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Twilight of the Gods: 14. The Journey to Edoras
On the way to Edoras
On their first night’s camp Hilberon was detailed for the first watch, but he was as tired as his horse after the fast ride. Nevertheless he was willing to do his share. He did not dare to sit down on the warm, dry grass, but wandered around the camp, vigilant as he had been ordered, keeping his eyes open. It would have been like a nightmare for him if something unexpected were to happen during his watch, and he would had to be blamed for any incident, even if it were just a straying animal. So he walked in circles, straining his senses, but could neither hear nor see anything but the wind's last whispers and the far cries of birds hunting at night. Some of the soldiers lying in groups together snorted, and he only met two other soldiers, who watched the other side of the camp. Hilberon dared to glance at the lady’s bed for the night, but quickly turned away when she looked at him as if she had noticed his approach. When his watch was over he sat down at the little fire maintained by the guards, suddenly too awake to sleep. A tune came to his mind and he began to hum softly while he stared into the flames.
“I heard that before,“ a voice said behind him, and Hilberon swirled around, startled and wide-eyed. He had not heard the man approach, and knew, if it had been an enemy he would have been dead by now.
King Elessar stood behind him, bearing a light smile before he squatted.
“My lord...“ Hilberon’s attempt to bow was meant to fail, but the king did not notice. With a suddenly dry mouth the soldier waited for a command to come, but Aragorn only looked at him in a friendly and benign way, making Hilberon forget how fierce he had been in the night Captain Fáred had killed the woman.
“Where did you learn that song?“
The king’s interest took him by surprise, and he hardly managed to speak without stuttering.
“One of the city’s guards taught it to me, my lord, when he brought his horse to shoe. He said...“ He swallowed the rest of the sentence.
“He said I have a good voice for singing,“ Hilberon added quietly. He cast his eyes to the ground, thinking that the ability to sing was none a soldier would be praised for. But there was no mockery in the older man’s features.
“Do you know the song's origin?“
“Yes, one of the Halflings brought it from the… their land, the guard said. It is... a song about drinking and eating... but I don't know all the lines.“
“Then it is truly a Hobbit’s song.“ The king smiled warmly about the pleasant memory. “Could it be the Hobbit’s name was Peregrin Took?“
“It sounded more like... Pippin, my lord.“
“That is he.“ The smile deepened. “Hobbits care much about food. One could say the filling of their stomach is the main concern of their lives.“ He paused, still recalling the journey he had lived through with the four Hobbits between Bree and Rivendell and beyond. “Though when the task comes to them they will not hesitate to do their share. And afterwards the feast will be quite different from that of Men.” Another smile tugged at the corner of his mouth while he remembered the party before the Hobbits had left Minas Tirith. It had been quite to the liking of the little folk… and too exaggerated to all others present. “For the better or the worse I cannot say.“ He rose again while Hilberon tried hard to keep his face blank of any bewilderment. “Cherish that song for the memory of the Hobbits should be preserved. Go to sleep, Hilberon, it is late.“
The message the traitor Thor had delivered could not have been any clearer: King Elessar of Gondor would be on his way to Edoras right now. The talks could take place if the Dunlendings would leave their homes at once. Their claim had been honoured, even though Grodes wouldn’t have counted on it, and now there was no way left for them to step back from the promise they had made. In the strawheads’ company. For their own protection, the Rohirrim-Dunlending bastard had said, because they would never make it through Rohan otherwise, and Grodes saw the wisdom of the words. Yet the thought of travelling on horseback, surrounded by twenty heavily-armed Rohirrim, was nothing he could warm up to.
Grodes had strongly objected to the decision the strange woman from the far-off land had made. Who was he to negotiate for peace if the force to conquer was at hand! In fact he had said more than he had wanted to and the stranger had done something Grodes had not yet understood. Suddenly he had felt powerless, lonely - the loneliness of a child lost in the woods. Pictures of endless rows of dead kinsmen had appeared on his mind. It had been too horrible to recall even now. He did not know what power stood behind that slender and tall woman, but since she was as good at intimidating him as she was in organising the raids, Grodes had finally bent to her adamant order of insisting on King Elessar’s presence at the council in Edoras.
Never since the short-lived reign of Wolf the Great had any man or woman of his people thought about setting foot on the threshold of the enemy’s capital, let alone entering their great hall. Not even in their dreams, though the strangers had made the prophecy that they would soon seize what had been theirs for ages before the Forgoils had chased them away like animals. Yet going to Edoras to enter the Golden Hall of Meduseld would not have been called bold, but utterly foolish.
It had been a peculiar day, stranger than most days of his life. Grodes had not known what kind of fate ahead of him, when the older tribal leaders had named him their commander for the time of the negotiations, even though the others, too, spoke some Westron. But it would not be sufficient. The strawheads’ leader had offered to interpret at the table, yet it had been an offering not only Woldro had questioned at once for its reliability.
Grodes’ stomach rumbled, but hunger could be neglected. Hunger was nothing in comparison to the all-encompassing fear that the many armed soldiers stirred up in him. The strangers had been clear about it: Grodes and the others had to go to Edoras or no more support would be granted. Their threat had been hard to swallow for the proud tribal leader. And yet the taste of their victory in the two settlements had been so sweet. For once, their accursed foes had been running from them, instead of the other way round, the way it usually was. He wanted more of it... and fast!
Under the pretence of calmness, Grodes let his gaze sweep from left to right. He and his kinsmen were surrounded by soldiers, mostly young, who were seething with hatred but obedient to their king’s orders - what a sight to his weary eyes. The others had appointed him their leader for the negotiations, even though the only outcome he could hope for was to return to his homeland alive. If he did, it would be a return worthy of song. A deed for generations to whisper of in awe. To make it to the heart of their enemy’s territory and back, that was unheard of. But who knew what valuable hints for their future war with Rohan they would find on this journey?
Their daring ride would be the first step toward the goal they had dreamt of achieving for ages: taking back their land. Finally having fertile soil to grow corn and wheat on, and everything they needed. Everything the hated people of the Westfold had robbed them of and did not share, even if their neighbours were dying right on their doorsteps! But the way was long. Grodes shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. He had not wanted to sit on a horse, afraid that it could be some demon the strawheads had bred, but neither the strangers nor the Rohirrim delegation would have heard his protest. Speed was needed, and to head for Edoras on foot would only lengthen the journey and make it potentially more dangerous. So, again, Grodes had been forced to swallow his objection.
Somehow, fate had catapulted him into the hostile arms of a kindred he hated with every fibre of his body, but his short sword would remain sheathed for as long as possible. The strawheads had stared at it meaningfully, threateningly. Of course they knew about the raids. Whenever they might decide to change their plans and kill the delegation on the way to the city, there would be no escape, Grodes thought uneasily. No one would blame them, would they? And what could King Éomer want from them in the wake of the raids? The normal reaction would have been a violent counterstrike, not an offering of peace talks. The former third marshal was not known to be benign and peace-loving. It had been more the memory of the mercy King Théoden had shown after the battle of Helms Deep that had convinced the other tribal leaders like Durden to join the delegation. No, It had to be a trick. However his captain, who was half Dunlending himself and knew about some of their people, as Grodes had learnt, had insisted on the offer's authenticity.
Another glance to his right. The soldiers were quietly talking to each other, and their grim, conspiratorial faces caused Grodes’ throat to tighten. Did they plan to murder him and his company yet? It would be easy. The escort consisted of twenty men, and his company of only twelve. Grodes, Woldro and the others had only Thor’s word that they would arrive safely at Edoras. And Thor had said he had been sent by Éomer-king personally. The longer the journey took, the uneasier the tribal leader became.
Grodes shifted restlessly on the saddle, his rough and torn clothes rubbing the skin off his thighs, and he felt miserable about the constant movement of the beast he was sitting on. At the moment, he did not know whom to hate more: the strawheads, or the strangers, who had come out of nowhere to force him into the hands of his enemies.
Journeying westwards the weather turned unstable, as the southern winds carried sunshine as well as rain and deep-hanging clouds with them over the mountains. The party rode fast but not in the utmost haste. Since no tidings had reached them yet that either Dunlendings or Rohirrim had gone for another attack Aragorn did not see the need to press the horses more than they were already doing.
Riding to Edoras during the last summer had been a slow procession with all the noble men and women of Gondor and the excited bride and her family in a beautiful cart from Dol Amroth, decorated with the swan as a sign of their house. They had taken their time getting to the capital of Rohan, and Aragorn remembered with a smirk how often he had wished to ride faster and, even more, to escape the kingly duties while dwelling in the land of the horse-lords. There riding was not only a duty but a pleasure in itself. Now speed was demanded, and he could not hide the joy the fast ride stirred in him, especially upon glancing to his left where Arwen sat on Asfaloth, beautiful and blessed with the grace of her kin at riding. She seemed to be at one with her steed, an alluring picture he wanted to preserve. Aragorn had seen how the soldiers reacted to Arwen's presence, and he had to agree that they were right: Arwen was a woman to adore, and that was not only restricted to her beauty. She was as courageous as she was friendly, as determined as she was polite. He often found himself simply looking at her to enjoy the woman he had longed for over many years, and who was his wife for all times to come. She noticed his smile and returned it, a very female invitation, and he laughed.
“Now, my love, what gives you such merriment?” she asked in Sindarin.
“Did you not say you were the faster rider?” he teased in the same tongue, bowing to her, and keeping Brego on a level with the white stallion.
He loved the sparkle in her eyes when she answered,
“I am, my lord. Until now I have just been gentle with you…” She whispered a few words in Sindarin into Asfaloth's ears, and the stallion jumped forward, crossed Brego's path to the right, throwing open the turf, and raced off over the meadow.
“Hey!” Aragorn turned Brego with a word, speeding up behind his wife whose cloak swelled over Asfaloth’s hindquarters, flying with the wind. “Come on, my friend,” Aragorn spoke to Brego, “I know you can catch her!” Watching Arwen already in the distance the king spurred his steed, making himself as light as possible, and leant forward. Under the greyish clouds, which had accompanied them during this third day of their journey, Brego gained speed. Hoofs thundering on the grass the brown stallion stretched to reach the utmost velocity. Aragorn had never felt better and more alive than with the wind in his face, the feeling of the horse's muscles between his legs, and listening to the strong stallion's vigorous breath. Though a hard task awaited him at Edoras he enjoyed the chase more than he could say.
Tarés had only seen the Royal Couple leaving the road, with cloaks blowing, when he had swivelled his mare outwards to follow them, riding as fast as his horse could go. He did not hear the call of Captain Fáred, he only knew that his task lay where Aragorn and his queen were heading, no matter where it was or why they did it.
“Keep in line!” Captain Fáred shouted again raising his right hand when Hilberon and Halamin were about to follow Tarés. “Stay on the road!” He slowed down his steed and turned to face his men. “Hilberon, you follow them! You've got the fastest horse!” Hilberon nodded and left the formation of the now slowly walking horses to spur on Harolyan. “The others move on! Hold the line!” Fáred watched the king and queen disappear in the distance, now only two small dots in the centre of the rolling meadow, and exhaled. His lips were pressed to a thin line, and he turned in the saddle to not let the others see his annoyed expression. What was the king thinking? Should the company follow him? And how could the queen start such a foolish chase? The king and his queen had to be an example for all of them, did they not? Without the captain's quick reaction all the soldiers would have left the road and run astray! Fáred shook his head and, again, squinted to follow the couple with his eyes. They were far away now, heading westwards after half a mile. He let go of his breath, frustrated. While Steward Denethor had ruled the City and the land nothing like that would had happened. And, truly, the steward had never left Minas Tirith when there had been danger ahead. In the many years of Denethor’s rule the land had been kept safe by the hard work of the steward and all the fellow soldiers under his command. Now the captain had to ask himself if the king had not seen what his men had seen? The Easterlings were gathering forces, and who was the king to leave his duties behind to travel to Rohan and – as it seemed to Fáred – with a joyous attitude that betrayed his people at home, who were facing another war sooner or later. How could King Elessar dare to hand the command to Prince Faramir? How could he abandon what he had promised to protect? Captain Fáred ground his teeth. His purpose to influence the king's decision in the Council by telling Lord Ligatis about the danger at the eastern border had not worked, and now tidings were even worse. The captain shook his head in frustration following the chase of the Royal Couple. Tarés was behind them now, but could not close the gap, and the young Hilberon gained on him. Harolyan was a fast steed in its best years, and the captain regretfully remembered that it had once belonged to Óranon. The former rider was buried now like many of Fáred's friends, who had had to ride with Faramir to re-conquer Osgiliath in the last days of the war. The captain would never have laid the command over the troops into the prince's hands.
Arwen turned slightly in the saddle to watch her husband, whose overwhelming bliss made her tremble with delight. Having felt the dreadful and never-lifted weight of his tasks and decisions before, she enjoyed his light-hearted feelings even more. She laughed as he almost caught up with her only to fall back when Asfaloth, indignant about the other stallion's attitude, sped up even more to enlarge the distance again. She watched Aragorn frown and grimace, knowing his annoyance was only pretence. Turning, she whispered into her horse's ears, and Asfaloth threw up his head, snorting, but slackened his speed. On a hillock overlooking the western down, darkened by the thick grey clouds that had covered the sun the whole day, Brego came up on the left side of Asfaloth, sweating, but not out of breath. Arwen looked at her husband, playfully mocking him:
“I told you before you cannot catch me.” They both let their steeds fall back into a trot, then halted. “We could have ridden to Edoras and back without changing that. You knew it.”
“But it was my pleasure to follow you, my queen.” He bowed to her. “And I would always repeat that.”
“You would?” she gave back, a tone indicating that she had more in mind than a chase on horseback. “I will remember that.”
“I’m sure you will!” Laughing he dismounted and helped her out of the saddle, only to pull her tight to his still fast-beating heart. He would not wish for more in his life than being close to his queen. Those moments to cherish were too few, he thought.
“I am glad you took me with you, Aragorn,” she said after a long kiss.
“I am glad you volunteered,” he replied quietly still rejoiced by the chase and Arwen's presence. He gently cupped his hands over her immaculate cheeks, caressing her face, not able to press back the memory of the time when he had thought he had lost her forever. She lifted her chin to kiss him again tenderly. They stood there, forgetting time and place for some moments until, unwillingly, Aragorn parted from her buoyant smile to overlook the plain. The sun was sinking, the land grew slowly darker, and the wind, early sign of the changing weather, got stronger. Still it was a pleasant view and he inhaled deeply. “We will not ride any further today,” he stated. He heard hoofs behind him and quickly turned, his right hand on the hilt of his sword, but drew it back a moment later.
Tarés checked his mare to come to a halt not too close to the Royal Couple and their horses. He bowed and let go of his breath, relieved to see both king and queen unharmed. For the time of the chase he had feared that beyond the hillocks among the trees some felons would wait just for this occasion when the king could be easily attacked as it had happened before. Looking south he wondered angrily why not more of the guards had followed him.
Behind him Hilberon arrived on the grey stallion, trying to stay earnest though Aragorn could judge by a look how much the young soldier had indulged in the fast ride. The soldier's face almost glowed. The king smiled at him, but, as before, Hilberon shied away from eye contact.
“My lord…,” Tarés said with due respect, “do you want the riders to follow you this way?” Instead of the expected command the king laughed, kissed his queen on her forehead, and shook his head.
“No, I do not wish that they follow us, Tarés son of Tergonin,” he then said, increasing the bewilderment of the two soldiers even more. “We will return… in due time.” He then looked at Hilberon. “How is Harolyan faring?” he asked kindly without letting go his hold of Arwen.
“Very… very well, my lord,” Hilberon stuttered and patted the stallion's neck, unable to hide his puzzlement. The horse snorted as if his rider could have said something more favourable.
“I am glad to see you both getting along so well. I was not sure at first if you could handle him, but as I see it was the right decision to let you have him.”
“Yes, my lord.” Hilberon swallowed hard and evaded Queen Arwen's friendly look by casting down his eyes on Harolyan's neck and patting him again.
Aragorn turned to the road, where the squadron appeared, riding at a trot. They seemed far away, but the distance was hard to guess since the meadow did not grant any point for judgement. And there was no need to worry since Captain Fáred held the troop in perfect order.
“We will pitch a camp for tonight,” the king said to the still-waiting soldiers and looked up. The first drops of rain were falling. “Closer to the road.”
“Aye, my lord.” Tarés bowed curtly and pressed his heels into his mare's flanks to ride back for a report to Captain Fáred. Hilberon followed, taking up the chase with delight, and the king looked after him.
“He is not Vlohiri,” Arwen spoke into her husband's thoughts, and he turned to face her. “He is almost grown, and he knows about the consequences of his decisions.”
He embraced her again, grateful but also astonished how accurately she could always read his mind.
“Does he know? He is still young.”
“And under your guidance he will grow to be a good and respected soldier.” She let another kiss follow, challenging him to smile, but his face remained earnest. “Do not doubt yourself, Aragorn. You were born to become a leader.” She knew how sceptical he was about his abilities. Not all of his decisions had been to the fortune of the men in his company, and he dwelt on those wrong turns of his life more than on the good things which had happened under his command. But today she would not allow the king another painful thought. She lifted her head and stroked a strand of wet hair out of his forehead while the rain fell on their faces. “As I see it your decision to pitch a camp at once was right.”
He let go of his breath at the touch of her hand, closing his eyes. Without being able to describe what happened to him he felt… relieved, at peace with himself, and his smile was unbeknown to him. The threatening thoughts of what lay ahead of him or already behind him ebbed away. Arwen kept close to him, caressed his cheeks, tenderly kissing him again.
“I do not mind getting wet,” he whispered after a time he could not measure.
She glanced over his shoulder to the road, lifting her eyebrows with another knowing smile.
“The others do.”
Upon reaching the group which came to a halt Tarés shouted to Captain Fáred that the king had ordered them to pitch a camp. Halamin as well as the captain looked up to the sky with a dreadful expression.
“It will be as he wishes,” the captain nodded dismounting and ordered in his clear and penetrating voice to set the tent immediately. His glare was well understood, too: he would not want them to dawdle or make a mistake; he wanted the work to be done properly and in the shortest possible time. Sighing inwardly Tarés and Hilberon dismounted to give the other soldiers a hand since it was already raining.
For a moment the young soldier looked back to Aragorn and his elven queen. They walked to the camp slowly, hand in hand, and they both seemed to be truly elated with the rain, which changed from a slight drizzle to a steady fall. Though they would be drenched upon their arrival, they still raised their heads to feel the water on their skin. Their smiling faces and playful laughter stood in contrast to the grim expression of Captain Fáred… right in front of Hilberon.
“This is not the time for gaping!” he hissed through clenched teeth, his strong hands resting on his hips. “You better grab these stakes at once before I find another and not so pleasant task for you!”
“Yes, captain,” Hilberon uttered and hurried to bring the stakes to the even space beside the road. There three other soldiers worked hard with the heavy cloth which should be drawn upon the stakes after they were fixed in the ground. Within minutes the soldiers were wet with rain as well as with sweat, and the captain's meaningful stare made it no easier at all. But the outcome repaid them for their labour: king and queen would be sleeping in a properly set tent, and Hilberon stepped back to overview it, thanking the Valar at the same time that the king had not wished for the Royal Guard to set every evening while they were journeying to the eastern border. With a sigh he turned away from the entrance to glance back to the Royal Couple. Their horses accompanied them without being held at the reins, and if this was not strange enough a sight the relaxation the king radiated with his moves and expression was indeed. Hilberon had never seen him in such a mood, and he could not help asking himself if he was watching another person. During the ride through Ithilien the ruler had been polite to the villagers, friendly to the soldiers, patient even with Tesestras, but never at ease.
“Take care of the horses!” Dumarin interrupted the young soldier's musing, and he quickly nodded and accepted the reins the older man pressed firmly into his hands, accompanied by a reproachful glance. Hilberon took a deep breath. It seemed clear to him that he would be at ease only after this journey.
Upon her husband's courteous invitation Arwen entered the tent. The soldiers had hurried to get it ready, and the outcome was quite presentable. The saddlebags had been brought in, and she quickly searched for a dry cloth while the rain still drummed on the thick fabric. When she turned Aragorn stood behind her, water dripping from his hair, his garment drenched and cold, but his mood still high. The entrance was closed, and only dim light shone through. She rose to meet him, and he effectively hampered her attempt to wipe the rain out of his face. Instead she was left breathless when the kiss ended. Arwen smiled, and even without her ability to look into his heart she would not have been mistaken about his intentions.
“My king, you are soaking wet,” she stated quietly, and he raised his brows in amusement.
“Am I?” he played along. “It seems to me that the rain got through your cloak as well… ignoring you being an Elf.”
“An impolite behaviour of nature.” Her look was meaningful, and he helped her to take off sword and cloak. “But Elves know how to get warm again,” she added in an auspicious tone.
And while she opened the silver brooch of his cloak he asked in a low voice,
“What did you do… when we stood there?”
Arwen locked eyes with her husband, wishing she could wipe away the lines of sorrow from his face as well as from his heart.
“All your life you had to toil, Aragorn, and even now that your greatest deed is fulfilled you are still at strife with yourself. If I can lift that torment of your soul I will… as I will stay at your side whatever may come.” With yet another soft touch he let loose his bitter thoughts, willing to enjoy the short time of closeness that was given to them.
“My lord, King Elessar’s entourage has been spotted on the Old South Road. They will probably arrive within the next three hours. Do you wish to send them an escort?”
Éomer exchanged a glance with Lothíriel, barely able to hide his excitement. Things were truly in motion now! Against all odds, the Dunlendings had agreed to their offer and were on their way, as his scouts had reported. Against all odds, the King of Gondor had been present at the White City when their messenger had reached it and even agreed to come. Slowly but surely, this was shaping up as the biggest chance at peace the Mark and the people of Dunland had ever been presented with, against his own doubts. Turning back to Gamling, Éomer nodded, for once ignoring the two lords of an Eastfold-village who had asked his counsel in a delicate matter between them.
“Yes. Tell the Royal Guard to assemble at the gate when the King of Gondor enters.”
“Do you want to head it yourself?” Gamling asked with a brief glance at the two men at the foot of the dais. They looked unhappy, already counting on their presumably urgent business being delayed due to more important things. Yet Éomer’s answer surprised them.
“I would, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to. Let Captain Féofor head it. He knows what to do, and he will be grateful for the opportunity to leave Edoras once in a while. Tell him to take twenty men with him. That should suffice to follow court etiquette. As I know my friend, this will suit him fine.. ”
The old guard left, and Éomer shifted his attention back to the two men in front of him, even though it took a major effort to free his head from the joyful tidings and excitement they brought about to concern himself with the petty little quarrel of the two landlords again. Lothíriel’s knowing gaze rested on him in loving affection, and with a wink in her direction, the Rohirrim king collected his thoughts again.
“Now, Lord Tarlan, Lord Foldrád, as I was saying…”
Arwen had been twice to Edoras, and still the size and the beauty of a city that had escaped the terror of the Ring War impressed her. She had enjoyed the journey in itself, and now she looked forward to meeting King Éomer and his wife again, whose acquaintance she had made prior to her wedding to the Rohirrim King.
Leaving the soldiers behind at the lower part of the city, they slowly rode up the slope to the entrance of the great hall. Aragorn dismounted and turned to help his wife. She slid out of the saddle and he caught her in an embrace. She laughed and kissed him lightly on his bearded cheek, delighted about his high spirits though the task to come did not justify it. He offered her his arm and they climbed the last steps to the dais to where the doorwardens were already waiting for them… and another, well-known man clad in a leathern riding outfit, which, apart from its material, was neither overly elaborately crafted nor representative. Yet his relieved and grateful smile clad him well enough as Éomer’s gaze swept over the busy stables further below to come to rest on the royal couple in front of him. Without taking his eyes from them, he then turned to his Chief of Guard to say:
“Gamling… do you recognise that stranger and the beautiful lady that accompanies him? He deems me vaguely familiar, yet in these simple and dusty clothes I cannot place him. Will you ask him what business it is that brings him to Edoras?” He winked in Aragorn’s direction and then went over with a fast step, grinning widely and with much relief as he embraced his friend
“Well, it looks to me as if you just remembered, my lord. Thus I shall leave your order unfulfilled.” The older man smirked and followed with amusement as the two kings shared a manly slap on the shoulder. The two doorwardens behind him looked on in confusion, their glances wandering between their king’s unusual display of honest joy and the ravishing lady who accompanied the stranger. The King of Gondor cleared his throat as he took a step back to eye the Chief of the Royal Guard sternly.
“The attention of this hall has somewhat lessened of late, good Gamling. Should you not have asked me to lay down my weapons for you could not let me before the king so armed?”
The Rohirrim laughed.
“I would have, honourable King Elessar, yet as my own king acted too quickly, he left me no room to carry out that order.” Conspiratorially, he added in a pressed whisper: “It must be his youth. He has no patience for the rules of the court.”
“If youth is the only reason to celebrate the arrival of good friends in the right manner, then you are right, Gamling, for what greater joy could there be than welcoming the honourable King Elessar of Gondor and his beautiful Queen Arwen in our halls?” Éomer laughed, and, slightly turning, bowed to the elven lady before he took her hand to brush his lips over it. “Even if Gondor’s ruler took care of avoiding any undue attention, your lady could never escape anyone’s eye, no matter what she did. How very good it is to see the both of you here at Edoras!”
“How very gallant of you, King Éomer,” Arwen laughed, and all who heard her turned around to look, enchanted. “But should such words of courtesy not be spoken to the Lady Lothíriel only?”
“No matter how charming you find me, my queen, I am still my most charming with my wife. She has nothing to complain about. Yet I must excuse her for now, I’m afraid. She was planning on welcoming you together with me, yet something unexpected came up. But you will meet her later.” The Rohirrim King turned to his Gondorian brother-in-arms. “Your men are being cared for? The stable-hands are prepared for the additional horses, but what about the men in your company?”
“They are still in the stables… but I have not yet made any arrangements for the night for them.”
“Consider it done, sire.” The Chief of Guard turned toward the Gondorian king. “Is there anything else I can help you with, my lord? Like have your bags brought to your chamber?”
Aragorn looked as if he was going to insist on doing it himself, but Éomer was faster.
“That is a very good idea, Gamling. Arrange for it, please.” He performed an inviting gesture, and the doorwardens opened the great doors to the hall. “My lord, my lady, please allow me to show you to your quarters, where you will have the opportunity to refresh yourself. Afterwards, my wife and my marshals would be delighted if you would join us for a little welcoming feast to honour Gondor’s part in these historic events.”
He stepped aside to let the royal couple pass and entered after them, satisfied with what his servants had accomplished during the afternoon. Meduseld was prepared for the welcoming of its great guests: The light of many candles on artful chandeliers reflected on the glasses and plates the long tables had been decorated with. In the centre a big fire was maintained in the hearth, and the servants of the court stood in a line in the corridor between the benches, bowing to the King of Gondor and his wife as they passed them by with a smile. Only briefly Aragorn turned his head to say under his breath:
“I had hoped for a little less attention on my arrival, my friend. There was no need for this… procedure.”
Éomer smiled good-naturedly.
“Ah, but I did not make it an official procedure. This is nothing but an honest welcome for a trusted friend, Aragorn. Let them welcome you for now. They know that once again, you have come a long way to aid us in our time of need. They are cheering the man, not the title.”
At the end of the line, the King of Gondor discovered the marshals Éomer had spoken of. He knew the two older men and exchanged friendly glances and courteous words with them as he and Arwen were greeted. At once he understood what Éomer had meant as he eyed Elfhelm, Erkenbrand, and the three men he did not know yet: Like the Rohirrim King himself, none of them was dressed in the full Rohirric attire that was standard on official occasions. There were no heralds proclaiming names, no horns, no banners. This was a meeting of friends, and Aragorn was thankful for his friend’s approach. He did not despise his royal armour and cuirass with the White Tree of Gondor and the seven stars on it, but the look at it alone made him think of the dreadful day he had led his army to the Black Gate. To the final battle against Mordor. And while it had proven a victorious day he had never again worn that uniform. Clad like a ranger in his black breeches, dark red tunic and leather coat, accompanied by his sword, dagger, and arrows he felt comfortable.
Although the messenger from Rohan had announced an emergency, and he had worries about his own kingdom Aragorn felt deep satisfaction and joy over walking through the great Hall of Meduseld again. What had happened during the War was fading into the wisps of mere memory. The desperation they all had lived through would no longer burden them. Rohan and Gondor had fought together, they had stood together, and ill times and events had forged an alliance and friendship of such strength that their enemies would have to think twice before attacking any of their lands. As he surfaced from his brief contemplation, a young woman with slightly slanted eyes and tanned skin entered the main hall from the left and walked towards them with a nobility to her steps that told of her upbringing at the Court of Dol Amroth. She was dressed in a night-blue gown with long sleeves and white feathers at the neckline, an excellent contrast to her bronzed skin. Dark curls of it fell over her shoulders and danced with every move. Her only adornment was a circlet of silver with a pearl in its midst. With an elegant curtsey, she came to a halt next to her awe-struck husband and in front of the King and Queen of Gondor.
“Your presence honours this hall, Queen Arwen, Lord Aragorn. We welcome you with the utmost gratitude. I beg you to excuse my late appearance.”
Aragorn bowed to her, letting his right hand rest on his chest.
“If we can be of any help we will.”
Éomer’s smile told of his enchantment as he took his wife’s arm, his eyes travelling up and down over Lothíriel’s appearance in a very un-kingly fashion. He noticed that she had changed her gown and could easily guess what had happened to delay her. That clumsy maid again! It had been Lothíriel’s idea to check on the preparations in the kitchen before she joined him outside, and apparently, she had stood in the way of one of the many things the young servant lost her grip on each day. It could have been almost funny if the girl didn’t try so hard, only to fail so spectacularly each time. Not that he minded in this particular situation. He liked the gown she was wearing now even more than the green one she had chosen first.
“My lady, you look ravishing today.” He kissed her to underline the sincerity of his words. “Would you like to accompany me on the way to showing our guests to their quarters, for I am certain that – after the long days on the road - they would like nothing more than having an opportunity to refresh themselves before the feast?”
“I would be delighted, my lord.” With a sweet smile at the Gondorian couple, she accepted his hand, and they left the great hall together.
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