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Twilight of the Gods: 25. Discoveries
Swivelling when the cry resounded Aragorn pushed the guard aside to see what had happened. Tarés tried to stop the broad-shouldered Dunlending, but he held the king fast, blocking him with his body.
“Let me help that man!” Aragorn cried, pressing his weight and strength against his enemy. “He is wounded!” But the guard countered his opponent's fury, and only barked at him to stay where he was. The king looked over his shoulder. The Easterling woman stood three feet away from him, surveying the group without as much as a frown. “Please, let me tend the man's wound!”
She stepped closer, her keen eyes set on the king.
“Who are you to say you can do that?” she asked cautiously in her dark voice and let her gaze wander from face to face. She spoke Westron with an accent, but her wording was much better than that of the Dunlendings.
“He is the healer of our group,” Tarés cut in. “His name is Strider.”
“A healer?” she repeated lifting her brows. For a moment she looked up to the rocks, then to the head of the group. Neither Harishdane nor Asentis could be seen. With a nod and a few Dunlendish words she dismissed the guard to face the king. “Go, look after your man.”
With a curt nod Aragorn rushed past his people, kneeling at Hilberon's side a moment later. The young man was pale, and his eyes clearly betrayed his pain as Halamin crouched beside him with deep concern in his expression. Coming to a stand at the king’s side, the Easterling woman eyed him closely. Two Dunlending guards with the hands on their clubs objected in their tongue, and Url appeared to inquire about what had happened.
“Let me see,” the king said quietly to Hilberon who turned, clenching his teeth. Through the torn sleeve the ugly wound could be seen, clotted with dried blood, but too deep to heal without treatment. Aragorn turned to the woman, stretching out his hands. “Take these off – please. I cannot help him bound like this.”
“Never!” Url shouted at once, and his men closed in. The Dunlending glared hatefully, and he almost spat. “He escapes. He tried before!”
“He did?” the woman echoed, and though the situation was tense she was still unafraid and her voice low. “He will not now, will he?” she asked Url, who stared down at the king. The woman's eyes were keen and knowing, and Aragorn was surprised how deeply she seemed to understand the hillmen. Her voice bore none of the haughtiness he had heard from the other Easterlings. “Your men are here, mine are here. And there is no place he could go to from hereon. He would not stand a chance, would he?” Url shook his head, but his piercing stare never left Aragorn, when the woman stooped to cut the knot with a small knife. The rope fell, and for a second the king rubbed his wrists. “Go on, but hurry. We have much ground to cover.”
“Thank you.” Aragorn turned back to Hilberon. Disbelief shone in the young soldier's eyes, but he did not utter a word. The king’s expression told him that it was not the time to ask questions, and a second later he pressed his lips tight. Aragorn ripped off the sleeve and could not help grimacing at the cut the weapon had caused. He looked back at the woman. Url was still angry enough to tear the king away, but with the Easterling at his side he constricted himself to bitter grumbling. And the woman was as unafraid as one could be invested by strangers seething with hatred. “I need water to clean the wound, and he needs water to drink.” The woman handed him her water-skin without a word, but when he had given it to Hilberon and reached for his belt she was alarmed.
“What are you doing?” she demanded to know, her voice suddenly hard. Aragorn unfastened a small pouch and showed her its contents. She sniffed and turned up her nose at the smell. “What is it for?”
“These are herbs. They will prevent the wound from getting infected and help the healing.”
“He shall heal on the way. We must move on.” The woman lifted her eyes to the rock formation above. Asentis stood there demonstrating his impatience. “Hurry,” she then ordered the king. “They are waiting for us.”
After cleaning the wound Aragorn wrapped the arm with a part of the sleeve to fasten the wet herbs. Hilberon still looked wretched, but the pain slowly ebbed away.
“Can you move on?” he asked lowly while helping the young soldier to his feet, who nodded in an attempt to return the encouraging look. “Good.” The king put away the pouch. “I will change the bandage tonight.”
“Thank you,… Strider.”
“You be bound first!” Url cut in by grabbing the king’s shoulder, tearing him away from his man. Hilberon had no breath left to protest, but Halamin quickly stepped in, willing to intervene for the king's sake.
“Leave him alone! He just wanted to help!”
“I will not resist!” Aragorn stated firmly through clenched teeth, lifting his hands in front of him. The two Dunlending guards quickly took the rope to bind his wrists again while he locked eyes with the young woman from the east. She had taken back her water-skin to fasten it to her belt and only nodded slightly. Her expression was unreadable as she turned to signal her kin to move on.
It had been a long night without much sleep. A night haunted by deep concerns for his friend, and the stunning realisation that one of his most trusted kinsmen had attempted to murder him because he deemed his own king a danger to their land. Éomer had been tossing and turning on his cot without finding peace. For hours, he had lain awake, staring at the ceiling of the tent with unseeing eyes and hearing the muted muttering of his soldiers outside. He would have much preferred to sleep outside, with nothing but the stars over his head, just like he had done during his time as a simple rider or even as Third Marshal, but deep inside, he had also felt the need to seclude himself from his men.
Had Galdur been the only one to think like this? Éomer knew that however much he wanted to believe it, it was unlikely. It would be safer to assume that most of his men were against what he was ordering them to do. They were still obedient, but as a long-time marshal and simple rider, the young king had sensed their reservations and reluctance ever since they had left Edoras. There had been the general notion of tension among their group for days now, and it was not just the tension that came naturally with riding into the enemy’s territory without knowing what to expect. He had noticed all those secretive and furtive glances they had given him, even if he had pretended that he hadn’t. He had noticed how conversations had abruptly died with his approach, and how they had picked up again after he had left. So far, he had paid those signs of his men’s distrust no heed, but in the light of Galdur’s deed, he was not sure of anything anymore. Was the Westfold-captain the only one whose sense of duty had led him to consider regicide, or had he merely set an example for other doubters to follow? Was Éomer still in danger… and Elfhelm and Thor, too, because it was well-known whom their loyalty belonged to? There were no answers to be found.
All night long he had brooded, instead of sleeping seeing all the horrible things that had potentially happened to Aragorn and his men – an ambush, a rock-slide, an attack by some force they had not counted on – and Galdur’s disdainful expression as he spat into his face. And when the morning had finally arrived, the Rohirrim king had at least come to one conclusion: he needed to address his men. They had a right to know what had happened. He had to counter the deep insecurity he had felt among them the night before, an insecurity he could not afford to let stand.
When he exited the tent, his body stiff and aching from the night on the hard ground, something he was not used to anymore since patrols were no longer part of his life, a pale sun hung low in the sky like a tarnished silver coin. Its warming golden face was still veiled by thick morning mist, and the air was cool and moist. From all around him, the sounds of the slowly wakening camp rose. Further behind, he saw Battleaxe’s tall shape. The horse was grazing peacefully side by side with the others, a wonderful picture of normality which brought a distant smile to its master’s face for a moment before the frown returned. Abruptly, he turned his back on the horses. Aragorn had disappeared without a trace. A trusted man had attempted to murder him. Right now, normality lay in another world. The sound of a voice he did not recognise startled him.
“Good morning, sire.” A young man stood next to him, close to the tent. From his posture, Éomer concluded the lad had stood there for hours already. He had not noticed him when he had exited. “I hope you slept well.”
Elfhelm had ordered those guards. Good old Elfhelm, Éomer thought, he always considered everything. No matter how beat the marshal himself felt -- and he must, being fifteen years older than his king -- he would never seek rest before everything had been prepared, even for the unlikeliest eventuality. And yesterday... he had saved his life. A warm feeling spread through Éomer’s stomach.
“Aye, soldier, I did, thank you. What is your name?” The man blushed, and in doing so, confirmed to the king that he was indeed quite young. The way it looked, he could barely be older than Éomer had been when he had begun his duty among the riders.
“Foldwyne, my lord.” The lad bowed, his face a deep shade of crimson that brought a smile to the older man’s features.
“Is there any news of King Elessar and his men, Foldwyne? He has not returned during the night, has he?”
“I am afraid not, my lord.”
Éomer nodded, not really having expected a positive answer. He would have heard the commotion. And they would have woken him.
“For how long have you been standing here, Foldwyne?”
“I... I am not sure, my lord. A few hours, maybe...”
“Then you must be hungry and cold.” A brief nod. “See that you get something in your stomach before we continue our search. It looks to me as if they have tea ready at the fire. Go.”
“Thank you, my lord.” The youth took off, unmistakably relieved to be dismissed, and Éomer took a moment to let his gaze sweep over the camp. His men were already in various phases of waking and preparing their breakfasts, and heads turned his way as they became aware of his presence. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed their healer coming his way with a grim expression on his face.
“Tolgor! What news can you give me of the captain?”
The man lowered his head.
“He is dead, sire. He died during the night. His injuries were too severe.” He looked over to the campfire where the marshal sat among his men, drinking from a steaming pot and looking their way. Éomer looked unsurprised. “Sire, I know what happened during the battle yesterday. But most of the men don’t, and there are rumours flying around... One of them saw the marshal throw his spear at Galdur.”
“I know, Tolgor.” Éomer laid a heavy hand on the healer’s shoulder, aware that more and more of his riders were staring his way. A truly Rohirric character-trait: their nature made it impossible for them to mask their feelings. He took a deep breath. “I will address them before we continue our search.”
Another hour had passed before the men of the king’s éored were ready for departure. They had eaten, and those who would not search in the mountains had already saddled and bridled their horses. Now they were awaiting Éomer’s orders for the second day of the search, and expectant faces turned towards him as he stepped out to face their rows and raised his voice.
“Riders of Rohan! Before we head off to search for our allies, there are a few things that have to be addressed in the light of yesterday’s events. I am aware that some of you have heard of Captain Galdur’s passing in the wake of the battle. A few of you may even have witnessed what happened, and I understand that it must be a source of deep concern. Yet Marshal Elfhelm had a very good reason to do what he has done, and I am going to share this reason with you now.” He scanned the faces in front of him and found many sceptical and insecure expressions among them. One of them had been killed, and not by the enemy, but by their own marshal. There had to be a very good reason for that, but just what reason none of them could imagine.
Éomer straightened, and his gaze found Elfhelm and Thor at his side, facing the éored with blank features. Tensing for his task, the Rohirrim king’s expression hardened in an unspoken yet distinct warning to his men.
“Captain Galdur is dead because he attempted to kill me during the skirmish. I trusted him to have my back in the battle, but he raised his spear against me instead. Had Marshal Elfhelm not been there to stop him, Rohan would be left kingless now.” His hard stare remained on the men as low groans and muttering went through the rows. Blue and grey eyes narrowed in disbelief or dismay. Éomer chose a particularly sceptical-looking captain in the first row to address by holding him captive with his piercing gaze. This was the point where he had to make it clear to all who were harbouring silent doubts in their king that he would not tolerate disobedience, and that mutiny and treason would come at the highest price.
“Captain Galdur thought that we should not be here. Or – while being here – that we should be doing other things than trying to reach an understanding with our ancient foes. He saw my actions as a sign of weakness and a source of shame too great for the Mark to bear. In his opinion, the only possible answer to the attack on the Westfold would have been the annihilation of our enemy, and I know that he stood not alone in seeing things this way.” Éomer paused, and his gaze wandered over the rows of his listening kinsmen.
“Yet those doubting our reasons for being here should ask themselves whether they want to carry on living the way we have been living for centuries: always preparing for the worst, always having to be distrustful and wary of strangers because we cannot afford otherwise. Never being allowed to let down our guard. Constantly having to ride into battle without knowing whether we or our friends and kin will return from it, or whether we will find our homes destroyed and our families slain upon our return. Listening to the silent crying of our children at night because of the family members we lost, or because there is not sufficient food to fill their stomachs, as there are none left to work on the fields anymore. Is that what you indeed wish for?” He inhaled, and the intensity of his gaze became burning. The first soldiers lowered their eyes, unable to meet their king’s fierce stare.
He reached the end of the row, and his gaze found Thor. There was nothing but pride and affirmation in the dark eyes, and the sight strengthened his determination. Éomer turned around.
“We won the battle against the Dark Lord, but two years after the end of the fights, we are yet in danger of losing the war. The glory of our victories came at a price which sees us on our knees in the wake of the armed disputes. Our land is ravaged by famine, and if it were not for our allies, our kinsmen would be dying by the hundreds. We are, in fact, in the same position the Dunlendings have been in for centuries, except for the fact that they were not blessed with friends who would help them sustain themselves.” His eyes found another man and stared him down. “What would we do if we had to depend on only ourselves in this time of need? What would we do if we were starving and our neighbours had all they needed?” A deep breath. He raised his chin and addressed all listeners. “I’ll tell you what we would do: at first, we would send a delegation to talk them into sharing their wealth with us. And if they would refuse, making excuses about not having enough to eat themselves, and yet we would see that they’d still have infinitely more than we, wouldn’t we come back to take what we needed by force, also? Or would we let our families die of hunger?”
Again he let his gaze wander through the rows to see expressions from sceptical to thoughtful.
“No one said it would be easy to reach an understanding with our neighbours. To find peace after five hundred years of hatred. Peace, like everything else, has to be fought for. It doesn’t simply happen. It takes an effort from all involved parties, or it will fail. This much must be understood. Our two peoples need each other. We have been granted a historic chance, and I am determined to seize it, no matter what. Most of you have known me as a hound of war in my youth, and it is only understandable that the path I’ve decided to lead Rohan on is met with scepticism and disbelief by most of you. Yet it is a path I firmly believe in, and it is a path the King of Gondor believed in enough to leave his land in their own time of uncertainty to help us walk it all the way to the end. You should keep this in mind when you decide which side you choose to stand on. Choose my side, and choose a potentially bright future and prosperity for our people. Oppose me, and Rohan will fall before long. I leave that decision to you. Since I know, however, that all of you would give their last drop of blood for their kin, I trust in you to make the right choice.” A meaningful pause. Now all warriors, even the ones that had been evading his stare, were looking at him, their features pensive. Éomer nodded. “We’ll continue our search now. You have been divided into groups and know your tasks. Let’s go!”
Halamin steadied his friend on their exhausting way further uphill. The sharp-edged stones to their right were hard to avoid since the terrain on their left opened the view to inclines, which ended ten feet below between rugged cliffs. They had to grab a hold sometimes when – due to overhanging rocks – the path was too narrow to walk on. The older soldier could feel Hilberon shiver and he wished that this second ride with the king would have been merrier. The captain had said to Halamin that he wondered why King Elessar had volunteered to join the Rohan forces riding to Dunland. This was not his realm and not his duty. The peace negotiations had failed, and it was unlikely that the Dunlendings would agree to a second parley while fearing for their lives. Now his assumptions had proved true in yet another way. But like the rest of them Halamin had been surprised at the sight of Easterlings in the Misty Mountains. And even more he had been surprised when that young woman had allowed the king to treat Hilberon a few hours ago. She had even cut his bonds! Halamin tried to spot her among the men walking in front of him, and when he got a glimpse of her slender and small figure he admired her for her self-confidence. After the brutal force the Easterling leader had demonstrated he had not expected any of her kin to be merciful, and he had erred. He knew not if it could be regarded as a sign of strength of that woman or of the weakness of her leader who had not interfered.
Reaching a wider path close to the second southern peak the Dunlendings hurried their prisoners again, shoving them in the backs, growling threats. The wind freshened and cooled their sweaty faces, but could not wipe away their weariness. Url bellowed sharp orders, which echoed in a nearby gorge, and overtook the group of prisoners to reach the Easterling leader again. The sun set, and they had to decide where to pitch camp.
Tarés stumbled and fell forward, almost pulling down the king who turned to help the soldier get up again. Like many others his body was battered, and on his face some dark purple bruises spoke clearly about the fights he had led. His left eye was swollen shut, and below it a sharp hit had deeply scratched his cheekbone.
“My apology,” Tarés murmured, coughing. He needed a moment to straighten, and all who came behind him stopped, glad for a few moments of rest. Without food and only little water they all were kept on their feet purely by will. “I did not…”
“No need to. Can you go on?” the king asked, encouraging his man with a look, his lips pressed to a thin line.
“It doesn’t look like I had a chance to decide otherwise.” He flinched with pain. “The sun's setting. Hope they won’t march... ” He was cut off when a guard, taller than the rest of his kin and with a mighty black beard, rushed them. Tarés froze. The Dunlending’s dark brown eyes gleamed with fury.
“Go on! Now!” the guard shouted in broken Westron and forcefully tore Aragorn away from his man. The king pivoted, freeing his arm, challenging the bulky man with his stare. The guard's eyes narrowed, and, grumbling, he attacked Aragorn again. Instantly the king stepped aside, shielding Tarés, and letting the hillman go astray. He ran on, wide-eyed, unable to stop himself. Losing his footing at the rim of the stony path, he stumbled down the incline with an outcry, rolling over his shoulder, and suddenly screaming with pain when he crashed upon the cliffs.
The soldiers ahead turned and halted, and when they saw the broad figure waving his arms and shrieking at his comrades to help him up, they cheered and laughed, and for that time the toil seemed to lighten. Tarés shook his head with a smile.
“Well done,” he said, and with grim satisfaction the king accepted the compliment. Looking into the faces of his people he realised that they were drawing strength from this incident, even though it could not be considered a revolt. He knew the soldiers' confidence and courage hung by a thread. There had to be a way to gain freedom soon, or they would give up.
The soldiers' joy did not last long. Immediately more hillmen appeared, shoving the prisoners forward, angered and frustrated since they were not allowed to kill them, while two others slid down the rubble to assist their kinsman. Url had turned when the news reached him. Now he unsheathed his sword to face the king, who raised his bound hands, watching his opponent cautiously. Tarés stood by his side, determined to defend his ruler if necessary.
“This was the last time, prisoner!” Url snarled, and the sword in his swarthy hand shone when he shook it against his enemy. “You will not bring more pain to my men!”
“He did this to himself alone!”
“Stop that!” Harishdane shouted getting closer, her voice firm and without room for objection. “Put away your sword, Url. Leave the prisoners alone.” She nodded to Ridasha and Nisenur to get the group going again, and without hesitation they forced the men to go on. Harishdane stared down on the hillman though she did not match him in size or build. “If your men cannot walk properly,” she hissed, “they should not enter the mountains.”
Url fumed, brandishing his weapon against the Easterling.
“Should not… You cannot say that! We are born in the mountains! That prisoner want to kill my man! See? They only kill!” He pointed to where two Dunlendings escorted their wounded comrade back up the hill, but Harishdane's gaze followed the soldiers and their king. That moment of glee and the shouts of joy and praise still lingered on her mind. Those Gondorians were laughing – grinning as they passed her by – when they should have been frightened to death! She frowned. “He is wounded!” Url complained noisily. “Another! How shall we…”
“Stop your complaints! I ordered you to put away your sword! Do it now!” Harishdane waited until Url obeyed, though he still cursed viciously. “There is no need for this. You only have to make sure no one escapes,” she closed and moved on. With the elegance and speed that belonged to her race she reached Asentis quickly and called to him. They met at the head of the procession, and she said quietly in shék, “We have to leave this path. We need to go south tonight.”
“That would lead us away from our direction,” Asentis objected with his head bowed. He was always careful when uttering his opinion. Sometimes the leader was not in the mood to take it, and not even his position as second-in-command changed that. “We should turn northward in about a mile. The campsite…”
“I know. But I have an urgent errand that I will see to tonight.”
He nodded obediently, hiding his puzzled look as best as he could.
“Is my help required?”
“It is.” She eyed him closely, but did not touch him since Dunlendings as well as the prisoners were behind them. He understood. “I will reward you,” she closed with a meaningful glance and hurried on.
Url expected to see the group crawl over the jagged cliffs on the northern side of the winding path, but to his surprise Asentis, whom he could recognise due to his height and length of hair, guided them southward. His thick brows furrowed. They would miss the place for the camp that way! And though he did not like to admit it he needed some rest too. And there would only be light for the lesser part of an hour. The Dunlending leader hurried along the tired soldiers, shoving them aside if they did not see him coming.
“That is wrong way!” Url shouted across the distance, and Aragorn as well as Tarés and Halamin behind him raised their heads again. “You must turn north!”
Asentis awaited him with the usual annoyed expression he spared for Url. He was loath to give any answer at all. In his opinion the Dunlendings were as painful as stabs in the back, and he longed for the moment when they could leave them behind. But that time was yet to come, and he collected his thoughts to fulfil Harishdane's commands.
“We turn south,” he snapped, unwilling to grant any further explanation. A few steps ahead Ridasha ordered the men to move on, calling to the hillmen in their tongue, but when they saw Url standing at Asentis' side they hesitated. Ridasha repeated her order and at least some of them moved to go about their duty. Ridasha's effort in learning their primitive allies' language during her long stay in the mountains proved useful again. “She wants it that way,” Asentis added reluctantly.
“Why?” Stubbornly Url stood on his two stout legs, his hands propped on his hips, almost blocking the way with his elbows.
Asentis was willing to strike at this unrefined, stinking hillman with all the power he could summon, but that would take away Harishdane's benevolence, and he could not afford to let this happen.
“She orders and you follow,” the Easterling closed with a growl, and his nostrils flared as he thought of another, stronger rebuke. But he controlled his temper and hurried on to reach the head of the group again.
Url stayed behind, pondering over the possibilities at hand. His men's eyes rested on him as they awaited his decision. What could he do? Resist and challenge Harishdane's anger? He had gotten to know a share of her fury during their meetings, and with a shiver he could still recall the moment of utter helplessness. He would be unable to stand this kind of… attack again, and he was sure she would not hesitate to punish him in the same way a second time. Grimly he nodded to his men to follow the orders given. At last he took the southern way too.
“Where are they taking us to?” Tarés whispered to the king's back. “At the crossroad they could have turned north.”
“I cannot say, but Url does not seem pleased with the decision.”
“You mean they might turn to fight against each other?”
Aragorn watched Harishdane high above on a plateau. Her hair shone jet black in the setting sun, and within the tanned face dark brown eyes glowed. She seemed to have grown and looked powerful enough to threaten the hillmen from a distance.
“No, they would not. She has a hold on them – somehow, but not by strength.”
The twilight thickened in the narrow gorge. Darkness was drawing near yet again, and the constant rain which had set in approximately an hour ago was doing its share of lowering the men’s already shattered spirits. Éomer’s heart sank as he surveyed the line of drenched soldiers upon their return from the upper part of the steep mountain path with miserable expressions, hunched under their dripping capes. Even from a distance, he could see that there was no one with them. They had lost him. They had lost Aragorn. Something ill had happened to the King of Gondor at this place, and despite their frantic search over nearly the last two days, they had failed to discover even the tiniest bit of evidence pointing towards his whereabouts. What was there left to do for them? Was there anything they could still do?
Thor was as drenched as the men behind him as he came to a halt in front of Éomer, his boots and trousers and the lower half of his rain-cape mud-splattered. If possible, the half-Dunlending’s expression was even more crushed than those of the rest of the soldiers, and the king’s expression only added to his misery. Éomer had trusted in his scouting skills. As the one who was supposed to make sense even of the smallest disturbance of their surroundings, Thor felt responsible for failing his king in a way the others did not. He was supposed to know his homeland in and out, so how could it be that fourteen men had simply disappeared on a narrow mountain path without a trace? He wished he could say something to give the young ruler hope, yet he could think of nothing.
Éomer only had to see his scout’s face to understand the situation, and he shook his head in a dispirited way as his gaze swept over the rock and rivulets of water that were running down the sheer rock cliffs to both sides of the path. It was hard having to admit defeat. It was not something the former Third Marshal was used to.
“My lord Éomer…” Thor began, but interrupted himself since he had nothing to add. Behind him, the others trod down the steeply descending path, only a few of them managing to look their desperate king in the eye as they passed. “I am sorry,” he uttered, and then paused as he felt that his ruler’s attention was somewhere else, his expression telling of guilt and blame. “Night’s falling. We should leave this place, my lord.” Lest whatever happened to the King of Gondor should happen to us, too.
Éomer did not care to look at him.
“Go then.” He made no move to follow as the younger man passed him. Confused, Thor turned around, hating the gloomy expression on the king’s face as he scanned their surroundings for the umpteenth time for signs they had overlooked.
“Sire, you should not stay here all alone. We do not know what happened.”
For a moment, Éomer’s eyes did focus on him.
“We searched this accursed mountain for two days without finding anything. We left no stone unturned. Whatever danger had been lurking here, it’s gone.” ‘And it took our friends with it.’ He inhaled, and his gaze grew distant again. “Go and report to Elfhelm, Thor. I will follow soon. Right now, I need to think, and I need to be alone for it.”
It was with a heavy heart and against his better judgement that Thor finally complied. The thought of leaving his king back all alone at this godforsaken evil place was something that turned his gut into a tight knot, but he had received his orders. And after all, wasn’t Éomer right? After their thorough search, there could be no danger left in the vicinity. Still…
“Aye, my lord. But if you’re not back by nightfall –“
“I won’t take long.” Éomer turned his back on him, and it was clear to the scout that he had just been dismissed. Swallowing what he had meant to add and nodding to himself instead, he wandered down the uneven path and soon disappeared in the darkening twilight.
It was quiet. From below, muffled voices and the noises emitting from their camp could be faintly heard even though it lay some distance away. Apart from that, there was only the omnipresent rush of the rain as it searched its way down the face of the mountain. For a time span he could not define, Éomer stood rooted to the ground, drenched without even noticing it despite the growing evening chill, his eyes on the surrounding cliffs. What had happened here? The stinking Dunlendings, how had they lured Aragorn and his men into their trap? What had he and his men overlooked? And what would he do if his friend stayed gone? Aragorn had not said anything openly, yet from their conversations during the ride Éomer had received the distinct notion that his friend had had to brave internal problems with the Gondorian council to come to his aid. And if the King remained missing in the wake of this controversial service to his ally… Éomer exhaled. It could not happen. He would not allow it!
From below, more voices could be heard, and there seemed to be some kind of commotion within the camp, but Éomer felt too emotionally beaten to walk back to investigate just now. He needed a few more moments of solitude before he would be able to concern himself with his still obedient, yet reluctant, éored again. Not minding the wet surface, he sat down on a rock close to the left side of the wall, staring unseeing into the misty wet grey, his mind concerned with the daunting consequences of a failed mission.
What was he supposed to do now? Linger here and continue to search the site, which, as they already knew, held nothing revealing to their cause? Turn back and interrogate the group of Dunlendings they had subdued the day before in a desperate attempt to extract information from them? Even if he had acted mercifully by releasing them unharmed, they would not tell him anything. That whole skirmish had, after all, been designed for a sole reason: to lure the King of Gondor into their trap. It had worked flawlessly, and Éomer knew enough about his adversaries to understand that they would not spring it themselves. Which brought him back to the beginning of his initial thought – what to do?
Waiting for an epiphany or at least an idea, his eyes glided over the slope to his right, following the hundreds of little rivers the rain had born down to where they poured onto the track at his feet and turning it into a muddy puddle. Lost in thought, he stared at the pile of stones for what seemed to him like an eternity before it gradually seeped into his conscious that there was something odd about it: The stream of rainwater coming from the mountain top did not continue after it disappeared from sight behind a thorny thicket of weeds just above the rocks. Neither was it redirected. The little river simply ended just on top of the stones. Slowly waking from his thoughts, Éomer narrowed his eyes at the strange finding. He came to his feet. Where was the water going?
Carefully choosing his footing on the treacherous terrain, Éomer made his way over to the strange phenomenon and came to a halt under the hanging weeds. The surface was slippery, and for a moment, he balanced precariously on the plate of granite he was standing on before he could concern himself with his findings. What he saw catapulted his heart into acceleration: the water disappeared into fissures between the rocks. If nature had fit them together, Éomer mused, unable to restrain his rising excitement, it had to be a truly strange coincidence, as their fit seemed almost too smooth to be natural. Before he knew it, he had sunk to his knees and pried his fingers into one of the wider cracks, pulling. The rock moved just the smallest bit before he lost his grip on the surface, and another wave of adrenaline flushed his veins. This had to be the solution to the secret! From behind him, voices advanced on the path, among them Elfhelm’s baritone, but Éomer hardly heard them.
“Elfhelm! Thor! Come quickly!” He renewed his grasp, working his fingers in further and pulling with his entire body weight, and again the rock shifted slightly before it finally rolled to the side like a dead beetle. A narrow hollow was revealed, and a whiff of mouldy air hit Éomer’s face as he stared into an almost solid blackness. Urgent footsteps came up behind him now. They were running, obviously in fear that he was in some kind of danger. He turned his head, already pulling at the rock below the one he had removed. “I found it! It’s a cave!”
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