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Twilight of the Gods: 20. Of Strange Moods and Strange Guests
The thunder of so many hoofs pounding the ground had not been heard within the Mark for a long time. A blessing, because the sound had always meant fear and danger for the people of Rohan. It had meant that somewhere, some of their kinsmen had been dying or losing their possessions, and thus it was that the sound -- together with the large dust cloud the great host stirred up -- raised many heads. As the king’s éored travelled west on the old road, its number swelling from one hundred and ten riders to over two hundred in the course of a single afternoon, it could be heard for leagues. The sound soon alerted the riders who had been waiting alongside the dusty road ever since the messenger from Edoras had reached them with their tidings. From all over the Westemnet they came, young and old, experienced and apprentices, all joining the host of white, grey and bay horses and armoured riders once it reached them and then travelled on without halting. Polished bronze helmets and mail shirts, shields and lances sparkled in the sunlight, providing the lightning to the thunder of the hoofs
The sight of the many mounted warriors soothed Captain Fáred. After the odd decision to follow the Dunlending leaders instead of bringing the negotiations to an end at Edoras, or abandoning the thought of them totally, the Rohirrim leader seemed to have gathered his wits. He was entering Dunland with a force strong enough to be a threat if the leaders were not willing to show themselves at once. Glancing to both sides Captain Fáred was content that within this host the danger for his ruler would not arise from a band of primitives. Nevertheless he rode close behind King Elessar, and Dumarin and the others kept their eyes open. This time he hoped that his ruler would not be up to strange excursions, like creeping up on some enemies.
Hilberon tried hard to hide his smile of pure bliss at riding within the mighty host of Rohirrim. He had been too young in the time of the Ring War, and the soldiers who had fought on the Pelennor had told him about the force the Riders from Rohan had unleashed upon Orcs, Ghants and Easterlings alike. While Hilberon had suffered the siege of Minas Tirith with his father, those brave men had ridden the distance from Rohan to the White City in three days to aid the waning strength of the Gondorian garrisons. Only now Hilberon understood how devastating the sight alone of those strong warriors with their shields, swords, and spears must have been to the enemy. He envied those experienced men King Éomer commanded. He felt very young among them, more like a lad of a few winters, and once again he tried to still his features. If the Dunlendings would prefer attacking to talking, he would be among those wielding his sword first to protect his ruler. Therefore the thought of the éoreds in their armour and with their weapons was quite comforting.
The sun had already disappeared behind the mighty peaks of the Ered Nimrais when the Rohirrim warriors pitched camp for the night next to an isolated settlement of the Westemnet. Alerted of their presence by the distant rumbling long before they had seen them, many people came to watch the spectacle of the great army, and to give their regards to their king. Some of the settlement’s elders, knowing what would be needed by a travelling force of this size, even thought of bringing them some of their scarce supplies. These elders were often accompanied by children, who were encountering such a strong host of their own warriors for the first time. The first day on the road to Dunland ended in an atmosphere of mutual respect and harmony, quite in contrast to what Éomer and his marshal and captains had been dreading. Either people did not know about their errand, or they agreed with the path their ruler had chosen. Perhaps it would stay that way.
It felt strange to be on the road again, Éomer mused as he stared at the silken night sky, revelling in the forgotten familiarity of the figures the stars formed above his head. The evening meal – thanks to the settlers – had been unexpectedly sumptuous, and now his full stomach and the unusual effort of the long ride were catching up with the young king. Yet it was a good fatigue, a righteous fatigue, stemming from the effort of the day-long ride. The air was warm and flavoured with the scent of wild flowers and grass, a sweet perfume he had known all his life and had greatly missed for the greater part of the two years since he had become king. No matter how luxurious his bedchamber was furnished and decorated, it could not compete with this, Éomer thought, his distant gaze on the campfire further back. When his kinsmen had asked him whether he wanted his tent erected, he had declined. He had been looking forward to the now-rare experience of sleeping out in the open again, much like his Gondorian friend. Turning his head sideways, the ghost of a smile passed over Éomer’s face as he saw the figure of Aragorn huddled in a blanket between the still forms of the other Gondorians. He laid back and closed his eyes, feeling sleep sneak up on him. Feeling content. This was the way it should always have been. This was the life he would have chosen to lead, had he been given the chance. Riding across the land, sleeping under the wide-open skies, always in service of his people... and his cousin Théodred on the throne. But fate had been of a different mind, and despite his reluctance in assuming his inherited position, Éomer’s sense of duty had never once led him to seriously consider declining. In the wake of the War, Rohan needed a strong ruler, someone the people could trust in and draw their courage from. Their acceptance was the highest honour a man could ever hope to gain, and casting it aside for purely selfish reasons had been out of the question.
“A king exists not to have his people serve him. He is not there to be protected by his people. He is the one who serves – and protects. His life is not defined by what he wants for himself. His life does not belong to him. Whatever his decisions are, they have to be made for the good of his people.”
His uncle’s words, spoken -- it seemed to Éomer -- ages ago. And yet he recalled every pronouncement, every look Théoden had given him while he had talked to him about his kingly duties. A distant smile of remembrance travelled over his face, as his head rested upon his folded hands. Sleep was very close now as he recalled the sensations the day had brought. The warmth of the sun on his face. The caress of the wind and the taste of dust. The tinkle of riding gear and the horses’ deep breaths as they drank the air and bore the riders westward across the plains. The diminishing image of the hill and the Hall of Kings on top of it; the golden roof gleaming and rivalling the sun; a beacon that would also guide them home in the not too far future. The sadness over leaving Lothíriel whilst their child was growing within her, and the excitement over having escaped the clutches of Meduseld. The two contradicting emotions stirring in him again, Éomer finally slipped over into the realm of dreams.
During the next day, the young king’s exuberance over heading the still-swelling host of Rohirrim settled into the stupor of any long ride. And while his men and the Gondorians had shared many savage stories over the campfires the night before, trying to outdo each other, they too were quieter now, saving their and their steeds’ strength for what would await them once they entered enemy territory. The day was hot, the sun mercilessly gleaming down on them, and the more they moved westward, the more unbearable the climate became.
Lulled into a stupor by the monotonous noises around him and the endless up and down of Battleaxe’s head, Éomer went through a few lessons with the stallion, which the black responded to willingly enough. Apparently, the constant effort of the travel had drained the animal’s energy enough to let him listen to his rider for once. It was enough to brighten his master’s mood for a while, even if Éomer knew that the current treaty between himself and his steed was temporary at best. Wiping the sweat from his brow with a glove that smelled strongly of horse, the king then turned his attention back to the men around him. Briefly he met Aragorn’s gaze, and it seemed to Éomer that his Gondorian friend was likewise preoccupied with his thoughts, rather than with what was lying before them, for his expression was distant and withdrawn.
To his left side, Thor was quietly sitting on Doloríon, not having talked much since they had left Edoras. The scout had never been a man of many words, but the exhausted look on the captain’s face still left the king uncomfortable about chasing the younger man across the Mark for the third time within a few weeks. Yet there was no alternative. The half-Dunlending was essential to the fulfilment of his plans. If anyone would be able to foretell the hillmens’ reactions once they had entered their territory, it was this kinsman, granting them an immeasurable advantage over their ancient foes.
Reining Battleaxe in to make him fall back behind his scout and captain, Éomer pondered further. Circumstances had gifted him with a valuable ally in their ancient quarrel, and yet while he was certain of Thor’s loyalty, the Rohirrim King knew how hard it had to be for the younger man to firmly remain on the side he had chosen years ago. Given his ancestry and upbringing on the western side of the Isen, it had been the unlikeliest choice, even surprising himself when it had come to pass. But it had been prompted, of course, by special circumstances.
Éomer’s gaze rested on the younger man’s broad shoulders as he recalled what Elfhelm had told him about his most trusted kinsman. As a child of mixed ancestry, Thor’s upbringing had been rough. After their tribe had discovered his mother’s forbidden relationship with a Rohirrim, they had chased her away after three days of public condemnation. They had tied her to a pole in the middle of the village for everyone to curse and spit at and then forced her to leave her only child behind. This experience and growing up without parents had made Thor quiet and solitary, and even though his appearance had never given the others reason to pause or led them to question his loyalty, his heart had never fully belonged west of the Isen. Mostly on his own, he had spent countless hours honing his skills in finding and reading tracks and exploring the secret paths that led through their realm. He had learned to read the weather and the art of the hunt, and he had become adept at vanishing without a trace and observing without being detected; all skills that had made him valuable for the Dunlendings when finally the time came for him to participate in the raids on Rohirrim settlements.
At first, the youth had solely been used for his scouting skills, only leading the marauding groups to and from the settlements, unseen by the ever watchful horse-lords. One day, though, the moment arrived when they had given him a club and taken him along for the assault, expecting him to kill and steal. He had done neither. The sight of his raging kinsmen hitting the unsuspecting peasants like a pack of predators -- not caring whether they hit men, women or children -- had appalled him, not roused his fighting spirits. And when he had caught sight of three of his comrades starting to ravish a screaming Rohirrim woman after they had killed the man defending her, he had decided that this kind of fight was not his, and he had intervened. At his first vocal protest, his comrades had only laughed, teasing him as being jealous because they would not let him participate. And for a moment, Thor had paused, knowing that if he went through with this, there would be no way back for him. But then the woman’s huge frightened eyes had met his, and the decision had been taken out of his hands as he had shoved the first offender away from her. He had turned against his comrades and received a fierce beating, and would have quite possibly been killed by them had not Marshal Erkenbrand’s éored arrived at the scene. Panicking, the rampant Dunlendings had fled head over heels, most of them unable to escape the vengeful riders as they chased after them. Thor, badly beaten, had not been able to flee along with them, and – surrounded by the angry mob of Rohirrim – had already accepted that he would be killed like a rabid dog. But then the woman he had saved had spoken in his favour, shielding him from her enraged kinsmen. Uncertain what to do with an enemy who had turned against his own comrades to defend one of them, Erkenbrand had taken Thor with him. Somehow, by pure chance, the young man had finally wound up in the Eastfold, where he had quickly earned Elfhelm’s trust.
His example gave Éomer hope as the king surfaced from his memories to see the scout now riding in front of him. In the beginning, Thor had had to fight hard for acceptance among his one-time adversaries, but through determination and persistence, he had ultimately succeeded and even risen to become one of Rohan’s most respected warriors. He was living proof that it was possible to overcome his kinsmen’s inherent suspicion. If one man had been able to overcome their reservations, it had to be possible for the rest of his kin, too. Not overnight, but through patience and persistence. Both were no character traits the Dunlendings were known for, but if they had proof that it was possible…
Sensing Éomer’s gaze, Thor suddenly turned in his saddle, and his eyes meet his ruler’s in a silent question. Smiling thinly at the display of the scout’s keen senses, Éomer granted the man a curt nod and shifted his attention back to their surroundings. Perhaps things were not as bleak and hopeless as he had deemed them. Perhaps, with a little more optimism and determination, he would see his will done after all
They reached the Isen on the afternoon of the third day and found themselves already awaited by two parties: the first being one of the patrols Erkenbrand had left to guard the Fords. The other, black clouds of mosquitoes which greedily moved to welcome the new arrivals, thankful for each inch of uncovered skin. The riders of the Westfold, well-accustomed to this ordeal and just ignoring the dozens of stings, only had a thin smile for their comrades who kept squashing the bloodthirsty torturers on their arms and faces to no avail, uttering heartfelt curses in their hard tongue.
For the first time in days, the sun was hiding behind a thick layer of clouds, and the air was almost unbearably humid, as the host of over 300 Rohirrim and Gondorians dismounted and pitched camp at the border of their land. Tents were erected, fireplaces established and horses unsaddled and left to graze before they would be tied in a circle around the camp as additional guards for the night.
After observing his men’s efforts for a while and being satisfied with their efficiency, Éomer had then summoned his captains to give them orders for the days to come, the days when they would enter hostile territory. It was then the illusion of harmony had abruptly ended. Even though he had expected perplexed reactions to his speech, the sight of the severely estranged faces of his men had woken the distinct need for solitude in the young Rohirrim King. His own mood damped after the brief bout of optimism the day before, he had set out to do what had always succeeded in countering his frustrations before: he had sought out his horse for a thorough grooming, hoping to let his thoughts wander aimlessly, or even to empty his head for a few cherished moments of peace. Yet while his plan had sounded good in theory, it had been an entirely other thing to see to its fulfilment with Battleaxe’s again unwilling disposition. Soon the King of Rohan had found himself even more frustrated than before, swearing at his steed and close to throwing the brush at him.
With a supreme effort at reining in his flaring temper before he exploded, Éomer finally straightened and sighed as he turned around, surveying what he could see of their camp in the slowly fading daylight. Even after two years of peace, Rohan’s forces were ever ready to defend themselves. It was a soothing thought- the only one he could think of right now as he stood and watched the slight drizzle that had accompanied them for the past two hours slowly developing into a heavy rain.
Behind him, mighty and unstoppable, the Isen formed the border between Dunland and the Mark: a living, churning barrier that could only be crossed at this particular place. The Rohirrim King’s expression darkened as he thought of the last time he had set foot on these grounds. He had been too late to help Théodred, and not even the long, frenzied ride back to Edoras through days and night had changed anything. The horrible wounds his cousin had sustained at this shore -- in a hopeless fight against an enemy of much greater number -- had ultimately claimed his life. Unwilling to relive the horrible day when he had found Théodred among his slain kinsmen, Éomer shoved the memories away and gave himself a mental nudge to make it back to his tent before the light had entirely gone… when the hushed whisper of several voices froze him in his tracks. The sound was coming from behind, distant, but not so distant that he could not hear. He strained.
“… can only end in disaster! But he will not see it!”
“I cannot believe he wants us to spare them even in the case of an attack! Does he expect us to do nothing in defence? Is this accursed filth more important to him than his men?”
“It would seem so, wouldn’t it? But there is nothing we can do. We must follow whatever order he gives. It is not our place to question his decisions.”
Éomer inhaled silently, and his lips became a thin line as he held his breath, listening. He did not recognise the voices, but he would know soon enough who was speaking so vehemently against him! Slowly, cautiously so as not to make any sound, he began to walk around the two horses between him and the men holding the discussion.
“Well, whose place is it then? Someone will have to say it and make him understand, or the Mark will come to ruin before long. The marshal did, the marshal tried to make him see, and yet you see what his reward was.” The voice was trembling with barely restrained anger. “If the entire host spoke against him….”
Ready to unleash his rising anger onto the group of unsuspecting warriors, Éomer moved to reveal his presence to the men… but before he could do so, another voice cut in sharply and froze him in his tracks. A voice he recognised. He paused, waiting for the scene to unfold. Maybe there was something to be learnt here, something that wouldn’t be revealed if he showed himself.
“What are you doing here, Captain Fráccas, talking to your men in such a secretive and conspirative way? Why are you not with the others instead, helping with the camp? What am I to think about this?”
It was Galdur, and his granite-hard tone told Éomer that he meant it. Choosing to stay concealed, he listened on, more than surprised by the rebellious captain’s bearing. Had his scalding at Edoras finally brought the result he had aimed for? It was hard to believe, yet the soldier’s words sounded sincere. However, Fráccas, a captain of the settlements in the northern Westemnet, was not easily intimidated.
“My men are concerned, captain. Surely I must be allowed to discuss the matters that worry them, or has law been changed recently in Rohan? Do we have to obey silently from now on? What does the king want? Men who think independently and who will say if something is amiss, or men who will run blindly into their doom?”
“The question is always in what manner such discussions are conducted, captain. Being a soldier of high rank yourself, you are supposed to know what it looks like to others if you steal away to hide behind the horses and whisper secretive words. If you have a problem with the king’s orders, you address the king openly. Or you ask Marshal Elfhelm or me. Either way, this way of dealing with your people’s issues is entirely intolerable, and if I see you or any of your men plotting behind our backs again, you will have to face the consequences. Do I make myself clear?”
“Do I make myself clear, soldier?”
“Aye, captain.” Fráccas gave in, and his gruff tone betrayed his frustration. Although possessing the same title as Erkenbrand’s second-in-command, the Westfold captain’s longer years in the service gave Galdur authority in their quarrel. “It will not happen again.”
“Very well. Then leave, and see where your hands may be needed. I am certain there are still many duties left to fulfil ere the night falls.”
In the silence that followed, Éomer heard the footsteps of three men leaving, and for a moment considered whether he should show himself and admonish the soldiers after all. He decided against it. In his current mood, it was very likely that the admonishment would get out of hand, and the last thing he needed was to dishearten his men further prior to venturing into enemy territory. Galdur had said everything there had been to say, as surprising as it was. The thought of the words he had overheard still stung, but he had to leave it at that. He had known from the beginning that his men would not like the course he was steering.
Turning toward Battleaxe to collect the belongings he had brought for the grooming, Éomer – out of the corner of his eye – noticed movement. The next moment, the Westfold captain rounded the horse screening Éomer and saw him. Their eyes met. If the soldier was surprised to see him, he didn’t show it. He appeared neither hurt nor angered over the king’s apparent eavesdropping, as he gave his ruler a curt nod and turned toward the brimming camp.
Unmoving, Éomer stood and watched until the man disappeared behind the first tents. He didn’t know what to think. It had been a strange scene, and he was not entirely certain that the taste it left was a pleasant one. Something he couldn’t name was telling him to watch out, to be ready for anything. To not let down his guard even for a moment for as long as he was outside of Meduseld. There was something strange going on these days, something the likes of which he had never experienced.
A telltale prickle in his stomach told him that he was being watched, and he swivelled.
It was Elfhelm who was staring at him from the distance of his already-erected tent, and his friend’s tense expression told Éomer that the older man had been brooding over his own sinister thoughts ever since the king’s address. In the grey eyes he read the same doubts that were plaguing him, and the unspoken advice to send the man home. Suddenly feeling fed up with being prodded and manipulated from all directions, Éomer turned his back on his friend and walked off into the opposite direction.
For the days' rides Aragorn had been quiet. He had not been able to share the exhilaration his friend had felt, and now that the last camp in Rohan’s realm was prepared for the night, he sat apart from the soldiers, who talked and laughed after their daily work was done. In silence he lit a pipe, undisturbed by the light rain. During his long years of wandering, he had spent much time in Rohan, and he knew well the place they stayed in. But back in those years he had not held the responsibility for a kingdom in his hands. Now he had come to the realm of his ally again, but could not stop wondering if he had made the right decision. Faramir's words had sounded like wisdom. Still, Aragorn could not simply put the task of the kingdom's defence into the hands of another. If the Easterlings would change their behaviour and prepare for an invasion, no errand-rider would reach him here. He would get no tidings from Minas Tirith, and there would be no return for him to lead the garrisons into war.
If the threat they had denied yet proved true, the king would not be able to come to lead his men.
The hour was already late when all preparations for the days to follow had been finished, and since the drizzle had developed into a heavy rain since the sun had gone down, the fires had taken a while to catch. Only now were they high enough for the men to roast some of the corn cobs and potatoes they had picked up in the surrounding settlements, in order to upgrade their scarce provisions of bread, dried meat and fruit. They had also cooked a tasty stew, of which Elfhelm had taken his share. He was now pulling aside the flap of Éomer’s tent to enter, dripping wet and careful not to spill his supper. With an inward sigh, he sat down on the furs which covered the ground and crossed his legs, almost burning his mouth as he swallowed a quick, first spoonful of the stew, feeling famished after not having eaten much for the entire day.
The wind worked in her favour, bringing her the strong smell of horses which she could already hear neighing in the distance. She was wet from the rain and the crossing of the river, but in the warm summer night it did not matter. Better yet, the water covered up her own scent. It would help her to get closer to the campsite undiscovered, ample reward for the toil of having had to cross the Isen stream down from its guarded fords.
Slowly, cautiously, she edged forward, looking ahead, but never missing a sound or motion nearby. The nearest guard, a strongly-built armoured Rohirrim, walked past her only ten feet away, without pausing or even glancing in her direction. She waited and moved on after the man had reached a distance. The fires attracted her, and she hoped to find the men still awake, though she had had to wait until nightfall to start her excursion. Stealthily, she slid further along the slope on the edge of the river, careful not to let the plants’ rustle give her away. Not far off she could see the royal tent, decorated with the Rohan banner, the white horse upon green. There she halted again, melting into the shadows and straining her ears. The wind blew into her face, and she relaxed. Not even the Rohirrim war-horses outside, bred to detect trouble on a dark night such as this, would be able to pick up her scent. She sat back and focused on the voices of the two men inside the tent. They were alone and talking quietly, and yet she understood each word they were saying.
Outside, the camp was slowly beginning to calm down with the progress of night. The ride through the Mark had been long, and yet harder days lay ahead of the men. Most of the riders that would accompany them into enemy territory tomorrow had already retreated to rest. For a while, none of the men inside the royal tent spoke. Silently eating, they listened to the sound of the distant thunderstorm and the rush of the rain, their minds elsewhere. Every now and then, secret glances were cast at each other because it was clear to all of them that things would have to be addressed before they came to rest themselves; yet all seemed to dread having the first say. Finally, it was the newly appointed Lord of Westfold who felt that he couldn’t remain silent any longer. He set down his empty dish and looked at the man opposite him.
“I am worried, Éomer. There is a strange atmosphere in our camp tonight, and I do not like it at all.” Elfhelm swallowed the piece of dried meat he had been chewing on for the last five minutes, and grimaced as he met the kings’ gazes. Elessar, he noticed, looked as if he had already sensed it, too, and indeed the marshal would have found it strange if the perceptive Gondorian had not picked up the grim silence following Éomer’s speech that afternoon. And Éomer… he looked as if he wanted to hear no more of the dreadful subject. Tense and staring at his almost-empty bowl, as if he were trying to drill a hole into it with his mere glance, in an attempt to ignore his brother-in-arms of many years. It was not as if Elfhelm could not understand his friend, yet these things had to be addressed.
“Galdur took care of the men, and I firmly believe that they will not repeat anything of the likes they did today. If I started punishing my men for their concerns, I would have to send them all home, including you!” Éomer said at length, still not looking at his marshal. “As for Galdur, our problem seems to be taken care of. He may still not like it, but he is following orders, and for my part, that is all I will ask of him, and all that I expect.” He lifted his head. “Now, if I may, marshal, I would like to spend the rest of the evening in peace. We have discussed to death the things you are bringing up again, and frankly, I am quite sick of repeating the same words over and over. I know our riders are in a bad mood, I know they do not like my order to spare the Dunlendings even if they attack us, and I know they all wish Erkenbrand was their king right now and would send them over the Fords tomorrow to annihilate our foes. I understand all of that, and I do not wish to hear another word of it tonight. So if you please…” He gave his marshal a curt nod, but Elfhelm was far from letting himself be silenced like that. He looked at the other king as if he were seeking aid from his side.
“It is not only Galdur I am worried about, Éomer. I took the freedom of closely watching the men’s faces during your address. While it was to be expected that they would not like the part about not harming the Dunlendings once we’ve found them, I did not like their expressions. Their dissatisfaction with the whole situation may run deeper than we think. Thor was among them the entire evening, and even though all know that he is in league with us and thus care to watch their words in his presence, he told me…”
“Elfhelm?” Forcefully, Éomer sat down his bowl. His expression was stone, except for the annoyed glare in his eyes. “For the last time: I do not want to hear. Now, haven’t you some preparations left for tomorrow? Like polishing your sword or selecting the men who will accompany us over the river?”
The sharp tone and words were a slap into the older warrior’s face, even if he was aware that his friend had not meant it personally and most likely already regretted his outburst. Éomer had reached the end of his patience, and Elfhelm had known Éomund’s son long enough to understand that any attempt to get through to his friend now would be in vain. Swallowing his objection and pride, he took his empty bowl and stood up, the only hint of his hurt the sudden formality of his speech.
“The men have already been selected, sire, but you are of course right that it is time to get a few hours of rest before we leave Rohan. You will find me in my tent if you need me. My lords?” He bowed to the two kings and left.
For a while, the silence thickened between the remaining men. Aragorn tentatively broke it, saying, “He was merely being concerned, Éomer. And I must say that I share his view.”
His opposite let out a deep breath, but it was more in frustration than anger.
“I know he only means well. But I am aware of the things he said, I do not need to hear them repeated constantly. Does he deem me not perceptive enough to understand my men’s feelings now that I am their king? I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to be a simple rider who must follow orders he doesn’t deem right.”
“I don’t think that it was his intention to express that.” A glance into Éomer’s face told Aragorn that the other man was feeling the burden of his decision extraordinarily heavily on this rainy night. “He is concerned because of our decision to only take sixty-five men along into hostile territory tomorrow.”
The Rohirrim King lifted his head, loathing the discussion, but knowing that he could not very well tell Aragorn off as he had done with Elfhelm.
“And what else should we do, tell me! We want to convince them that we come in peace; yet how for Eorl’s sake should we accomplish this deed if we invade their land with over three hundred heavily armed riders?” He snorted. “I am aware of the risk. But I do not see another way. By leaving the main host here, we will be reaching them quickly enough in case of an emergency. The first village lies only two hours away on the other side. And even if they choose to attack us, a force of sixty-five mounted Rohirrim and Gondorians should present a force that will not be easily overcome. They will think twice before waging any ill moves against us.”
“If we are able to find them first. They have hideouts we can never discover. If they consider us a threat, they will not show themselves. And if they are waiting for you to enter their land, they may have already started their preparations to cut the vanguard from the main host. Nay, Éomer, only if the Dunlendings are willing will this venture be blessed with success.”
A loud noise in front of her woke her from her rapt concentration, but it was already too late: without warning, the wind had shifted, and the horses next to the tent thrust up their heads in alarm as they picked up her scent. With flared nostrils, the black and the bay tasted the air, snorting and rolling their eyes, then the black suddenly jumped forth, and his hoofs kicked the air, missing her by inches. Instinctively, she lashed out herself, already moving backwards and retreating deeper into the thicket, just as a cacophony of alarmed shouts rose from the camp. The stallion shrieked and fought against the rope that held him back, and suddenly, he was free of it and coming after her, his fury fearsome to behold! Swearing under her breath, she turned on her tail to flee and only caught the faintest glimpse of the two kings she had overheard as they burst from their tent to find out the reason for the ruckus. Her eyes glistened malevolently as their images and appearances burnt themselves into her mind. Then the stallion was upon her. She barely escaped the flying hoofs as she dove into the thicket of reeds and weeds to escape the way she had come, just when men with torches came to provide light. Silent as a shadow, she vanished. She had heard what she needed.
“Do you see something?”
“Ready your bows!”
“Closer with the fire! Move! Move!”
“Where is it? What is it?”
His sword in hand, Aragorn stood and watched alongside several men with raised spears or arrows fitted to the strings of their bows, ready for anything that might jump out of the bushes. Battleaxe was charging through with eyes that showed only the whites. The horse was either in panic or furious, he could not tell which, but the manner in which the Rohirrim guards had stayed clear from the horse’s path told him how respectful they were of his immense strength. Aragorn’s own horse trembled under his touch, and the way he danced to the side and drank the air through flared nostrils left no question that he had likewise been alarmed by something.
“What was it, Brego? What have you seen, friend?” he muttered, letting his fingers travel down the muscular neck, while his gaze shifted from the moving reeds where Battleaxe could still be heard, to Éomer who was coming his way with determined steps.
“May I borrow your steed for a moment, brother? He may prove helpful in getting my own back.”
“Riding after him alone is a bad idea. We do not know what is out there.”
“He is not far, and I need to be alone for this. He will not calm down if all come charging after him. Thank you.” With one fluent move, Éomer made it onto Brego’s unsaddled back and pressed his heels into the bay’s flanks, talking to the stallion in Rohirric as he charged after his own steed.
He did not have to ride far to find the black where the thicket ended, still in shouting distance of his men. On the river’s edge, splashing through the water, Battleaxe had resumed to running a few paces in either direction before he abruptly turned on his hindquarters. His anxiety was a strange sight to Éomer, almost as if he had been following something, but did not dare to continue through the fast flowing floods. With the merest pressure of his thighs and a brief tug on the mane, Éomer slowed Brego down to a walk, glad for his elevated position. His keen glance swept the stripe of reeds for movement, but even from horseback, it was too dark to see. A perfect place to stalk him, if the thing that had upset his horse was still around. Instinctively, the king’s hand went for the hilt of his sword, as he turned his mount in a tight circle, tense. The black wall of plants did not betray whether it held danger, and he cursed under his breath. Aragorn had been right, of course: it had been a foolish thing to go after Battleaxe alone. But since he was here now, he better go through with what he had come for quickly; returning without his horse and having to admit his uneasiness in the darkness was out of the question.
Up ahead, almost directly in front of him, Battleaxe was still pacing, the splashing water giving him away. With slight pressure, Éomer urged Brego on, whispering into the twitching ears.
“Calm him down for me, friend. Show him that there’s nothing here to fear.” He hoped he was telling the truth as his eyes once again scanned the foliage to his left. How easy it would be to jump at him from there, undetectable until it would be too late. What if it was a Warg? But wargs were no stalkers. They usually attacked with the force of a battering ram, not caring whether their prey saw them first, because their great hearts and lungs enabled them to run down almost every beast. Stealth was not their strategy. Without warning, Brego came to a sudden stop and snorted, apparently disliking what he had just sensed.
Battleaxe was close now, the white of his legs the only thing that gave him away in the darkness as he stood and watched their approach. Quietly, Éomer began to talk to him in Rohirric: a soothing, steady stream of words with a melody to them that caused the stallion to prick up his ears and turn his head in their direction. For a moment he listened; then, with another vicious thrust of his head, he whirled around and pranced the length of the riverbank again, staring intently and with flared nostrils to the other side of the river. Éomer followed the animal’s gaze, not expecting to see anything. The other side loomed dark and forbidding behind the reflecting water, daring them to come closer. He had no intention of doing so, at least not tonight. Insistently, he urged Brego on, and a moment later he held the torn rope that was hanging down from the black’s halter in his hands.
“What was it that you saw, demon?” he whispered quietly, with his free hand stroking Battleaxe’s brow. This horse was a complete mystery to him. He did not behave like any other horse Éomer had ever known, and even among a people whose culture was based on their horses, Éomer was considered an expert. The stallion’s moods were unpredictable. Right now, as Éomer turned Brego around and the rope tightened, he followed his master obediently toward the dark wall of gently swaying reeds, as if he had forgotten the moment of rage before.
For a moment, the Rohirrim king felt apprehension as his searching gaze swept the sea of high plants, then he led the bay into it, all too aware of how distinctly the splashing of the horses’ steps could be heard in the night. It was too quiet. As if the world was holding its breath. And then he heard it: a slight rustle of something moving stealthily through the scarp. He tensed and drew his sword.
“Éomer?” Aragorn’s voice came to him from the distance of another reality. There was something here in the scarp. Hiding. Maybe already coiling for the jump. To his right, the reeds were shaking against the gentle rhythm forced on them by the breeze. Underneath him, Brego rammed his hoofs into the ground, unwilling to proceed. His fingers clenching around the rope, Éomer scanned his surroundings, all instincts crying out at him to run. But he had to know! What was it that… a sudden hard jolt on the rope he was clinging to. Unprepared, he was unseated, and landed with a splash on his back. Half rearing, Battleaxe moved violently backwards, stomping his hoofs into the ground in a clear threat. Muttering a traditional and specifically un-kingly Rohirric curse, Éomer rolled to his feet, quickly assessing his situation. Brego was gone, and he had lost Gúthwine! Where was it? Frantically groping in the mud as the rustle in the reed moved toward him, Éomer caught the slightest flicker of movement, of reflecting eyes staring at him, and then the scarp exploded with shrill alarm as something fluttered in mad flight into his face. Startled, the Rohirrim lost his footing as Battleaxe behind him gave a shrill shriek and burst into a frenzied run, dragging his master behind.
Swearing, even though his mouth and nose were filled with muddy water and sand was crunching between his teeth, Éomer somehow managed to turn around and dig his heels into the ground; after a few more paces he succeeded in bringing his skittish steed to a halt.
“Éomer! Can you hear me?”
They were coming for him, and as the Rohirrim king picked himself up from the swampy ground, he became all too aware of what a sight he would be to his men. And after the ruckus they had made, all would be there to witness his disgrace. Mud-caked like a pig because of a flock of geese, that’s what he was, and as the voices drew closer, Éomer led his reluctant stallion into deeper water to briefly dive in and clean himself. Even then, the embarrassment was almost too much to bear as Aragorn and Elfhelm came charging through the reeds and detected him instantly.
“I am here,” he muttered indignantly, yanking hard at the rope to show Battleaxe that he was less than satisfied with his behaviour.
“Are you unharmed?” Aragorn asked, deep concern all over his face as he waded toward his friend. “Why did you not call? When Brego came out of the shrubs alone we feared…”
“I am fine,” the younger man replied crisply, his tone a clear indication that he did not wish to talk about what had happened. “Apparently, my new steed has much to learn yet if the scent of a fox causes him to lose his head.”
“It was a fox?” Elfhelm let himself be heard from behind. “It is hard to believe, the way Brego and Battleaxe reacted.”
“I saw it with my own eyes, Elfhelm. I know what I saw.” Éomer glowered at his friend of old and just wished for the day to end and to be alone in his tent with no one bothering him until the morning’s first light. “It stirred up some geese in the scarp. They practically flew into my face! This black mule here has panicked on lesser occasions.” He passed the two men without so much as a further look, dragging his now obedient steed behind. The wall of plants closed behind him, leaving the marshal and the Gondorian King to ponder his words.
“A fox,” Elfhelm repeated with a sceptical look at Aragorn. The king briefly cocked his brows, but then turned back to the river once again. If the fox had stalked the geese, why should the horses have panicked at the camp?
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