, woefully mistaken. That hawk's gaze pinned me like a knife against my chest, ere he spoke.
"I serve no man," was Strider's silken reply, and power rose like a storm in his voice. "But the servants of Sauron I pursue into whatever land they may go."
Have you ever trod upon ground that you thought was solid, only to feel it crack and sink towards a vast precipice beneath you? So I felt then. The warning shouts in my mind almost drowned out his voice, and I could only stand silent while he spoke to me as a man rebuking a foolish youth. How had I dared question his right to hunt where and as he would, and least of all to avenge friends taken by that enemy? How had I dared speak at all, when now my very heart cringed beneath the battering certainty that I knew nothing, was nothing, compared to the dark ways this man Strider long had traveled? Then he swept his cloak from his sheath and his sword leapt to hand, and it blazed in a cold, white fire.
"I am Aragorn son of Arathorn!" he said, and his words struck like wind-driven hail. "And am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnedan, the heir of Isildur Elendil's son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Chose swiftly!"
I felt the world tilt under my feet in a great, slow sweep. Riddles and visions and prophecy and sorcery - we seemed awash in all the legends of history, and now they walked abroad beneath the shining Sun. Nor could any good come of it, this dread settled like a stone within me. Strange days, strange days, dreams and legends springing to life from the grass.
Yet he waited still, with that fabled blade glinting shards of sunlit ice, and I had no answer. We heard riddles from Gondor, whispers from the East, we found the enemy bold upon our lands, and I had no answers to any of it. Seek for the Sword that was Broken ... Doom is near at hand ... fragments of that grim verse echoed in my mind. I found my tongue, however poorly, and what I asked now, I asked almost as a child of a master.
"Tell me, lord, what brings you here? And what was the meaning of the dark words? Long has Boromir son of Denethor been gone seeking an answer, and the horse that we lent him came back riderless. What doom do you bring out of the North?"
"The doom of choice," Aragorn replied quietly, and though the thunder dimmed and the blade found its sheath, never again would I misread him. "You may say this to Théoden son of Thengel: open war lies before him, with Sauron or against him. None may live now as they have lived, and few shall keep what they call their own."
Doom, indeed, and the swift shadow of a passing cloud brought a chill to all who heard. He spoke again of his search for captive friends, asking news of the Orcs whom he so ardently sought. That at least I could answer clearly.
"You need not pursue them further," I said with grim satisfaction. "The Orcs are destroyed."
"And our friends?"
"We found none but Orcs."
"But that is strange indeed," Aragorn replied, and his brow furrowed in worry. "Did you search the slain? Were there no bodies other than those of orc-kind? They would be small, only children to your eyes, unshod but clad in grey."
His concern was now mirrored clearly in the faces of the Elf and Dwarf, and I took comfort in that glimmer of compassionate feeling. But whatever it was he sought, I could offer no tidings. Neither dwarves nor children nor any but Orcs had lain among the dead, and we had been thorough in our examination and disposal. This I told them, but seemingly with little relief to them. They were hobbits, the Dwarf said, not children.
"Hobbits?" I asked. "And what may they be? It is a strange name."
Halfling was the name Gimli the Dwarf now gave us, even as spoken in that dark riddle Boromir had brought from Gondor, and that made even less sense. Éothain agreed, for he suddenly laughed.
"Halflings!" he exclaimed. "Halflings! But they are only little people in old songs and children's tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends, or on the green earth in the daylight?"
Well he might ask, for it seemed the twain had become one. Éothain then spoke to me in our own tongue, pressing me to either bind this odd company for Théoden's attention, or set them loose, but the day was fast waning. Yet I would have further words with the heir of Isildur, and I bid my grumbling lieutenant to have the éored gather and wait for me nearby.
Strider - now Aragorn - spoke only the truth. My heart knew this as clearly as my own name, for we are a people to whom truth is the only way a man may speak. Deceit glares as a black blot, and in Aragorn, son of Arathorn there shone only light. Seek for the Sword that was Broken, the riddle had said - and yet here it came to me with no seeking at all. What did this mean? The rest of it was more than I could grasp, halflings and doom and Isildur's Bane - suddenly I was as adrift with too many questions, and I found myself looking to the heir of ancient kings for answers.
We took counsel there in the whispering grasses, Aragorn and I. Of Boromir he spoke, and an errand of great importance and mystery, then he surprised me with mention of the wizard Gandalf, who had come from his own ill-fated dealings with us to lead their company from Imladris.
"Gandalf!" I cried. "Gandalf Greyhame is known in the Mark; but his name, I warn you, is no longer a password to the king's favor."
Aye, that he was not, and my lord's fury still rang in my ears. Long had Gandalf been a visitor to our lands, and with each visit it seemed he was a harbinger of ominous events. The last was no different - he claimed to have proof of the treason of Saruman the Wise - but when my King refused him to hear him, Gandalf avenged his displeasure by requesting a horse upon his leaving. Nor did he chose just any horse, but Shadowfax, father of horses and scion of Eorl's own mighty steed; favored of all my King's stable. Shadowfax returned seven days since, but he ran now upon the grasses wild and untouchable, and Théoden's wrath remained kindled.
Aragorn listened quietly to my account, then sighed and turned his gaze outward across whispering distance. "Then Shadowfax has found his way alone from the far North, for it was there he and Gandalf parted." A moment passed, before he looked at me and I saw grief naked in his eyes. "But alas! Gandalf will ride no longer. He fell into darkness in the Mines of Moria, and comes not again."
Strange, how the same breezes whispered and the same cloud-shadows drifted in great, silent dapples across the sun-kissed plains. How could they, when all the world was changing? Gandalf at least had always brought truth, however bleak, and if a wizard could fall, what chance was there for any of us?
"That is heavy tidings," I said, then bethought me of warning. "At least to me, and to many, though not to all, you may find, if you come to the king."
Nor was Aragorn through with his tales of woe, for he spoke further of his company's journey. He had taken the captaincy in Gandalf's stead and led them the many leagues through Moria and Lorien - here a severe glance from the Dwarf assured me that an education yet waited me - and so they traveled down the Great River to the falls of Rauros.
"There," he said heavily. "Boromir was slain by the same Orcs whom you destroyed."
"Your news is all woe!" I cried, and found myself struggling for expression. I had not known Boromir well, for his wars lay to the east and he did not come to us often. Yet I found great liking for him the times we did meet, and I knew him for a bold and valiant captain, and a presence that filled a room simply by entering it. To imagine Gondor without him -.
"But we have had no word of this grief out of Gondor. When did he fall?"
"It is now the fourth day since he was slain. And since the evening of that day we have journeyed from the shadow of Tol Brandir."
Four days? Well I knew the leagues between, and I simply stared at him.
"On foot?" I asked stupidly.
"Yes," Aragorn said, and the first glimmer of wry humor warmed his face like the passage of sunlight. "Even as you see us."
"Strider is too poor a name for you, son of Arathorn," I said with a laugh, and in that moment my heart was lost to him. How could I not love a man such as this - who strode unblinkingly into legend for no other cause than the love of his friends and comrades? "Wingfoot I name you! This deed of the three friends should be sung in many a hall. Forty leagues and five you have measured ere the fourth day is ended! Hardy is the race of Elendil!"
His wan smile was my treasure, before I remembered the troubles I would confide in him, in return. If he had aught for me, I must needs know swiftly. He listened with keen attentiveness as I spoke of how things were with Rohan, the shadow of war pressing ever closer, and yet the king lent his ear to the counsel of cowards.
"But we shall not forsake our old alliance with Gondor," I assured him sternly. "And while they fight we shall aid them: so say I and all who hold with me."
Quickly I sketched the disposal of my folk, all but my guards and scouts withdrawn to dubious safety beyond the Entwash.
"Then you do not pay tribute to Sauron?" asked the Dwarf.
Hard his head was, hard as the stone his people delved, and it struck me that I could learn to like him for that. Yet I spoke sharply enough that he would not misunderstand me.
"We do not, and we never have, though it comes to my ears that that lie has been told."
I spoke bitterly of the Dark Lord's desire for our black horses, and how our refusal to sell at any price sparked raids by thieving Orcs. How I grieve the loss of sleek ebony forms pounding with the wind across the plains, and as I spoke, perhaps I saw a softening in the watchful eyes of the Dwarf and his comrade Elf.
Saruman's treachery took precedence even over the loss of our horses, however, and I detailed from memory a report of events transpiring in the Riddermark. I knew not what intelligence Aragorn had of these lands, and I would not see him go forward uninformed. Of Orcs and Wolf-riders and even Men I warned him, all sworn to Saruman's service. The Gap of Rohan was also closed, so I feared attack now from both east and west, though brave Erkenbrand held the Fords of the Isen westward.
"It is ill dealing with such a foe," I said. "He is a wizard both cunning and dwimmer-crafty, having many guises. He walks here and there, they say, as an old man hooded and cloaked, very like Gandalf, as many now recall."
Nor do I believe that all Saruman's spies dwell within Isengard, which suspicions I told Aragorn. Saruman's birds own the skies, and there are whispers even within the Golden Halls of Meduseld.
"But if you come to the king's house, you shall see yourself." A sudden eagerness seized me even as the words left my mouth. "Will you not come? Do I hope in vain that you have been sent to me for a help in doubt and need?"
"I will come when I may," said Aragorn.
My heart sank within me, and I clutched for desperately for that small hope I had found in him. "Come now! The Heir of Elendil would be a strength indeed to the Sons of Eorl in this evil tide. There is battle even now upon the Westemnet, and I fear that it may go ill with us."
I was pleading, I confess it. I abandoned all shame when I told him how I disobeyed my king and left his house but weakly-guarded, to pursue the reports of my scouts. But my disobedience was not without merit, for my darkest suspicions were proven in the bodies of the Orcs we slew yesterday dawn. They bore the White Hand of Saruman, and they were greater in strength and fury than any other Orcs. Orthanc and the Dark Tower were now allied, I was certain, and though the knowledge came at the cost of fifteen men and a dozen horses, we now knew what we faced. Nor could we, cold truth whispered, face it alone.
"Will you not come?" I begged. "There are spare horses, as you see. There is work for the Sword to do." I cast a swift glance at the Elf and Dwarf, as well, for I saw them listening closely. "Yes, and we could find a use for Gimli's ax and the bow of Legolas, if they will pardon my rash words concerning the Lady of the Wood." Earnestly meeting their eyes, I added, "I spoke only as do all men in my land, and I would gladly learn better."
However, Aragorn was already shaking his head, albeit with the appearance of genuine regret.
"I thank you for your fair words, and my heart desires to come with you; but I cannot desert my friends while hope remains."
Aye, and how mighty a heart it was, to cling when all was lost. Gently but firmly, I said, "Hope does not remain. You will not find your friends on the North-borders."
He protested, as I knew he must. They had found no trace of their friends on the back-trail, no sign turning from the Orcs' path, nothing but one last token that one captive, at least, still lived. How could they be lost, if no sign remained, aye or nay? Nor was Aragorn inclined to mistrust his own skills. Sadly, I asked what he thought had become of them, and still that stubborn, magnificent faith burned true. In the same breath that he admitted they could have been lost and burned with the bodies of the Orcs, he also embraced my certainty that no little people had been among them. The only answer then must be that his friends were carried away into the forest before the battle.
"Can you swear that none escaped your net in such a way?" he demanded.
"I would swear that no Orc escaped after we sighted them," I said cautiously. "We reached the forest-eaves before them, and if after that any living thing broke through our ring, then it was no Orc, and had some elvish power."
"Our friends were attired even as we are," Aragorn stated, and one eyebrow tilted slightly. "And you passed us by under the full light of day."
"I had forgotten that," I said, and breathed in, then let go a long breath. Hope. A thing fleeting and fickle as sun through clouds, but no less precious. Legends walked and myth looked me in the eyes; how did a man find his way, when all the world had become strange to him? With clear eyes, so Aragorn reminded me, for good and evil have not in all the ages changed their natures.
Among my waiting éored their horses stamped and blew, and the shadows grew longer beneath us. The time for counsel was past and only duty remained. Aye, and the son of Arathorn was a hard man, even on the brink of our seeming accord. I reminded him that my law bid me command these strangers to an audience with my King, for permission to pass upon these lands. However, Aragorn's own stern, strange laws bid otherwise, and he denied the label of stranger outright, upon the names of both my father and my king. He would go on, with or without my leave.
"Come now, son of Éomund," he said. "The choice must be made at last. Aid us, or at the worst set us free. Or seek to carry out your law. If you do so there will be fewer to return to your war or your king."
Ah, my heart broke, not for his gallant defiance, but for what I saw in the faces of Legolas and Gimli, who waited but their captain's command to leap headlong into battle and certain death. I envied - yes, envied! - that they could love him so, whilst I must turn aside from a man whom I suddenly knew I could follow to the very ending of the world.
"We both have need of haste," I said finally. "My company chafes to be away, and every hour lessens your hope. Here is my choice. You may go; and what is more, I will lend you horses. This only I ask: when your quest is achieved, or is proven vain, return with the horses over the Entwade to Meduseld, the high house in Edoras where Théoden now sits. Thus you shall prove to him that I have not misjudged."
I looked him hard in the eyes as I added, "In this I place myself, and maybe my very life, in the keeping of your good faith. Do not fail."
"I will not."
And I believed.
Continued in Part 2
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