My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Twilight of the Gods: 16. The Foe on the Threshold
It was yet a long distance to ride to Edoras since the Rohirrim avoided the settlements along the direct way, but Grodes knew their locations nonetheless, even if he himself had never ventured this far into the enemy’s territory. Little did the strawheads know about what the strangers had taught them. Little did they know that in the course of the last two years, they had not only become skilled swordsmen, but also good trackers and scouts, and their new knowledge had resulted in a set of elaborate and detailed maps of a quality they had never before possessed. Dunland had been ready for the encounter with their ancient foes, which had made the sudden offer all the more confusing.
Grodes and the other leaders had expected a massive strike. They had been prepared for it, too, ready to let the forgoils run into empty land while they invaded the Mark to capture yet more of their young men. Why now was King Éomer not following the traditional way of attack and retaliation? Did he know something that he should not have rightfully known about their plan? Had his scouts discovered the strangers? Had they been too careless? And were they now riding to their own doom, forced by the superior strangers to follow the Rohirrim’s plan, whatever it would be? There were so many possibilities and none of them good.
Even though he refused to believe in the truth of the words of the Rohirrim’s messenger… he could not deny that the accursed strawheads had succeeded in making their mouths water with his offer. To a people who had lived in fear and misery for centuries, with next to nothing to sustain themselves, the prospect of a lasting peace was something they would never have dreamt of. It could not simply be discarded in the wink of an eye… even if the balance was about to shift to their side with the aid of the strangers.
Grodes remembered all too vividly how eager all of his kinsmen had been to accept their conditions for help in their matter. And so far, there had been no reason to complain, as the strangers had kept their promises, even though the sceptical tribal leaders had insisted that no help would be sufficient against the well-armed Rohirrim éoreds. Then they had been supplied with weapons of steel and armour to match, and they had listened to the strangers’ instructions… and it had made all the difference.
At first, the training had been far more difficult than expected. The strangers seemed to walk and fight with a natural elegance they never could hope to match. Yet they had quickly discovered that they possessed other, equally important traits like strength and hardiness, and only after one month of training, the difference between the learned and those still waving clubs had been impressive. At that point, the Dunlendings had been won over by the strangers' knowledge and weaponry. And the prospect of taking back their realm to the east of the River Isen had made them double their efforts.
A satisfied smile wandered over the Dunlending’s face as he looked around among his people, feeling a sudden surge of confidence even through his omnipresent fear. They were a force to be considered now. Never again would it be so easy for the strawheads to simply ride them down. They knew how to counter cavalry attacks now, and even in battles of man against man, they were skilled and hardy enough to stand their ground. The first two attacks had left no question open about that. Maybe, Éomer-King had summoned him and the others to their capital because he was afraid of them? Oh, what a satisfying thought that was!
With care Grodes’ fingers brushed over the hilt of his own short but effective sword, which he had learnt to master. He was hoping it would not be necessary to fight at Edoras, but later on there would be much use for it, and oh, how sweet would be the taste of victory when he would stick the sharp steel into their foes’ flesh! He glanced to both sides where the soldiers sat upright in their saddles, arrogant and stubborn, pretending not to see their enemies at all. They had unwillingly shared their food with them during their camps at night, and their expressions had left no questions open that they would have wished for the tribal leaders to die at once. But Grodes and his company had relished the dry meat and bread, both things they had not had much of to eat for months. Food was something the strangers had not been able to deliver sufficiently, but they had helped the Dunlendings to survive during the time of their greatest need. Grodes' thoughts travelled to the end of the summer. Maybe, if the Gods heard their pleas and granted them help, his kin would roam the lands south of the river again, and come fall, they would harvest the wheat and rye their foes had sown to finally fill their stomachs with self-baked bread. It was overwhelming to think about nicely built huts to live in, huts that kept the elements outside, about having their own cattle, and fertile soil to plough. It was such a breathtaking vision that he almost forgot he was sitting on this accursed horse’s back…
Aragorn had ineffectively tried to talk his friend out of his decision to fight. To Arwen's silent amusement he had argued all the way back to the hall against the necessity to demonstrate abilities, but Éomer was too eager – and at the same time too proud – to let go of the idea. Leaving their wives behind, the kings met in the garden behind the Golden Hall, and the warming sunshine took away the last excuse Aragorn had had to deny a fight. He weighed in his hand the training sword the weapons master had delivered. It was lighter and shorter than his own, and he swung it through the air to test its handling.
“Shall we begin?” Éomer asked from the other side of the verdancy.
After he had taken off his jerkin Aragorn stood in a loose, dark red shirt and black trousers, and gave a grim nod.
“You leave me no choice in this matter.”
A smile broke through the determined expression on the younger man’s face.
“Aye, my friend, in some cases you will find me unyielding. Have you heard nothing of my reputation yet?”
“Your reputation, aye. It is indeed not unknown to me,” Aragorn murmured to himself upon raising the training sword to greet Éomer, who was standing opposite him. He took position and focussed his concentration on the weapon the younger man was holding two-handed, an unfamiliar sight to his eyes. Facing the Rohirrim king, Aragorn could not suppress the memory he had of his wounded friend, as he had been fighting for his life in the wake of Grima's assassination. True, more than a year had passed, and he knew Éomer well enough to know that Éomund’s son had put all his efforts into adapting to the new situation, yet the skill he had once possessed was hard to regain.
While he still pondered, Éomer suddenly jumped forth, focused and going directly for his friend's chest. Aragorn deflected the blow, but took a step back immediately. Unflinchingly, Éomer went for the next thrust from the right side. Aragorn parried the same moment and evaded to his right. Éomer followed, swinging the sword two-handed and hacking the blade down in the middle. Aragorn raised his sword to deflect the hit, but Éomer thrust his weight forward, pressing closer with his left shoulder, forcing Aragorn to stand firm or retreat. For a second the King of Gondor stared at his friend, then, with a sudden lunge threw him back and evaded Éomer's next attack by stepping back again. Éomer was already sweating, and with an expression of growing annoyance, he gripped the hilt tightly with both hands, eyeing his opponent closely. Aragorn waited, his mouth set. Éomer’s lips twitched and he attacked again with a powerful lunge, at the last moment using a feint to break through his friend's defence. His sword clanked loudly against Aragorn's when, again, Éomer's offensive was intercepted, and the King of Gondor took no advantage of the situation.
Éomer lowered his sword. His eyes narrowed, and his words were bare of tolerance.
“I asked you not to treat me like a lad of ten summers,” he stated with restrained anger. “Attack me! That is why we have come here.”
“I do not wish to,” Aragorn replied flat-voiced, holding the sword square in front of him, willing to end this lesson at once.
Éomer could not stand the compassion in his friend's eyes, and his temper flared.
“Then it is your wish to insult me?” To his grim satisfaction Aragorn raised his brows. “I consider this as an insult, Aragorn! I am neither an old man, nor a lad who has yet to learn the moves of swordplay! And I am no longer the wounded man you saw over a year ago! So you’d better fight me.”
With these words he raised his sword again, rushing his friend at the same moment and forcing him into defence. Aragorn parried the first two blows, then – as if a power had been released that had been unbidden before – he moved forward. For strike after strike, he did not only deflect and evade Éomer's onsets, but fought back, letting go of his reluctance and restraint. Aiming at the king's weak side Aragorn forced his opponent back several steps, leaving him to deal with his defence, the sword in two hands most of the time. Éomer stood firm against the vigour crashing upon him and even gained the better position to swing around his friend's defence. But the King of Gondor was quick on his feet and avoided a hit at the last moment. Éomer smirked. Now the fight had the deserved quality, and his own movements were faster and more precise. Another combination could only be blocked by Aragorn in the last moment, and Éomer felt the rigour in his strikes growing. He drove back his friend with the strength of his left arm while the right directed the hit, but it was the moment Aragorn had waited for. He smote on Éomer's sword – while he held it on his right side so hard that the younger man lost control over it; the weapon was struck from his hands. Immediately Aragorn stepped back, breathing heavily, and lowered his blade, his face devoid of expression.
For a second of silence after he had lost his sword, Éomer stood gazing at the training sword in the grass. The defeat stung, and he clenched his teeth, unwilling to meet his friend's stare even though he knew he had no mockery to fear. Slowly, deliberately he stooped to pick up his weapon. When he faced Aragorn, he raised the sword upright in front of his face to salute the winner of the sparring, and his friend bowed curtly before he handed over his own weapon.
“I thank you for this lesson,” Éomer said on their way back to the Golden Hall. When no response came, he stopped and turned to his friend. “You should leave the past behind, Aragorn. I might not be the man I was as Marshal of Eastfold, but that does not mean I have forgotten how to defend myself.”
Aragorn's look was adamant.
“Your right side will remain weak. You have to convince your opponent that you have always been left-handed or he will go for your weakness just like I did!”
“Now your own rigour exceeds your restrain by far, my friend.” Despite the defeat he had just suffered, Éomer suddenly found himself amused. It was rare that the King of Gondor employed such intensity to his words, and apparently, his friend had just felt the same, because it faded as quickly as it had occurred. Aragorn shrugged.
“You were the one who asked for this fight.”
Éomer slapped his shoulder, smirking.
“And, well, I have to admit you taught me a lesson! If I remember correctly, I asked you for one, didn’t I?”
The Gondorian supplies arrived the next morning. Captain Fáred stayed true to his word to see to their distribution, since the citizens of Edoras had little understanding that a part of the delivered goods should not be meant for them and their people in the settlements. They had waited for the vegetables and corn for a long time, and the captain needed his voice of command to calm the angered peasants.
During the day last preparations had been made for the arrival of the Dunlendings' tribal leaders. A sentinel had announced them for the time around sunset, and both kings had agreed to invite the emissaries for a joint meal before the parley would start the next morning. Also, knowing his kinsmen well enough to see that such an action was in order, Éomer had gone down to the marketplace, accompanied by the Royal Guard, to catch his people’s attention. When they had assembled, sensing that something of great importance had to be on their king’s mind to speak to them in this fashion, he had held a brief, yet very determined speech about the manner in which the Dunlending guests would have to be welcomed to Edoras. While there was certainly no reason for cheering them, he had made abundantly clear that he would not tolerate any disruption of the official procedure. Uninformed about what had happened in the dealings with their western neighbours ever since Erkenbrand had so memorably burst into their Midsummer preparations, the Rohirrim had stared at their king in puzzlement. Their foes would have to be granted access to Edoras, and even into Meduseld? They would not be allowed to show their disdain openly? What was happening? How could this be right? When he had finished his address, Éomer had found himself looking into faces dumbfounded to utterly consternated, but his fierce glances had caused the crowd to lower their eyes. None wanted to be the object of the king’s wrath, and so he had left with the distinct feeling of being obeyed. Still he knew all too well that there were still many possibilities for the negotiations to go wrong, but all else was out of his hands. He would have to wait and see, and react to the occurrences as they would happen.
The further the day had advanced, the less the Rohirrim King had been able to conceal his tension. Lothíriel at his side had done her best to reassure her husband that his decision had indeed been the right one to make, and yet Éomer had not been able to banish the frowning faces of his kinsmen from his thoughts. For the first time, the full extent of his solitary decision and how much it violated everything his people expected of him had become obvious. Equally obvious to him was hat the obstacles they were faced with would not be overcome within the next two or three days of negotiations. He had given much thought to the results of this meeting. Provided the Dunlendings agreed to his offer of giving them limited land on the territory of the Westmark, but under the guard of the Rohirrim – what would they do there? Would they settle down peacefully and start cultivating the land? Would they settle but ask for more land the next spring? Would his own people accept their neighbours without trying to expel them immediately? And what if the hillmen misused the concessions he was willing to make for peace’s sake to secretly help more of their kin cross the river and attack the Rohirrim on their own ground? Would the course of action he intended to lead to an era of peace instead lead to their doom?
These and other gloomy thoughts were occupying Éomer’s mind as he rode down the hill together with Aragorn and Captain Fáred, as well as Gamling, Elfhelm and Galdur, the fully adorned Royal Guard of Rohan in tow. An hour ago, the group of approaching riders from the west had finally been spotted, and upon seeing their rulers riding to the gates to greet the Dunlending delegation, the inhabitants of Edoras slowly followed the procession, chattering lowly and uttering their annoyance but carefully not letting their king overhear them.
No sooner had the mounted warriors formed a line in front of the city gate with the two kings in the middle, than a group of approximately thirty riders approached from the road, their arrival heralded by a great cloud of dust. As they drew near enough, Éomer could see the men’s faces. They looked unwilling and yet relieved to have fulfilled their duty of delivering their unwanted guests. And they looked utterly spent. Riding the way to Dunland and back at a sharp pace twice in a few weeks time had sapped them thoroughly of their strength. Thor especially looked wretched and tired beyond measure, Éomer thought, as the horses were slowed to a trot, and then to a strut until they had reached the waiting line of soldiers.
With a measured nod, his face all sincerity, the king let his soldiers see his gratitude; it had been a hard and dangerous errand he had sent them on. It was acknowledged by the men’s glances as they came to a halt, forming a cordon for the guests they had escorted to ride to the front of their line. Lothíriel pressed Éomer's hand in silent confirmation of her support and cast him a quick smile as his head turned her way. A combination of expectation and anxiety had her trembling as she looked at the approaching riders, and the angry murmur from the citizens behind made it very clear that their guests were not welcome. The sudden tension was such that a careless word would be enough to make the late afternoon erupt into violence, she thought, barely able to breathe. The moment of truth had arrived.
Feeling the tension mount, Éomer reluctantly forced his eyes from the already near group of riders and turned in his saddle to glower at his unwilling kinsmen. His visible anger resulted in the required silence, but the people’s disdain for their guests was still on their faces. Not entirely satisfied, but aware of the fact that even his power had limits, the king turned back. From the group that had arrived, three riders emerged. Their posture betrayed clearly the fact that they were not accustomed to being on horseback, and they looked every bit as wretched as the men of Thor’s éored.
With a smooth movement, Aragorn dismounted and stepped forth. Clad in a red linen shirt smocked with corded leather braid, black trousers, and a robe of black leather that was emblazoned in silver with the Tree of Gondor, he was easily recognisable to the unkempt-looking men from Dunland. Said men dismounted most ungracefully to greet him, forcing Éomer to bite back a bitter laugh as he followed his friend’s example. The hillmen’s attempts to stride confidently were ruined by the pain in their backs from the long and hard ride, and when their leader stepped forth, he could only do so with clenched teeth.
“Éomer, King of Rohan, and his wife Lothíriel, as well as I, welcome you to Edoras,” Aragorn said with a curt bow, his right hand on his heart.
His opposite, a stout man of square build who was entirely clad in old leathern rags and fur, returned the greeting briskly, and – upon straightening - eyed the Rohirrim King at Aragorn’s side with obvious distrust.
“I am Grodes, leader of the delegation.“ His heavily accented Westron made him difficult to understand. His eyes narrowed under bushy eyebrows, as he lifted his gaze from the kings to stare at the annoyed peasants beyond the gate. “We come to parley. Can you guarantee our safety, King Elessar of Gondor?”
“It is not I alone who grants you free escort, Grodes from Dunland, but the King and Queen of Rohan.”
Grodes snorted and briefly looked over his shoulder where Woldro, Durden and the others had positioned themselves, faces stern, but with an undercurrent of anxiety. They had reached the heart of their enemy's land. They were outnumbered many times more than they could count. And the men and women behind the city's frontier looked ready to kill them.
“We know what to expect from Rohan,” the leader said scornfully and was rewarded with angry murmurs from the Rohirrim population. He turned to Aragorn again. “If a parley takes place you head it, King Elessar. So I am asking you: Can you guarantee for the safety of my company?”
From the corner of his eye Aragorn saw Éomer clench his teeth so hard the jaw muscles stood out. The younger man’s brow was furrowed, and with a deep intake of air he seemed about to utter a sharp rebuke when Lothíriel pressed his hand and prevented an outburst. She looked pale and yet composed, and it was clearly written in her features that she had not expected the sight she had been granted to see. These dishevelled-looking men with their wild dark beards and long, unkempt hair had not been on her mind when she had suggested negotiations to her husband.
As much as Éomer fought to keep his wildly bucking temper under control, and as much as he knew he had to if he ever wanted for these talks to bring the desired result, he found it impossible to remain entirely quiet in the face of the uttered insults.
“Have you come here to seriously parley, Grodes of Dunland,” he rebuked crisply with a piercing stare at the delegation’s blunt leader, “or did you undertake this journey solely for the purpose of insulting us?”
Grodes stood firm, unflinching, and defiance glowed in his black eyes. He was not about to take back his statement. Aragorn stepped in and nodded to the guests of his friend before the situation could get out of hand.
“Your safety is guaranteed. For the duration of your stay as well as for the ride back to Dunland.”
Grodes searched for signs of treachery in his opposite’s face, but found nothing but determination and the silent request to not repeat this kind of accusation. The Dunlending turned to his men, nodded in approval and entered the City of Edoras behind King Éomer and his wife. Aragorn followed with the men of Thor’s éored and the Royal Guard. The young scout of Dunlendish descent seemed almost too tired to ride up the steep slope, but he kept the pace, looking from left to right with the worried expression of a man pondering the decisions that had led to this evening. Aragorn gazed at the gaping crowd. Insults and threats could still be heard in the rows further back, but since their king led the delegation into the city, most of the peasants fell silent when he passed, staring them down. Yet their anger still showed; the mere idea of having Dunlendings among them was an insult, and the King of Gondor worried that even a positive result of the negotiations would not mean the end of the feud. Nearly every family in Rohan as well as in Dunland had grieved the loss of relatives in their ancient quarrel. Éomer's strong will was about to steer their land into a new direction, but the king could only order his people to remain silent. Convincing each and every one of his kinsmen of the possibility for a peaceful life in coexistence was a deed that lay not even within his considerable power.
They reached the dais, where the company dismounted, and as they ascended the stairs to Meduseld, the man behind Grodes, Durden, took the opportunity to let his gaze sweep over the city lying silent at his feet. It felt good to stand here, high above the accursed stinking strawheads. Wasn’t this where they belonged? He smirked and wiped his black beard with his mighty hand.
Upon entering the Golden Hall Durden said to Grodes, “I can imagine Wolf the Great having liked this view. Eh, Grodes, wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy it again day after day ?“
The words had only been meant for his leader’s ears, but they stung enough to make their preceding host ram the heels of his boots into the ground and pivot. In the space of a moment, the leader of the Dunland northern territories found himself the focus of dark brown eyes burning with intense anger.
“I will not let my house be insulted any further by your impertinence!“ Éomer growled, his hand instinctively going for the hilt of his sword. His guards reacted in the same way, expecting the spark that would ignite the heated atmosphere. “If these are your thoughts, then I strongly advise you to keep them to yourself, unless you are prepared to face the consequences!” To his utmost surprise - and the surprise of all witnessing the exchange - Grodes quickly stepped in front of his brazen kinsman and bowed to the Rohirrim King.
“Take my apology, Éomer of Rohan. It will not happen again.“ Straightening, he cast an angered glance at his perplexed kinsman.
“I will not...,“ Éomer started heatedly, but then managed to compose himself. The Dunlendings had taken the long, dangerous way through the Mark to discuss his offer. It would not do for him to let the reins of his temper go and destroy the one chance he had fought so much to bring about all by himself. With a deep, indignant breath, he indicated a short nod to the obviously troubled Grodes. “I accept your apology, Grodes, but be warned to keep your company in check. I will not repeat myself.“ With a last warning glance at the other tribal leader, he turned on his heels and stepped into the hall. Lothíriel’s worried glance followed him. This was not a good start to the meeting.
Aragorn watched Grodes intently. The Dunlending’s reaction had differed from his expectations, and the look the leader shot his kinsman spoke clearly enough. Grodes did not wish to start an argument on the threshold of Meduseld. Whatever he was hoping to gain for his people by coming to Edoras, it was not his intention to simply throw a few well-chosen insults into his foes’ face and then head back. With renewed hope the King of Gondor followed the guests into the hall.
“So… now you have seen them for the first time.” Éomer turned around. “What do you think?” He realised that his tone was less than appropriate. From the strange welcome at the gate of Edoras on, he had been biting back his sordid comments the entire evening, feeling offended at the way the hillmen had regarded the interior of the great hall, at their muttered, unintelligible remarks among themselves which not even Thor had been able to pick up during the banquet. Their twitching brows and meaningful glances while they had been stuffing the generously supplied food into their mouths with manners clearly demonstrating how they had earned their reputation as the ‘wild’ men. More than once Éomer had questioned his own sanity while he had looked at the strange display, and he knew that it was unfair to unleash his accumulated frustration at his wife now.
Lothíriel had slipped into a bright green silky night-gown and turned to face him, her dark eyes knowingly reading his expression.
“You want me to feel disgusted about them? Is that what you want to hear? Do you want me to say that I think I made a mistake?”
He frowned and inhaled noisily through his nose, angry with himself now. What exactly was he steering at?
“I cannot say.” Stubbornly, he turned towards the window again, even though the world outside lay under a blanket of darkness now.
Sensing her husband’s inner turmoil, Lothíriel approached, her expression grave... and yet there was understanding in her eyes, too. Éomer had been a warrior all his life. He had lost many of his brothers-in-arms to the hordes of primitives they were now harbouring under their very roof. Of course it was not easy for Éomer to overcome his mixed emotions. On the other hand, the Dunlendings’ initial behaviour upon entering Meduseld had left no question that it was the same for them. Both parties would have to climb the mountain of their distrust to meet in the middle.
“Éomer...” She slipped her arms underneath his, embracing him from behind, before she stepped to his side to follow his gaze. As she had thought, there was nothing to be seen outside. “No, they are nothing like I had imagined them. You were right, I knew not what I was talking about back then.” His gaze found her, but before he could say a word, she continued. “Yet their appearance changes nothing. They are still men, and their kind should not be slaughtered like animals. We are on the right path. Trust me.”
Éomer turned. He was still wearing a frown, even if it had somewhat lessened since the beginning of their conversation. How did Lothíriel do it? How was she able to counter his doubts each time they threatened to get the better of him? He swallowed.
“It was hard to allow them into Meduseld. It was hard to see their mocking and greedy glances and not wring their necks. Did you hear what one of them said about the time when their ancestors occupied Rohan?”
“Aye.” She rose to the tips of her toes to brush a kiss onto his cheek, cupping his face with her hands while he held her at the waist. “They are bitter and vengeful after 500 years of war. But so are you. A strained atmosphere between us was to be expected. We shall overcome that state. Tomorrow will mark the beginning of a new era.” Her hands sank down to grasp his, as he lovingly caressed the now noticeable bulge under the silken fabric.
“Our child has grown.”
“Aye, dearest husband. He has. It won’t be long now until you can feel him, too.” She allowed him to pull her close. “He will be a child of peace. The first Rohirrim King who will not know the meaning of war. Isn’t that a worthy goal?”
“I could not think of a worthier one, my queen.” He meant it, and his glance easily conveyed the message.
“Then come and let us rest. Even the mightiest man of the Mark must save his strength for the things in life that are truly important.“ She led him to the bed, a mischievous smile on her lips...
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