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Twilight of the Gods: 44. Battle!
Chapter 44 – Battle!
Ridasha could not breathe. Peering past Hilberon's back once again and ceaselessly shaken by his horse's movements, she was unable to believe the sight that presented itself upon reaching the Gondorian camp. Only a few tents had been set. The soldiers had slept on the ground, and were readying themselves before the first light. Seeing the reinforcements arrive, there were loud cheers as they greeted the arriving riders. Though a messenger had announced their coming, they might as well have arrived too late. It was not the sight of the Gondorian soldiers dispersed over a width she could not view all at once that stunned her, but that of the enemy's ranks, covering a much wider space north and west. Fires were lit among the rows, and all the warriors she could see in the distance were armoured and equipped with weapons. Ridasha had once imagined what this day would mean to her and her kin. Prosperity had been promised, and all they had longed for had been supposed to become reality. Still the sight of her kinsmen was impressive enough to worry the soldiers around her, and doubt of victory emitted from the low conversations she overheard, even though each of the Riders from Rohan would make up for ten of their enemies. They were still outnumbered.
Ridasha slipped from the saddle and proceeded further, yearning to see her kin again, but at the same time afraid that it would be the last time she ever saw them. Either their warriors would win, and she would be slain as an enemy, or the joined forces from Rohan and Gondor would win, and the survivors would have to flee back to Rhûn. She shivered. At one time she had longed to belong to those fighters; had wished to stand in the forefront and fight for her kin to survive. Now all that was left for her to do was watch.
Having scrutinized the enemy's frontline, Aragorn dismounted and greeted his steward heartily and with relief upon seeing him unharmed.
"I looked forward to your coming," Faramir said with a smile that betrayed his weariness and strain. The sight of the mounted Rohirrim and his brother-in-law behind Aragorn's back was most welcome. "You could not have picked a better time for your arrival. Their reinforcements appeared yestereve and I fear that battle will soon commence. How many men did you bring?"
"Five hundred and more are still on the way. Yet there may still be a chance of ending this without bloodshed," Aragorn replied, and sent Tarés to summon Gishvané and Ridasha.
"That would be a miracle, my lord, since our attempt to negotiate was answered by arrows."
"I brought two women, who surrendered to the King of Rohan. They might change the fate."
"You brought Easterlings with you?" Faramir asked with a puzzled frown and turned to welcome Éomer, who had dismounted behind them without his usual grace. Relief over the long ride lying behind him was plainly visible on his drawn, gaunt face, which told the Steward of Gondor more than enough about his brother-in-law's condition. Aragorn, too, looked unlike his usual self. Valar, what had happened in Rohan?
"It will be a long story for cold winter nights," the King of Rohan replied with a hearty slap on the prince's shoulder. Behind Faramir, Elfhelm and Erkenbrand approached them to join their war-council. "There is no time for it now. How many men are we facing?"
"There were eight hundred of them before, but now I fear their number has increased to at least fifteen hundred. It might increase as we speak."
Éomer and Aragorn exchanged a worried glance, while the men strode to the prince's tent and reported in brief the tidings they had gathered in Dunland.
"Her information was right, then," Faramir said lowly and turned when the Easterlings entered.
Aragorn introduced Ridasha and Gishvané to the captain of his army, and then faced the women with a fierce glance. "It will be on you both to make your people retreat before this day ends in a battle that no one can truly win."
"I will talk to Harishdane alone," Gishvané stated, and straightened to meet the king's gaze sternly. "Even she will have to listen to me. I will be in no danger," she said against Ridasha's unspoken objection. "Tell me what kind of message I shall deliver."
The King of Gondor had thought about Ridasha's words for the duration of the ride. The settlers, who had been sent back to Minas Tirith to keep them out of harm's way, would return to their villages. There would be no space to herd thousands of animals and to let the Easterlings live there as neighbours. And there was no fertile land north of Ithilien.
He noticed the eyes of the men and women present resting on him, and finally he addressed Ridasha.
"I would wish for neither friend nor foe to die of thirst and hunger. Yet your aggression cannot be left unanswered. The tribal members of the Jásheni and their leader must surrender themselves unconditionally and will be judged for their deeds. All of your people will have to lay down their weapons. For those remaining, I cannot promise to find them land to live on, but I have decided to lead a conversation with the Lady Galadriel. Upon her agreement you might find land to herd your sharos near Dol Guldur, which is now deserted." He turned to Gishvané and found the same astonishment and gratefulness in her eyes as he had seen in Ridasha's. Behind him, the Rohirrim exchanged sceptical glances. "I will not promise what I cannot fulfil, so take this to your leader as a proposal I will seek to bring to reality."
Gishvané and Ridasha bowed lowly to him.
"We trust your words, King Elessar of Gondor. Your wisdom and generosity will be praised for years to come," Gishvané stated, deeply moved. "I will depart immediately."
"May Úshemor's blessing be with you," Ridasha whispered, for suddenly she could not speak. She was troubled, but the high priestess gently touched her hair.
"Do not worry for me, Rilon Avas, I will be safe." Briefly bowing to the men she left the tent and passed by the soldiers. They looked at her, frowning, distrustful, but because Halamin walked at her side no one hindered her. Upon reaching the first rank he looked down at the slender woman, who kept her chin high as if she was honoured by the task given.
"I hope for your safe return," Halamin said quietly, and she nodded, straightened, and walked up to the waiting army across the plain.
"You want to give them land next to the Anduin?" Éomer asked cautiously after the two women had left the tent. He was not certain whether he liked the implications of his friend's words, even if the situation reminded him strongly of his own with the Dunlendings.
"The only other option would be to condemn their kind to die of hunger," Aragorn stated. "If it can be avoided, I will, but it depends on Harishdane."
"At Dol Goldur, they would be awfully close to Rohan and Gondor, not to mention the northern realms. It would mean taking a great risk."
"I am aware of that. Yet sometimes, risks have to be taken. I know you understand."
Ridasha rushed out of the tent, following the high priestess. She stopped right beside the soldier of the Royal Guard, who followed the high priestess with his eyes. Ridasha whispered a prayer, begging Úshemor to hold a shielding hand over Gishvané, who walked so proud and erect as if she had waited all her life for this day. Ridasha had believed her that she would do everything necessary to keep her people alive; this was the time to prove worthy of her trust.
The kings and the Prince of Ithilien followed more slowly, with the Rohirrim sending his marshals back to their éoreds with his orders in case the priestess' approach should be fruitless. As he followed the two Gondorians, Éomer couldn't help grimacing. The leg wound was healing, but it was still a cause of discomfort and -- when weighed on too long -- increasing pain; whereas riding no longer posed a great problem to him, walking still did. He knew that Aragorn had noticed it, and was thankful that his friend had refrained from commenting. Catching up with him and Faramir in front of the Gondorian army, who were all following the Easterling priestess' way with their eyes, Éomer couldn't help voicing his doubts again.
"If this goes well, your generosity will be praised for a long time, brother." Out of the corners of his eyes he saw Aragorn turn his head. "Yet the danger your proposal bears cannot be denied."
It was with a slight smile through strain and exhaustion when Aragorn answered,
"Do I hear familiar words? Would that not have been the same argument when allowing the Dunlendings to settle on your realm? Though the Easterlings are our enemies now, their fate and ours might yet be changed without us killing each other."
"Yet you should ask yourself whether they deserve your mercy. After what they have done to you and your men, and to my people as well… They are still holding my men captive."
"They will be found and released, brother. But look, Harishdane is coming up to meet her." Aragorn's face was tense with anticipation as he watched the tribal members approach each other on the plain.
Gishvané came to a halt when she saw Harishdane and Nisenur approach with determined steps. She recognised the tension in her leader's features, and her yellow shining eyes bore a threat that sped up her heartbeat. And though she was anxious, the high priestess remained sombre, greeting Harishdane respectfully.
"What do you want, traitor?" the leader sneered in return, knowing that none of her people could hear her so far in front of the ranks. "Offer a ceasefire? Shall we retreat and throw away our weapons?"
Gishvané raised her chin, irritated by Harishdane's aggressiveness. Even if she was not the high priestess of the Jásheni, Harishdane would have to show her respect and listen to her.
"The King of Gondor, whom you held captive without telling your kin-" She glanced at Nisenur, but the young man only glared at her, "-will not only allow our people to live, but offers to negotiate with a woman named Galadriel to find new land for us to live on."
"I will not believe a liar from Gondor," Harishdane rebuked without thinking, and her voice dropped to a growl. "And why should I retreat when victory is at hand? Those few peasants with a weakling as their ruler will not stand long against my army."
"It is the one and only possibility to avoid bloodshed, my leader!" Gishvané pleaded, sensing that Harishdane was not open to reason. She could not shake off her bewilderment. What had happened to the leader the gods sent? "We could save us all! No one would be killed! He promised to help us if you surrender!"
Now Harishdane did something the high priestess would never have expected: She laughed. It was a grim and bitter sound which bore no happiness, and Gishvané's eyes widened in shock.
"Surrender? In the hour of victory?" The leader spat on the ground. "They have already lost though they may not see it yet." She held Gishvané in her stare, and only with all the strength she could summon did the high priestess remain at her position. "That king holds no power like I do. He never will. He needs worms like you to try and lure me into false hopes, but I will not fall for his treachery."
"Then you will send our people to their doom?" Gishvané asked, horrified. Her mouth went dry, and she raised her hands, not knowing what to think. "You will not seek a peaceful solution that comes to you on an outstretched hand?"
Harishdane stooped to her, and her voice was heavy with hatred.
"I will cut off that hand if it gets close enough." Suddenly she had a knife in her right hand and thrust it deep into Gishvané's ribcage. The woman cried out in pain, clutching her hands on the wound, feeling her legs quiver as weakness gripped her. "Let them come to test my strength and perish." She pulled out the knife, and the high priestess sank on her knees, her eyes fixed on her leader in utter disbelief. Without pity Harishdane watched her collapse on the meadow. The woman's eyes broke, and she spent her last breath on a never ended question.
Sheathing the knife, Harishdane turned and strode back, loath to face Lomarin's stammered questions. Slowly she raised her hand. The soldiers closed the lines, ready for her commands.
"They are readying for an attack!" Faramir shouted over the camp. "Prepare for battle!" And amid the raising clamour, shouts of the captains, and the orders Éomer gave his already mounted men as he swung into the saddle himself, the captain put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I am sorry, Aragorn, your attempt mercy would have deserved a better reception." And when the older man did not react, he added urgently, "Your horse has been brought. You have to mount."
Aragorn turned. For a moment regret and sadness covered his features, before grim determination and wrath in his grey eyes took over. He grasped the reins a soldier handed him.
"Beware of the beasts of prey," he told the prince. "They attack as men, but can shift their shape."
"She killed her," Ridasha mumbled, resting on her knees where she had fallen, while around her the soldiers unsheathed their swords and the archers took position. "She killed her…"
"Those were men attacking us up north?" Faramir asked in shock as he mounted beside his friend. "We never thought there could be a connection."
"There is." Aragorn straightened and cried to his soldiers to keep in line as he watched the enemies approach. Thunder shook the ground as the Rohirrim host swept through the Gondorians like a deadly avalanche of glistening steel as their king and marshals led them against the wall of foes.
"Get back," Halamin urged Ridasha and pulled her to her feet. "Get out of harm's way."
"She tried to save us!" Ridasha hid her face behind her hands, shaking with her weeping. "And she killed her!"
"I have to leave," Halamin told her, and mounted the horse Hilberon brought to him. "Seek cover somewhere. Don't stay here!" He spurred his steed and gained on Tarés and Dumarin, who already followed their king to the battlefield. Looking over his shoulder, he still saw her standing at the same spot, unable to move, and he feared he would not see her again.
The soldiers were all gone, and the White City seemed far less filled with life. A foreboding sadness rested on the shoulders of those staying behind as if the tidings that would come sooner or later could only be dreadful. The women shook their heads and talked in quiet voices, and all who passed by and who had looked happy before, now wore expressions of anxiety.
Within the sad atmosphere, Vlohiri strolled the paved streets, and nothing he had loved to do before seemed enjoyable now. His thoughts were with the king and the prince, who would face the enemy now. People had told him that the armies had looked proud and powerful, and some had even tried to cheer him up by uttering that a death in battle was the most honourable way to pass from this life to the next. Vlohiri had almost cried when he had heard this opinion: death meant to pass away forever; to never return to family or friends; to never laugh and cheer again. How could a death hold any honour? But he had kept his mouth shut and moved on, and when he looked up he had already crossed the gate to the sixth ring. With a sigh he moved on, seeking solitude and comfort at the same time. He yearningly remembered the hours he had spent with Aragorn at the White Tree and considered it the only place where he wanted to be right now.
North of Osgiliath
After a brief scrutiny of the enemies' lines, Aragorn shouted to his men, and his voice carried far over the eerie cries of the Easterlings. With a battle cry the united armies spurred their horses, ready to encounter the frontline of the enemy, who stopped the run to fix their polearms in defence. To his right Faramir and the Gondorian soldiers raised their swords with a roar and charged after the Rohirrim, who were quickly employing their oft-proven strategy against an unmounted enemy. Ignoring the danger of impaling themselves on the polearms that were raised against them, they gained momentum like an unstoppable wave rolling toward the shore. Horses shrieked in terror as they were hit and tumbled, yet as most of the Mark's soldiers had felled their opponents with a well-placed thrust of their spears, most succeeded in rushing through the sudden holes in the Easterlings' defence unscathed. The familiar sounds of hacking and slashing and agonised cries once again filled the Ithilien sky as the three armies engaged in battle with all viciousness. Warriors from Rhûn disappeared under hoofs, and Gondorians and Rohirrim were drawn from their horses and quickly entangled in ground fights, while the archers on both sides took their toll.
Cutting down polearms to his right, Aragorn spotted Harishdane standing on a small hill of rocks. Beside the main skirmish, she overlooked the battle and directed her men with loud and clear commands. The king steered his horse in her direction, and Tarés on his left side mimicked the movement. With a brief glance Aragorn indicated where he was going, and Tarés nodded. On his right Halamin deflected an Easterling aiming for Hilberon with the flank of his horse. The young soldier did not even notice as he thrust his sword right between the helmet and the pauldrons of an enemy. It came off bloody, and Hilberon grimaced as the Easterling hit the ground with a last yell. The noise on the battlefield was deafening. Swords crushed on shields and armour, scimitars hit and maimed, and above all the cries of men and the endless neighing of horses rang out. The blood of the wounded and dying began to saturate the ground.
Aragorn pushed Brego forward, fighting left and right, sending men tumbling. A scimitar hit his thigh, but the mail beneath the leather robe held, and the king kicked the man out of his way. The enemy's leader still stood tall and valiant as if no weapon could harm her. A group of her strongest warriors had taken position around the elevated plateau and defended her against the few who had already reached that area. From the south trumpets rang clear through the morning air, but the king could not afford to turn in the saddle. He did not see the reinforcements march onto the battlefield, where they strengthened the right flank immediately.
Fighting to remain in the vicinity of his king, Hilberon almost fell off his horse after a polearm hit his helmet, and only Dumarin was close enough to defend him. The young man regained his balance and watched the stout soldier hack the Easterling with unyielding force. He did not even glance, did not stop to look if Hilberon was unharmed, but aimed at the next red-clad enemy, cutting deeply into the arm's protection. And when the Easterling dropped the polearm, Dumarin roared and rode on.
Intent on staying close to Éomer, Elfhelm forced his way through the scores of enemies, his sword already bloodied and scything through the air hungry for more. In front of him, the white horsetail of Éomer's helm flew like a banner in the wind, and with relief the marshal saw that the young man indeed seemed to have sufficiently recovered for his grim task, even if he had believed it impossible. Straining to bridge the distance between them, the Lord of Westfold thrust his steed against his enemies, a force of nature.
"Erkenbrand! Elfhelm!" Their wild charge had carried them through half of the enemy's host already, but now the Easterlings had recovered from the initial shock of their onslaught and were putting up fierce resistance. Wherever Éomer looked, polearms were readied against their horses and the hostile soldiers moved together to form an impenetrable barrier. Behind them, archers drew their bows for a deadly hail in their direction. Seeing his marshals' crested helms close by, Éomer yelled: "Divide our forces! Take your éoreds left and right, I will charge their middle! Move!" He did not wait to see as he thrust Battleaxe into full gallop again.
For a moment, the sun broke through the stirred-up dust and glistened on bronze and steel, a solid wall of armoured warriors ahead of him. He kicked his heels into the stallion's flanks, and the black jumped forth with in an explosion of speed, closing the distance too quickly for the archers to alter their aim. They had to shoot over the heads of their kinsmen, but the charging Rohirrim were already too close. Éomer's gaze tore into an Easterling in the front row as he readied his lance. This was where he would break through, and he let his foe see his intention. The man would be either skewered or ridden down if he stayed where he was. Even though the man's helm left only open a small slit, he saw the eyes behind it widen at the sudden realisation, and with a battle-cry, Éomer drew back his arm. The polearm swung toward him... and clattered to the ground as his enemy dove out of Battleaxe's way. Like a storm against the shore, the Rohirrim surged against the Easterlings.
Faramir assumed command of those who had just entered the fight. Shouting commands he steered his horse to the right, when a polearm found his cuirass. It was deflected, but the force of the thrust pushed him backwards out of the saddle. He fell on his side, but quickly raised his sword in defence. Behind the sharp-edged helmet Lomarin glowered at him with yellow eyes. He brought down his polearm once again, but the sword cut it in two. Faramir regained his feet, while Lomarin growled deep in his throat. Suddenly the Gondorian recognised his opponent and gripped the hilt tighter, expecting the onslaught. Yet Lomarin waited to attack in the moment when the prince was distracted by another enemy closing in with his polearm to skewer him. Faramir reacted fast enough to deflect Lomarin's hideous attack, while at the same time a second enemy gained on him. From behind a roar echoed. A second later the Easterling was skewered by a Rohirric lance, and Elfhelm's great bay galloped by. Lomarin ground his teeth, changed the grip on his weapon, and aimed to cut off the prince's head, but his opponent was faster. Evading the deadly strike he thrust his blade deep into the captain's belly. Lomarin grunted with surprise and dread. His knees buckling, he went down, and Faramir turned to face the next opponent.
The King of Gondor countered a polearm's vicious hit, when Tarés behind him was drawn from his horse and went down with a surprised yell. Aragorn turned, but time and space to aid the captain was limited. He saw Halamin spur his steed to ride down the enemy. In the same moment a warrior came up front to fight the king. Brego reared, throwing up his head, and the polearm hit his legs instead of the rider. The horse shrieked in pain, and Aragorn caught a glimpse of Harishdane. She stared at him from an elevation to his left, and slowly lowered her chin in a glance that was both challenge and threat. Then his attention was drawn to the fighter in front of him. He recognised Nisenur the instant Brego lowered himself on all fours again. The Jásheni aimed at Aragorn, and the king turned the horse sideways to parry the polearm with his sword.
All of a sudden pain crushed him like stones racing down the mountain in a rock-slide. Gasping he doubled over and almost fell from his horse, barely grabbing the mane to steady himself. The wounds in his neck were bleeding again, and the Easterling with the yellow eyes drew closer. Aragorn could not breathe. He felt the warm breeze on his face, the wind blowing through his hair, but his lungs seemed unable to suck in the desperately needed air. His vision blurred. He was barely aware of the men at his side fighting against the shape-shifter and other Easterlings, who gathered for a re-organised attack. When another wave of pain hit him, it drowned out their shouts. It was excruciating, and he almost dropped his sword. He never saw what happened to Nisenur. Warm blood trickled down his neck. When Brego reared again, he had no strength to remain in the saddle. With his sword still in his hand, Aragorn hit the ground, crying out with terror.
They were all around him, Easterlings wherever he looked. Bitter memories of the fights at the Pelennor and Morannon welled up in Éomer's mind as he kicked back an attacker he had already disposed of to let his gaze sweep the lines of battling soldiers. There was no other way to see it: Once again, they were badly outnumbered, and this time, no army of living dead would help them to an unlikely victory. This time, they would have to do it all by themselves.
Snapping back to the reality of the fight, Éomer sought for the next opponent, his sword ready, when a black blur flew at him. The Rohirrim had barely registered the threat when his horse reared with a shrill shriek, and for a moment, the great dark form hung at the stallion's shoulder like a giant bat. For the duration of a heartbeat, yellow eyes stared at Éomer in bloodlust, and glistening jaws gaped at him with an enraged hiss. Acting on reflex, he brought forth Gúthwine with a vicious thrust, but the beast was gone, having already in the rubble of the fight. Swearing, Éomer slapped a hand over the wounds its claws had cut into Battleaxe's shoulder. It did not look like a serious injury, but the stallion no longer moved well, and the pain made him unresponsive to his master's commands. Thrusting his head in agony, the black turned in a tight circle, bucking and almost unseating the man on his back when the next attack came.
It took all of Éomer's considerable skill to remain in the saddle as Battleaxe threw himself sideways against the onslaught of the beast. The violent jolt dislodged the predator before its claws found a hold in the horse's hide, and it tumbled to the ground, landing on its paws. But not quick enough to evade the hard blows as the stallion's forelegs whirled through the air, shattering the beast's shoulder. With a furious roar, the great cat spun away, suddenly sensing its disadvantage. Éomer needn't have pressed his knees against the stallion's flanks to follow, as his mount was furious now and charging after their attacker on his own. Quickly grasping a spear from an unmoving body on the ground, the Rohirrim drew back his arm, aiming while they gained on the beast with each of the stallion's mighty leaps. Knowing it could not flee from them, the cat whirled around for the last defence, and it seemed to Éomer as if he could almost see the Easterling's hate-filled features behind the mask of the predator, as he put his entire weight behind the thrust.
Shaking his head against the dizziness, Aragorn forced himself to his feet and raised the sword again. Breathlessly, he pushed the next Easterling out of the way and briefly searched for Nisenur without seeing him. Behind him Halamin held position to shield Tarés and another soldier, who had gone down. The king stared at the enemy's leader, and she held his gaze. The pain remained strong and spread through his body, but Aragorn fought it, as well as the men attacking him. He made no effort to strike to kill as he forced his way through their ranks, until at last he almost stumbled up the rocks. Harishdane stepped backwards, expecting the King of Gondor. She had her polearm ready, but seemed disinclined to use it.
Hilberon kicked another Easterling in the face to gain some range when he spurred his steed again. Although in the midst of peril, the young soldier revived. Finally the time of retaliation had come, and he swung his sword with all the skill he could muster. An arrow missed him by inches. Inhaling sharply, he turned in the direction of the archer, and was about to ride him down, when a Rohirrim crossed his path. With his lance the older soldier quickly ended the life of the Easterling. Hilberon grinned through the tension. The thought of the story he could tell his father about this battle gave him new strength, and he struck at another foe closing in on him.
At any other time Aragorn would have wondered why it had been so easy to reach Harishdane, but at the end of his strength, in the tight grip of an agony that wrecked his consciousness, he heeded no such thought. Clenching his teeth, he climbed up the hill. Harishdane shot him a glance out of yellow eyes, and her glance held nothing but mockery. Around her neck the Evenstar gleamed in the morning's sunlight, and at the sight of it the king's wrath flared anew.
"Defend yourself!" Aragorn shouted as he drew near, sword ready. "You will either fight me or go down without!"
Harishdane only glared at him, and her voice was deep when she stated:
"It is not in your power to kill me." The king raised the sword to behead her, but stopped in mid motion. He exhaled in shock, trying to force down the weapon on his enemy, but still his arms remained lifted, and the sword in his hands vibrated. With all his strength he could not strike. He felt caught, trapped inside his own body, unable to execute his will. He panted, and supreme effort made him break into a sweat. His eyes widened as Harishdane stepped closer, and a hiss escaped her mouth that he could hear through the clamour around him. It seemed to be inside his head though he saw her lips move. "You will do as I bid." He stood in front of her, his sword still in the air, and though his mind ordered him to use the weapon to skewer her, his body no longer obeyed.
Tarés watched in dismay at what happened to his ruler. The moment before he had been about to cheer the impending end of the evil woman, but now he feared to have failed his king, who stood motionless on that elevated space, his face contorted with pain. Tarés desperately fought the man in front of him to come to his ruler's aid.
"It is good, demon. We killed him. Calm down." Muttering soothing words in Rohirric to his agonised mount, Éomer's gaze lifted from the superficial yet hampering wounds to the battle that was raging all around them. The first momentum of the fight, their reckless charge into the wall of Easterlings had been lost and replaced by the close quarters' fights he knew all too well. It was man against man now, one-on-one, and the sounds of hacking and slashing and crying rang out into the dusty air.
Turning his by now undeniably limping horse in a circle to gain an overview over the state of battle, Éomer ground his teeth as he detected Aragorn on foot, Andúril drawn. What had happened to Brego? What – Following his friend's path with his eyes, the Rohirrim suddenly inhaled sharply as he noticed the unmoving figure on top of the hill. In Dunland, he had barely caught more of her than a few distant glances, but Aragorn's determined approach left no question that it was the Easterlings' leader he was going for... and although she was guarded by a circle of her best warriors, the men simply let him pass!
Already directing Battleaxe toward the spectacle he was watching while deflecting polearms and scimitars left and right, Éomer felt a sudden shiver of fear for his friend. What devilry was going on? What had that witch planned for Aragorn? Charging through the battle in a direct line, the Rohirrim King could not shake the horrible feeling that he would arrive at the scene too late...
A shiver ran through Arwen's body, and she held fast to the balustrade of the embrasure. The connection, so strong and filled with vigour, seemed ripped apart, and suddenly her heart raced as she felt something strange. Another presence, evil and dark like a night with veiled stars. She concentrated, and with closed eyes tried to restore the bond, reaching out.
"That is not him," she murmured in a deep voice, and then, with sudden realisation, opened her eyes and turned round. Vlohiri felt captured by her stare, and his face turned crimson. He had stood by the White Tree for some time, but involuntarily had drawn near. "Go and search for Lomac. Take the fastest horse and bring him to the base camp!"
His eyes went wide with surprise.
"Do not lose any time! Do it right now!"
Vlohiri never had expected the queen to yell at him, and when she did now it was clouded by despair, and he dreaded the reason behind it. The tears in her eyes made him swallow, and his knees suddenly buckled. But he regained his composure. He had to.
"I'm on my way," he managed to answer, and though he felt like crying himself, he turned and ran down the embrasure, passed by the White Tree and hurried to the House of Healing.
North of Osgiliath
Battleaxe was lame; it would be torture to force him against the circle of Harishdane's warriors. A quick glance also established to Éomer that both his marshals were cut off from him, encircled by foes and unable to join him. Yet the matter could not wait.
Grinding his jaw at the prospect of going up against Harishdane's guards alone, Éomer dismounted, his sword ready for the first man who dared to oppose him. Yet strangely, they did nothing to hinder his approach, even though bottomless malevolence glistened in their dark eyes, the only part he could see of their faces through the small slit of their helmets. Somehow, Éomer could not shake the distinct feeling of having just stepped into the viper's pit, and his discomfort grew. Behind the Easterlings' line, Aragorn had almost reached their foes' leader, and the Rohirrim hastened up the slope, increasingly aware that this was exactly the situation Elfhelm had warned him of back at Aldburg. Yet he had no choice if he wanted to help his friend, and from Aragorn's strange posture, it seemed that he needed aid urgently. Why was he hesitating to dispose of that witch? He had his sword raised, yet appeared unable to strike.
Sweat poured into Aragorn's eyes, burning and blurring his vision. He squinted. His arms lowered Andúril, but not of his own accord. It was not his own will that made his body turn away from his foe toward the solitary figure that was struggling up the slope. 'No!' He could not speak, for his tongue likewise was not reacting to his commands. He could not warn Éomer, could not shout to stay away. His breath came in laboured and ragged bursts as he fought to regain control over himself; a desperate struggle to shake off the spell that devilish woman had cast upon him. A vain struggle. The king moved forward, and through the rush of blood he never heard Éomer speak. His friend looked bewildered and worried, and when his eyes found Harishdane, it was already too late.
"Aragorn? Aragorn, what..." The words died on Éomer's tongue as Andúril, the Flame of the West, swung toward his face.
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