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Twilight of the Gods: 41. To Ithilien
Chapter 41 To Ithilien
The sight of his home had always warmed Elfhelm's heart, whenever the first view of the city walls presented itself to him after an errand outside the Eastfold, but this time, the feeling was tinged with sadness. Aldburg would be but another place to pitch camp at and to enjoy a few luxuries they would not have on the long way to Minas Tirith. They would only stay here for the night and ride on with the morning's first light. Éomer had left the decision of where he wanted to spend the night up to him, whether at his home or at the camp outside the city walls; to set a sign, Elfhelm had chosen the latter option. They had to demonstrate unity now more than ever, and even though many of the riders had their homes here, none had asked to spend the night away from their comrades. Instead, their families had visited them in their tents or taken walks together for a few moments of solitude from the others. The evening was warm and dry, and none of the warriors had thought of complaining.
The great plains around Aldburg were an impressive sight in the fading daylight, with dozens of tents and fires, the place brimming with the activity of hundreds of horses and men. The messengers Éomer had sent ahead while they had still been in Dunland had fulfilled their errands and summoned a great host of riders, all ready to ride once again to Gondor's aid at the next dawn. Tension was thick throughout the camp, and only briefly broken by laughter when comrades who had not seen each other in a while welcomed each other before they lowered their voices again. They were riding into battle, and what would await them once they entered Ithilien, nobody knew.
A hard nudge against his back woke Elfhelm from his contemplations. Turning toward his assailant, he found Éon regarding him with pricked ears and an unmistakable expression of demand on his face, before the stallion stretched his neck to seize his master's jerkin. The gentle tuck brought a rare smile to the seasoned warrior's face as one of his rough hands closed around his horse's ear, his free hand sliding down the brown face to the cheeks in circles.
"Aye, I know, mighty one. You expect a reward for all the hard work I put you through," he laughed, and as if the bay had understood him, his nibbling grew even more insistent. "You are right, of course. If you let me go, I will see whether I can find you some apples or…" The sound of steps behind his back made him pivot. It was Erkenbrand. Not knowing what to expect of the older warrior, Elfhelm tensed, a small, wary smile on his lips as he studied the marshal's expression. It was an awkward situation. Elfhelm decided to make it easier for his brother-in-arms by beginning.
"How good it is to see you, old friend! And to see that you have apparently taken good care of the Eastmark!" He nodded in appreciation. "Not that I had any doubts. No matter how you see it, our kinsmen are very grateful for the service you and your men provide them with. It was much easier for me to leave knowing that the Eastfold was in capable hands. How have things been going in Aldburg?"
"We had a quiet time," Erkenbrand admitted, thoroughly scrutinising his opposite's appearance. "From what could be gathered from the messengers, you didn't. And now that I see you, Elfhelm, I must say that you look wretched indeed." He took a deep breath as he looked back to where the royal tent stood. "He is driving you hard to see his will fulfilled, isn't he? Chasing you from Edoras to Dunland and back through the Mark all the way to Gondor..."
"It is not Éomer's will, but necessity that chases us across the land, marshal," Elfhelm replied, reserve in his voice. "As it seems, we were only one part in a wide-reaching scheme. No matter what the king's will had been, we would have had to answer to the Dunlendings' threat sooner or later. And only by not killing them did we find out who our real enemy was, and that the attacks at our western border had only been a feint, to distract us as they prepared an attack on Ithilien."
"So the messenger told us." Erkenbrand shook his head. "By Béma, who would have guessed that the Easterlings were behind this? We haven't had trouble with them for ages!" He looked at the brimming activity. "Where is Galdur? I would like to speak with him."
Elfhelm braced. It was the one thing he hated about his high rank: he always was the one who had to bring people bad tidings. But Erkenbrand had already noticed the small delay in his reply, and as his gaze returned to his counterpart, his face was already frozen in dawning comprehension.
"Has something happened to him?" He exhaled and paled, making a helpless little gesture with his hand. Elfhelm lowered his eyes. "Tell me!"
"He is dead." He was reluctant to tell his comrade of long years of the circumstances, but knew that Erkenbrand would not rest until he knew the entire, bitter truth. Had Thor died, he would have requested the same, however horrible the details. Taking a deep breath, Elfhelm met his opposite's stunned gaze. "During a melee with the Dunlendings, Galdur attempted to kill Éomer." He wanted to stop right there, but knew before the former Lord of Westfold opened his mouth that it would be in vain.
"He… he tried to assassinate the king?" The grey eyes widened in dismay. "How… why…"
"He felt Éomer was leading the Mark to its doom, so he took fate into his own hands." Elfhelm paused, uncertain whether he should continue. He chose to do so, even if his words would be painful for his counterpart. "He thought he was acting in your stead for the best of Rohan. He felt it was what you would have done if you weren't too loyal for your own good." A very wry smile that had nothing to do with humour accompanied his words. "I know you would never have ordered anything of the likes. And Éomer knows it, too. You were his childhood idol. You are still his idol, no matter what has happened. You may think that the two of you are at odds over this, but it is not the truth. As far as I know, Éomer has long since forgiven you."
Erkenbrand only had ten years on him, but all of a sudden, he looked a century old. Again his gaze strayed back to the royal tent, and silently, the great warrior shook his head at himself, unable to summon the right words. Then he shook his head again, with determination, when it dawned on him what his comrade's recapitulation meant. What his heated words and lack of restraint had done.
"I …I didn't mean for this to happen. I…" He swallowed, and then turned back to Elfhelm all of a sudden. "I cannot ride with you to Ithilien. Not after that."
Elfhelm furrowed his broad, scarred brow.
"Why not? Éomer needs you! We need you!"
"Do you not understand what this means? My most trusted soldier, a man I regarded as my confidante, became the first traitor in the history of Rohan! Because my behaviour gave him the impression that regicide was the only solution! It is my fault, Elfhelm! I should have been more composed in those councils. I did not foresee the effect of my words. I failed both Éomer and Galdur. It is my fault that he is dead now! I am disgraced, Elfhelm!" His fingers painfully dug into the younger man's arms, guilt and shame reflecting in the widened eyes. "How did he die? Who stopped him?"
Elfhelm inhaled deeply, his lips a tight line.
"I really do not think..."
"I need to know." Haunted grey eyes pleaded him. It twisted Elfhelm's insides to see his friend pleading. "Please."
It was hard to admit. The marshal felt far from proud over his deed. Killing his own kinsman... like the attempted assassination, it was something unheard of in the Mark.
"It was I. I had but a heartbeat to intercept him, and... had I hesitated but the slightest bit, he would have speared Éomer." He paused, not knowing what to say. What soothing words were there for telling a friend that one had killed his most trusted ally? "I wish there had been another way." He stopped when he noticed that Erkenbrand's attention was again focussed on the royal tent, dread in his eyes. "Are you certain about not riding with us?"
"I cannot. He must understand."
"Shall I speak with him, then? Prepare him for what you will say?" The grey hawk-eyes had never looked so ashamed. It pained Elfhelm to see his valiant kinsman in such a state.
"Would you do that for me? You are more diplomatic, and you are friends. You know how to find the right words. Éomer and I... I do not want to quarrel with him again. I did enough damage as it is."
"As I said: I do not think he sees it that way. But I will do what I can. Will you wait here for a moment whilst we speak? I will let the guard summon you once we're ready. I will only ask one thing of you in return."
"You must find an apple for Éon, because I promised him one for all the toil I put him through on the way back. And I keep my promises!"
Elfhelm found himself looking into utterly consternated brown eyes as soon as he had ended his speech. Now he felt awkward standing in the middle of the tent, watching as Tolgor once again tended to the king's wounds. With relief he saw that the gashes on his friend's chest, face and torso were healing well, and only the leg-wound seemed to still cause the young king great discomfort. Patiently, his hands folded behind his back, he repeated his words while Éomer cautiously slipped into a new shirt without breaking eye-contact.
"He deems himself unworthy of accompanying you into battle. He asks to be allowed to remain here and guard Aldburg and Edoras with the men you're leaving him."
"Because of something another man did leagues away?" Éomer snorted. "This is the greatest nonsense I have ever heard, and I will certainly not leave him behind! I need him on the battlefield! Bloody hell, Gondor needs him on the battlefield!" He tied the topmost laces and sat down again, shaking his head with determination. "I will not tell Elessar that my most esteemed warrior cannot ride to his aid because he feels plagued by a bad conscience! Tell him that, Elfhelm! And tell him I expect to see him here momentarily and have a word with him about this issue!"
"He is indeed already waiting at my tent to be summoned, but Éomer..." the Lord of Westfold inhaled deeply, and his gaze became urgent. "The man was shattered by Galdur's death and the revelation of what he did, so please, for Eru's sake, stay calm. Be diplomatic. Even if his request angers you, do not show it."
"What do you think of me?" Éomer looked at the guard. "Ánláf, tell Marshal Erkenbrand that I want to speak with him."
"Sire..." The man left the tent, and, for a moment, the two old friends were alone. With a few steps, Elfhelm stepped over, briefly pointing his chin at the younger man's injuries.
"I cannot deny that I was angered by your decision to head our host when we left Edoras, but I must admit now that you seem to heal extraordinarily well. Elessar certainly knows his craft."
"Without doubt." Cautiously, Éomer rolled his shoulder. The pain in his chest was almost gone by now, and only his strength was still diminished. And he was still limping. But he would not tell his old friend of it.
"Still, you have no business on the battlefield yet."
Lowering his head for a moment and shaking it, the king felt a reluctant smile on his face. Who was he to think that Elfhelm would let himself be fooled by appearances?
"Son, look at me," Elfhelm continued. "I do not feel content with the thought of you heading into battle. Your condition has much improved, I can see that for myself, but you are hardly healed yet. You can barely walk."
"There is still time ere we reach Minas Tirith," Éomer returned. "I will heal further on the way, and if, at its end, we have to give battle indeed, it will be on horseback. The injury no longer hinders my riding abilities."
"The queen herself asked me to keep an eye on you, Éomer. Do you even know how worried she was by your decision?"
"I do, but it cannot be helped." The king's gaze was steel. "I am not riding to Minas Tirith to amuse myself, Elfhelm. It is for pure necessity, lest you have forgotten. If that Easterling woman told us the truth, then Gondor will be hard-pressed to repel the charge of two thousand foes. They need us."
"Aye, I agree. They need us. And we are riding to their aid without second thoughts. But we need our king, too. Rohan is experiencing difficult times, and the people look to you to help the Mark rise from them. Can you imagine what it would do to their spirits if you were slain?" He inhaled. "You have a responsibility here, Éomer. A responsibility to your people!" A sudden burst of anger flashed in the hazel eyes before him.
"You think I'm unaware of my responsibilities?" Movement at the tent's entrance stopped Éomer from raising his voice, and only his glare told Elfhelm what he thought of the implied accusation before he turned to face the guard. The man was lifting his chin and squaring his shoulders upon sensing the tension between his two superiors.
"My lord, Marshal Erkenbrand is waiting outside. Will you see him now?"
Éomer inhaled, and, with a last eloquent look at Elfhelm – We shall continue to discuss this! - shifted his attention to the guard.
"Yes, please." With considerable effort, he came to his feet, vividly imagining his friend's expression while the Lord of Westfold turned and came to a halt at his left side. Backlit by the flickering light of the closest fires, Erkenbrand's silhouette briefly blocked the entrance, and then the flap fell behind him. The warrior's lined, weathered face wore an unusually strained expression as he bowed and lowered his eyes.
"I bid you a good evening, my lord. It is a great relief to see that you have returned from your foray into our foes' territory." He straightened, and his keen eyes narrowed as he scrutinised his ruler's appearance, first detecting the crooked line of stitches on Éomer's brow, before they took in the fading dark shades underneath the king's eyes and on his jaw. "The messenger told us of your fight against this beast. He said it was a deed worthy of many songs and..."
"Elfhelm told me you were here to desert me in the time of my greatest need," Éomer interrupted him bluntly, his gaze piercing. "Tell me, is this the truth, marshal?"
Erkenbrand's eyes widened at first, and he exchanged a dismayed look with the other marshal behind Éomer's back. Then he composed himself. "Sire, I would deem it the best course of action under the given circumstances."
"The best course of action?" The king took a step forward, unable to suppress the grimace completely. His gaze pierced his opposite. "Our ally is under attack of a force of at least two thousand enemies, too many for them to repel on their own. Gondor needs us. They need all capable help they can possibly attain, and I will not tell Elessar that my best warrior will not come. Tell me, how can staying behind be the best course of action in the given situation?"
"You know what I mean, sire. What Galdur did was my fault."
"And you aim to remedy this deed by withholding your considerable strength, shrewdness and experience from our men when they most need it?" Éomer raised his eyebrows in question, standing directly in front of the reluctant soldier now. He lifted his arms in a brief gesture. "Look at me, marshal: what happened at Edoras is history now. I need you. Your skill and experience cannot be spared on the battlefield. I order you to ride with us, with as many men of your éored as you can spare by tomorrow's first light. And I will not hear any words of protest. You are dismissed. "
For a moment, their exchange continued silently, hazel eyes stabbing against grey. Finally, the marshal indicated a bow and lowered his gaze in obedience. Yet his expression was stone.
"As you wish, sire." He retreated into the night.
Tasting for a moment what he had achieved, and uncertain whether he was to view it as a victory, Éomer turned around to see Elfhelm's stunned expression.
"Was this diplomatic enough for you?"
Though her eyes were open, Ridasha felt as if she were captured in a nightmare. Staring at the black sky, where neither moon nor stars shone, she heard nothing but the neighing of the horses and the low shingle of armour when the guards passed by; before her eyes, however, she saw the destruction of her people. If a battle between her kinsmen and the Gondorian army could not be prevented, they all would lose and be sentenced to die. From a distance the sound of a low conversation carried over to her. She lifted her head. King Elessar and King Éomer were sitting by the fire, their expressions concerned. Ridasha knew what they were talking about, and her heart sped up. Gishvané had said that she was willing to do whatever would be necessary to avoid a war. But when Ridasha looked around she saw hundreds of armed soldiers from Rohan, who had been informed by their king that they were riding to battle against the Easterlings. In that moment her hopes for a peaceful solution had vanished. Both kings seemed determined to strike, a thought that made her shiver.
While the high priestess turned in her sleep, Ridasha rose and walked through the camp. The guard on duty stopped her, and she recognised the man, who always stayed close to the Gondorian King.
"Go back," he ordered her, and though his voice sounded polite, she knew he would force her if pressed.
"I need to talk to King Elessar. Please?"
"As long as you don't prove otherwise you are considered an enemy, and I won't let you."
Ridasha almost let go a bitter laugh. She should be the one to stop her own army!
"Just tell him that I…" but she did not need to continue. Aragorn had seen her and asked Tarés to let her pass. Her heart beat against her ribcage when she reached the low burning fire, and with a gesture the king invited her to sit. She knelt at a respectful distance and waited until he asked her to speak. "What will happen to our people? What will you do once you reach them?"
Aragorn exchanged a glance with Éomer before turning to the young woman.
"That depends on Harishdane," he stated sternly. "If she does not deliver herself and the captives your people have taken, battle will be unavoidable."
"But is there nothing else you could do? If you win… our people will perish. All of them. Even those you do not kill in the fight."
He looked at her adamantly, and she realised that he had already made up his mind. Her words were futile.
"Harishdane started this, and she is the one to end it. She can do so without a fight, and I will accept her surrender. The outcome of a parley cannot be decided now."
She bowed and left the two rulers, her heart even heavier than before.
"We have been here for weeks now," Beregond sighed as he took another sip from his waterskin. "I wonder if anything will ever happen, or if we are doomed to stand opposite their host forever." He grimaced. The liquid inside tasted mouldy and didn't refresh him at all in this hot, humid night. Disgruntled, he threw another glance into the ominous darkness behind their camp. Somewhere over yonder, the enemy army was waiting for the Valar-knew-what. Biding their time. When first they had shown themselves, he had expected for battle to commence very shortly, but with each day that had passed, he had felt his watchfulness slip and his readiness to engage in violence wane. Who knew, perhaps their foe had not counted on encountering them so early in their quest, and felt unready to test their strength. Perhaps, they were only still here because they thought they could intimidate Gondor's army that way.
Beregond snorted. Intimidate Gondor's army? It took more than this pitiful group of Easterlings to do that. Faramir was a capable captain. He had battled larger groups in his time as Captain of the Rangers than what they were being faced with right now; of course the steward was not intimidated. The thought of his valiant captain warmed the soldier's heart as he looked at his fellow guard Eldred, who was his company in these darkest hours of the night shortly before dawn, searching for confirmation of his frustrated thoughts. Yet before he found it, his horse behind him thrust up his head and neighed, moving violently to the side after having silently dozed for the last hour. Beregond turned around.
"Ondomé? What is it?" He had not even finished his words when the other horses picked up on the bay's alarm, snorting and rolling their eyes as they brusquely jumped back. "What…" A shadow, darker than the night, suddenly burst from the bushes and flew toward the horses. The briefest flicker of silver and yellow, and then the night erupted into madness.
The terrible shriek woke Faramir from a dream that had been filled with the sense of foreboding. He sat rigid, only needing the space of a heartbeat to determine that the noise had come from a dying horse. Jumping to his feet, his hand already going for the hilt of his sword, he heard urgent steps approaching his tent. The next moment, the flap was pulled aside, and Mablung's head appeared in the opening.
"My Lord Faramir, we are under attack!"
"How many foes?" Faramir followed his trusted comrade of many years outside, preparing for the worst. The man's response caught him off-guard.
"It is not the Easterlings. They seem to be animals, some kind of beasts of prey. They are mainly attacking our horses!"
"Beasts of prey?" Dumbfounded by the unexpected answer, Faramir froze in his tracks. Over Mablung's shoulder, he suddenly saw the pandemonium the night had erupted into: their horses were panicking, tearing loose and racing through the camp, shrieking with their eyes only showing the whites, trampling whatever was in their path. Further behind, he briefly caught glimpses of dark shadows chasing between them, only the merest notion of moving darkness in the flickering campfires. On the eastern skyline, the faintest stripe of the beginning dawn could be seen.
Virtually at the last moment, the Prince of Ithilien evaded three horses that were charging his way and would have trampled him, wild with fear. Hindering their flight was out of the question. His mind racing, it took him another moment to hear it – the noise underneath the madness; the shouting and the shrieks: a dull, rhythmic throbbing, more of a feeling rather than a noise. Building. Nearing. The sound of a marching army!
There was a cloud of dust, rising from the position of the hostile army. Dust whirled up from marching feet. Lazily, it ascended in the beginning dawn, briefly revealing glimpses of reflecting armour moving inside. The line extended from one end of the horizon to the other, and a rough estimate was enough for Faramir to come to the revelation that his men were many times outmatched.
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