My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Twilight of the Gods: 22. Into the Trap
With a gasp, Éomer jumped back, and Galdur’s agonised scream rang over the battlefield as the lance skewered him through the armour and through the abdomen!
“Stay away, Éomer! He’s a traitor!” The marshal’s face was a mask of unrelenting disdain as he brought his steed to an abrupt stop next to them, almost causing the stallion to tread onto the seriously injured soldier in the process. “He was trying to kill you.”
His words were clear. Even the noises of the battle were dying down around them, so there was no way to misunderstand what the new Lord of Westfold had said. Yet Éomer’s mind was unable to grasp their meaning as he stood rooted to the spot, staring at his friend of many years before he stared at the fallen captain.
A brief glance confirmed to the older warrior that their attackers were indeed under control and being herded toward a shallow niche in the rock wall. From the corners of his eyes, he also saw Thor coming their way with the reins of Éomer’s stallion in hand. His gaze grew cold as he stared down on Erkenbrand’s second-in-command.
“He was coming up behind you with his spear readied when you were fighting the three Dunlendings. Had I not intercepted him, it would be you lying on the ground impaled. Apparently, the expression of ‘having your back’ has quite a different meaning in the Westfold, does it, scum?” Elfhelm snorted, feeling tempted to grasp the shaft of his protruding spear and twist it. In answer, the deadly pale man on the ground spat at his feet, a mixture of saliva and blood.
“Galdur? Captain…” Éomer felt as if he had been hit over the head by a troll. His own soldier had attempted to assassinate him? Numbly, barely noticing what he was doing, he accepted Battleaxe’s reins from his scout’s hands as Thor rode up at his side. “Why?”
“Sire, I hate to interrupt, but we have rounded up the enemy against the wall. You will need to talk to them, my lord. Before they try a feint, or whatever comes to their minds.” Slowly, as if he was waking from deep sleep, his king’s eyes turned to him. Then, suddenly shifting his attention to what lay behind the captain’s shoulder, he seemed to return to reality.
“Aye…” With a last confused glance at the man on the ground, he stepped over to his stallion’s side and swung into the saddle. “Elfhelm, watch him. Make sure he survives until he can be questioned, or try now and see what you can find out. I will be back shortly.”
The marshal nodded and cast a meaningful glance at the wounded soldier.
“Aye, sire. My pleasure.”
Éomer’s expression darkened even more when he turned his attention to the captain’s steed. It was obvious the stallion would not get back on his legs again. He hated to give the next order, but it was the merciful thing to do. A small nod towards the grey.
“Put him out of his misery, Elfhelm. He should not be forced to suffer any longer.“ The Lord of Westfold knew what he had to do, and his expression told Éomer clearly how much he dreaded his task. Killing their beloved horses, even if the case was hopeless, was hard for any Rohirrim. They were partners in battle, no less. It was their horses who had enabled their people who were spread over such a vast land to endure against all odds. It was with a heavy heart that the older warrior drew his sword. Éomer chose not to wait. He turned to Thor.
“Come with me. I need you to speak some Dunlendish for me.”
The moment he had seen them was the moment they had already vanished among the rocks. When Aragorn turned to spur on his horse, fighting two Dunlendings blocking his way, he followed only the direction the men must have taken since they had not appeared on the battlefield. He called to his men to follow him, but they only heard his command when Fáred on the other side of the battle repeated it. Shedding off their screaming enemies the ranks of the Royal Guard formed anew to accompany their king. Gazing upwards at the rugged walls Aragorn stood in the stirrups, silently hoping that the leaders had not escaped into the mountains. There was no way to be sure, but only to follow the narrow path along the mountain slope which he could see from his position. Hilberon in front of him suddenly pointed out to some shapes in dark clothes, mingling with the colours of the mountains. Closing in Aragorn distinguished two broad frames and one, considering that one to belong to a younger man. His face he could not see, but they would soon reach them. Upon his command the soldiers spurred their steeds into gallop, only to notice that the figures eluded their pursuers once more as if they could blend into the rocks and stones. Hilberon turned in the saddle, guilt in his features. The king signalled him to move on. There had to be a way to find them and – if they were not willing to halt by themselves – stop and hinder them from escaping again.
“There!” Tarés suddenly shouted raising his arm. “They take that curve!” He looked over his shoulder to see the king and the others follow and wondered how the Dunlendings could have been so quick compared to the speed of the soldiers' horses. But there would be time to dwell on this subject later. Right now they all only wanted to reach the hillmen as fast as possible before they had a chance to vanish again.
“People of Dunland!” Éomer’s gaze swept the rows of defeated, anxious hillmen his éored had herded into the cornice. Worried black eyes met his gaze in dread. Some of the men were bleeding, some holding various body parts in pain, but all in all, it appeared as if the Rohirrim and their Gondorian brothers had largely succeeded in disarming their attackers and keeping them alive. “We have not come to kill you, this much should be clear to you by now. If we wanted to slaughter you, it would have been easy to do, and even now, as you are standing disarmed, unable to defend yourselves, doing what you expected us to do would be far easier than achieving our real goal.” He inhaled, waiting for Thor at his side to finish and meeting the eyes of a particularly broad, yet not very tall man he remembered from Edoras. One of the guards, if he was not mistaken.
“We are here because we want to talk. Because we want to salvage of our peace talks what can be salvaged, but since you would not listen, some of you have been wounded now, and a few even killed, although that had not been our intention.”
“Lies!” An angry voice yelled out of the crowd, and Éomer’s attention shifted to the stout man who was making his way to the front row now. He locked eyes with his scout who lowly repeated the uttered accusations in Rohirric. “You killed the leader of our delegation, and now you have come to finish what you have begun!”
“So why is it you’re still alive then, Durden? Why did we allow you to return to your land and alert your people? Why did we not slaughter you before you left the Mark, for it would have been the easiest thing in the world. Tell me!” Éomer urged Battleaxe a few steps forward, forcing the angry Dunlending back. Furious glances sized him up, contemplating whether it there was a possibility to drag the king from his horse and drastically change their position in these negotiations. Yet the Rohirrim king was smart enough to halt just outside their reach, and his guards were watchful. “And why did we not kill you and your men even though you ambushed us? Why did we take the greater risk of only disarming you?”
The leader snorted angrily.
“What do I know about forgoil-tactics?”
“Right,” Éomer repeated, glowering down. “What do you know? Nothing we could do would ever convince you of our good intentions. I meant what I said during the parley. I am as devastated by what happened as you. Never had blood been spilled in the Golden Hall, and whoever desecrated its sanctity will have to pay for it. I have set my mind on finding out who it was, and if you should know one thing about me, Durden, it is that I always achieve what I set out to do. Here and now, I give you my word that Grodes’ murderer will be brought to justice, no matter whether he is Dunlending or Rohirrim.”
Low muttering went through the rows when Thor had finished.
“You, however, should ask yourself whether it is really in your people’s best interest to simply shun the prospects of being granted farmland in the Mark. Have you already told these men who fought against us so courageously of our proposal? Do they know that if they would have killed us, the prospects of ever settling our conflict and being able to sustain themselves would have vanished? Did you tell them, Durden?”
The muttering increased in volume under Thor’s calm voice, and suddenly the Dunlending leader found himself in the focus of his kinsmen’s attention, their expressions ranging from bewilderment to anger.
“That is right,” Éomer took the opportunity to speak into the dumbfounded confusion. “We offered your leaders land in the Mark for a hundred and fifty of your people to plough. We offered them the protection of an éored and the knowledge of our people to help them with the work on the field. Our offer still stands, which is why we have come here to reconfirm it. Ask yourself whether you really want to throw this opportunity away. Ask your leaders. We will grant you the time to discuss this among yourselves. We left our main host at the Rohan side of the Isen. We will wait there for ten days. If you accept to continue the negotiations, you will get there in time and bring the Rohirrim captives you took from the two settlements you raided. If you are not there, we will know that you have no more interest in peace talks, and you will then have to face the consequences of your decision.”
“What choice is this?” Durden grumbled, yet sounding insecure under the close scrutiny of his people. Éomer stared him down.
“It is the choice between life and death for your people, Durden. Nothing less. Choose wisely.” He turned Battleaxe around and sent the stallion into a swift trot that brought him up next to his scout. “Let us follow Elessar, Thor. Lead the way.”
The sandy turf turned to slippery stone, and their surroundings closed them in. Pillars of stone loomed like watchmen at the entrance of the southern part of the Misty Mountains, forcing those who wanted to follow the path to do so on their feet. Brego already reared, unwilling to set his hoofs into the hollow-sounding gorge. Aragorn looked up to the ledge the tribal leaders had been standing on not long ago. They must have passed through here; there was no other way leading into the mountains. The king had made up his mind before: he had to move on. Quickly he dismounted and named two of his company to watch over the horses, while the others marched behind him.
Halamin gave the reins to his comrade and strode beside Hilberon. The young man felt the same uneasiness he had experienced since the pursuit had begun. But if the king commanded it they both would go with him wherever they had to. That did not keep them from worrying about the outcome. Halamin glanced at his younger companion.
“Well, Hilberon, that’s when the troll swings the club, hum?” he tried to tease him, but Hilberon only twitched his lips, unable to react to the joke.
Aragorn would have liked time to explore the narrow path, but time was the least of his resources. Already in the distance, hard to make out in the mist that hung in the air like a spider’s thick net, shadows were vanishing. He called to them.
“Don’t run away! We come in peace! We will do you no harm!“ But the light footsteps did not stop, and instead ran further until they were hardly audible.
To their right and left rough vertical walls rose, and through the haze - which had not lifted though it was already noon - it was impossible to look further than a few feet. With every step Aragorn took, the feeling of imminent danger rose. He knew that the cliffs within the narrow gorge they were marching through could bear peril out of their view, but their only chance of finally making contact with the tribal leaders lay ahead. If he did not succeed now, they would retreat into the mountains where it would be hard if not impossible to follow them. Stories were told about caves and paths in the Misty Mountains, some so old that their existence had turned into myth and most of the living had no knowledge of them at all. If at least some of these stories bore truth, the Dunlendings could hide quickly and their pursuers would pass them by without noticing.
Quickening their steps Tarés and Fáred flanked their king, and their ruler admitted them with a nod. With his hand on the hilt of his sword Tarés looked pale but nonetheless determined enough to skewer everything that got too close. He would not let anything happen to his king. Hilberon behind them breathed shallowly. This situation looked even worse than observing the Easterlings at their campsite in Ithilien. He could feel his heartbeat in his throat, and though Halamin stayed at his side he knew instinctively that this might not keep the danger at bay. He wanted to swallow his fear, but when he glanced sideways he saw Halamin’s face bear the same tense and worried expression. It was too strange a path to be harmless.
Passing under the warm afternoon sun Lothíriel and Arwen overlooked the plains, but no comfort could be gained from the rolling meadows. Watching the birds in the distance, they left the garden behind and entered the Golden Hall. Compared to the bright light it was dim, and the outlines of the hearth, benches and tables could hardly be seen. Suddenly Arwen fell on her knees with a choked cry, clutching her right hand to her throat.
“Arwen, what happened?” Lothíriel cried out and knelt beside her, but the Queen of Gondor could not answer. A weight, immeasurably heavy lay on her breast, cutting off air. She opened her mouth in a painful grimace, trying to inhale, but it was impossible. Her face turned ashen when the pain intensified. Pictures of an impenetrable darkness rushed her mind, of loneliness and pain. Arwen would have wanted to cry, but even that was impossible. Lothíriel gently touched her arm. “Arwen, how can I help you?” she asked desperately. Arwen shook her head slightly, closed her eyes, and concentrated, bowing her head. The images of darkness were without any scheme, but a threat of great amount still lingered. With an effort she then sucked in air as if it had to force its way to her lungs. Twice, three times she inhaled, and finally tears trickled down her cheeks. With her eyes still closed she murmured in a voice that seemed to come from afar:
“He is in fear. Such a deep fear.”
Aragorn could rush now, push forward without looking left or right to gain on the ones they were desperately searching for, or he could proceed slowly, carefully and risk falling behind the group. Determined to not let the chance slip through his fingers he marched on, hand on the hilt of his sword, vigilant, watchful, and tensed to be ready if anything unexpected should happen. The clanging of chain mail and the drumming of boots behind him on the stony path made it hard to distinguish between the sounds echoing from the walls and those stirred by others. They had reached the narrowest place yet on the path when a crackle, no more than the rolling of small stones across an incline, made him strain his senses even more while the group proceeded. Unwillingly they had slowed down; they all were tense to their core.
All of a sudden there was movement six feet above them on both sides of the wall. The men drew theirs swords immediately, but not quick enough.
“Nets!“ Fáred shouted at the top of his voice.
A dark mass of thick and tight-knotted nets, encumbered on their outer edges with wrapped stones, rained down on them, smashing some of the screaming soldiers to the ground. Others stumbled back under the weight, raising their arms and trying to get rid of the ropes at once. Blades clanked on the hard ground. Aragorn hacked his sword through the tethers surrounding him, but his weapon got stuck. The ropes were drenched with a liquid that hampered the blade from cutting through fast enough. The men got entangled in the mass and with every move the ropes wrapped them up even more. The king shouted orders to cut through the ropes with knives without too much movement and was still fighting his way out of the tight embrace when screams came from above: Men jumped from the steep ledge where they had lain hidden. Dunlendings, dark-haired, bearded, wild-looking men in rough garments with clubs in their hands rushed the trapped soldiers. Fáred cursed, spiked the first in the leg with his sword, but the same moment he lost his weapon to two other attackers tearing it from his hands. He rewarded them with heavy blows to their dirty faces, shoving them out of his reach. Shouts echoed through the narrow passage; more men poured from their hideouts, gaining on them, overwhelming those who could not cut themselves out quickly enough. Tarés counted fifteen, then twenty. They were outnumbering them!
Aragorn hit the Dunlending standing next to him with his fist, still entangled in the sticky rope, hardly able to see. Since a sword was useless he had drawn his hunting knife. Pushing aside two enemies with his shoulder he managed at least to cut the two ropes right in front of him to gain more range. Waving their clubs more attackers appeared in his view. Aragorn was hit on his right shoulder, but still stood, forcing the hunting knife into the man’s upper arm and shoved him into the next one coming up to him. Behind him Tarés held the swinging arm of a Dunlending to save the king’s head from being cloven by a club, when a second foe tore at his legs, bringing him down with a crash. The Dunlending fell upon him, and Tarés struggled ferociously to push him away and get on his feet again. He had to protect the king's back! Aragorn spun around, blocking the arm of yet another enemy going for Hilberon, who defended Dumarin lying already on the ground. The young soldier was bathed in sweat, but still on his feet, bleeding from an arm-wound, and aiming his dagger left-handedly for a very broad, troll-like man, who, when the stab went ill, simply grabbed his shoulders and pushed him backwards with a roar. Hilberon fell against Halamin, and they both went down, unable to get up again. Within the minute the fight lasted the enemy’s intention was obvious: none should be killed. The king knocked out another man close to him, saw the captain stab his dagger into a Dunlending’s throat with an expression of grim satisfaction, but that ended the moment Fáred was torn aside and fell, dropping his weapon. Aragorn tried to move forward, tried to aid the captain who was immediately held down by four hands. A strong blow to his back knocked the air out of his lungs. He stumbled, tried to turn, and tripped over the heavy net. A club hit him on his left temple, forced him onto his knees. In a flash of light the king saw Hilberon’s face, wide-eyed and shocked, then -- nothing.
Harishdane stood on a projecting stone four feet away from the fight, which was over more quickly than she had expected. All the training lessons -- some of them more frustrating than she now liked to recall -- and her flawless planning had worked out to her satisfaction, though one Dunlending had been killed and already been taken away. The last of the thirteen men in the king’s company was overwhelmed. Most of the soldiers lay motionless on the ground, but not for long, as she knew. Her allies and the women in her service quickly freed them from the nets and bound the soldiers’ wrists. The first men stirred already, and Harishdane shouted a short command in her tongue to gag those soldiers at once. The plan consisted of speed and little noise, though she had to admit that in the latter the Dunlendings were not open to reason. Now speed was their worthiest ally. The soldiers the king had left with the horses waited a mile beyond the gorge's entrance, but within the mountains sound travelled far. The very eager Dunlendings and Harishdane’s followers had to leave this path as fast as possible. She would not want the Gondorians to become suspicious and follow their ruler. Until now too short a time had passed to disquiet the soldiers. She looked down on the King of Gondor. The net was lifted, but he did not stir. While two Dunlendings grudgingly bound his hands in front of his body, Sisune, a female soldier of her own tribe, bent down to grab the shining silver chain with the attached pendant the king wore. With catlike grace Harishdane left her lookout and stopped Sisune with a sharp command.
“That belongs to me,“ she growled menacingly, and the young woman retreated with a bow though her yearning glance at the jewel betrayed her humble obedience. When her leader looked away she quickly grabbed the hunting knife that lay near the king's left hand and hid it under her tunic. Harishdane knelt beside the king. Over his left temple blood trickled down to his eye and cheek; the blow had been harder than she had thought from her viewpoint, which made her curse the fool who had done it, but she did not utter any accusation while the Dunlendings gagged their valuable prisoner with a piece of cloth. They did not know who they now called their captive. Only Harishdane herself and her second-in-command, Asentis, knew now – with the leaders of the Dunlendings gone – who that man on the ground was. With grim satisfaction Harishdane took the jewel and added the ring he had worn to the chain to put on her neck. The simple tribesmen eyed her silently; Harishdane knew that they would not have befriended her were it not for the skill and the weapons they urgently needed to fulfil their goal. She shot a quick glance to the men in her company. “Don’t leave the weapons or anything else behind!“ the tall slender woman ordered. She took Andúril and its scabbard for herself, and the way she handled it betrayed the impression that she was weak due to her slender appearance. Getting up she watched Url, the Dunlending who headed the group, remove the loose stones guarding the secret pathway. It was narrow, and the way behind the entrance dark and stifling. Two Dunlendings went in first, pulling in the struggling captives, and lifting those over the threshold who were still unconscious. Harishdane was satisfied when the king at last was carried to the entrance. She looked around. Two of her kinsmen wiped the ground with long fresh branches to hide the traces of the fight, took knives and bows and the last net the Dunlendings had forgotten. Then all they hurried to the path in the mountain.
Url closed the entrance and scurried after them.
“There are two of his men! They left their horses behind!” Thor indicated the distant shapes at the foot of the mountain they had been riding alongside. The éored followed his lead, their thunder echoing from the granite walls.
Éomer’s gaze went up the cliffs above their heads in search for a sign of his ally or the hillmen he had followed. He half expected an attack from above, another rockslide grinding its deadly path towards them, but nothing happened. Reining in Battleaxe, he signalled his men to slow down and came to a halt next to the waiting Gondorian soldiers.
“Where is your king?”
“They took that way, sire,” one of the men answered, indicating a steep narrow path that went up into the mountains. “The king and his guard. They were close behind our foes!”
“Then they might need our aid,” Éomer determined, turning his stallion in a tight circle to address his men. “I need fifteen men to accompany me! Thor, Arnhelm, you are coming along. Elfhelm, Fráccas, you will remain here with the rest of the men. If we are not back in two hours, you come after us. ” His gaze became persistent when he saw the silent protest in the older warrior’s eyes, and he directed Battleaxe next to his friend’s long-legged bay and lowered his voice. “Elfhelm, I need you to question Galdur. Tolgor says his wounds are mortal, and I need to know what he knows before he dies. I need to know whether there is a bigger conspiracy behind him. Question him, but do not let our men know about it. Only you can do this for me.”
Reluctant, but seeing the wisdom behind the younger man’s words, Elfhelm gave him the nod he had been waiting for.
“I will see it done then. But watch out on that mountain path. This terrain is treacherous. We do not know our way here, and it may be full of traps.”
“Thor will know them.” The king slid from the saddle and gave the reins to one of the Gondorians, also shedding his helm as he made for the narrow path with great strides. Once again his gaze went up to the Lord of Westfold, who was still looking uncomfortable at the separation of their forces. “And Elfhelm? Keep an eye out for the Dunlendings. I do not know what they are up to now; they may follow us and dare another attack.”
“If they do, they shall regret the attempt. I cannot promise I will be as merciful as you if they attack us twice in one day.” He did not waver at Éomer’s stern expression, and his gaze stayed on the young king as he and his men strode over to the beginning of the path. Hands on the hilts of their swords, ready for whatever would await them, the Rohirrim climbed up into the mountains.
Hilberon had watched the king go down, but his shout had ended with a thick piece of cloth in his mouth. Though he had struggled with all he had the young soldier had been no match for the tall and broadly-built Dunlending who had bound his wrists at last. Now he was pushed into the narrow path through the mountain. He had hit his head at the entrance trying to look back and find out what had happened to the king, but the Dunlending had at once poked him with a primitive looking knife, and since Halamin was before him Hilberon followed the older man into the dark and endless tunnel that seemed to breathe the mouldy stench of decay. The young soldier felt miserable, and though he should not fear anything his heart beat in his throat, and he could only breathe shallowly. He shivered involuntarily. In the distance he could make out a man with a torch. Around him it was too dark to see anything, and more than once he hit his forehead on a projecting stone and stumbled back, only to feel -- more than he could see -- the presence of his captor right behind him, pushing him forward with even more determination, growling threats in his tongue. Again he turned his head and saw the entrance being closed with the last fitting stone. In the last rays of daylight he recognised the limp figure of the king being carried in by two Dunlendings, then all the lights went out. Hilberon swallowed trying to recall what Halamin had told him – that courage was good and fear was good. One needed both to survive. While trudging through the darkness, bound, gagged, and in pain, Hilberon knew that at this time his courage was struggling with his fear.
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