30. The King of The Mark
The King of the Mark
Gimli sat on his heels at the edge of the circle of firelight in the small encampment, three leagues east of Isen. The Grey Company, a few dozen amidst a throng of Rohirrhim, had halted in the small hours of night to tend to their wounded.
This battle's done, at least, he thought. But the company grows stranger as the night spins on… The smell of horseflesh was overpowering. Gimli scowled as his eyes focused on a red streak. You said you would watch his back, and look what happened… what almost happened… Tall warriors stood all around him, their eyes on a figure seated on a leather saddle on the ground and ignoring the Dwarf crouched among them.
"Your reflexes have grown terribly sluggish, little brother," said one, his fair face creased with an impish grin. His hands were held up, draped with clean, damp cloths at the ready.
The second reached for a cloth and leaned inward. "Indeed, Estel," he laughed. "Did you forget to duck?" He squeezed out the cloth and carefully bathed a long gash on the back of the seated man's right shoulder.
"It is something of a challenge to duck from three axes at once," Aragorn said through gritted teeth. His grimy tunic lay nearby on the ground, and he shivered slightly as moisture dripped down his bare back. He looked up at yet another tall, grey-cloaked man standing nearby, who gazed on the scene with a look of mild amusement on his otherwise serious face. "My brothers never fail to take an opportunity to remind me of my imperfect, mortal attributes," he said.
Halbarad's brows rose. "Such is the burden of a pampered childhood in the Hidden Vale of Lord Elrond… "
"Pampered?" his injured friend sniffed. "With these two around, constantly badgering me?"
Elrohir snorted. "Badgering! On the contrary, we treated you with all the respect you were due… not to mention saving your behind more times than either of us can count," he muttered under his breath.
"It is hard to believe the turn of fortune that brought us here, on this very night," Halbarad said. "Were the Greyflood not in her full spring rage, and our crossing not delayed, we would have reached the Isen two days ago."
"If fortune it was, and not the work of the Powers watching from afar," Aragorn said. "Our horse, on loan from the Golden Wood, was lamed the evening before last—else we, too, might well have reached this spot sooner. But the cost of your fortuitous delay and our convergent paths was steep," he sighed. "My heart aches for my old friend..."
"Roheryn was a magnificent steed, who would have given his life for you in battle," Halbarad said quietly. "The surging waters that took him brought us to your side exactly when you needed us. If Roheryn could have talked, Aragorn, he would have told you he was glad that your life was saved, no matter the price." The Dûnedain lieutenant reached out and squeezed his Captain's—and his kinsman's--left shoulder.
Elladan frowned and bent down to peer at the wound, now cleared of caked blood and dirt. The slash across the back of Aragorn's right shoulder blade was more than a hand's-span wide and deep enough that bone peeked through in one spot. "This will need sutures…"
"At least a dozen, I'd guess," Elrohir replied softly.
"A dozen?" Aragorn groaned, as he looked over his shoulder to try to see the wound. "Can you not make do with fewer?"
Elrohir firmly grasped his patient's head and turned it forward. "No, I cannot—not for a wound this deep. Indeed, I fear that two dozen sutures will be necessary. Now, hold still, Estel, if you value the power of your sword-stroke…"
"Elrohir has been stitching up the scratches of Valandil's descendents for centuries before you were born, little one. He knows his work. And forget not that we must answer to our sister for the appearance of your scars," Elladan laughed.
"Were it not for Gimli's swift defence," Aragorn said glumly, as he glanced at the Dwarf hunched in the nearby shadows, "Arwen would have no scars to fret over. That axe was intended to land several inches above and to the left." He rubbed the back of his neck. "The axe-man's aim went awry." He grinned in his friend's direction. "Logically so, for his legs had been cut from beneath him!"
Halbarad crouched near Gimli as they both watched the sons of Elrond minister to their friend.
"It was close…too close," the Dwarf muttered under his breath. "Had you and the Elf-Twain not appeared…"
"Aye," Halbarad breathed. "I have saved my kinsman's life, and he mine, on many an occasion. But we had no idea what—or who—was hidden amidst the Fords when we stumbled into the battle between men and Orcs upon the western banks of Isen. It was the Rohirrhic commander, Grimbold, who begged us to charge forward to the eyot. He feared for his own Prince's life, and was unaware of the plight of he whom I call Lord…"
"It is well you are here, Halbarad of the North." The Dwarf looked up and eyed the Ranger. "Aragorn needs cool-headed friends by his side."
Frowning, Halbarad opened his mouth to ask Gimli what his cryptic comment meant when he was cut off by the approach of a party of a dozen men on horseback, their beasts' hooves thudding in the night. Théodred and Grimbold rode at their head. They dismounted and came forward quickly.
"Hail, friends from the North!" Théodred called in Westron, his hand raised in a salute as he approached. "Now that the battle is won, have I leave to call you by your right name, 'Strider'?" he laughed as he stood with crossed arms in front of Aragorn. The Prince's eyes burned with fierce joy—the joy of the warrior graced by victory unexpected.
Aragorn's smile was thin. "This battle is won, it is true—though it is but the first of many," he muttered. "But yes, Prince, you may use my true name…"
Elrohir pointedly cleared his throat. A wince came and went across Aragorn's face as a rather deep suture was placed in his back. Isildur's Heir turned to glance over his shoulder—and the Elf behind him glared and twisted his patient's head to the front again.
"Then hail, Lord Aragorn, of the North, and hail as well to all his knights, stalwart warriors all!"
Théodred looked about cheerfully at the men who stood, or sat, in a loose circle. All were dark of hair and beard, though fair-skinned. Their eyes were piercing, and their faces were solemn. They wore no bright armor, and displayed no standard. Their cloaks and tunics were grey, and upon each one's left shoulder glittered a small brooch: a many-rayed silver star. The Prince of Rohan's smile faded as he took in the grim features of these two dozen northern men who had appeared from blackest night and averted disaster. To a man, they seemed older by far than the Rohirrhim, and vastly more experienced. Théodred suddenly felt that he stood amidst his elders. Then he caught sight of Elrohir and Elladan, and he swallowed hard as he stared at their youthful yet impenetrably old faces.
"Can it be? Are you… are you of the Elder Race?" he asked in a low voice. "Not in years beyond recall has Rohan seen one of your kind..."
"At least not that the Rohirrhim know," Aragorn said. "Yet the Elves have crossed this land freely for millennia, Prince, long before your people settled here. Forget not that near your northern borders lies the hidden realm of Lothlorien, that your people name the Dwimordene. Within those secret woods many of the Elder Kindred yet remain. Make welcome to my step-brothers, Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of the Lord Elrond, and the grandsons of the Lady of the Golden Wood." Elrohir looked up only briefly from his task of suturing to nod curtly, while Elladan inclined his head slightly and allowed a small smile to appear on his ageless face.
"Kin of the Sorceress of the Dwimordene!" Grimbold whispered hoarsely. His eyes were round, and the men of Théodred's guard that accompanied them murmured in fear. "My Prince, if I had known, I would never have sent them eastward across the Isen…"
"And had you prevented them," Théodred said sternly, "your only task would have been to chase the wolves of Isengard from our corpses. You did well, Grimbold." He bowed his head toward Elladan. "My Lord, welcome to the Mark, and my gratitude for your services in our hour of dire need." He gazed down at Aragorn, who frowned as Elrohir placed yet another stitch in his wound. "I see you are a leech. How fares your charge?"
"He will live," Elrohir said dryly. "But if he is to wield a blade heavier than a pocket-dagger again, he should hold still—" He prodded Aragorn in the ribs with one graceful knee. "—and must rest his right arm in a sling." The Peredhil turned toward Théodred. "Sire, as my brother received his wound in defence of the royal House of Eorl, I deem it your duty to make certain that he not attempt to raise a weapon for at least a week. Do I have your oath on it, Prince Théodred?"
Théodred nodded. "You have the word of the Mark, my Lord. Though such a small promise is hardly payment for my debt…"
"Lord Prince," Elladan interjected. "Perhaps I can suggest another manner of payment. Our brother's kinsman, Halbarad of the Dûnedain, was bringing his valiant steed, Roheryn, from their home in the far north; but alas, the beast was lost in the spring floods of the river Mithlond, or Greyflood, as you know it. Aragorn arrived at the Isen on foot, and my own horse bore him to this encampment before me. But his road hence requires swiftness. As a Lord of the Mark, might you find a suitable replacement to bear my brother?"
"That I most certainly can do," Théodred replied. He turned to the man on his left. "Harmund, choose a mount for Lord Aragorn from among the horses of the fallen within my éored." He paused, frowning deeply. "Fréma's steed—Silvercap—did the beast survive the battle, though his master did not?"
"He did, my Lord," Harmund said with a stiff bow. "I will see to it at once."
Théodred nodded as the newly promoted chief of his éored departed. He then crouched down until his face was level with the seated Aragorn's. Grimbold stepped forward and stood beside his Prince; the old officer studied the Dûnedain's face with a curious frown.
"And thus we come to the question I came here to ask, friend: your road hence," he said. "Aragorn, I would know where were you going when you came to the aid of the Mark. And of more import still: what path do you take from here?"
The crackle of the fire was loud in the silence that followed the Prince's question. Halbarad, Elladan, Elrohir and every one of the Northern Rangers turned toward him in anticipation of Aragorn's reply. Only Gimli did not move or give any suggestion that he was burning with equal curiosity to know the answer.
Aragorn looked up and caught Halbarad's gaze; then his eyes drifted to where Elladan stood watching him carefully. One of the Elf's brows rose, and his head shook almost imperceptibly.
"Though my ultimate goal is clear to me," Aragorn said slowly, "my exact route 'tween here and there is not."
"Then might I make a suggestion—nay, a plea?" Théodred said in a hoarse voice. He shifted forward until one knee was planted in the earth before Aragorn. Had anyone come new upon the scene, they might have thought the Prince of Rohan had come to beg a mighty boon from a greater Lord than he… and indeed, so it was, in truth.
"Come to Edoras with us," he said softly. He looked up at Elrohir standing above. "Your step-brothers… Sons of the legendary Elf-Healer, Elrond, and healers themselves, clear enough… Come to Meduseld, to the Golden Hall of my forefathers, my Lords, and put your healing skills to use in aid of the Mark! My father, the King…" His voice broke, and he went on in a whisper. "King Théoden is ill, and our most learned leeches cannot seem to help him…" The Prince passed a hand over his eyes for a moment, and when he looked up again his face was filled with anguish. "It is more than a sickness of the flesh," he said. "He is, I fear, bewitched…" His eyes flickered back and forth between Aragorn and the sons of Elrond. "The White Sorcerer is behind it… You said that Saruman now serves the Black Land to the East—and like that Enemy of old, this Sorcerer strikes with sickness, even in the heart of our homeland. We are helpless to fight such witchcraft, but you…!" He gazed at Aragorn. "Will you come?"
Aragorn returned his gaze intently; then his eyes fell. "I would speak to my kin, in private, Théodred-Prince, before answering."
The Prince nodded, and rose to his feet. "Of course. But parley not too long, Lords. Though the throngs of Isengard have, for the moment, retreated, they are not far away. We have not sufficient troops to hold the Fords tonight. Grimbold and his men shall pull back to safer ground in the Westfold, and my éored and I and the remnant of those who held the east bank ride to Edoras within the hour."
"Word shall be sent, when the Grey Company has made its decision," Aragorn said.
Six more stitches were required to close the wound to Elrohir's satisfaction. Grimbold tarried for a moment, watching the process with great interest on his lined and bearded face. Aragorn caught his eye but said nothing, waiting. Finally the old veteran spoke.
"Sire, I've heard two names applied to you this night," he said gruffly. "Neither one fits, if you ask me. If I didn't know better, I'd use a third name…"
Aragorn's lips twitched. "Might that name be 'Thorongil'?"
"Aye! Was he your father?" Grimbold asked eagerly, to the amusement of the sons of Elrond. The Rohirrhic commander looked about in confusion at their laughter.
Aragorn smiled. "I am Thorongil, Grimbold!"
"No! Impossilble! You're too young—it was nigh on forty years ago…"
"It was 38 years ago this coming summer. Perhaps you'll believe me if I tell my friends how you came by that hook-shaped scar you carry on your left…"
"By the gods!" Grimbold interrupted with a roaring laugh. By reflex, he reached around and rubbed the back of his left hip. "It is you! You look older, surely, but not four decades older! Why, I'm younger than you are, and I…well, I'm already an old man!"
Aragorn shook his head with a smile. "No, not an old man, Grimbold—an experienced warrior at the pinnacle of his wisdom. And I am blessed with the blood and long life of the Dûnedain." He clasped Grimbold's hand with his left. "I am glad to see you, old friend. There's no time tonight for old comrades to share tales. Yet we may meet again. Ride well, Grimbold, and safely."
"Ride well, Thorongil… I mean, Aragorn," the old captain grinned. He bowed to his old comrade-at-arms, and gazed nervously at Elrohir and Elladan before he turned and joined the rest of his guard, standing by. Soon the Grey Company and Gimli were alone again.
"There," Elrohir said as he snipped the final suture. "El, would you give me a hand…"
They worked together to bind their stepbrother's wounded shoulder and ease his arm into a sling. Halbarad found a loose, open shirt in his saddlebags and helped Aragorn slide his left arm into one sleeve and loosely draped the other over his bound shoulder. Elladan gingerly picked up the blood-spattered tunic Aragorn had discarded from where it lay on the ground.
"This is so soaked with Orc-blood that it ought to be burned," he said with distaste. "Have you a spare?"
"That was my spare," Aragorn said testily. "Our road has been long…"
"…and apparently rather dirty," Elladan said. "We'll rinse your leather jerkin at the next stream, but Halbarad's shirt will have to do. I'll not have my brother's work undone by rubbing Orc-filth into that wound until it festers."
Elladan then eyed his twin and the Ranger second-in-command, inviting them to join him on the ground near Aragorn with a raised eyebrow and a quick jerk of his head. His eyes fell upon the Dwarf; he paused for a moment, then nodded once. Gimli grunted, rose to his feet and moved silently into the small circle of men and Half-Elven warriors.
Aragorn looked at the faces around him. Gathered before him was nearly everyone he trusted most in all of Middle Earth. Only a few are missing: the rest of the Fellowship… Ada… Gandalf… and Arwen, of course… He drew in breath to begin—but Elrohir spoke first.
"Before you start, Aragorn, father bade us say something when we found you," he said. "These were his exact words: The days are short. If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead."
"And also he said, Bid Aragorn recall the words of the seer," said Elladan.
Aragorn frowned as he looked upon his stepbrothers' faces. "Always my days have seemed too short to achieve my goals," he murmured. "Yet great indeed will be my haste ere I take that road."
"What are these dread-sounding Paths, Aragorn?" Gimli said. The others looked at him in surprise, for the Dwarf had said hardly a word until that moment.
But Aragorn had fallen into silent thought and did not answer.
Elrohir gazed on Gimli with an appraising look. "They are called thus in Rohan, Master Dwarf, for the gate to that path is in the Horse Lords lands," he said. "I have not trod upon them myself, but it is said that the Paths of the Dead are a lightless, stony cavern, a narrow trail delving deep beneath the White Mountains, and that the tunnel emerges from darkness far to the south. Men say the Dead guard the tunnel and will suffer no living man to pass."
"Then why in Arda would anyone wish to go there?" Gimli snorted.
"Because the Seer said that someone would be forced to do so, in great need," Halbarad said.
"Who was this 'seer,' and what else did he say?"
"Thus spoke Malbeth the Seer, in the days of Arvedui, last king at Fornost in the North," Aragorn said softly. "'Over the land there lies a long shadow, westard reaching wings of darkness. The Tower trembles; to the tombs of kings doom approaches. The Dead awaken; for the hour is come for the oathbreakers: at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again and hear there a horn in the hills ringing. Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them from the grey twilight, the forgotten people? The heir of him to whom the oath they swore. From the North shall he come, need shall drive him: he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.'"
Gimli grumbled. "And I suppose it was to Isildur that these 'forgotten people' gave their oath… and broke it…"
"Precisely," Aragorn muttered. "And I am his heir…" He looked up and met Halbarad's eyes. "The Door to the Paths of the Dead is indeed in Rohan—in its very heart. We should have to pass directly through the settlement of Edoras to find the road to Harrowdale, where the narrow way leads to the Haunted Mountain and the Dark Door." He turned to his stepbrothers. "It seems your healing skills shall be put to use, brothers. If none object, I suggest we accompany the young Prince to his forefathers' halls, and before we depart, see what sickness grips King Théoden—for the strength of Rohan will be vitally important in the greater war yet to come."
Gimli looked on, astonished, as the Elves and the man he had judged to be a sensible officer nodded in agreement. Just like that…! They agree to take a road that is guarded by ghosts? He felt his heart race and his throat tighten; but he was not about to allow his fear show, especially not in front of Elves. Or Half-Elves, or whatever they are, he thought sourly. I said I would watch his back, and so I will—Dead or no Dead…
The Company made short work of breaking camp, extinguishing the fires and packing their few belongings. Halbarad lingered at Aragorn's side, helping him gather his things, making certain the sling was bound securely and that his Captain's cloak was wrapped over his shoulders. Harmund returned with a great dark grey stallion with a gleaming silver patch upon his brow, and together they assisted Aragorn into the saddle. Aragorn asked him to inform the Prince that the men of the North would come to Edoras; Harmund smiled and bowed deeply.
"Ride with me, Master Gimli," Halbarad said. "I think our friend will have enough to do controlling that stallion with one hand…"
Gimli nodded with relief. For a moment I thought I'd be stuck clinging to one of the Half-Elfs, he said to himself. He waited while Halbarad fetched his horse. Bound to one of the saddlebags was a long narrow pole, wrapped in black cloth and bound with thongs.
"What strange sort of thing are you carrying?" the Dwarf asked, as Halbarad boosted him into the saddle. "Looks too awkward by half, for horse and rider…not to mention for two riders…"
"I was meaning to ask the same," Aragorn said, as he eyed the long object with curiosity. "Though I wonder if I can guess…"
Halbarad grinned. "I picked it up at the gates of Rivendell, from the most beautiful maiden I—or anyone alive—has ever seen, if that gives you a hint…"
"It does," his Captain said, smiling broadly. "Keep it for me a while longer, will you, cousin?"
Halbarad nodded. "She mentioned that she wasn't quite finished—a few touches here and there… We rushed her, you see…"
"I don't care if it's entirely blank," Aragorn said with a sigh. "Just knowing she held the fabric in her soft hands would make it a fitting standard for me..."
* * *
The éored of Théodred, the remnant of the companies of Léod, Fréalaf and Éofor and the Rangers of the North set out into the dark night, their way lit by a dim moon half hidden behind scuttling clouds. Grimbold's troops veered directly east into the heart of the Westfold. Scouts seached miles ahead along the road from Isengard to Edoras to ensure that no ambush lay in wait for their young lord, and others fell back, watching for pursuers from the Wizard's Vale. Messages were sent swiftly onward to Meduseld with the news that the Prince was returning to his father's house.
Behind them and to their left, Aragorn and his Elven stepbrothers keenly felt the rage of the White Wizard, whose goal had been thwarted unaccountably. Even then, in the small hours between midnight and dawn, Saruman seethed with anger as he listened to his quaking servants try to explain how they could possibly have failed in their mission to take down the Prince.
"They fought like tarks of legend, my Lord," the Orc whispered. "Just like the old days…"
"And there were bloody Elves among them," hissed another.
"Begone from me, you fools!" cried the Wizard of Orthanc, and his servants fled. Saruman paced anxiously. Where is that fool, Grima, now? Why did he not inform me the Rohirrhim have allied themselves with Elves? Whence came them—from Lothlorien? He gazed at the southeast door to his study that led into a small antechamber. Perhaps…Yes… He strode across the room and flung open the door. There, in the center of the small circular room, waited a round pedestal covered with a square of black silk—and from beneath the finely woven fabric, a round object bulged upward. Perhaps… Perhaps the answers lay within its dark and fiery depths.
* * *
The slanting sun had set behind a shoulder of the White Mountains when the combined company of Rohirrhim and Rangers thundered up the final slope toward Edoras. The brilliant glow of the golden roof of Meduseld had fallen into shadow and was dull. Many folk, women and men too old or young for battle, came out to greet their Prince with words that spoke of joy at his returning, but with anxious looks on their faces.
Gimli looked out from behind Halbarad. They had ridden far through the night, rested their horses for but a few hours at noon, and continued on swiftly to reach shelter before night fell on them again. Gimli was stiff and sore from long hours in the saddle, and Aragorn's face was drawn as he braced his right arm against himself.
As they approached the settlement, the Dwarf frowned as he appraised the layout of the streets and clustered houses that surrounded the high knoll upon which sat the great hall of men.
"This is nothing but a hill town, one tenth the size of Dale," he grumbled. "Low walls, no dike or moat, a tiny outer fort… Why, this place is hardly defensible!"
"I agree," Halbarad said. "Their golden hall will be razed to the ground if Saruman decides to invade Rohan in earnest…"
"Best keep such sentiments to yourselves while we are guests in Meduseld," Aragorn said as he rode beside them. "The Rohirrhim are well aware of the shortcomings of the site of Edoras," he went on. "Yet this is their largest settlement, and the dwelling place of their kings… who is, after all, king by consent of the Marshalls. It is not their way to gather their strength in one place. They are a dispersed folk, and are uneasy hemmed in, as they would say, too close for comfort. There are no stonemasons among them; any stonework you see is a remnant from the days of Gondor's past, or when the Nûmenorians placed outposts here. The Rohirrhim have not come so very far from their ancestors, who moved their herds from pasture to pasture, never staying in one place for more than a season."
"But how can they expect to hold fast against their foes?" Gimli said, aghast at the very idea of such an unsettled life.
"The Rohirrhim have sheltered places--fortresses and hidden havens, carved into the living mountains that they live beneath but do not love. At times of great need their people retreat, until danger has passed." He frowned. "And such a time of need is upon them now—yet I see no sign that the folk of Edoras prepare for what must soon come…" He shook his head. "Théoden's illness must be serious indeed."
The Grey Company rode near the rear as they passed through the gate. They heard not the words spoken by Théodred to the gate wardens, but the men on guard stared at them solemnly as they walked their mounts beneath the wide arched door. The main body of Rohirrhim cantered to the right down a narrow way toward the stables and low buildings that housed the cavalrymen. The scent of roasting meats wafted from an open shed, and a line of men had already begun to form for mess when Halbarad and Gimli rode by.
Harmund appeared and had words with Aragorn; he nodded and turned to his kinsman.
"Théodred has requested that no more than five of us come to Meduseld," he said. "The rest can join the Riders and be housed with them for tonight. He is eager for our audience with the King to begin, and requests our presence there at once…"
Aragorn swayed slightly in his saddle; he closed his eyes as a wave of pain washed over him.
Halbarad reached out and steadied him. "Aragorn, you should rest now, and not hours from now… Leave their King to the Twain! They are master healers, after all, and you're in no shape to help anyone…"
Aragorn's eyes opened and he glanced to where his stepbrothers rode. Ahead, the passage was narrow for a short distance; they were forced to go single file, and Elrohir and Elladan were out of the range of hearing for the moment.
"I'll rest, soon enough," Aragorn muttered as he shook his kinsmans' hand away. "The men of the Mark have no knowledge of Elves, and fear them greatly—Théodred is a singular exception. I have no idea how his father might accept the Twain, nor others of his court. I've lived among these men—I'll smooth the way, if necessary." His mount needed no direction to find the street that led to the Golden Hall, and soon the party of five strangers had arrived.
Guards held their horses' bridles as they dismounted at the base of the broad stairway that led to the door of Meduseld. As Aragorn, Halbarad, Elrohir and Elladan climbed up, with Gimli at their heels, they saw Théodred waiting impatiently upon the terrace at the top before the open door, with Harmund standing a few paces away. On either side of the door, torches burned in brackets, for twilight had come. A tall man with plaited yellow hair wearing a green cloak and burnished mail leaned his head toward the Prince; he frowned as he shared some confidence for his Lord's ear alone. They turned as the strangers approached, Théodred smiling and the man beside him gazing at the two tall Evles and the bearded Dwarf in wonder.
"Welcome to the heart of the Mark, friends," Théodred said. "Hama is the Door Warden of Meduseld." The Prince's features hardened. "Hama tells me the King's chief counselor is with him—Gríma, called Wormtongue by all when away from my father's hearing. It would have been better, I deem, to find him abroad... Gríma's influence on the King has increased greatly, all the more so as my father has grown more infirm with age. But no matter. Though he oft has the King's ear, so too does the King's only son and heir." The look on his face as he nodded to Hama was grim, and the visitors exchanged glances as they pondered the Prince's words.
The hall of Meduseld was long and wide, with few windows placed near the ceiling. Carved and painted pillars marched in rows, and between the pillars hung tapestries of rich colors, hidden now in the dim, smoky light. They passed a great hearth along one wall where a bright fire burned, and as they approached the end of the hall they saw that here, many lanterns and torches were lit. At least a dozen men stood amidst the pillars, some in pools of light and others half hidden in darkness. A murmuring conversation could be heard, that ceased when the visitors came into full view.
A dais stood against the south wall, facing the great door, and upon it was a golden chair. The man who sat upon the throne was bent forward with great age, or infirmity; his hair was thick and white, as was his beard. His sunken eyes were closed; he seemed to be asleep. Behind the throne stood a young woman dressed in a white gown. Her golden hair fell to her waist. A tentative smile was on her trembling lips, and her eyes shimmered with unshed tears as she gazed at the returning prince.
"Hail, Théoden, King of the Mark!" cried Théodred. "I return, Lord, in the company of strangers who have proved to be friends unlooked for…" His voice trailed off as he took in the condition of his father. He stared for a long moment, his face stricken with grief. Then the Prince came forward and dropped to one knee before the King's throne. He reached out and gently clasped his father's limp hand lying still upon his knee.
"Father," he said in a hoarse voice. "I'm home… I'm here…"
Théoden slowly raised his head and opened his eyes. Aragorn frowned worriedly, for the old man's eyes appeared glazed and unseeing; he did not speak. At that moment a man with dark hair and a pale face with heavy lidded eyes stepped out from the shadows on the right. Théodred's head snapped toward him, and for an instant before he hid it, the hatred he felt was easily read on his handsome features. Halbarad's gaze was drawn to the woman in white, who stood stiffly as she stared at the dark-haired man, her breath coming in short pants and her pale blue eyes wide, as if she felt great fear.
"Welcome home, my Lord the Prince," the newcomer said with a cold smile. "We were so worried for your safety!"
"I've not yet seen his tongue," Elrohir whispered to his brother, "but his voice is very like a serpent's…"
"…as is his demeanor…" Elladan replied.
Théodred did not rise from his knee, nor move from his position at his father's feet, even as the man approached and stood within a yard of the throne. The man looked down and smiled again. The Prince returned the look with equal iciness.
"Greetings, Master Grima," he said dryly. "You are, perhaps, surprised to see me…if not tonight, then…at all?"
Grima frowned with a look of deep concern. "My Lord, I know not what you mean! Of course we are surprised to see you tonight… for the messages placed you many leagues west and north. You rode so swiftly, Prince—and have brought such…unusual guests to Meduseld!" His eyes flicked from one Elvish face to the other. The Peredhil gazed back at him impassively.
"Yes, and they are my guests, Gríma," Théodred said sharply. "You shall treat them with courtesy. But first…" He turned away, pointedly ignoring the counselor, and leaned forward. "Father," he said again, and he took the old man's hand in his, kissed his fingers and pressed them to his cheek. "It is I, my Lord—your son… Théodred... Wake, Father! Wake for me, can you not?"
The King stirred slightly and groaned, but his eyes drifted shut again and his head drooped forward. Théodred gazed at him in alarm as he reached out and took both his father's hands in his and shook him, gently but firmly. A sharp, stale odor came to his nose as he drew near. He shuddered as he at last realized to what extent his father's strength—and his dignity--had been reduced. The Prince looked up.
"Eowyn, how long has he been like this? He was not so ill when I left, just a week ago…"
The woman took a step forward and placed one slender pale hand upon the King's shoulder. The light of a hanging lantern fell more fully on her face; they could now all see that beneath her eyes were dark circles. "So it has been for some time now, even as the rumors of war draw you hence: when you are away, Prince, his…illness…deepens," she whispered, "only to lessen when we have word of your return..." She shot a look of pure hatred at Grima, who was watching her closely. "But as Counselor Grima says, you came home more quickly than anticipated…" Eowyn's voice was little more than a hiss as she pronounced the counselor's name.
"Alas, your young cousin is correct," Gríma said cooly. "The King has always rallied from the depths of his illness when word comes of your return, Prince. But I fear he is weakening…"
"No thanks to you, who would give him no rest from endless meetings and reports, from uncounted scrolls to sign…" Eowyn muttered.
"The realm must still carry out its business," Gríma said sharply, turning his brooding gaze from Eowyn to Théodred, "…whether the Heir to the throne sees fit to remain at his Lord's side, or no."
"Enough!" Théodred snapped. He dropped his grip on his father's hands and stood. The chief counselor's lip curled in a snarl as he was now forced to look up into the taller man's face. "That the King is ill, and desperately so, is clear, and the impact of his illness—be it the consequence of age or a yet unknown natural malady, or something more cunning—must be faced, and now." He glared at Grima, who glowered back at him.
Théodred turned to the gathered men in the hall—lords of Rohan, counselors, members of the household. "For the realm is in dire peril! Saruman of Isengard makes war upon us…"
"You are mistaken, Prince!" Grima interrupted. "The White Wizard has always been our ally and friend…"
"Silence, counselor Gríma!" Théodred shouted as he spun toward the man. Grima flinched and took a stumbling step backward. "It is you who are mistaken—more accurately, it is you who lie! Say not to me that the White Sorcerer is anything but an enemy of the Mark, for I was there as forces carrying his emblem slew more than half my éored, butchered uncounted horses and slaughtered good men of Rohan at the Fords!"
Wormtongue blinked as he looked back and forth between the stony faces of Théodred, Eowyn and the men in the hall who now stepped forward to crowd about the Prince. "My Lord!" he said in a hushed voice, his face now showing surprise and horror. "Can it be? Attacked by…? But… but of course, if you say it is so, it must be true…" He placed his palm against his chest, as though his heart labored with shock within him. He shook his head. "Alas, Prince Théodred, I was deceived by the Wizard Saruman, as were many… including your beloved father, the King!"
"Oh, I am certain you were mightily deceived, Wormtongue," Theodred said coldly. "But there shall be no more lies, Master Grima." He turned to Harmund. "Fetch the King's physician, and tell him to meet us in the royal chambers." He turned to the waiting visitors; he smiled at Aragorn, then he extended his hand toward him. "Lords of Rohan, these five are but the chiefs of a company of doughty men who by remarkable fortune came to my aid at the moment when needed most. Aragorn, Dûnedain of the North; his foster-brothers—Elrohir and Elladan, sons of the Elf-Lord Elrond of renoun; Halbarad, Aragorn's lieutenant and Gimli, Dwarf of Erebor in the East. Without them, my friends, I would not be standing here, but would surely have fallen at Isen's Fords two nights ago." Grima slowly took in and released a long breath. "I have asked their aid yet again—for these two are healers as well as fierce warriors." He gestured to the two Elves, and many of the men of Rohan gaped fearfully at them.
Théodred then turned toward the throne. He leaned down and placed a kiss upon his father's brow. "Forgive me, my Lord," he murmured. Then he lifted the silver circlet with its sparkling white gem from the King's head. Gríma sucked in harsh breath, but the others watched in silence as he handed the circlet to Eowyn. "Lay this upon the throne when the seat is empty, cousin," he said. He gestured to two guards who had been standing by behind the throne. "While the King is away, guard his throne and crown with your very lives," the Prince said. Then Théodred reached forward, and grasping his father's arm, he pulled it about his own shoulders and lifted the old man into his arms. He straightened, and Théoden's head slumped against his son's chest. The Prince's eyes sparkled in the torchlight as he stepped away from the dais.
"We will go to his chambers now," he said hoarsely. He glanced and nodded to the five visitors, who followed in his wake. Eowyn placed the circlet on the seat of the throne, then, as her cousin paused to wait, she came forward to lead the procession, her head held high.
At the side door that led to the inner rooms of Meduseld, Thíodred stopped and looked back.
"Gríma!" he said sharply. "You will accompany us!"
The chief counselor stopped in his tracks; he had been walking slowly and quietly along the shadowed edges of the hall, toward the great doorway. He turned without raising his head and hurried after them.
* * *
The King was privately tended by his son and closest servants--his royal garments removed, his soiled body cleansed--before the others were invited within the private chamber. Théoden lay now in his own bed, in loose bedclothing, his white head supported on pillows. The Prince and his cousin sat on one side, and Meduseld's chief physician, Harwine, leaned over his patient from the other. Aragorn and his stepbrothers stood by, watching. Gríma hovered in the far corner, staring sullenly at the two Elves.
Gimli leaned against the wall, Halbarad at his side. The room was far too small, in the Dwarf's opinion, for all the people in it: lords, kin of lords, counselors, leeches, servants, guards, the five strangers, and a half-dozen others he could not place. He glanced up; the lieutenant's worried gaze was fixed on Aragorn's face. The Dwarf studied him as well, and his jaw clenched. Aragorn's hurting mightily, though he hides it better than most men, he thought. These Half-Elfs had best get on with it, whatever it is they are planning…
Harwine sighed and straightened. "I fear his life ebbs, Prince," he said solemnly.
"But what is the nature of his sickness?" Théodred cried. "He is not that old, Harwine, and was hale enough at midwinter…"
"I…I cannot say, my Lord," Harwine whispered.
"Then you will have no objections when I ask these friends for their assistance," the Prince said. He looked Elrohir. "Lord, I beseech you…"
"There is no need; I am glad to give my aid," Elrohir murmured as he placed his hand on Harwine's shoulder. The man looked terrified, but his face grew calmer as he stared into the Elf's deep eyes. He nodded and stepped aside.
Gimli watched curiously as the Elf went about his examination: holding the King's wrist, his fingers resting lightly on his pulse; pushing here and there upon the old man's midsection; leaning forward to press an ear to his chest; sniffing his exhaled breath; carefully opening his lids and searching his eyes.
"There is no sign of fever or heat in his flesh, nor the odor of festering within upon his breath," he muttered. He pressed his hands upon the King's limbs. "Here is a man whose strength had not waned, nor his sinews withered, until very recently. This is not merely the ravaging of age upon a mortal body…" He leaned inward and sniffed near Theoden's lips again. "I sense no ordinary poison, although… Some sweet scent lingers… It is unfamiliar to me… I cannot be certain of its source…"
He looked up, and Elladan came to the bedside. Soon they sat on either side of Théoden, each with one of the old man's hands cradled in his own. The Elves bowed their heads and closed their eyes; the room fell utterly still as all waited.
Five long, silent minutes passed, and the Peredhil did not move save to breathe. Then Elrohir sighed and sat back. He turned and gazed at Aragorn.
"Estel, he fears us," he said quietly. "He will not—or cannot hear our voices…"
"And there is something else," Elladan muttered."Or someone…"
"I will attempt it," Aragorn said.
Elladan frowned. "Are you certain you are strong enough?"
Halbarad stiffened as Aragorn nodded and stepped forward. Théodred stared in astonishment as his new-found friend took on an unexpected role.
"Then you also are a healer?" he said in a hushed voice.
"The blood of the line of Elros, my father's twin, runs in his veins," Elrohir said. "And our father himself trained him, as he did us."
"Be wary, brother," Elladan said softly. His face was grim. "Something is not as it seems …" He rose and came around the room as Elrohir stood and allowed Aragorn to sit near the bedside.
Aragorn leaned forward and took Théoden's hand in his left; then he sat back, and shrugging his right arm free of the sling he reached out and took the King's hand between both of his. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, just as the Twain had done. Elladan placed one hand upon his foster-brother's left shoulder, and Elrohir reached out and gently clasped him upon his upper right arm. The room was quiet once more save for a soft voice.
"Théoden-King," Aragorn whispered in Rohirrhic. "Master of the Mark…Lord of Horses… Hear my voice… Return from the shadows, Théoden, son of Thengel and of Morwen Steelsheen… Your people need you… Your only son needs you… Hear me, Théoden… Hear me…
Suddenly Aragorn groaned and his face twisted with a grimace. His eyes flew open and he dropped his hold on Théoden's hand. Halbarad rushed forward, and the Elves grasped his arms and pulled him back and away from the King.
"Estel, what happened?" Elrohir said urgently.
"Someone was there—another vies for control of him," Aragorn said hoarsely. "A formidable mind… Cold and cunning…"
"Saruman," Théodred hissed.
"Don't you dare try that again," Halbarad muttered into Aragorn's ear.
Elladan peered worriedly into Aragorn's face. "Was it Curunir? Did he sense you, Estel?"
"I do not think so." Aragorn said, as he passed a trembling hand over his brow. "And I know not who it was… indeed, what it was. I have never felt such a powerful presence before…"
But even as he said the words, a thought came to Aragorn. No—that is not true, for at times, I have felt Gandalf's presence thus, as something wholly strange, as a power that seems to exist beyond the substance of this world… As he was at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, facing that other power from beyond the substance of Arda… Aragorn felt a shiver pass through him, and weariness fell on him like a heavy cloak. So: the White Wizard has found the means to invade Rohan at her very core. Worry not, Halbarad—I have no intention of attempting that again… I am not strong enough to counter the power of an Istar… Neither are my brothers… He raised his head and gazed at Théodred. The fate of the Mark is in your hands now, Prince…
"Prince Théodred," Aragorn said quietly, "to invade another's mind at a great distance is a powerful feat. I would not think it possible, without the use of some substance--a drug, or potion--to weaken one's defences. Does the King's table have a taster, my Lord?"
Théodred's face flushed. "Of course!" He turned to Harmund. "The King's taster—find him and bring him here at once!"
"And I say, search Counselor Grima, and his rooms! Mayhap something amiss will be found," Eowyn said heatedly.
"I will not be accused thus!" Grima whined from his corner. "I have always been a loyal servant to my Lord the King…"
Théodred stared at him stonily. "That may have once been true, Grima," he said. "You gave wise and fair counsel to my father in days past, especially in the dark years for the King, when his young wife, my mother Elfhild, was gone and all light, it seemed, had vanished with her…" Eowyn hissed. Her cousin turned to her. "You can hardly be blamed for your manner toward this one, sweet Eowyn." He reached out and caressed her cheek, and she blinked hard and clenched her teeth as she struggled to contain her emotions. "I know the foul things he has whispered to you—and how he dogs your footsteps and watches your every move. Be at ease, cousin—your days and nights of fear from that one are at an end."
He turned again to Wormtongue, who regarded him with undisguised loathing. "But whatever you once were, Grima, your loyalty is now in doubt—for who is it that has advised no course but diplomacy between Orthanc and Edoras? Who has traveled a dozen times, perhaps more, to Isengard to seek audience with the White Sorcerer? Who has repeatedly denied the growing evidence of the Wizard's treachery?"
Grima cowered as two of Theodred's guards took a step toward him.
"Do as the Lady Eowyn says—take him to the hallway, search his person, and then his rooms! Bring anything to me that is suspicious in any way," Théodred said firmly. They guards dragged the protesting Grima from the room.
Harmund returned with Fréar, an old and somewhat frail man who served in the harrowing role of the royal taster, as had his father and grandfather before him. Fréar bowed low to Théodred; then his eyes fell on the figure of the King lying silent in his bed. The man burst into tears and fell to his knees.
"Ah, my Lord," he cried out, "forgive me… Forgive me!"
Théodred's face twisted with anger; then his features softened as the man's pitiful cries continued.
"For what crime do you beg forgiveness, Fréar? Come, man, confess. Have you failed to test my Lord's food and drink?"
"Never!" he choked. "But…" Fréar looked up with anguished eyes. "But at times… Not often, until of late…"
"What? Tell me!" the Prince cried.
"He threatened my family, Lord! He said my daughters would be…" He clenched his eyes shut and shuddered. Fréar was a widower who had no sons, but three remarkably lovely young daughters, soon to be of marriageable age. Eowyn's hand came up to her throat as she swallowed hard.
Theodred's jaw tightened. "What did Counselor Grima make you do?" he said in a low voice.
"After I tasted the King's food and drink, Lord Grima would insist that he carry the King's meals into his rooms himself! I protested that it goes against our laws, but he commanded me…"
"How often did this happen?"
"Not often, at first… But in the last few weeks, nearly every day…" Fréar groaned and buried his face in his hands. "If the King dies, it is my fault! I should be hung for murder…"
Théodred's fce darkened with rage. "No, but there is another who should suffer that fate."
Moments later the door flew open, and Théodred's guards rushed in.
"He slipped from us, sire!"
"Aye, Lord!" the guard said. "He cooperated—perhaps too easily! He let us search him, and we found nothing…"
"The he took us to his rooms, and unlocked the door without protest…"
"I was searching his trunk…"
"…and I had turned my back for just a moment, to unbolt the door to a closet, and when I looked again, he was gone!"
"He has a secret entrance, sire, at the back of his chamber," the first guard said. "When we discovered him missing, we tore open the hidden door, but he was nowhere to be seen."
Théodred ordered a search for the fugitive, then he turned to the two guards. "What did you find in his rooms? A phial of poison?"
"Nay, Lord, nothing like that…But we found this, hidden in his trunk…"
The man produced a sword—an ancient blade with a golden scabbard set with green gems upon the hilts.
"Herugrim! My father's blade!" Théodred cried. "The foul traitor—find him!"
But the search for Grima Wormtongue proved fruitless, for indeed the man had prepared long for just this contingency. He had slipped from a side door of Meduseld and galloped away into the night on his own horse even as the guards were reporting his deeds to the Prince.
Elrohir's hand had not left his stepbrother's right shoulder, and the Peredhil could easily feel the throbbing heat there. When Aragorn tried to rise, he pushed him back down firmly and held him there. He leaned down and muttered into his ear.
"Not so fast, Estel. The only place you are going this night is to the guest chamber, where my brother and I have more work to do before we retire."
Aragorn looked up; both Elladan and Halbarad were glaring at him as well. He nodded slightly; his shoulder was throbbing terribly, and he was skilled enough know that the wound had in all likelihood festered. He did not look forward to the "work" that lay before them all. But other business remained undone.
"Lord Théodred," Aragorn said sharply, attempting to draw the Prince's attention from his anger at the missing Gríma. Théodred turned to face him. "My stepbrothers and I, alas, are as helpless as the leeches of Rohan to ease your father's malady. You said earlier that the consequences of the King's illness—no matter the cause—must be reckoned with, and soon. What are your plans, Prince?"
Théodred's face was flush with rage, but he frowned deeply and nodded. "You are correct, friend. A decision must be made—now."
He took Eowyn's hand in his. "Stay with him, dearest. I will return soon."
She nodded. "I am ever by his side, Prince—none but Grima has been able to drive me from him."
"That I know, and for that my gratitude is everlasting." He leaned toward her and kissed her cheek. Then the Prince of Rohan turned to where his father lay stricken. He took his hand and knelt, and placing his father's limp hand upon his own brow, Théodred closed his eyes for a silent moment. He kissed Théoden's fingers once more, and rose and left the chamber. The others followed.
The great hall of Meduseld was abuzz with talk. More than forty men now gathered near the dais where the guards stood as graven statues on guard at the throne and crown of the King. Théodred strode forward and stood before them.
"Men of Rohan," he said in a clear voice. "The King's illness has been proven beyond doubt to be the work of the traitor Gríma Wormtongue, in league with our enemy, the White Sorcerer of Isengard."
The room erupted in shouts of anger and calls for revenge. The Prince held up his hand, and they fell quiet. "My Lord the King is, at present, too ill to command the Mark. Yet my father Théoden lives still, and he is a great man and a great King. In this hour of our peril, when foes threaten the very survival of our people, I must plead a boon from you, Lords of this realm, at whose consent the House of Eorl rules." He paused and looked about. Every eye was on him. "Give me leave to rule in my father's stead, until the day comes that I long to see—when he will rise from his sickbed to take once again to the saddle and lead the Riders of Rohan to victory!"
The men began cheering and shouting loudly. Calls of King Théodred! and Lord of the Mark! brought the Prince's hands up again, gesturing for silence.
"Nay, friends, say no such thing—for I shall not bear the name King before the time allotted. Indeed, who can say, in these fell days of doom, who shall live longer, the father or the son? Give me only your consent, Lords, and I vow to do my best to lead the realm in my father Théoden's name. What say you?"
A loud Aye rung out from the crowd, and in the next moment Théodred was thronged with the men of Rohan, reaching out to clasp his hand, grip his shoulders or thump his back.
Halbarad turned to his commander. "And now to your duty, Lord."
"Yes, little one," Elladan said as he steered Aragorn out the door. "We've a few tasks before us yet. Halbarad, do you think you might find a friendly servant of Meduseld or unoccupied Rider who might show us to our rooms and make certain the Lord Aragorn partakes of the famous hospitality of the Riddermark?"
* * *
By morning, it was clear to Elrohir that Aragorn's festering wound was more serious than he had thought.
"No doubt the blade of that axe was tainted," he murmured, "and by some evil potion concocted in Isengard." Elladan and Halbarad leaned anxiously over the prone Ranger chieftain while Elrohir undid another ten sutures. The edges of the wound were fiery red, and though he had drained it the night before, yet more purulence had gathered within.
"Sorry, Estel," he whispered as he pressed near the gash. Aragorn groaned softly as he shifted on the cot and clenched his fists. Elrohir's movements bored deeply into his shoulder and shot a bolt of pain down his arm. It feels as though he's digging in me with the end of a spade….
The Elf expressed foul, greenish pus from the wound. The odor was nauseating.
"Like dead flesh," Gimli muttered from across the room. He had no desire to see his friend's wound up close. He felt guilty enough for having failed in his self-appointed task.
Aragorn was burning with fever, and his skin was drenched with sweat. The Peredhil went to work stripping his garments from him and bathing him in lukewarm water steeped with herbs. A bowl of steaming water with a few crushed leaves floating in it stood on a nearby table. The light fragrance, of a flowered glade deep in the hidden forest of Lothlorien that the brothers knew well, was just enough to combat the stench of the infection.
"It was well we came to Meduseld after all," Aragorn said weakly. "I would not have fared nearly as well in the field…" His fever abruptly broke, and his shivering began in earnest.
"It remains to be seen how well you shall fare under a roof, Estel," Elrohir said grimly. The three of them quickly wrapped their comrade in blankets and coverlets.
Halbarad took on the role of intermediary between the sick man's room and the rest of the household of Meduseld. He had gone in search of Theodred the evening before, to inform him of the turn of events, but had only been able to approach Harmund.
"No one else who took a wound from those axe-men survived the night," Harmund said grimly. "Your Lord Aragorn is made of tough stuff to have lived 'til now…"
"He is," Halbarad agreed, but his heart sank as he contemplated the odds his friend and Commander seemed to face. Harmund said that anything they required was theirs, and he left to report Aragorn's plight to Théodred.
But the Prince and all-but-King-of-the-Mark found himself overwhelmed with the sudden burdens that came with rule of a far-flung kingdom under threat of war. It was not until past noon on the day after their arrival in Edoras that Théodred found time for a visit to Aragorn's room.
"How is he?" he muttered to the Elf standing guard over his stepbrother. The Prince could not tell one from the other; the second twin was momentarily absent from the room, and Halbarad was visiting the other members of the Grey Company. Gimli sat in silence in the corner, unmoving, and unnoticed.
"Asleep, at the moment," whispered Elladan. "He is a bit better, this afternoon. But he will require at least a few more days of rest…"
"Say no more, Lord," the Prince said. "You may all stay at Meduseld as long as is necessary."
The Elf nodded solemnly, and hoped that Elrohir's mission to speak to the herbmaster—or mistress--of the Rohirrhim had been successful.
Théodred stared at Aragorn's face as he lay sleeping on his left side, his right arm bound fast. The Prince sighed. "I owe him—all of you—so much more than I can express… I cannot hope to repay you, but I would find a fitting gift…" A slight smile played on the Prince's lips. He looked up.
"In all your travels, Lord…er…"
Théodred grinned. "Elladan… Have you met a wandering old man, one we in Rohan name Greyhame?"
"Gandalf? But of course. He is a frequent visitor in my father's house, and I have traveled with him many times. Aragorn knows him very well… perhaps Aragorn knows Gandalf the Grey as well as anyone, at least in this Age of the world, and on these shores."
The Prince's blue eyes twinkled. "Good. I thought as much."
Elladan frowned. "Why do you ask, Prince?"
He smirked. "Oh, just an idea…" He stood. "I fervently hope that you are right, Lord Elladan, and that our friend Aragorn will soon be well enough… to ride again." He bowed and left the Elf wondering what the Prince was plotting.
By the following day—the third morning from the battle at the Fords—Aragorn was able to sit, and by noon he could rise from his bed. The wound was still red, and Elrohir had not dared to stitch it closed again, but he agreed with his stepbrother that it was more important that he move about and regain some of the lost strength in his legs. Leaning slightly on Halbarad, Aragorn made his way to a side entrance with a terrace that looked out on a paddock and some nearby stables, and beyond to the range of peaks in the south, climbing on above them.
The air was full of the scent of horseflesh, but the wind was fresh and crisp with the lingering snows in the mountains above them. Aragorn breathed in deeply. "This is much better," he said, as he gazed south. The White Mountains were tall and sharp; all but the steepest peak was draped with snow and dazzling ice. There were, he knew, no passes through that range, save for a few, in mid-summer, routes open only briefly in the warmest months. To reach the south of Gondor—the Stone of Erech, and the coastline of the great Bay of Belfalas—one must go hundreds of leagues to the east or west around the range. Or under, into darkness, he thought grimly. His eyes fell and he frowned, brooding on the dread path he would soon seek.
Halbarad noted his look. "How goes it? Do you wish to sit, Aragorn?" he said quietly.
"No, I am alright. I was just thinking too far ahead, as usual."
The two Rangers stood side by side, looking at the distant peaks. Elladan and Elrohir appeared soon afterward, followed by Gimli. The three exchanged a look; and Halbarad glanced over his shoulder. His brow rose, and one corner of his mouth curled. They had all been summoned, it seemed, and only Aragorn was not aware of the invitation.
Suddenly the wooden gate of the paddock slammed open, and from along a curving path from the fields below, a great black horse with a Rider in white and green came riding, his golden braids and plaited beard streaming. It was Théodred, and the men of his éored rode with him. He rode bareback, and leapt from his mount's back as he reached the center of the paddock. He saluted the terrace where Aragorn and the others stood.
"Hail, Lord Aragorn of the North! I come to present a small token of repayment of the debt that cannot be paid, friend." His smile flashed. "I would like to give you a proper horse, Aragorn…"
"But you've already given me a steed, and a fine one at that," Aragorn laughed as he leaned forward on the low terrace wall.
"True, but I believe there is another, more suitable… That is, if you are man enough for him!"
The Prince grinned and turned. The Lady Eowyn rode up the slope on a grey mare, and she, too, rode without saddle or bridle. The onlookers gazed at her in awe, for it seemed that she was one with her horse; the slightest movement of her bare ankles or just a gentle flick of her wrist, and her horse obeyed her. But in a moment their eyes were drawn to an even more remarkable sight—for in her wake, following the mare, was the most magnificent horse any of them had ever seen.
Silver-grey, rippling with muscle, mane and tail streaming like liquid mithril, eyes black as obsidian: the riderless stallion trotted into the paddock behind Eowyn's mare. He nosed the horse and whinnied softly.
Eowyn laughed. "Dove is his current consort, and it is a good thing he's still interested in her, otherwise no one could convince him to come so close to Meduseld!"
"Indeed, usually our Lord is to be found far afield, roaming with the herds that he commands," Théodred said. "May I present to you Shadowfax, Lord of the Mearas, and King of Horses!"
"Shadowfax!" Aragorn breathed. "That was the name of the horse that Gandalf rode from Rohan when he escaped from Saruman last September…"
"So it was, my friend," Théodred said. "He returned to us in the end of October, covered with mud and burrs and with eyes flashing—the tales that horse might have told, could he but speak! And none has been able to approach him since—not that Shadowfax was ever a docile mount!" Théodred and his men scattered to the sides of the paddock as Eowyn began trotting Dove in a circle. Shadowfax strode easily after them, hardly appearing to exert himself. Then Eowyn dug in her heels, and Dove galloped—and Shadowfax finally broke into a fast trot.
The Prince looked up at the terrace and grinned. "He's yours, Aragorn! All you must do is find a way to befriend this friend of your old friend, Gandalf Greyhame! And you should know that we in the Mark do not part with our Mearas for just anyone. They are reserved for the Royal House, and in all our long years here in Rohan, Greyhame is the only other who has ridden one. You must treat him well, and with respect, or I promise you—he will be your friend no longer, and neither will I."
Aragorn was stunned. "He is a royal gift, my Lord Prince. I am not certain I am up to the task of befriending him… But I intend to begin, tomorrow at dawn!" He smiled broadly.
But Halbarad of the North frowned, for he could not help but notice how the Lady Eowyn's eyes were shining as she smiled eagerly at Aragorn, and the glow upon her white cheeks.
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.