21. Fisher King
Dawn had come and gone unnoticed, for all Edoras lay under a dark cloud. The rain had continued on and off, and at the moment it came down in a drizzle, but the skies remained threatening whether or not it fell. And although it hindered some activities, the rain had helped to douse the fires, to cleanse the air somewhat of the pervasive scent of ash, and it washed the gore from the streets in scarlet rivulets. Aragorn stood just outside the wreck of the main gates, and lifted his face to the sky, letting the slap of chill water numb his aches and weariness.
It had taken hours to comb through the Entwood in search of lost, frightened men, and although it would take time for Edoras to heal, some of the rubble had had to be cleared for safety's sake. Houses had needed to be checked by sweep patrols to clear out any orcs or Dunlendings that might have taken shelter in them, hoping to be overlooked. Aragorn had overseen some of the teams, and had had the misfortune to discover a few such rat's nests. In the mean time, a pair of scouts had been sent north towards Helm's Deep to see whether there lay any unfought forces still between the two strongholds, and to alert them in the event that there were. And if there were none, then Elfhelm and Erkenbrand—assuming that they lived still—would accompany the messengers home. The people of Edoras would remain within the inner keep until tomorrow, which meant that despite the lifting of the siege, quarters would still be quite cramped. And then there was the burial work that had to be done...
The Ranger grimaced, and ran a hand over his face as he lowered his eyes once more. His few hours of sleep the night before last were not sufficient to the need of today, and he knew that he ought to take the time granted him and rest. Yet he could not quite bring himself to return yet to the crowded keep, even knowing that he at least had a bed to sleep in, unlike so many others. Burial work! He had done his share of that as well—not because he was needed, but because he needed to lay his grief to rest along with Gimli. That, and Legolas has done enough today without straining himself further. Éomer had wanted to help, but he had been called to the inner keep by Théoden on some urgent errand.
Thus it had been a small party of mourners about the Dwarf's grave when at length it had come time to lay him in it and cast the earth's shroud over him. The hobbits, in an unusual show of conscientiousness, had gone to the trouble of gathering piles of broken cobblestones from the main road to lay over the turned soil. "I don't suppose we could raise anything like what we saw in Moria," Merry had murmured, and looked anxiously up at Aragorn. "Do you think this will do, Strider?"
"'Tis a fitting gesture," the Ranger had replied. "I think he would approve." The hobbits had seemed somewhat relieved by that assurance, but Legolas had scarcely twitched, staring with unseeing eyes at the stone-covered patch of ground. The Elf had knelt and placed his hands firmly upon the grass near the head of the grave, and Aragorn had thought he understood the prince's intentions. But no sound had issued from Legolas's lips, and eventually, he had bowed his head, shoulders shaking silently. Slender hands clenched into fists, twisting the blades of grass in agony, and then, abruptly, the Elf had stood. If he had wept, the rain hid it, but the dullness of his eyes—lifted for a time by the company of friends, new and old—had returned. Without a word, he had simply walked away, back up into the city, breaking into a run after a bit and disappearing quickly into the darkness.
That had upset the hobbits, but no one had a mind to run after an Elf who clearly wished to be alone. As there had been (and continued to be) much else to be done, the trio had reluctantly gone their separate ways. The hobbits were bent upon doing what they could in the aftermath of the battle, and had joined the search for lost soldiers in the Entwood.
"Bregalad knows us, as do the others. So long as we are careful, we shall come to no harm, and at least we know something of adventures with trees," Pippin had declared determinedly. Aragorn had nodded at the time, taking them at their word, and then gone to help clear out orcs from their hiding places. All the while, though, his mind had been elsewhere, and that had nearly proved his undoing when an orcish crossbow bolt had come within inches of his face. After that, he had kept his thoughts reined in tightly lest they betray him. His duty done this past half hour, however, he had naught pressing to do save contemplate the unsavory tale that had come down from the keep.
And while he brooded on the latest intimations of disaster, he stared at the barrow. His own contribution to Gimli's grave stood a little to one side of where Legolas had laid his hands, and he supposed he ought to ask pardon for the "borrowing." But to rebuild Edoras would require many a stonemason and hard work at the quarries, and so he thought no one would miss a single, somewhat worn, white stone. Gimli might never have been a Ranger, but no Ranger could fail to sympathize with those who fell far from the sight of their homes, defending a people not their own.
"Strider?" A hesitant voice broke through his thoughts, and Aragorn blinked, then turned to see Pippin standing there, looking cold and miserable, and thoroughly upset.
"What is it, Pippin?"
"It's Legolas." A chill pierced him at those words, and it must have shown, for the hobbit hastened to add, "Merry's with him now. Well, he's just a little ways away, but he's watching him. We tried to talk to him, Merry and I, but he won't answer, except to tell us to leave him alone. I thought... maybe you'd have better luck."
I doubt it! Aragorn thought privately, but sighed. "Where is he?"
"Up on the tower in the inner keep."
"How did you find him?"
"Bregalad has long eyes, and he says Elves always seek the heights when they cannot seek the seas, whatever that means," Pippin said, and shrugged nervously.
"I see. How did you find me?" Aragorn asked, delaying the inevitable. This time, Pippin only shrugged, blushing a bit.
"I just thought you might come back here. It's what I was going to do until Merry said we ought to look for Legolas."
"Stay then, if you wish. I can send Merry to you."
"No, I'll go with you. I, um, I don't think I want to be alone right now," Pippin replied, casting a rather more serious look than was his wont up at the Ranger.
"Come then," Aragorn replied, and offered a rather tired smile as he added, "In truth, neither do I!" That seemed to hearten the other somewhat, and the two of them set off. For once, Aragorn was grateful for the short legs of hobbits, which hold Men to a much slower pace than usual, for he was weary and desired time to think how he would approach a grieving, wounded Elf. It was rare that the Eldar died of grief, although the few who had were quite notorious for having done so, and certainly, he had never heard of any Elf dying for the sake of a Dwarf.
On the other hand, the sheer novelty of such a relationship put him quite far out of his depth. As if I were not already! Through the rain-slick, rubble-strewn streets they went, heading for the inner keep. Despite the rain, people huddled in knots here and there all about the courtyard before Meduseld, and Pippin led him left, to the eastern tower. Up the winding way they went, until at last they came upon Merry, who was sitting huddled on the steps beneath the trap door.
"He's still up there," Merry said in a low, worried voice. "Can you get him to come down?"
"I know not. But at the least, I think you two need not remain here. Take what rest you can and get out of the cold," Aragorn advised, considering the ladder and the rain that fell down through the open door.
"Are you certain?"
"Aye. Go ahead." The hobbits glanced at each other, then Merry rose and he and Pippin began making their way down in silence. As they did so, Aragorn grasped the rungs and climbed swiftly out onto the platform, stifling a curse when a sudden gust of wind blew stinging rain into his eyes. Straightening, he glanced about and quickly spotted Legolas sitting atop a merlon, facing out towards the remains of the gates. Although not particularly afraid of heights, the Ranger felt a certain instinctive dread grip him, and the urge to grab the Elf and drag him back from the edge was nearly overwhelming. "Legolas?" he asked softly, making no effort to hide the concern in his voice.
"You as well?" the prince asked in a low voice.
"Pippin and Merry are worried about you," Aragorn replied.
"Whereas you are not?" The sharp, almost sneering tone was quite unlike Legolas, but Isildur's Heir refused to flinch.
"Nay, Legolas. I do not worry, I fear for you!"
"You should fear more for yourself! You shall catch your death of cold, Aragorn, if you remain. Go below!" the answer came back tautly.
"I think I can be no wetter than I am already," the Ranger replied, moving slowly forward to stand just behind and below the Elf. And since he was soaked to the skin, he did not hesitate to sit in the water puddling in the crenel so he could catch a glimpse of Legolas' expression. Strands of long, dark-gold hair hung wetly in his face, and the Elf's breath steamed in the cold air. "Legolas... you knew that this might happen."
"Must you remind me of my folly?" the prince cried, his green eyes flashing as he turned them on the Ranger, and Aragorn cursed inwardly. He had not intended to lay blame at anyone's doorstep with that statement. Although if we must seek to blame someone, I deserve it more than any other. I should never have agreed to let him stay, knowing he was not truly battle-fit. But Gimli had chosen already...
"I mean only that when you chose to accompany the Ringbearer, you knew that you traveled with mortal companions. Even Gandalf was quite vulnerable to death, as you knew well after Moria," he replied, carefully keeping his voice level. "Each of us knew the risk when he accepted this task, Gimli no less than you."
"Did we?" Legolas asked softly, still staring at Aragorn. "Did we indeed know the risk?"
"What mean you?"
"I have come to realize something since I came to this place," the Prince of Mirkwood replied. "It crept upon me slowly, but now I see it clearly! The veil of Darkness has not lifted with Saruman's defeat, Aragorn. I thought it my own, or a wizard's meddling, but now I know the truth: it is pervasive, insidious, and it is everywhere! Valar, it sits so heavy on you that I am only shocked by my blindness!" That last was delivered with such bitterness that the Ranger caught his breath sharply. Legolas noticed and gave a soft, almost contemptuous laugh. "Do not deny it, Aragorn! You are too weary to dissemble before an Elf, so kindly do not insult me with the attempt! The Darkness is, and the Song... the Song is grown fractured and distorted... Silent in places..." The prince cocked his head, his eyes growing distant as he seemed to listen for some elusive melody. "Yes... so very silent, and yet we did not see, we who ought to have seen. We would not see—the last vanity of my kind, and it shall cost us dear!" He shook his head sharply, then lanced Aragorn with a stare. "And you knew. You have known for all the long way from Moria, and in Lothlórien, where you acted so oddly to my eyes!"
"You might have told me!"
"What would you have had me say?" Aragorn demanded quietly. "When Gandalf fell into the chasm, I knew and I despaired. Yet it seemed that you had been spared that bitter knowledge. Why would I have said aught, knowing the risk should the Ringbearer come to share my hopelessness?"
"Frodo left us days ago. You might have told me then!"
"Why? You were injured and struggling as it was, and Gimli did not know, yet he never ceased to fear for you. You had concerns enough between the two of you."
"And later? What of today?"
"Legolas," Aragorn paused, groping for words, for an even tone of voice despite his frustration and the wholly irrational anger that wanted to strike back in his own defense before the other's scathing tone. Finally, he drew a breath and his eyes narrowed as he stared up at the Elf. "Once, when first we met, you said to me, that it must be a gift to come to learn of sorrow, rather than to be born to it. Do you recall that?" The elven prince's lips tightened, but he nodded. "And I told you that like many gifts, it has its dangers. What think you of this gift now? And would you truly have wished to receive it earlier? It would not have saved Gimli. You know that. No amount of knowledge can save one from what simply befalls." The bitter truth, that, and Legolas, after staring for several moments longer, finally lowered his head.
After a long silence, the Elf said softly, "Please leave, Aragorn! Ere I say aught else unworthy."
"If I leave, have I your promise that you will come and sleep soon? Or at the least, that come midday, you shall come down and find me?"
A sigh greeted this request, and then: "I have never desired to grieve to death. Even now, I do not wish it."
"Then I shall leave you to your thoughts. May they prove... enlightening." That was the best he could manage, but at least he could trust an Elf to catch the double-meaning of that last word. Having spoken his piece, Aragorn turned and made his way down the ladder. And although it was a futile effort, he paused just to one side of the trap door's opening and wrung water out of his hair, his sleeves, his cloak, his tabard. He even stripped his gloves off and wrung them out, and as he watched the water sluice off of him and his clothes, he tried to let the pain drain away with it. Well that I did not tell him that Frodo knew ere he did! Steadily, son of Arathorn, keep your wits about you! Drawing a deep breath, he pulled his gauntlets back on and went swiftly down the stairs, determined to drown his troubles in oblivion for a few hours.
As he stepped out of the tower and back into the rain again, however, he espied Éomer. The Third Marshal was gesturing emphatically in the constrained space between himself and his interlocutor, but it was clear from the force of his movements and his taut, mask-like expression, that he was deeply troubled. The other Rider, whom Aragorn could see only from the back, seemed a younger man—an esquire, perhaps? But no esquire would argue back in quite the way that this one seemed to, although the two kept their words between them. And as the Ranger paused just beyond the threshold of the entryway, Éomer saw him and seemed to halt mid-sentence.
The other Rider turned to glance over his shoulder—Over her shoulder! Aragorn realized with a weary sort of shock. I knew not that Rohan had trained any shieldmaidens in this generation! Or is that true? A moment, they stared at each other while his tired mind tried to tease out half-remembered words, and then the woman raised a hand and beckoned to him to join them. Éomer's jaw clenched, but the Third Marshal drew a deep breath and seemed to rein in his temper as he crossed his arms over his chest. "Éomer... my lady," Aragorn murmured, as he approached, feeling rather more awkward than he might wish.
"You are Lord Ælric, are you not?" the woman asked rather coolly.
"I am. I fear you have the advantage of me, Lady...?"
"Aragorn, this is my sister, Éowyn," Éomer spoke just as realization struck him. Ranger and Shieldmaiden eyed each other, seeming to test expectations against reality. She looks like her brother... and they both have Éomund's eyes. And had not Éomer said earlier his sister was a shieldmaiden? And that Gríma had bought her honor and her shield with a threat to her brother's life? he recalled grimly. It seemed, though, that the lady did not accept Gríma's interpretation of the law...
"I am honored to meet you, my lady," Aragorn said at length. "A pity we met not sooner."
"Please, my lord, let us not speak of that," Éowyn replied fiercely, and the Ranger did not miss the slight quaver in her voice.
"As you wish. How else may I serve, then?" he asked instead.
"You are the one that Legolas spoke of—his companion, yes?" At his wordless nod, she continued, "Then mayhap you can tell me how he fares, my lord. I know that he was greatly grieved over the loss of the Dwarf, Gimli."
"He is an Elf, my lady, and I fear that Elves take very ill such losses," Aragorn responded, careful of his words, for he would not reveal overmuch, uncertain of how things stood between Legolas and the lady Éowyn.
"I would speak with him—to thank him for his aid. And mayhap he would find some comfort from my presence."
"That is kind of you, but I believe that he wishes now for solitude. I have lately come from the tower where he sits, and he asked me to leave him," the Ranger cautioned.
"Then we ought to do well together, for I think we both know what it means to stand alone among others! And though I cannot undo the past, mayhap I shall not fail the future in this small thing." At this, she turned back to Éomer and said, "Excuse me, brother." Ere the Third Marshal could protest, she nodded to Aragorn. "My lord." And then she was gone, striding quickly away and disappearing up into the tower. Aragorn stared after her, considering and swiftly rejecting the notion of trying to stop her. Legolas would do as he saw fit, and he suspected that the Lady of Rohan might take harsh honesty less ill than many women. Which freed him to recall his ponderings before Gimli's grave and, without turning, he asked:
"What was that about?"
"Naught," Éomer replied, sounding tense and angry still, though weariness robbed him of his usual force. Or perhaps it was lack of conviction, for Aragorn turned to spear the other with a probing regard, seeking the truth of this morning's news.
"I should think that she would be relieved, given the word from Meduseld," he replied softly, watching Éomer closely.
"You sound as if you disapprove of such a notion, Aragorn," the Third Marshal replied in a rather clipped, forced tone.
"I do not deny that I would rather him dead than alive, but Gríma was a prisoner. Only yesterday, it could have been you with a split breastbone, Éomer!"
A shrug. "What of that?" And Aragorn, hearing that, raised skeptical brows, his own tone sharpening in response to the other's cold voice.
"Are you thinking, Éomer? In war or a the king's hall, there is a certain fairness to it. But an unarmed man in a cell against an assailant armed with a sword? Or so I hear it, for to break bone with a dagger takes great strength. Who but one wronged would kill in such a manner? And where were you ere the battle began? Were you not at Meduseld?"
"Do not tell me that you pity Wormtongue!" Éomer shot back, his eyes bright with amazed anger and a hint of contempt. When Aragorn said naught, only gazed unhappily at him, he snorted and glanced away. "Ask any man in this keep—'twas no murder that happened. Gríma was an animal," he ground out disgustedly, staring up at the tower. "Whoever killed him, I commend him."
"Do you indeed?" the Ranger asked softly.
"'Twas but justice. We should have died today," Éomer replied, lowering his gaze to stare at Aragorn with haunted eyes that still smoldered with passion. "And if we had, what then? Would you have wished him to escape his sentence? What matter that it was never formally dealt out? He who slew the Worm of Edoras did but our duty for us, and unforeseen victory does not change that."
For his part, the Ranger listened to the other's tone, to the anger that vibrated in it and the fear, the defiance, and all of it overlaid with exhaustion that hoarsened his voice and lent a desperate edge to it. And although Éomer seemed quite convinced of the rectitude of Gríma's end, something nagged gently at the back of Aragorn's mind, seeking admission to conscious thought. Clearly, Éomer was hiding the truth, yet not that which might seem most obvious. I do not wish to ask him bluntly. There are other questions that might reveal much...
For a long while, he said nothing, debating with himself, but in the end, he simply sighed. "We are both weary and shall come to no satisfactory conclusion of this argument in our present moods. I think that you, especially, need to rest, Éomer. You were fortunate to survive the final onslaught," Aragorn replied, stepping back from the matter at hand to less controversial concerns.
"I am well enough," Éomer muttered, although he had the grace to look away with that lie, and the Ranger quirked a dark brow skeptically. The Third Marshal had an interesting bruise on his left cheek, and the only reason it had not swollen was the gash that drained away some of the blood. The right side of his face had a number of paper thin, shallow cuts and some scratches. Blood had stained his green tabard nearly black, and his hair was encrusted with it. Soot and mud clung to him up to his knees, and the grim reality of it was that this was an improvement over his earlier appearance, for the rain had drenched him just as thoroughly as it had Aragorn. Of greater concern to his healer's mind was the suspicion that Éomer had sustained other, more serious injuries, for he remembered the bewildered, dazed and pained look he had turned on him beneath the trees of the Entwood.
"You ought to seek a surgeon," he responded quietly. And perhaps it was his deadly serious tone, but Éomer blinked and glanced up, searching his face a moment ere he answered heavily:
"Nay, you are right to say that what I need is sleep!" he admitted, pressing thumb and forefinger against his eyes. "I shall take my leave, if you do not mind, and seek my bed in the guest house."
"Can you manage the walk, let alone the stairs?" And when Éomer neither answered nor moved, Aragorn sighed softly. Catching the younger man firmly by the arm, he began towing the unresisting Third Marshal along with him, steadying him as they crossed the sloping courtyard. It was likely fortunate that most people were already crowded into Meduseld's many halls, into storehouses, inns, or any other room that could be made to serve, not excepting the cramped, cold hallways within the keep's defensive wall. Else, they would have had to struggle against the human tide, and Aragorn doubted Éomer would have managed the feat with any grace. Wulf the inkeep glanced up as they entered the guesthouse, offering a brief bow. "Top of the stairs, my lords, and the first door on your left. You are with the Elf."
"Thank you," Aragorn murmured, as the two began their ascent. The stairs proved rather difficult when Éomer slipped and nearly dragged the Dúnadan down with him, as the steps were quite wet and slick from the many drenched guests who had traversed them. Wulf, hearing Éomer's low curse, glanced up concernedly at them, but Aragorn motioned him to go on about his tasks as he steadied the Third Marshal and continued climbing. The door on the left at the top of the stairs was unlocked, and the two of them gratefully entered and shut it behind them. It was dark within, for the shutters were closed, but the fire had been laid, illuminating dimly two cots and all of their gear piled together in a corner. After only a slight hesitation, the Ranger guided Éomer to the bench at the end of the bed. Legolas could sleep at will in almost any surrounding, after all. "Sit down and let me look at you."
"'Tis only a cut—"
"And that I can cure, but there are other reasons for my concern," Aragorn replied, digging through the pile of saddlebags until he found the one he wanted. Drawing out a clean cloth and his satchel, he returned to where Éomer still stood, as if unwilling to sit down lest he never rise again. "Sit!" Setting his supplies on the floor at his feet, he laid a heavy hand on the younger man's shoulder and pressed him down onto the edge of the bench. Reaching into his belt pouch, he found his tinderbox and caught Éomer's chin firmly as he struck the pad. Light flared, and the Third Marshal blinked. "Look at me!"
Obediently, Éomer did so, and Aragorn sighed with soft relief as the other's pupils contracted readily enough. Releasing his chin, the Ranger felt at the back of the other's head, finding a painful knot, and upon closer inspection, there was some bruising and swelling just along Éomer's hairline. Pulling off one of his gauntlets, he laid two fingertips over the pulse point in the other's throat, counting silently. At last, and with a grunt, Isildur's Heir straightened and went to light the candle on the stand by the head of the bed, bringing it back to set beside Éomer. "If you will not seek a surgeon's aid, I fear you shall have to make do with mine," he said, quelling any protests with a look as he wet a cloth and quickly washed his hands off. "You may have a mild concussion, but if so, you are in no danger from it. You do need to rest though. How do you feel, other than dizzy?"
"How ought I to feel? I was buried under orcs and then..." Éomer paused, eyes growing quite distant as he frowned, trying to recall. "I do not know what happened. I could not breathe, nor move... and suddenly there was noise and I was flung aside..." He hissed as Aragorn, using water from one of the bottles in his satchel, began cleaning the cut on his cheek. "I opened my eyes and I could see naught. I... thought I might have been blinded!" That last came out hesitantly, with a certain chagrin, as if he were ashamed to admit such fear.
"From what I have heard from others who were lost in the woods, many thought the same when first they fell under the shadow of the trees," the Ranger replied matter-of-factly, knowing that Éomer would not appreciate overmuch sympathy. The Third Marshal needed steadiness at the moment, not emotion. "When first I entered the Entwood, I felt as if all the world had faded behind me, and for a time I could do naught but stand and wait for the disorientation to ease." Having cleaned the wound as thoroughly as he could, he reached unerringly for the salve that he had used earlier on Legolas and gently applied it. Once the area was numbed, he would not fear to strain the other's self-control with stitches.
"The world is grown mad, it seems," Éomer replied, shaking his head, and then wincing. "Trees in the middle of Edoras, holbytla and Elves... and Isildur's Heir bears the horn of the stewards of Gondor."
"Hold still," Aragorn instructed, catching Éomer's face once more to keep him from moving as he began stitching the cut closed. "Mad it may seem, but it is our place to make sense of it. Doubtless, however, we shall both have more success in that endeavor once we have slept for a time."
"There are days when I feel as though Éowyn and I have been awake all of our lives," Éomer murmured, closing his eyes a moment. "She had the worst of it in the end, though. And I... I was always too late for her!" A pause. "Know you whereof I speak, Aragorn?"
The Dúnadan grimaced slightly, pausing a moment to meet the other's questioning gaze with dark eyes. "Aye, I do," said he quietly, thinking of his days of dreaming in Imladris... and remembering the more than sixty years of wakefulness that had descended suddenly upon a young man. Shaking himself quickly out of those memories, he blinked and bent again to the delicate task of mending the other's hurts. Alas that I can do little for the ones he bears inside! As little as I can do for Legolas, perhaps. Thought of Legolas, though, brought the Elf's accusing, horrified words starkly to mind: Valar, it sits so heavy on you that I am only shocked by my blindness! He supposed that he ought not to be surprised, but somehow, the prince's words had struck like a revelation, and he wondered whether this was a new darkness, or one that he had borne for long.
And if the latter, then how badly have I hurt Arwen? A part of his mind scoffed at such concerns, deeming them overlate in coming to him, for surely he had done quite enough to hurt her in loving her. Kiss the shadow, my dear! Kiss me and try not to notice what a twisted creature you touch! The notion disgusted him, and he gritted his teeth against the surge of self-loathing. He finished his task, cut the excess thread and glanced up to find Éomer watching him with narrowed eyes.
"What is it, Aragorn?" the younger man asked, and from his tone, it was clear enough that he would not accept silence or a casual dismissal.
"You were always too late for her, you say," he replied after a long moment's consideration, and watched as Éomer nodded slowly. "Better too late than disfigure her soul yourself. I can help you with the armor so that you do not break the stitches accidentally." And although a number of questions rose obviously in the Third Marshal's mind, he wisely asked none of them, only began, with Aragorn's help, to rid himself of the layers of metal and leather. The coif and the mail were the most troublesome, but they managed, and Éomer carefully stripped out of his sodden jerkin and tunic, while Aragorn tried not to grimace at the bruises this exposed.
Éomer climbed wearily to his feet and went in search of towels in the washroom, leaving Aragorn to his own devices. There comes a point when it hurts more to remove armor than to wear it, and he hissed slightly as he felt blood flow a bit more freely to numbed extremities. But by the time Éomer returned, he had rid himself of most of his layers and had spread their garments on the hearth and mantel to dry. The Third Marshal had taken advantage of the ewers of water to wash out his gore-smeared hair, and he tossed Aragorn the spare towel.
"There is still water there, if you wish it," he added, going to the piled saddle bags and searching through them 'til he found a clean pair of trousers. "It may not be warm, but 'tis less cold than the rain at least!" he added.
"My thanks," Aragorn replied, and went to investigate, for truthfully he would feel the better for scrubbing some of the filth out of his hair. Several empty pitchers stood on the floor, but there remained quite a few for others to use as well. Leaning over the basin, he poured the contents of one of them over his head and grimaced as the water ran redly into the receptacle despite the drenching he had received from the rain. Soap helped, but it needed another pitcher before the water that dripped from his hair ran clear. A third ewer was allotted to an economic bath, and then he quickly toweled himself dry.
As he did so, he noticed the small mirror hanging just over the wash basin, and wondered that he had not remarked it earlier. Perhaps it was simply that years spent in the wilds of Eriador, in the company of Rangers, had left him without the habit of mirror-gazing. One learned to shave and cut one's hair by feel or by a stream's wavering reflection, and one expected more or less to seem disreputable to the settled peoples of the world. Yet this time, he did stare, and tried to remember the last time he had looked in a mirror. Imladris, I think it was. I cannot remember how long it had been before that. There were a few more lines about his eyes, he thought, and he needed either to shave the beard entirely or else trim it. A few more strands of silver had worked their way into his hair, just there at his temples.
Other than that, there was little to mark the passing years, for Númenorean blood aged slowly. Nevertheless, if the mirror did not show the wounds within, he felt them still, and he wondered whether only Legolas saw them. I can read others at a glance, but myself...? Perhaps because it was himself, and he had no experience of what grief actually looked like on him, or perhaps because he was too accustomed to fool others who might seek answers to their questions in his face, he could not tell whether or not he had any secrets simply from looking into the glass.
Enough of this! Aragorn admonished himself and turned away, retreating to the main room. Éomer glanced up from his place by the fire, distracted apparently by his movement. He had changed and laid his clothes, mail included, near the hearth, and had ended by staring into the flames. The Ranger gave a soft snort and raised a brow. "Unless you are an Elf, you cannot sleep standing up, nor with your eyes open." For some reason, the Third Marshal shivered at those words, and folded his arms across his chest against gooseflesh.
"Let us not speak of the strange ways of Elves!" he replied, watching as Aragorn in his turn went hunting for clean clothing. He had one shirt left him at this point, but laundry would have to wait 'til the morrow. "And may I say that you look little better than I at this point, Aragorn!"
"I would amend my appearance with a few hours' rest if you would sleep yourself, my friend," the Ranger replied. And since water could hardly hurt anything, he simply piled his dirty clothing atop the bench at the foot of the bed, heedless of the puddle Éomer had left there, before pulling the clean shirt on. "Take the bed, Éomer, Legolas and I will be quite satisfied with the cots."
"I need not to be coddled—"
"And I do not coddle you, I look to the bruises and think of this afternoon," Aragorn replied, blowing out the candle beside him ere he gathered his laundry up and met the other's eyes. After a long moment's look, he stalked to the hearth once more, added his shirt and trousers to the many bits of clothing already there and set his boots down by Éomer's. There came a soft chuckle from behind him, and then the sound of sheets being turned down. The mattress creaked a bit as Éomer lay down.
"You and Éowyn would do well together, clearly!" came the half-serious complaint.
Aragorn grunted at that, then moved to claim one of the cots, gratefully curling up under the blankets. Yet as he lay there in the fire-lit darkness, he could not yet sleep for the question that nagged at him. The question he had not asked earlier. Can it not wait? Surely 'tis not so urgent that I know... After struggling against it for a short while, he uttered a soft curse and asked, "Éomer?"
"Mmmph?" came the sleepy response.
"Does Théoden know the truth of what happened in that cell?"
There followed a long pause, and then, "What mean you by that?"
"Do not play this game with me now! Does he know that it was not you who killed Wormtongue?" Another silence greeted his words. If he did it, he will own it, of that I am certain...
"Why should he suspect another? What other man would spit him on a sword?" Éomer asked at length. This time, it was Aragorn who was silent a long while, and the tension from Éomer's corner grew worse. Finally:
"I see," Isildur's Heir said heavily. However much he disliked the answer, Éomer plainly was not about to give him any other, though from the other's continued silence, the Third Marshal could not be unaware that Aragorn did not believe him.
"Rest you well, Aragorn," Éomer murmured just then, closing the subject.
"Thank you." A pause. "I hope that nothing ill comes of this!" There came the sound of the other turning over and burrowing deeper under the blankets, and then all was still. For his part, Aragorn pulled the covers tightly about him and closed his eyes. Within moments, he was asleep.
But Éomer, lying quietly with his back to the fire, sighed. He had skirted the truth as carefully as he knew how, yet it had not been enough to fool the other, and he silently cursed Gríma. Even in death, you make trouble for us all! he thought bitterly. Aragorn suspects, that is clear. For that matter, he was nearly certain that Théoden had guessed as well, and he sighed inaudibly. That makes it a conspiracy, unless Aragorn rips the mask off. But I think he shall not. Almost, he wished the Ranger would expose them, but it seemed all courses of action ran ill, creating unwelcome and insupportable situations. And in fact, Aragorn's very unwillingness to come forth and demand an inquiry struck Éomer as ominous in some way.
"Nothing ill, you hope? 'Tis too late for that, my friend!" he muttered, yawning around the last words. But whatever troubles pricked his uneasy conscience, at the moment, he was exhausted. The mattress was soft, and warmth stole insidiously through his body, quieting his fears.
When Legolas at last joined them, creeping in with an Elf's stealth, both Men were soundly asleep.
Thanks to Gabrielle for refusing to let me get away with the crappy transition.
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.