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Twilight of the Gods: 15. The Friendship between Kings
The sun had already set behind the Ered Nimrais, and the land was filled with an untroubled quietness and golden, slowly fading light as the two kings exited the Golden Hall for some fresh air after the meal. Following Éomer’s orders, the issue that had brought all men to Edoras had been ignored for the duration of supper, and the conversation had been amiable and light-hearted, evolving around the battle the Rohirrim King was fighting with his new steed and the grateful receipt of the Gondorian supplies in the East- and Westfold. Now, the marshals had already left Meduseld for their own quarters, and Arwen and Lothíriel had departed to the backside of the hall, where the Queen of Rohan kept her falcons. Thus, Éomer and Aragorn had finally been granted the solitude to discuss the pressing issue among themselves as they slowly walked to the western side of the dais, overlooking Edoras. It looked so peaceful from up here, Éomer mused, feeling the tension rising inside of him. Yet the picture was deceptive. Rohan stood on the verge of another war, and only a miracle could prevent it.
Standing at the edge of the dais, Aragorn filled his pipe and lit it, silently watching Éomer's grim expression, which the younger man had successfully kept hidden for the duration of the feast and until his wife had left.
“I noticed you had a new sword forged,” he stated politely and waited until Éomer faced him. The Rohirrim king seemed restless as he clenched his fists from time to time, only to let his arms rest when he became aware of it, and his gaze once again swept the roofs of the city.
“It is not new. I had Gúthwine reforged, thus, the material is mostly the same. I even kept the name.” Following an impulse, he drew the sword, which he carried on his right side now, to watch its shine in the waning daylight. The yet unspoiled metal shone brightly, and though blade and hilt were works of art and as meticulously crafted as a Rohan blacksmith could forge, Éomer's face bore bitter countenance as he stared at the weapon in his hands. It had been designed to be wielded either single- or two-handedly, a so-called bastard-sword that would allow him to use the strength of his left arm while the weaker right arm would direct the thrust. It was a marvellous weapon, but each time he drew it, it also brought back the memory of his new weakness. He hated weakness. Frowning, he surfaced from his thoughts and let out a deep breath as he turned to his patiently waiting friend again.
Aragorn nodded. It took no wizard to guess why Éomer had resorted to such a drastic step. The reforging of a sword that was considered an heirloom for generations to come was something not many men would have ordered.
“How is your shoulder?”
Éomer inhaled deeply, unwilling to talk about the sensitive subject. Yet he could not very well avoid it. After all, this man had saddled his horse in the middle of winter to stand by him in his time of need. For weeks Aragorn had stayed at Edoras until his healing powers had shown results, so it was his right to receive an honest answer, however much it stung the king himself.
“It has improved. Your advice to seek out Lord Elrond was helpful, yet not even he could promise me that I would ever regain full strength.” He swallowed and unconsciously rolled his shoulder, his eyes distant and lost in memory. After the wedding, the first undertaking he had engaged in had been a lengthy voyage with his wife to show himself and his queen to the people of the Mark, and seek healing in the ancient city of elves. Lothíriel and he had spent most of the summer there, and in the process, had gotten to know each other quite well... and fallen in love for real. By pure chance, the political union had turned into one of true love. Looking back, the experience still felt magical to Éomer, more like a dream than reality. Life had been good back then.
“I started training my left arm to cope with the loss of the right. I’m making progress.” Éomer was aware that his choice of words gave him away. Aragorn was excelled in reading between the lines, and even with the few words he had uttered, Éomer knew that he had told the man more than he had intended to. After a few more demonstrative exercise moves, he re-sheathed his sword and exhaled. “I know what you think: I should be glad I survived... and you are right.” His lips twitched as he met Aragorn’s gaze. It was hard to openly acknowledge the fact that he was not the unstoppable warrior anymore he had once been. “But it will be a long way to regain the skill that I thought granted.”
“I see.” Aragorn smoked, and for a while both kings remained quiet, deep in thoughts. “I cannot deny that I was astonished to hear about your intended peace negotiations with the Dunlendings,” he then changed the subject upon having sensed his opposite’s discomfort. “After all these years of feud it is a courageous step that you took.” He watched the younger man through the rings of smoke, patient, reserved. “What do your marshals think about it?”
Éomer snorted and let out a bitter laugh.
“Erkenbrand thinks me under a foul spell to have come up with this idea. You saw his expression during the feast. And Elfhelm... he, too, thinks me wrong, but he’s loyal. I won’t have to worry about him.” He could no longer stand still. To lose some of the energy that had accumulated during the endless days of waiting, he began pacing the dais. Below them in the city, fires were being lit as the darkness thickened. Edoras prepared for the night, and slowly, it was getting quiet enough to hear the beginning concert of the crickets in the grass. “It might have been possible to conclude a peace directly after the war, but now, after the Dunlendings raided two settlements near the River Isen, it is clearly not understood.” Again he interrupted himself as the full weight of his responsibility for the people of his kingdom threatened to weigh him down. Looking up, he asked after a moment of silence: “The messenger told you about the raids?”
“Without the details, yes.”
Nodding, Éomer recited Erkenbrand's report about the incidents near the border, his face grim.
“Their advance was alarmingly different from former attacks. They had swords and the skill to use them, and yet they did not kill unless it was unavoidable.” Aragorn raised his brows in astonishment. “Still, that discovery was no comfort, since they captured twelve young men that night… alive. They bound them and carried them away on horses. We still do not know what happened to them. It could be that…” He left the sentence open, but Aragorn's frown indicated that he had understood.
“It could be their intention to exchange their prisoners for food. Or to use them as a shield against retaliations.”
“Aye,” Éomer agreed, not convinced. “That would be my hope, too. Because there will be no peace if we find out otherwise.”
The King of Gondor knocked out his pipe and faced his friend again.
“Is it possible the Dunlendings received help from someone else?”
“I deem that very likely. It must be, even if neither the marshal's scouts nor the settlers saw anyone else. Our foe’s skill and arms would indicate that it was so, although I cannot think of who might be behind their attack.”
Aragorn eyed his friend closely.
“In the older days such incidents led to revenge. But you chose a different, much harder path to go. Tell me what changed your mind.”
Éomer lowered his eyes. Would he have to act his conviction to his friend, too, or was it better to let him know of his own doubts? He chose the latter, and, at length, said:
“We could retaliate now and subdue them by killing their men. But each time we kill, the hatred among the survivors grows, and each new generation that grows up will again attack our people.” The king's face was contorted with pain and regret. “The circle will go on and on, only leading to more death on both sides... until both our peoples vanish, leaving nothing behind.”
He fell silent as he stared into the deepening twilight. Midsummer had given the people so much joy… it could have been the most joyful day of the year had it not been overcast by the shadow of the new attacks. What would Midsummer of next year be like? Filled with sorrow about yet more loss of lives? Or peaceful and exuberant, a celebration of a new era? Again Éomer's hands were clenched into fists, indicating how much he had to restrain himself. Though a peace held the possibility of prosperity for his people in the future – if it could indeed be reached despite the known stubbornness of the hillmen – it was hard to do nothing to avenge his dead kinsmen or search for those abducted.
Aragorn could read the signs and bridged the short distance until he stood beside the King of Rohan.
“I do understand the difficulties you face, my friend, among your marshals as well as among your people. But though the path to peace looks rough in the beginning it will be for the blessing of both peoples in the end.”
Éomer indicated a nod.
“I hope for it to be the right path, but I am sceptical. I cannot lie.“ His voice sank to a growl. “I sent Thor with the offer for peace, and yet upon his return he declared that the tribal leaders had demanded your presence instead of being just grateful that we didn’t attack them. They asked for you without explaining their reasons. Who are they to set conditions? They should be glad that we did not ride to give them what they are so deserving of instead!” He let go of his breath in an attempt to calm down. “You can imagine now how glad I am that you answered to my call upon such short notice. How are things going in Gondor?”
“I wish I could tell.” Éomer’s brows furrowed upon seeing his friend so concerned. “We left Minas Tirith six days ago. The day of our departure I handed the command of the army over to Prince Faramir.” Aragorn sighed deeply. “I hope it does not turn out to be a burden too heavy to carry. Then it should be put on my shoulders, not on his.” On Éomer's unasked question, the King of Gondor explained his findings during the ride through Northern Ithilien and closed, “I could not decide if the Easterlings were about to attack our northern lands. The Council pressed for the invasion of Rhûn, but since no indication leads to the conclusion of an imminent danger I denied that option.” He set his jaw recalling the Council of Minas Tirith and the lords’ strong objection. Saying that they did not get along with the king would have been an understatement. Aragorn knew that he had laid a heavy task upon Faramir's shoulders. The lords would not rest until their demands were fulfilled.
Éomer's chin dropped to his chest. Unknowingly, he had asked much of his friend. It was yet another reason to feel guilty.
“I sent a messenger to Dunland two weeks ago. If they stay true to their word they will arrive at Edoras in three days. Hopefully, we will be able to settle the negotiations in due time for you to head back. I already feel uncomfortable about having asked you to come here. Had I known of your own problems...”
“Your trust in my attendance and help was justified,” Aragorn stated quietly and locked eyes with Éomer. “Prince Faramir has proven worthy many times to lead the army if the Easterlings will cross the border.”
Éomer nodded, but still he could not shake the knowledge that Aragorn was needed in his own kingdom. From the path that led to Lothíriel’s garden, they both finally heard the musical laughter of the two women approach. It was almost dark by now. Éomer turned and followed Aragorn’s gaze as Lothíriel and Arwen rounded the corner and detected them instantly. Together, the two couples headed back into the ancient hall of kings...
After a night of little rest Aragorn had thought to be the first to have risen in the morning, but when he left the hall he watched Marshal Erkenbrand and the men of his company saddling up their horses in the dim light of yet another cloudy day. There was no mistake to be made about the marshal’s state of mind, as he forcefully put the saddle on his horse and fastened it, and about the way he yelled at his men to get ready to leave immediately. Aragorn knew it was hardly bearable for the old soldier to be expelled from the land he had lived on and defended against countless foes for such a long time. Erkenbrand would have given his life to keep the Westfold in Rohan’s realm, and the King of Gondor had noticed the bitter expression on the soldier’s face the night before. For him, the mere thought of accepting the Dunlendings on Rohan territory was a threat that could only result in the death of more of his kinsmen. He had fought all his life to keep the enemy at bay, and suddenly the young king – not even half as old as he – had changed the course of action. The idea alone to offer peace instead of justified wrath had loosened the marshal’s temper again during their conversation, though Erkenbrand had fought to keep his composure. He had refrained from openly accusing Éomer of weakness, but it could be clearly read in his features that he deemed the king no longer capable of acting in the best interest of his people. Letting the Dunlendings get away with murder, abduction and theft was a sign of weakness that no king could afford to show. The hillmen had not earned the hand of peace but a lecture they would never forget.
Aragorn warmed his hands on a tankard of tea, deep in thoughts about the details Marshal Erkenbrand had revealed the night before and which worried the king more than he had admitted. Even without the stress on the Dunlendings’ sudden aptitude for warfare the tidings from the settlements were disturbing. Two hundred men with swords would not be unusual for Rohan or Gondor, but of the Dunlendings no one would ever have expected more than clubs and stones. And while the stealing of stock and food could be considered an understandable act to supply their own kin, the abduction of men could not. Whatever had led to this act of cruelty had to be regarded as a new quality of fight against the Rohirrim. Éomer, Erkenbrand, and Aragorn had agreed that even if the negotiations came up with a positive result the prisoners would have to be released first. And while the marshal had held fast to his opinion that the Dunlendings might kill the prisoners in need of food, Aragorn had objected: The Dunlendings’ tribal leaders would not come into their enemy's capital with nothing to bargain with. The possibility that the Rohirrim were still alive and held hostage to be exchanged after the safe return of the tribal leaders was more likely to be true. Erkenbrand had shaken his head about the kings' objection to accept the bitter truth, but King Éomer had taken up that possibility more willingly, though the fact that the raids had taken place before the offer for peace had reached the enemy could not be neglected.
Still they all assumed that another, yet unknown enemy was involved. No one could imagine that the primitive people of Dunland had found a way to forge swords and train themselves in the use of them. There had to be an explanation, but neither the marshal nor the kings could grasp it. The fact was that none of the scouts Erkenbrand had sent to Dunland had brought tidings of other race.
Erkenbrand mounted and, with a last regretful and bitter look upon the Golden Hall, turned his horse to ride down the slope and leave the city for Aldburg. His men followed, and only one remained at the entrance of the stables. Captain Galdur followed the marshal’s path with his eyes until he disappeared from sight. The young man's expression was grim and sad at the same time, as if he loathed to be left behind, and yet would fulfil his duty for the sake of the marshal's decision. Turning his head, the younger soldier met Aragorn's stare and quickly averted his eyes. He went into the stable and for the time the king stood on the dais the man did not return.
After a joint breakfast King Éomer left the hall to take care of the preparations for the arrival of the Dunlendings' tribal leaders. Lothíriel accompanied him, and Arwen had uttered the wish to see more of the city. Aragorn offered his company with a courteous bow, and they both walked over the dais. The wind was cool and carried with it the scents of straw, horses and the meadows that surrounded the elevated capital. High up in the sky the outlines of Queen Lothíriel’s falcons could be seen, and when they came down in graceful circles their cries pervaded through the chatter of the peasants on the steep alleys and the omnipresent neighing of horses. Arwen's black hair, as well as her dark blue gown, was caught by the strong gusts, and the peasants in front of their homes looked up from their work, some wide-eyed, some gaping at her in awe. She rewarded them with an elven smile that turned heads, and Aragorn knew without looking back that the men and women were staring at her even when she had passed them by. Without a word he bent to her, kissing her lightly on her temple.
“How very pleasant that you have the time to accompany me,” Arwen said quietly and amused. A smile tugged at the corner of Aragorn's mouth, but instead of an answer he indicated a bow, and slowly they continued their walk. Arwen was fascinated by the beauty of the horses and by the simple joys of life these people shared.
“Lothíriel told me about Midsummer,” she then said after leaving a group of men doing wickerwork. “She said it was a delightful feast, and that the citizens made her a beautiful swan. Or, to be precise, they made two since one was set on fire for good luck as it is tradition.” She took his arm again. “It could had been a wonderful celebration for all of them, but…” The smile she had carried on her delicate features slowly vanished when Arwen remembered the incidents the queen had told her about. “The tidings of the raids on the settlements came in shortly before Midsummer. They were all shocked about the attacks.” A man with two horses on reins came up to them, and the Royal Couple stepped aside to let him pass for there was not enough room on the street for the obviously embarrassed man and the steeds to evade. He bowed to them and moved on. “There had been no incidents for more than two years.”
“King Théoden had pardoned the Dunlendings, who had fought for Saruman, and allowed them to leave unharmed after the battle at Helm’s Deep,” Aragorn explained. “After that there had been a quiet agreement to not cross the River Isen.”
“So I see that those raids were unprovoked and unforeseen, but…” Arwen hesitated, and Aragorn could see how disturbed she was. “Lord Erkenbrand had not only requested that his king should take revenge, but…” She raised her head to face him, her eyes filled with compassion. “…he demanded that Éomer should order to kill each and every one of the Dunlendings.”
“Annihilation?” Aragorn echoed in shocked disbelief. “He proposed to eradicate the whole people?”
“But he could not! That is…”
“Lothíriel heard the conversation, so it is true. The same night she had a vision of impending doom. She saw the citizens of Edoras and all who live beyond killed by a tidal wave.” Aragorn exhaled. Éomer had told him that his marshal had objected to the idea of peace negotiations, and that Erkenbrand's opinion reflected the majority of his people, but he had not mentioned the way the marshal would have been willing to follow to save the Rohirrim from further attacks by their neighbours.
“Now I understand,” the king muttered, stunned by the sheer thought of the consequences such a decision would have meant.
Arwen nodded slightly. The couple took another curve on the slope, and while the thick clouds drifted with the strong wind the sun shone through, colouring the city in brighter light.
“The king was not easily convinced to not to summon his éoreds and order an attack. Lothíriel did not say so, but it seems to me that she lived through hard times to change her husband's mind.”
Aragorn lifted his brows in true astonishment.
“She is a very courageous woman.”
“Indeed. More than the marshals and captains give her credit for. But for the well-being of the people and also for her unborn child she could not keep quiet.”
“I understand. When will it be born?”
“In winter.” A feeble smile appeared on Arwen's face. It could have been an event to look forward to, but the situation did not allow for it. Arwen had seen Lothíriel’s concerned and worried face as she had shared the good news. The Queen of Rohan had seemed unable to feel joy about her special state while the possibility of war and further destruction of the kingdom were looming threateningly above her, and the rejection she had encountered had done its share to lower her usually bright spirits. “In spite of the difficulties she was facing, she persisted, and even in my tongue I cannot find the proper words to honour her courage to neither hesitate nor give in when the king and his counsellors spoke against her.”
Aragorn was quiet for the time they walked down the path to the open plain where the Gondorian soldiers had pitched a camp.
“I hope the negotiations will be the foundation of a lasting peace,” he finally said, and in her eyes he could read the same apprehension he felt since neither the Rohirrim nor the Dunlendings would easily obey their leaders. “There has to be a way.”
“There will be,” she answered with more confidence than they both shared.
Captain Fáred came up to them, bowing lowly and waiting to be addressed.
“The troop is in order, my lord, and awaiting your commands,” the old soldier reported. “What are we here to do?”
“We might stay here for some days, captain. There are no further commands at the moment.” Fáred nodded, but his expression betrayed his puzzlement. “Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?” the king asked and looked over Fáred's shoulder. Behind the campsite Halamin and Hilberon had drawn their swords and the older soldier explained a movement to evade the enemy's blade.
“The supplies run short, my lord. I have restricted the rations, but they will only last for two more days.”
“By that time the carts with supplies will have arrived.” Hilberon made a wide step forward, and Halamin evaded, laughing.
“Aye. Shall I then see to their distribution? As it seems to me the people here care more about their animals than themselves,” he added with a growl. “They might…”
“The supplies are meant for the Rohirrim as well as a gift for the guests to come. You might take what is needed for your men after that.”
“As you wish, my lord. Might I propose…”, but the king had already given the captain's shoulder a slap and passed him by. “My lord?” Fáred turned on his heels to watch the king cross the campsite with long strides. The queen followed slowly, lifting her gaze for a moment to the birds of prey. And there was a sparkle of joy in her face that had nothing to do with the restless falcons. The soldiers along the way bowed deeply to the Royal Couple. Fáred shook his head in disbelief. Who was the king aiming for? How could two soldiers at play be of more importance than the captain of the Royal Guard's report? Fáred squinted. Indeed, the king headed for his two soldiers. Grudgingly Fáred went back to his task to keep the men prepared if there was more to happen than superfluous dalliance.
Hilberon did not see the king coming. It was Halamin who got aware of their ruler and quickly turned to bow to him. Hilberon followed swift.
“My lord and lady…” Halamin raised his head again and sheathed his sword, as it was the rule.
“No, wait, Halamin,” Aragorn requested, “show me what you just taught him.”
“It was a simple… trick,” Halamin replied frowning, and shot a glance at the young soldier, who seemed about to sink on his knees upon seeing the queen so close. “Nothing you will not have seen before.” But he drew his sword again, and upon a nod of the king Hilberon took position, hardly able to turn away from Arwen. “As I told you before,” Halamin tried to gain the young man's attention, “you attack me. Same movement, lad, do you hear me?” Halamin waited though he could see the confusion in Hilberon's face. He stepped forward, ready to strike at Halamin's body, but with a quick movement to the side the older soldier did not only evade the hit but also got in position to strike back. Halamin stepped back again with a curt bow to Aragorn, who, to his surprise, drew his own sword. Hilberon held his breath. What was about to happen here?
“Let me give it a try,” Aragorn said and shortly turned to Arwen. “If you will excuse me for a moment, my lady?”
“You know of my patience,” she replied politely, but with an undertone and a look that made Hilberon hold his breath for a few seconds.
“I very well do.” Even the king sounded distracted for a moment, and when he faced the older soldier a silent amusement was still in his eyes. “Let us begin.”
Halamin's face lost all of its colour, and Hilberon sighed inwardly that he had not been chosen, when the king faced the soldier and raised his sword. The situation was already embarrassing enough, but the young soldier could not – though he truly had to – look away from the queen. He tried to. He tried to concentrate on Halamin and how he now blocked the king's attack, but… Hilberon's eyes widened. The king did not move like the young soldier had, but evaded the counter-attack quickly, turned to meet the opponent's blade halfway and with a clanking forced it out of Halamin's hand, only to hold the tip of his sword to Halamin's throat a heartbeat later. Hilberon only dared to breathe again when Aragorn had lowered his blade. Halamin seemed likewise relieved and retreated two steps to take up his sword again.
“Hilberon? Did you see the difference?” Aragorn asked turning his attention to the young man with his sword still at hand. “Halamin's movement was good, but will not work when the enemy is quick and agile.”
“Yes.” Hilberon nodded and his heart suddenly jumped to his throat. The king's look made clear the lecture was not over yet.
“Good. Take position.” The order – though friendly spoken and clearly understandable by a simple gesture of his hand – made Hilberon swallow with anxiety. The sword his father had given him seemed to weigh thirty pounds upon being raised. “Attack me like Halamin taught you.”
“But sire, I…”
“I know you can fight, so now show me.”
Hilberon yearned for nothing more than the end of this lesson, but he raised his sword and tried to recall all what he had learned. His father was not a sword-fighter himself, but since everyone in Minas Tirith was coming to him with theirs horses to shoe, Hiregon had often asked those men to teach his son a lesson in fighting. So Hilberon had had many teachers through the years. But all his knowledge vanished into thin air when he realised that he had raised his sword against his ruler, against King Elessar! It might have been on request, it might have been for a lesson, but still… it did not feel right to cross blades with him. Hilberon shrunk at the thought of hitting – of course, it would be a rare incident – Lord Aragorn in the process. He simply could not…
Hilberon's sword flew through the air, describing a curve and sticking fast in the grass, swinging as if to mock the owner of his inaptitude. The young man looked after his weapon, then back to the king.
“Would you mind taking up your sword and giving it another try?” Lord Aragorn asked. His voice was still friendly, but Hilberon noticed that the expression of his ruler had changed. He would not want the soldier to be that inattentive again. Swallowing hard he fetched his weapon and took position again. “Now, if you do concentrate, I would like to teach you something that might prove useful.” Hilberon nodded, and with a frown looked upon Andúril that shone in the sun. He had heard stories about the sword that had been reforged by the Elves… “Concentrate!” At once Hilberon snapped out of his contemplation and blocked the blade aiming at his throat. “Very good!” the king commended. “This was out of instinct and well delivered. Let us try something else…”
Hilberon did not dare to look away again from the kingly blade which blocked his way, crossed his own sword, and always seemed to be first at the point to hit or defend at the right place and in precisely the right moment. Hilberon could not break the defence though he got more courageous with the minutes passing. Finally the king raised his left hand to stop him, and Hilberon stepped back as if he had done something wrong. He was out of breath and sweat trickled down his forehead, but he did not dare to wipe it away. His whole body seemed tense, and he felt his knees weak somehow. The king lowered his blade.
“You are as well trained as I expected, but you lack the ability to apprehend your opponent's action before he delivers it”, Aragorn explained, stepping closer. “You have to know in advance what part of your body he is aiming at, how he will move, and were his strength and his weaknesses lie.”
“Yes, my lord.” Hilberon, unable to understand everything so quickly, realising that other soldiers off duty had gathered at the training place and were now listening and watching the fight. Again the young soldier felt like being at the wrong time at the wrong place, but he had to go on. The king was talking to him! He should not gaze around and miss the next explanation.
“You could judge by the appearance of your enemy where he will aim for. Halamin…” The soldier spoken to got closer. “Take your sword.” Then he turned to Hilberon again. “Now, tell me, what do you immediately know about your opponent?”
Hilberon inhaled deeply. This was another test to pass under the sceptical eyes of the king, and he wished to pass it without making a fool of himself.
“He is tall… which means he got a wide range, he’s right-handed, carries a good sword.” He paused to glance at the king, who stood beside him, his sword held loosely in both hands, his features unreadable. “And he… knows how to fight.”
“How do you know that?”
Hilberon met Halamin's stare, and the older soldier deliberately looked down on his own hands.
“He wears a glove on his right hand… and with the cuirass and pauldrons…”
“Yes, you expect an experienced sword-fighter upon seeing the weapons, the armour, and the built of a person.” Aragorn's mouth twitched. “Would you then judge a man in a plain tunic a fool? Assume him to be inapt to wield a sword?”
Hilberon’s first idea was to say, aye, of course, how should he fight without protection, but the words got stuck in his throat. Aragorn’s expression softened to a smile when he slapped Hilberon on the shoulder.
“No, you would not,” he said sheathing his sword. “For abilities do not depend on outer appearance.”
From above the campsite Éomer had watched in silent amusement Aragorn teach the young soldier a lesson in defence, and awaited for him and Queen Arwen after they left the Gondorian soldiers behind. Their captain seemed to fume about something, but bowed in obedience when the couple passed him by.
“He is quite good for a man so young,” Éomer said greeting the king and queen. “Although I would almost deem him too young to belong to the Royal Guard, no matter how good he is. It is not skill he lacks, but experience.”
Aragorn looked back over his shoulder. Hilberon emptied a water-skin and wiped his face with the rest of the water while Halamin told the on-lookers excitedly about the moves he had just watched.
“I know his father,” the King of Gondor explained while they went back to the alley. “And I watched Hilberon fight after he had volunteered to become a soldier.” He glanced back again. Exhaling he continued, “He fought better than most of the soldiers, who were called experienced, and since we have lived in peace I preferred him to an older soldier I would not trust anymore.”
Éomer nodded and, intending to lighten the mood by switching the topic, turned to Arwen.
“I heard you like our horses, Lady Arwen. Would you want to see the stallion I chose to ride this summer?”
“I would be delighted.”
“Very well.” He led them to the Royal Stables, an impressive, elaborately decorated building worthy of the horses it gave shelter to. Upon entering the four busy stable-hands quickly bowed to their king and rushed on, having to do more than usual since the Gondorian horses were stabled here as well. “I left Firefoot on open range for breeding, so I had to choose another one,” Éomer explained when they reached the loose box, in which a mighty black stallion stood, watching the persons approaching with pricked ears and flared nostrils. Upon his master’s approach though, he snorted briefly and turned away from the reaching hand, unwilling to be touched. Downplaying his own disappointment, the Rohirrim king turned back to his guests. “I would have liked to show you his better side, but as you see, he is not only beautiful, but likes to play coy, too.” He shook his head. “Lothíriel was right – it might take me yet some time to inure him to me.”
Arwen watched the horse intently and then, with Éomer’s acknowledgement, moved on through the alley, impressed by the beautiful and strong-looking steeds that followed her path with pricked ears.
“I do not know what I shall do with him,” the King of Rohan continued upon turning away and following his Gondorian guests down the corridor, and Aragorn returned his frustrated glance with silent amusement. As a true man of the Mark, Éomer was apt to talk about horses for days uninterruptedly if he was not stopped. “I tried to fondle him, to be patient, to tame him by any means I know – but he is still unwilling to accept me... at least not permanently.”
Aragorn held his hands loosely on the hilt of his sword and, earnest again, cocked his head, asking,
“What are you willing to accept for the peace of your people, Éomer?”
The question found the younger man unprepared and resulted in a long, leaden silence, which almost led Aragorn to believe that it had angered his brother-in-arms. Finally, upon coming to a halt in front of the stall that held the Gondorian king’s steed, Éomer turned his back on his friend to greet the stallion of his late cousin. While his gloved hands reached up to smooth Brego’s black mane between his fingers, he whispered in Rohirric into the listening ears and considered Aragorn’s question. Only to find once again that there were no easy answers. It was frustrating, and his good mood was gone in the wink of an eye as he turned back to face the Gondorian, while Brego blew his warm breath into his neck.
“I offer them peace instead of retaliation,” the Rohirrim king finally pressed. “It is more than they could demand after what they did to us.”
Frowning, Aragorn took a step closer, making sure the young men nearby would not overhear their conversation. Nevertheless he lowered his voice.
“Is there nothing more you are willing to grant them? No step further than the promise to not harm them if they stay on the other side of the river?”
Éomer exhaled noisily, his face a mask of concern and barely concealed anger.
“Everything beyond that is a high risk. Can you not see it?”
The King of Gondor frowned, and his eyes narrowed in disbelief.
“You just learned that they changed their way of fighting. That they are armed and trained. That they came to those settlements with a distinct purpose – to rob your people of stock and men. Do you think they will retreat to the west and refrain from repeating those raids when they have nothing to gain in the negotiations? Why should they even come here, if all they could hope for is to go back with empty hands and continue living their lives like they have done for centuries? A life in misery.”
Éomer met his gaze unflinchingly, yet there lay something in the dark eyes that seemed untypical for the wilful King of the Mark. An insecurity Aragorn had never seen there before. Lowly, as if he dared not even to admit the possibility to himself aloud, the Rohirrim pressed: “We might offer them a piece of land in the Westfold. Although I am by no means certain about it yet. It will depend on the manner of how they present themselves during the parley.” Yet his expression indicated clearly that he could not see it happening to the fortune of his people.
“It would be a generous decision, my friend, to give them land to plough and share the harvest.”
“It would be more than generous, I fear. It would contain a high risk for all settlers living there. Can you imagine what it would mean for my people if Dunlendings roamed the land and began to plunder it from within? It could easily be the end of us! Not only of the Westmark’s settlements.”
Aragorn nodded in understanding, but continued nevertheless, while he kept an eye on Arwen, who had slipped into the stall Asfaloth occupied.
“What is the base of their hatred, Éomer? What made them attack your people in the first place? Not only hatred - which is so old that none of us can recall its beginning - but dire need.” He paused and stared at his friend with urgent intensity. “I cannot explain to you why the Dunlendings are suddenly able to wield swords. Or why they abducted twelve of your men. But I do know that an offer for peace and land is the right step to take. The right step to end this feud and the envy. The right step to end the hatred once and for all. It is worth a try.”
Éomer had heard it all before in the debate with his wife and the council, and yet hearing those same words from the wise King Elessar’s mouth made him feel more secure about the decision he had made. Yet he still had to admit it to himself that he was far from being convinced by it. His eyes admiringly resting on the elven horse, he nonetheless shook his head.
“The Dunlendings cannot be trusted, Aragorn. What good came out of the mercy my uncle bestowed onto them? What made them attack us again after two years of cease-fire? There was no provocation from our side. No concentration of troops near the river. If we allow the enemy to settle on our land, they might misuse this gift as well.”
“And if it turns out well your land will prosper. You already made the first step and a courageous one! And the Dunlendings accepted it in spite of those raids! Do not throw away the chance you have right now.”
“Still I cannot say that I am convinced of their good intentions. It was them who broke the cease-fire. My mercy could easily lead to attacks of other enemies if they consider us too weak to fight for what is ours, and this time, we would not be able to fend them off. ” He inhaled deeply, and took his eyes away from Asfaloth to underline the urgency of his words. “It is a gamble I am most reluctant to take, Aragorn. Even if I admit that a change of pace for the Mark is overdue.”
Aragorn fell silent, knowing that Éomer’s concessions had limits. He understood his friend too well to push him any further. Éomer already looked wretched, worn out by the long days, which lay behind him. He lowered his head without seeing anything. Aragorn felt admiration for this man, who had been known as the hard-handed marshal of Eastfold in his youth. Éomer had been fighting for his people for most of his still young life. He knew that the way the King of Rohan was following now had not been easy to enter and would be even harder to stay on, since the king had voted against his marshals and most of his people. In pursuing peace, he stood alone, and the Dunlendings and their stubbornness just added up to the king's problems. It had been obvious in the conversation with Lord Erkenbrand that the idea of not helping the abducted men was being considered an act of disloyalty and indifference, and if his sceptically conceived plan failed, the King of Rohan would lose face and yet more of his people. Éomer was walking a very thin line.
Thinking about the unimaginable proposal the Marshal of Westfold had made Aragorn asked in a lower voice:
“If the negotiations go ill, will you then send Marshal Erkenbrand with his éored back to Dunland?”
With an effort Éomer raised his head, surfacing from his thoughts. He eyed his friend with a deep frown.
“Do you consider me too weak to head the army myself?”
“No, I do not. I was just…”
“You do. Your expression tells it clearly enough, even courtesy prevents you from admitting it,” Éomer cut him off, his stare bitter and knowing. Aragorn stood fast, not letting show his concern. He remembered the weeks he had spent at Edoras in the winter before last, fighting and praying for the life of his friend. “You think the injury I suffered at the hands of Grima has left me bereft me of my ability to fight.”
“It was indeed a wound another man would have died of,” Aragorn replied cautiously.
Éomer's voice sank to an angered growl.
“That was more than eighteen months ago. A lot has happened since then. A lot you have not seen yet.”
“I did not imply that you are unable to lead your army. But since you sent away Lord Erkenbrand to Aldburg for the time of the negotiations…”
“My sword has not been reforged to rest in its sheath,” Éomer stated with determination. “If there is no other way to come to terms with the hillmen, I will cross the River Isen with my men and teach them to not underestimate my power.” Aragorn did not answer. He could feel the temper of his friend rising and wanted to avoid adding any further strain. Exhaling, the King of Rohan put his left hand on the hilt of his bastard sword. “I will convince you, brother, that there is no mistake to be made about my strength. Let us fight.”
“I certainly will not,” Aragorn replied sternly. Arwen returned from the rear side of the stable, and they exchanged a quick glance. She knew at once that her husband felt uneasy about something.
“You do not need to worry,” Éomer continued without noticing it, “we use training swords. They are blunt.”
“There is no need to…”
The King of Rohan only slapped his friend's shoulder as he passed him by on the way to the training grounds.
“You taught that young soldier a lesson. Maybe you can teach me, too.”
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