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Twilight of the Gods: 43. Farewells
Chapter 43 Farewells
Vlohiri regretted that the king had had so little time and that Lomac had already left, and with a sigh he turned to tend to Rohyren. The horse was thirsty and hungry, and he gave him water first. While he troubled himself with the heavy saddle he heard the whispers of the stable-boys and sighed deeply. Now the little secret was no longer his, and the smith, too, regarded him with a bewildered frown, and would truly have given word to his curiosity, when his attention was drawn to his son, approaching with the steed that had been leant to him.
"Hilberon!" The old man dropped the hammer at his workplace and ran to embrace his son, slapping him so vehemently on the back that the armour clanked. "Oh, it's so good to have you back!"
"Yes, father, I'm happy to be here too." He embraced the older man and let go, trying in vain to cover his emotions. "But we only stay a short while." He sighed, noticing the young boys gaping at him and his dusty uniform and armour.
"I already heard." Hiregon wiped his eyes, clearing his throat. "But… then… you must be hungry... and thirsty! Come! I'm sure I've got something for you!" He hurried back to his place at the anvil and handed his son the flagon. "Drink! And then tell me what happened."
Hilberon drank, but shook his head, giving back the empty water-skin.
"I must take care of the horse first. Come, I must hurry." He led the steed into its stable box and took off the bridle. The saddle he had already left with Harolyan, for he intended to ride the better horse into battle. "It was a hard ride," he stated, trying to sound at ease, and put a bucket of water into the box first. The horse almost drowned its head in it. "We really made haste coming here. But the horses…" He slapped its hindquarter. "They're really in good shape."
"But you came from Edoras, right? That was…"
"No, not from Edoras only. We were in Dunland before."
"Dunland!" Hiregon exclaimed, and Vlohiri, a box away, lifted his head to listen. All others present in the stable turned their heads, and some steeds snorted, demanding attention. A bucket tumbled over the hard ground, and a muffled curse followed.
"Yes, King Elessar decided to accompany King Éomer on his ride, but then…" Hilberon washed the bridle, unaware of the listeners, who were more or less pretending to take care of the horses. "Then we got into that skirmish with the Dunlendings and…" He swallowed and turned to hang the bridle on a hook. His father stared at him with a deep frown. "Then we were caught," Hilberon added lowly, and with regret in his features.
"Good gracious, no! You… and all the others? By whom?" Hiregon asked, truly terrified, wrenching his hands in his apron.
"No, just the Royal Guard… and the king." Hilberon grimaced recalling the fight in the gorge. With a bucket of oats he returned to the box, glad to have something to do.
"Which king?" a boy asked, staring at him. He had forgotten about the horse and received a hard nudge in his backside.
"Not the witchking, you broomstick," an older man said, "he's dead already."
"King Elessar," Hilberon answered, and his smile over the boy kneeling in the dirt was short-lived. "But it was not only Dunlendings. There were Easterlings too."
"Easterlings!" one of the older grooms shouted. "Now, what did they do there?"
Hilberon glanced briefly at him, but then emptied out the bucket into the hackle. His gaze found his father again, and for a moment he wished he had not started the report, but, sighing, he knew he would have to go on. He had looked forward to it, had he not? But now, with such a short amount of time left, he would have preferred to be alone with his father.
"They are… they were allies of the Dunlendings. But… that was not the worst." He stood with the empty bucket and watched the horse crunch on its fodder.
"But what?" Hiregon urged lowly, knitting his brows in anxious anticipation. Though his heart was filled with joy upon seeing his son alive and healthy, he felt that the ride and the incidents he had gone through had demanded much from a man still so young.
"Captain Fáred was killed the first night." He swallowed. Maybe it should not have been he to unveil that bad news, but he needed to tell someone. "But he died bravely. He fought against the Dunlendings and Easterlings to help the king escape. We all fought to help him."
"And he did?" a stable-boy asked, excitement in his juvenile features. "He escaped? And brought help for you?"
"Were you hurt, son?" Hiregon asked worriedly, but Hilberon only shook his head and put down the bucket.
"No. Not badly. But the king… he was caught again." He washed his face with a few handfuls of water and turned to his father again. The stable-boys had finished their work and urged him to go on. Vlohiri fed Brego and looked back to the group of listeners from time to time, noticing Hilberon's distress. "The captain died in vain, father," the young man said, looking up, unable to keep his voice steady. Though he had not been a friend of the captain, the death of the soldier had deeply moved him. "It was… it was…" He searched for a word to describe his feelings, but failed. "Terrible," he then said, lowering his head. "But, alas, that was not all." Hiregon handed him a piece of bread and cheese.
"How were you freed?" another boy with a high-pitched voice asked, and Hiregon brushed him off with a harsh reply. Pouting, the boy waited until Hilberon had finished eating.
"By the King of Rohan," the soldier told the boy, but turned to his father again. "He fought a mighty beast."
"A beast?" came the surprised and also shocked echo. "What beast?"
"Something like…" Hilberon frowned, then shrugged. "Don't know. No one had ever seen it. It was big. And had mighty claws. But King Éomer fought it! And he won! He beheaded that… creature."
"Well done!" Hiregon exclaimed with a nod, and the others cheered.
"Yes, he came at the right time, and it was a fight none will forget." Hilberon bit into the next piece of bread and chewed a moment, recalling the night in Dunland. "It was not a beast right away, but it turned into one. Like…" Again he found no comparison. "Well, it was a man first."
"A man? And then a beast?" Hiregon said, quicker than the puzzled boys around. "How could that be?"
"Don't know." Hilberon felt awkward again. He had been there, but how should he know of any explanation? He did not understand it himself. He grimaced, shaking his head again. "I can't tell, but… I wish we never got into the hands of those Easterlings," he continued gloomily, unaware of the chatter around him. "They did… horrible things." Not long ago Hiregon had taken his son into his arms to soothe him, seeing him troubled like this, but now he only flinched and felt lost at helping him. "Their leader… she is… she did…" Hilberon frowned. He had heard people tell stories, and he had always loved to listen to them, but never thought how hard it was to recall happenings, even though he had been there. "She cut something into the king's shoulder and neck." Vlohiri stopped brushing the stallion and stepped closer, his mouth open. All the others concentrated on the soldier, who shook his head, frowning. "Some kind of… sign. It somehow took away his strength and… She had cut his jerkin and shirt, and on the wound was something… red, dark red, and the wound was… strange… it did not heal. And it's such a scar… If we hadn't been freed…"
"He'll recover," Hiregon stated, but his confidence was pretended. He looked worried enough to send a healer to the king's chamber. "He was quite exhausted, I'd say, but I'm sure he'll be well soon enough. Don't worry."
"He had gone through much during those days in the mountains." Hilberon had not even heard his father or the questions around him, and he did not see Vlohiri's concerned face amid the group of young boys. "But he always kept himself up. Though… he could not get away. And I think she knew who she got. We tried to be a help for him, but... On the way back Tarés and Halamin stayed at his side to keep him from falling off his horse."
Some of the boys grinned, but fell silent when others nudged them in the sides.
"But you all were freed and returned," Hiregon summarized and turned to the group. "And you better go about your work now, folks!" he stated sternly. "You lingered long enough now!" Cursing quietly and reluctant to leave the place of a good story, they either went further into the stable or left it.
Vlohiri remained in Brego's box, caressing the horse. He had seen Aragorn's face, the cut on his temple, the dark purple bruises that were healing, but now he knew that the king had suffered far more than small injuries. He was sad and he shivered with anxiety. If told that way, he might have been proud that the king had fought bravely, and maybe Tarés would have stressed that King Elessar had led the negotiations with the Dunlendings and that his fighting skills were still unrivalled. However, Hilberon's point of view had unveiled the vulnerable side of Gondor's ruler, and Vlohiri hoped that again Aragorn would return home safely from the battlefield in Ithilien.
While he dressed, the captain of the guard reported to the king that an errand-rider from the south had reached the City.
"About five hundred men have been set to march," the guard stated, "but they'll need another day to reach the frontline."
"Very well." Aragorn turned to put on the mail shirt, which was closed at the back by a servant. "Is there any news from Prince Faramir?"
Aragorn nodded grimly, while the servant fastened the pauldrons, edged in gold and engraved with Gondorian motifs, and knelt to do the same with the greaves.
"Send a messenger to the frontline and announce the coming of the armies."
"Very well, my lord." The captain bowed and left.
As Aragorn put on the vambraces which he had worn since Boromir's death, he was aware of his wife standing close to the window, pretending to regard the City. He sighed deeply at seeing her so unhappy.
"I cannot let this battle be fought by others," he said. The servant helped him to put on the black leather robe with the White Tree and the Seven Stars on it, and left at Aragorn's brief dismissal. "It is not Faramir's task to defend this country."
Arwen but lowered her head, and it told him more than words could. He stepped behind her and held her shoulders. She did not tremble. She did not weep. She had known that they would have to part again, and she was willing to accept it.
"You must go," she simply said. "But I will not dwell on the thoughts of battle, but look to your homecoming." She turned, and he held her in a tight embrace. "My love and spirit will be with you."
The king had left. He had been friendly, but Vlohiri had sensed the urgency underneath, and that need was pressing on him. He had come to know the king's intense stare and fortitude some time ago, and in the moment of his departure today, Vlohiri had seen the same determination in the man's grey eyes. The boy had handed him Brego's reins with his head bowed, not willing to let Aragorn see his emotions. After Hiregon had finished his work in silence -- for his son, too, had already been called for -- Vlohiri left the stables. The stable-boys had pestered him with questions he had not wished to answer, and now he was uncertain of where to go, and whether he still wanted to be alone. Prince Faramir had been away for weeks, and Lady Éowyn had also left the city to see her brother. There was no one waiting for him. With his hands in waistband, he walked through the sixth ring, kicking little stones, while he still thought about Hilberon's words and the way King Elessar had looked the moment he had fetched his horse. Vlohiri kicked another stone, not bothering to look up when a man crossed his path.
"There are more useful things to do than that," a friendly voice said.
Vlohiri intended to pass by the old man, when he intercepted his path once again, so the boy lifted his head.
"Lomac." His sad expression vanished for a moment. "What do you do here? Is your meeting already over?"
"Have you got some time for an old man?" Lomac invited him with a gesture to sit at the wall, overlooking the rings below. With a shrug Vlohiri sat, and the healer exhaled, his eyes resting on the boy, who had grown so much since they had met the last time. "Do you come from the stables?" he asked and sat down opposite, flinching when his old knees cracked. Vlohiri nodded without looking up. "Ah, you know I like company that talks." Again he waited, but the boy did not react. "You work there?"
At any other time Vlohiri might have boasted of the fact that he had lived in the king's house, and now was allowed to live with the Prince and Princess of Ithilien, and that Faramir himself had taught him much. But not today. He could not conceal his sadness.
"Prince Faramir allows me to give the smith a hand from time to time."
"Very well. The way I saw it you have quite some skill with the horses too." Vlohiri answered with the shadow of a smile and did not see the knowledge and concern in Lomac's eyes. "The king gave you his horses to take care of, right?" Vlohiri nodded, pressing his lips tight. "He looked quite tired to me," Lomac added, watching the boy's face.
"And he is already gone again." Vlohiri wiped his nose. "I wished I could have gone with him. He rides out to Osgiliath to fight the Easterlings." He looked up, but Lomac just waited patiently for him to go on. "That young soldier, Hilberon, the son of Hiregon the smith… Did you see him?" Lomac nodded slightly, and Vlohiri told him about Hilberon's report. The healer listened intently, asked for details, and learned the reason for Vlohiri's sadness. "Aragorn… the king… he looked exhausted, more than everything else. It must have been awful to…" He broke off with a shudder.
"He has his way of coping with those situations, my friend."
"I saw it. I know. But what if he's too weak?" Vlohiri lifted his gaze to the healer's eyes. "What if that leader of these Easterlings is all evil… and powerful?"
"Then he will fight that evil," Lomac answered confidently. Vlohiri held his stare, willing to seek hope in the healer's assurance. For the past hours he had worried at the thought of the king riding onto the battlefield and being unable to defend himself. "And there are others at his side, are there not?"
"The prince will be there, and King Éomer arrived with his men too. They stayed on the Pelennor. The grooms said it was quite a host." He exhaled. "And I… Prince Faramir did not let me go with him. I wanted to become his esquire," he stated regretfully, "but he didn't take me. He said I was too young." Vlohiri pursed his lips. "So everybody is gone, and I'm the one left behind." His chin dropped, and he swallowed hard.
"The prince cares about your safety," Lomac softly replied, "and does not think you to be incapable or unfit for this task." But the boy did not answer for a long time, and finally the healer realised that Vlohiri was weeping. "My young friend, do not worry overmuch for them. They are very apt at keeping their enemies at bay."
"How do you know?"
Lomac lifted his brows, thinking about a way to cheer the boy up. It filled his heart with warmth and gratefulness that this untutored lad, who had only learnt to run for errands through the castle, had been granted education and love in such amount. The bond between the king and Vlohiri had strengthened measurably, and now, with new perils ahead, the boy was afraid of losing a friend.
"You saw him fight, did you not?" Vlohiri nodded, but still sadness prevailed. "And though he had gone through quite a rough time he could defend himself very well. Am I right?"
"There will be hard handstrokes nigh at hand ere the day is full," Vlohiri recited gloomily and looked up. "Faramir once said this when he told me the lore of the Ring War and that he was a captain in Ithilien at that time."
"It deems right, my young friend. There will be hard fights at hand."
The Pelennor Fields
She saw the king come through the main gate and with him the riders of his guard, watchful and vigilant, and for a moment she hesitated to go to him again. However, after she had talked with Gishvané during endless hours of the night they both doubted if the task ahead would be theirs to master, and if they were both doomed to witness the defeat of their people.
Ridasha felt lost among the mail-clad soldiers of both Gondor and Rohan, who were regarding the high priestess and her as if they were creatures from a strange land, shown in an exhibition. The Rohirrim who had not accompanied their ruler to Dunland eyed them with open mistrust, while the Gondorian soldiers, as well as many citizens who had gathered on the field, only gaped at them in wonder. Seeing the men going to war again made the civilians fear for their safe return, and Ridasha understood them well. Yet she felt fear for her own people; fear that they might be slain just a day's ride away, and on their behalf, she had to undertake another attempt to talk to the Gondorian ruler.
The King of Gondor greeted Éomer of Rohan and his sister with a curt bow and a friendly smile, but even so his demeanour was tense. Ridasha sensed he would order the armies' departure soon, and then there would be no time to plead her case. She almost ran when she saw him overview the ranks to signal the heralds.
"Strider… King Elessar!" she cried, and he turned in the saddle. The change in his appearance stunned her. When she had met him, he had been a healer, clad in leather garments, which had looked old and travel worn. His appearance had been that of a man used to wandering the lands, not reigning over them. And though his head did not bear a crown, his garb was that of a king now, rich in the chosen fabric and workmanship, and she knew that, had he worn that uniform before, no one would ever have mistaken him for a healer or a simple soldier. "Wait!" she called. He turned his horse with a word, and, frowning, bent down. She stood at the steed's neck, panting, and searching for words.
"What demands this urgency, Ridasha? We are about to leave."
"Yes, I know." She felt Tarés' eyes on her and flinched. Even though she was unarmed he still considered her a threat. "Will you listen to me for a moment? I,… Gishvané and I… we dare ask you again if there is anything that could be done instead of fighting my kin. Please, is there nothing you could do? Is there no other way than to make them retreat by force of arms? We will die if you send us back to Rhûn! Even if we surrender! That was no lie! The people, the sharos… they will all die! Is there no other way?"
"How can you dare to seek for lenience after what your people have done?" Éomer growled, staring down on her from the elevated position of the great black horse he was riding into battle. "Your leader's plan was devious, and now she and her tribe will taste the steel of retaliation they deserve."
Aragorn only looked at her, and she asked him silently if he thought the same way.
"I will bestow mercy neither on your leader nor on any of the Jásheni for their deeds," he then said, and Ridasha's heart sank. "You cannot be allowed to roam our lands and take by force what you do not possess. The assault on my army cannot be left unanswered. Yet I see that not all of your kin carry a share of that evil you brought to our lands. If Harishdane surrenders herself and those of her tribe, I will see what can be done. There shall be no slaughter if it can be avoided."
"So if it is not by killing us yourself you will send us to our doom." She stared at him. straightened in the saddle and closed,
"No decisions have been made yet."
Ridasha understood that the king's generosity had limits, and turned, hiding her tears by lowering her chin. She dreaded the thought that it would come to a devastating battle before the end was near.
North of Osgiliath
Harishdane detested waiting. Again she paced through the lines, pestering the guards with her question of whether the reinforcements had already been spotted since the messenger had told her about their arrival. They looked at her anxiously, expecting her to berate them, but she restrained herself. Turning, she glanced across the plain. The Gondorian banner floated in the wind, but the men were as silent as were her kinsmen. She hoped that the enemy was still pondering her decision to stop the attack barely outside the range of their arrows. It would be her only advantage until the rest of her soldiers would arrive. In Lomarin's face she saw the bitter distress of not having the King of Gondor as their captive and shield. The confrontation would have taken another wheeling, and none of the Gondorian leaders would have been able to withstand her forces. Her people would have settled without being harmed and would have driven the sharos to the plentiful fertile soil Ithilien provided. Already some of the herds were entering the enemy's lands. The herders had not been able to hold them back any longer; they had been starving for weeks now and needed fodder and water.
Harishdane flinched. The coming fight would determine whether her people would live or perish. Again she turned and locked eyes with Sisune. Though she belonged to the Jásheni, the young woman seemed discontent with her leader's lies to Lomarin, and she had not spoken with her since that morning. Harishdane held her in a fierce stare, until the soldier averted her eyes, obeying the rules. The leader ground her teeth. Sisune would follow her orders, but there were still forty of her kinsmen who had submitted themselves to that killer from Rohan. If he had not ordered them all killed, what threat did they bear for her and her army? They would not dare to fight against her, but they could still provide the hated Rohirrim with useful information.
Lomarin yelled at her to turn around. With the last rays of the sinking sun at their backs, the Easterling army arrived: more than one thousand men and women, fully armoured and with scimitars and polearms. They were an impressive sight, and Harishdane breathed deeply, hurrying to meet their leader and to celebrate the prospect of launching the attack with the morning's first light.
The soldiers afoot were overtaken; if the offensive had already begun the riders would have to reach the frontline as quickly as possible. After a rest of only a few hours during the night they had mounted again, and with the kings at the head, the éoreds and Gondorian soldiers rode side by side once more, ready to prove their skill at warfare.
Aragorn looked briefly over his shoulder. The Royal Guard followed him closely, grim-faced and strong, and even the young Hilberon appeared determined enough to take up the fight with a garrison of enemies by himself. Aragorn regretted that there had been no time to tell his father about the brave deeds his son had accomplished on the quest through Dunland. He intended to amend this upon their return to the White City.
Prince Faramir watched the dust rise from the open plains north of their camp. He swallowed dryly, suddenly understanding why the enemy had stopped and settled into a defence position so close to them. The ranks of shining armour, red scarves protecting the soldiers' faces against the sand, and the bronze helmets with their intimidating shapes seemed endless in their approach, touching the horizon. The ground shook as they drew closer, polearms ready. A red banner with a black serpent was carried up front, and the cheers of the warriors who were already awaiting them added to the distress of the Gondorian soldiers, who stared in stunned horror at the Easterlings. Faramir noticed the petrified glances of his men. Would they, once again, be ordered to retreat? Would they give up the plain ahead and search for a better defence further south? If a number could be guessed, the Easterlings easily counted twice as many men as the Gondorians.
"Double the night watch," Prince Faramir ordered his captain. The man stared at him as if he had expected another order. "We cannot count on them to wait until morning to attack. And disperse the horses as before. Make sure those beasts cannot enter our camp again."
"Aye, sire." Beregond bowed and left, while Faramir watched the enemies close their ranks. The dust settled, but the sight of the force now headed for them was intimidating. Faramir swore to himself that he would not pull back this time. The enemy was too close to the city. Osgiliath could not be considered a defence, and when he ordered a retreat to the Pelennor Fields, Minas Tirith would be in peril sooner or later. He would not let this happen.
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