20. Do Not Break, My Heart...
The sun should not have been so hot. It was early still, and just a fortnight ago their main concern had been the snow that nearly blocked their path and delayed them almost a whole day. If not for that snow, perhaps he would not have had to stand here now, waiting under a too-hot sun. One day earlier, and by now they might have left this City of Stone far behind.
Éomer shifted on his feet. It had been hours since Imrahil had ridden out from the Citadel, and nothing had been said, except for the order that they all were to wait. And waited they had. Waited, while the sun grew hot. Waited, while they heard a distant jeering of orc-voices. Waited, while a silence grew, spreading through the City. Waited, and the only sound by which they might guess what was happening was the beating of drums. And they waited still.
Éomer moved again.
"Be still!" Aduiar spoke in a low voice. Éomer had to lean in close to hear what his words were.
"Be still," Aduiar repeated. "Do not draw attention to yourself. Have you not stood guard before?"
"Not like this," Éomer replied in the same voice. "I have always been allowed to move a little; not all guards need be as disciplined as those of the Citadel."
"Then go get me some water; it will be excuse enough to keep the others from wondering about our conversation."
Éomer did not answer, but he left his place behind Aduiar to fetch the water.
Two pavilions had been raised in the High Court, in the Place of the Fountain. They faced east, one on the north side of the court, and one on the south. At the Keel, at the outmost peak of the great pier of rock, where a man could see down to the Gate and there be seen by those below, two poles stood, taller than a man.
The poles were the first things Éomer had noticed when he entered. The second was the careful selection by which they all had been sorted to the pavilions. Aduiar had noticed the sorting at once.
All around them were darker-skinned Southrons and men in the fine clothes favoured by the Corsairs. It was Aduiar's Corsair blood that had put them in this pavilion, with cloth spread out above their heads, shading from the sun, and cups of water to be had to slake their thirst while they waited.
The other pavilion, filled with those that were the great men of Gondor before the war, had no shade, and no servings. Éomer knew more than one face in that crowd, and knew that luck alone had saved him from being recognised. Húrin had been right about the risk.
A single chair, shaded against the sun by black silk, stood in the middle of the court. It was empty, but beside it stood Faramir. He was clad in simple clothes; a white, linen shirt and no jacked. His head was bare. He neither spoke nor moved, and he looked east. Éomer could see him flinch each time the drums rolled.
The Master of Isengard was nowhere to be seen.
Éomer returned with the water, and to the wait. Aduiar took the cup from his hands and sipped at it while they waited. They did not speak. Neither did those around.
The drums and the sounds came closer. Éomer could hear a voice speaking, but the words he could not make out. He thought he recognised the speaker: Prince Imrahil. For a long time he spoke, and no sound interrupted him. No drums, no murmur from the crowd. No shout of protest.
Above the dwimmerlaik circled nearer and Éomer shuddered. If it were to stay…
The drums rolled and Éomer tensed in preparation for … what? He did not know. The silence deepened and in it the sound of a whip drifted up to the High Court. This time Éomer echoed Faramir's flinch.
The drums rolled again, and then they could hear movement. They waited, but the wait was almost at an end. Blearing trumpets cut through the silence and back into the High Court came Imrahil with his escort. He was on foot this time – Éomer could vividly recall the fine horses they had ridden – and behind them followed the soldiers, dragging a Man.
His head was bare, dark specked with grey, and he was dressed in the same manner as Faramir. But his shirt was torn and bloody at the back.
Éomer clenched his jaw in anger. He could do nothing but stand and watch. We should have acted last night, caution be damned. But they had not, and now he had to play his part: to stand still and not move.
Aragorn was taken to stand between the poles. He could walk and stand on his own, and that at least was a comfort. Éomer could not make out his expression at this distance, but his posture spoke of ill-hidden pain.
More blearing trumpets, and two things happened at once.
The dwimmerlaik descended to perch halfway down the Tower of Ecthelion. Damn, damn, damn that thing! Would they be able to pull off their plan with that close by? They would have to. Éomer saw the shudder that ran through Aragorn when it landed. It echoed his own. We will not leave you here, he vowed.
At the same time, unnoticed by Éomer at first, the Master of Isengard – Lieutenant of Barad-dûr and foul Mouth of the Enemy – entered the court. Éomer did not see him until he sat down in the empty chair. He gave a nod, and Imrahil stepped forward.
For one moment, Éomer thought his luck had run out. Imrahil looked to the pavilion where he stood. Then he saw that the Prince did not look at him, but at the woman sitting at the front, below Aduiar. He could only see her dark hair; she, too, bore nothing to cover her head and her hair flowed freely down her shoulders. Beside her sat a Haradrim man. Too close, Éomer thought, and he did not quite know why he thought so. Perhaps it was the look on Imrahil's face.
Imrahil began to speak. His voice was rough and parched and at his words, Éomer understood, even better, the flinches of the Steward. Faramir stared straight ahead, and Éomer saw Aragorn looking across the court towards his Steward. His eyes were narrow slits against the sun, part of his face in shadow. His hands were tied, and two guards held him in place. Several more stood behind him, armed and ready. Did they fear him, or was it just another show of strength? Aragorn stood as straight as could be in their grip, but Éomer had seen the blood on his back, had heard the rolling of the drums and he did not need Imrahil's words to guess what had happened. And what was about to.
Imrahil finished and took his place on the other side of Isengard. The two guards turned Aragorn around, and the rest of the soldiers surged forward to help cut his bonds and chain him to the poles before they drew back again. The executioner took his place and waited for his sign.
"The remaining sentence will be delivered in counts of five. After each count, a healer will determine whether the sentence can continue."
Éomer swallowed at the familiar formality of it all; he had been taught about the requirements of Gondorian law on public punishments. Another mockery. More cruel, it seemed to him, than the tortures he had heard of from the Master of Isengard. The Enemy had planned this.
The drums rolled and the whip struck. One, two, three times, and Aragorn arched in his bonds. Four, five times, and his knees buckled under him.
He had made no sound.
In the pause that followed, Éomer saw him finding his feet once more. A man drew near the poles. Éomer thought he had seen him before, but ten years is a long time. Was it the same healer that had tended his sister? He could not be sure, but he hoped it was. He would stop the punishment, if he could. Éomer was sure of it.
But it did not stop. The king stood; none would believe that his life was in danger while he still stood. The drums rolled again, and again. And again. They rolled their allotted number, and at the end Aragorn hung slumped from the poles. A half-strangled sound, bitten off before it could fully escape, drifted across the court, and he did not regain his feet. Not this time. Éomer did not know the healers' craft, but the healer did something, that much he could see. Aragorn did not move, and the healer spoke to the executioner. Their words were too low to be heard; still Éomer guessed that they did not agree. A soldier was sent running to the Master of Isengard.
Isengard rose. "We will return in one hour."
He turned, and with a wave of his hand Imrahil followed him, back into the Tower. Faramir stayed. He did not move, and he did not look at anyone else; he kept his eyes locked on his king.
The executioner stepped back, but the healer hovered as close to the king as the soldiers would let him. Aragorn stayed slumped in his bonds.
The servants around Éomer began to move, leaving to fetch refreshments for their masters. But Aduiar still clenched the cup Éomer had brought him, half-emptied, and gave no sign for him to fill it. He did not drink. Éomer stayed behind him, playing his part and watching his friend. He did not know whether he wished him to stir or not.
So intent on Aragorn was Éomer, that he almost missed the movement in front of him. The woman he had noted earlier stood. Her companion grabbed her hand to force her back down, but she wrested her arm free.
"Do not touch me," she said. "I merely wish to stretch my legs."
Éomer, who had not noted such things before, gave notice to the shape of her neck, the proud arch of it, like a horse's when it was at its most beautiful. And most haughty. She walked from him, over to where the water was served, and the servants parted for her. She took a cup of water and then she walked, straight across the court, past the pavilions, past Faramir, all the way across to the king.
The soldiers moved to stop her, but she would not be denied. Up to the king she walked, and he, sensing some movement, somehow found the strength to lift his head. Gently she lifted the cup to his lips.
"Who is she?"
"That woman, who is she?" Éomer asked again. "Imrahil looked at her before he spoke, and none stopped her now. Why?"
"I have not seen her before," Aduiar answered. "But if I were to hazard a guess, I would say that it must be Imrahil's daughter. From what I have heard, she is given some lenience – as long as her father does what he is told."
And this is what she uses that lenience for, Éomer thought. Would that such a lady was free of all evil.
He watched her lower the cup and gather her sleeve in one hand. She lifted it – slowly, carefully as he would calm a skittish beast – and wiped something from Aragorn's face. He drew back, as much as the bonds and his strength allowed. Éomer could not see whether Aragorn said anything, but her lips moved. He could not hear what she said.
Their lenience ended there. Two soldiers stepped forward, and she drew back.
She knows her limits. Éomer watched her walk back, and the man that had been sitting beside her rose to meet her.
"Allow me to refill your cup, lord mayor." Before Aduiar could nod his approval, Éomer had taken the cup from his hands and moved away. He walked behind the man, keeping some distance, and watched him.
The man's shoulders were stiff and tense; he was clearly angry. He reached the entrance of the pavilion in time to meet the lady there, and he immediately grabbed her wrist.
He did not have the time to say anything more before Éomer crashed into him, bringing them both to the ground. His grip on the lady did not loosen at once, and she was dragged down with the two men.
The Haradric soldier twisted away from underneath Éomer, and Éomer let him get loose and regain his feet first.
He kicked at Éomer, but too soon: he had not yet regained his balance and his foot merely grazed him. Éomer made a show of scrambling to his feet.
"I am sorry, master. I should have been more careful, master; forgive me, it was my fault." Éomer babbled any apology he could think of; a servant would be expected to grovel, would he not? He kept his head down, both completing the picture and hiding his eyes.
The man struck again, with his hand this time. Éomer saw it coming, and he made himself stay and let the hand hit. He moved with the stroke and let himself fall to the ground. He saw a movement in the corner of his eye and tensed. Had he misjudged the man's anger? But no more strokes fell. Instead, he heard a rustle of clothes and a slim hand was put on his arm. The lady knelt beside him and this had stayed the other man.
"It was an accident," she said. "Leave him be; it is not even your servant."
"But he is mine." Aduiar had reached the scene. "Accept my apology that such clumsiness has troubled you, captain. He has but recently joined my service, and I fear he has not been fully trained yet. If you wish, I will see him punished, but I prefer to deal out such corrections myself."
"Lord Mayor." The Haradric captain bowed. "I would not presume to doubt your diligence. But my honour would be best served if I witness the correction," he said. "If that would not offend."
"Not at all," Aduiar replied. He looked around. Most eyes were on them, though the soldiers stayed at their posts and did not interfere. Neither did anyone else. Éomer had stayed on the ground and the lady still knelt beside him. "I am sure that you will agree that this is not the time and place, though. May I ask you to come by in the morning, and we will see it done then?"
The captain nodded. "I will come early," he said. "And see my honour restored." He turned to the woman and held out his hand. "Lady, let me escort you back to your seat."
She overlooked the hand and turned to Éomer to help him up. "That was careless of you," she said, her words for him alone. "I do not need a servant's help to handle him. Do you not know who I am?"
"No, lady," Éomer answered. "I do not." He began to rise, but she gathered her sleeve in her hand like he had seen her do before, and that stopped him. She dabbed at his cheek where the stroke had opened the skin: the captain wore more than one ring to show his wealth. Éomer let her, not quite sure how he should act.
"Let that be a lesson to my pride then," she said. There was a ghost of a smile on her lips, and the echo of laughter in her voice. "Thank you. I will talk to him: I do not wish to see you punished for my sake."
"Do not trouble yourself for me, lady," Éomer answered. "I would only ask you one thing."
"And what would a servant ask of me?"
Éomer rose to his feet and took her with him. "Your name, lady."
To that she did smile. "Lothíriel."
And she was gone.
Borondir and Mablung had found their places at the gate to the sixth circle. From there, they could see and hear the sentence being carried out, not only at that gate, but the remaining punishment handed out in the High Court. From their place, they could see where the king was chained, and the City was quiet enough that Borondir did not doubt that all could hear the drum rolls, perhaps even the thud of the whip. The people around him were tense; some with anger, others with despair. Borondir wished to act, but his limbs were heavy and his heart numb with fear.
He blamed the Nazgûl.
The thing sapped the strength from his limbs and the will from his heart. He feared the others would not wish to complete their plans, and that he would not dare oppose them. He feared he would not dare go with them if they did. And he could not see how they could succeed, if that thing were to remain.
"They have stopped."
Borondir realised that he had let his mind wander. He looked up and saw that Mablung was right; the figure of the king hung slumped between the poles, alone against the sky.
"The sentence is not done," Mablung said. "Still they have stopped."
"I do not know," Mablung answered. "But the Prince said that they would stop if the King's life were endangered. If I have counted right, there are five strokes left, out of thirty. Far less than that could cripple or kill a man."
Borondir turned his head away from the sight. He looked, instead, to Mablung.
"Do you think…?"
"Look!" Mablung interrupted. He pointed up, and Borondir turned back to see the figure of a woman standing by the King. It was too far to see what she did, but he could discern the King lifting his head.
"They have kept the strokes light," Mablung said. "Or lighter than what is their wont. They wanted the King to bear them all, and still have their hostage to hold against us. And the Steward."
"Not light enough, it seems," Borondir said. "Since they stopped."
"The King is still there," Mablung replied. "And we have not been dispersed. My guess is that it is just a pause, that they may continue when he has recovered."
Borondir did not answer, and Mablung said no more. They watched the King – there was little else to do – who once more hung alone, a dark shape against the sky, and waited.
And hour passed. Borondir did not know how long they had planed to wait, but before he saw anyone else approach the King, he saw him stir and straighten in his bonds once more. He saw him stand. Not proud or tall, but he stood, and soon after shapes of men joined the King there at the peak of the great keel of stone. The shapes mixed and blurred and he could not see what they did, but then they separated again. Two figures stood against the sky. The King had been turned around and behind him – at the outmost end of the peak – the executioner raised his whip.
Éomer closed his eyes when the soldiers drifted away and left Aragorn exposed to the eyes of the crowd once more. It was hard enough to see his bloodied back, but be forced to see the pain revealed in his face? Have them strip away all defence against the shame?
He could not.
The drums rolled, and Éomer swore to ban all drums from his kingdom. The drums rolled, and Éomer would rather hear the dwimmerlaik's scream. The drums rolled, and a scream cut through the air. Éomer's eyes flew open, for one second sure that he had uttered that scream himself.
He had not.
Aragorn hung slumped between the poles again. His face was drawn in pain, but his head was raised and his eyes, his eyes burned. Angry, desperate – Éomer could not say. He was looking at the Steward, and Faramir was looking back. His face was pale, and he was shaking.
It was Faramir's voice that had rung above the silence.
Éomer saw Aragorn shake his head, and Faramir's hands curl into fists. The drums rolled, and how could he turn away again? How could he not look? How could he not witness the fight the two men fought?
The drums stopped, and the stroke fell, and his friend was gone. In his place, some twisted stranger was all that remained. Under torture, all men look the same. Éomer could not recall who had told him so, but at this moment he saw the truth of that statement. He wished he had not seen it. He wished that he could have blocked his eyes and ears; that noise could not have come from his friend's mouth. That face could not be his.
Then the moment passed, and it was Aragorn again. Head down, eyes closed, his body tense, but he was himself once more. The drums rolled one last time, then stopped. The executioner raised his arm, and waited. Waited until the king lifted his head, and Isengard nodded.
Hard and fast, more so than any of the strokes before, the last stroke fell with the force of anger.
This time there could be no mistaking it. It rang in the silence of the Court and sped down the circles of the City. In the aftermath, the executioner rolled up his whip and came forward to bow before the Master of Isengard, the Steward, and the Prince of Dol Amroth. Behind him, the king hung slumped in his bonds.
Isengard acknowledged the bow with a wave and left it to Imrahil to thank the man for his service. He remained seated even after the executioner had withdrawn, shifting his gaze between Steward and King. Faramir had not taken his eyes off Aragorn. The Master of Isengard smiled. He rose, and walked over to where the king was hanging.
Éomer could not see if Aragorn stirred. The Master of Isengard blocked the view, and he could only see him leaning forward, as if to have a closer look on Aragorn's face or whisper something in his ear. Then he straightened, and without turning he waved Faramir over.
It was, Éomer supposed, the sign for them all to leave. Around him, the guests were rising and drifting out from the pavilions. Imrahil meet his daughter at the entrance. He took her arm and led her away. Away from the Haradrim captain, away from the sight of the king. Away from Éomer. He watched them go from the corner of his eye, his head kept down so that none, not Imrahil or any other, would glimpse his face by chance. He saw her whisper to her father, but he shook his head and led her quickly away. They disappeared between the houses south of the White Tower.
"With me," Aduiar hissed and tore Éomer's attention away from her. "Keep your head down and stay behind me; we do not want more attention drawn to you."
Éomer nodded. People from the two pavilions mixed and mingled; some might remember the young king from ten years ago. But even as he tried to stay behind Aduiar and not draw attention to himself, his eyes kept straying back to the houses where she had gone. It took him some time to notice that they were following the throng of people, not to the tunnel as he had thought, but to the Embrasure. To Aragorn. To Faramir. To the Master of Isengard.
That chased Imrahil's daughter out of his thoughts.
Fastred spent most of the day moving between the stables and the outdoor enclosures. He had given the other stablehands one look, and decided that the horsemanship in Gondor was even worse than he had thought. No wonder that the stable-master had wanted him, even with all the questions the guards had asked, all the problems he might bring him. All the problems Fastred knew he would bring. And no wonder he had given him responsibility for the horses and stables during this…whatever they called it.
That responsibility left little room for brooding, though. Soon enough he understood just why the stable-master had been so desperate to have him, even more desperate than the utter ignorance of the stableboys would warrant. He must have had warning.
the cry went up, and the air was filled with the clamour of hooves and the panic of horses.
Firefoot recognized the threat, and only luck, and the trust of his mare, enabled Fastred to keep the small herd from breaking out. Firefoot was ready to jump the fence, no matter the height, but he was unwilling to leave his mare behind. And the rest followed his lead.
"You must have taken, gentle one," Fastred mumbled, more to himself than the mare. "He is too protective by far. How he can know this soon, I have no idea, but I have never known him to be wrong."
The mare shifted around, not quite calmed by his presence, but she stayed, and as the dwimmerlaik rose to circle high above the City, the horses calmed. Somewhat.
One of the stableboys approached him. "We need help in the stable. It is the mayor's mare."
"Stay here," Fastred ordered. "Let me know if they become restless again. More restless. And if anything happens, try to keep the mare here; that will hopefully keep the rest close." He did not wait to see if the boy obeyed; he turned and hurried towards the stable.
In his haste, he almost let the mare out. A fury of hooves met him at the door. No time to think, just to react – and he reacted like a man would: meet the threat head-on.
He ducked under the flailing hooves and struck at the belly of the mare. Shocked, the mare rose higher and Fastred feared – now that he had time to think – that she would fall over. But she landed on her feet, and backed away from this man that did not act as she was used to.
"Now you have done it," Fastred muttered to himself. "Fool! She is a mare, not a stallion."
Even so, when the mare pushed forward again, he mirrored her.
She stopped, puzzled.
At least she has forgotten the dwimmerlaik, Fastred thought. It is to be hoped that it will be far enough away, and continue to be so.
At that moment, one of the stableboys took it upon himself to capture the mare. He pressed himself between the stalls and the horse and reached for her halter. He was lucky. He missed.
The mare turned so quickly that if he had gotten hold of the halter, he would have lost his fingers. Or been dragged around and thrown into a wall or crushed against the stalls. As it was, the boy fell, hard against the floor.
Fastred did not notice that he had slipped into his own language. He did not stop to see if the boy got up, merely jumped over him and followed the horse. If the other horses got loose…
"Try to keep the others calm," he called. "And stay away from her!"
At the other end of the stable, Fastred saw another stableboy, older than the rest, already more man than boy. He stood against the wooden wall that blocked the end of the hall. The mare skidded on the cobbled floor, halting in front of him.
"Get away from her!"
Fastred ran. He saw her rise up on her hinds, above the youth. He saw him shrink back, and then a glint lighted in his eyes, pale and fey.
Too late. The warning died on Fastred's lips. The mare came down, crushing wood and bone. Her screams drowned all other sounds they could have made, the breaking wood drowned out the rest. Before Fastred could reach her, she was gone. All that was left: splinters, broken wood and blood. He knelt beside the fallen youth. He stirred when Fastred cleared away some of the debris that covered him. Fastred bent to support his head.
"If there is anyone that knows about healing, then fetch him here," he ordered. "And one of you follow the mare." He had not turned for the youth, and softer he spoke. "Why did you not get out of her way?"
"It worked for you." The youth's voice was weak.
"I was a fool and did not think. Only luck saved me," Fastred said.
"I…" whatever he had meant to say was lost in violent coughing, and in blood, and Fastred did not know what to do. He looked around. The boys were standing there: none had moved.
"Did I not tell you to fetch a healer? And to follow the mare? Why are you all still here?"
They flinched at his tone, but did not move.
"Sir," one of them answered. "We are not to leave the stables. The Master will beat us if we do. Or give us to the soldiers."
Fastred had no answer for that.
"Come here," he ordered the boy instead. "Make him comfortable. If you can, move him to a bed." He let the boy take his place and stood up and took stock of the boys. They were too few, too young, but they would have to manage. One of the boys was smaller than the rest, much smaller. He reminded him of the girl in Calembel; one whose body had stopped growing before it had reached its full stature. But the boy looked as if he could run fast. He took him with him and left the rest to help their friends, and to try to keep the horses calm should the dwimmerlaik come too close again.
No other horses had broken out, thankfully. In the pens, they moved restlessly but they had not broken out in a panic again. Fastred turned to the boy.
"Listen to me," he said. "That boy…"
"Ingold," the boy said.
"Ingold, right," Fastred replied. He should have been able to remember that name. "Listen, Ingold is badly hurt. He needs a healer; you must try to find him one."
"But, the soldiers…" the boy began. Fastred cut him off.
"He will die," he said. "If you do not find him a healer, Ingold will die. Do you understand me?"
The boy nodded.
He ran. A skinny, gangly boy, all legs and knees, running with a life in his hands. He ran fast.
"Forgive me," Fastred muttered as the boy left. "Forgive me for laying this on you, small one. I hope I will be proven wrong."
The mare was long gone. Fastred guessed she had fled north and west, away from the City and the terror of the winged beast. If he was lucky, she would not have run far and he could fetch her back quickly enough. Still, his chances were better astride a horse. Not his own, though.
"Lad!" he called for the boy left outside. He could see him near the pens. "I need your help. Go fetch me the gelding that came with the mare, he is in the second stall. The bridle hangs on the door. Be quick about it."
"And his saddle?"
"Do not bother with it, there is no time.
"But... you need a saddle."
"Others beside Elves can ride bareback at need," Fastred answered. "And I do not wish to waste more time. The mare is already far from here; hurry."
The boy ran, and returned with Ingold's gelding soon enough. Not as soon as Fastred would have wished, but it would have to do. Before long, he was mounted.
"Try to keep the horses calm," he told the boy. "I will return shortly."
He hoped he would not be proved false; he could not see the mare and would have to begin his search on a guess. He hoped to luck. And luck was with him, in part.
The Pelennor was open enough that Fastred could see far, and further even when mounted. A little way from the stables, he spotted the mare; a dark shape running towards the forest. He followed.
The gelding's gait was stiff and uneven, and his withers were really too prominent for comfort. Saddles were made for a reason. He could feel the gelding's back hollowing, making it all worse. He had no time for a nice warming up of the horse.
Fastred pressed his legs a little firmer around its flanks. Nothing happened, so he dug his heels in and wished for his spurs. To his surprise, the horse reacted. Its gait evened, a little, as its hindlegs gathered more underneath it. And, blessed relief, its back rounded and began to work. With that, the withers became a little less pointed. Fastred might survive still. Now all he had to do was to overtake the mare.
He found her just outside the broken wall where she had stopped. Taking Ingold's horse had been a good idea; the mare knew him, and she was more than willing to let Fastred recapture her. Freedom, when it meant being alone, was not a good thing, she had found.
Fastred's problems began on his return.
Under torture, all men look the same. Paraphrased from memory from C. S. Lewis, in the unfinished story: "Ten Years Later"
Ganghere: (OE) Footsoldiers. Rohirric insult