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Twilight of the Gods: 46. The Fall of a Leader
Chapter 46 – The Fall of a Leader
"Aragorn…" The words died in his throat as Aragorn followed him with an inscrutable expression, leaving Andúril lying on the ground to pick up the shorter Rohirrim sword instead. Éomer swallowed. So, he would not only die at the hands of a friend, but on his own sword, too. That Easterling witch certainly knew how to quench her thirst for revenge. He braced himself as he lifted his gaze to Aragorn's blank expression, and the utter absence of emotion there chilled him to the core. His brother's eyes were fixed upon the blade as if it were the only thing that existed. And then he changed his grip. Éomer thought it odd to take the hilt upward and the blade down, yet it would make no difference whether he was decapitated or impaled. And then he saw it: only a glimpse, a single moment that passed quickly… his friend had blinked at him.
Aragorn straightened as he raised the sword. In his head the same words in Sindarin were repeated over and over again, and he clung to them as if they were a rope to pull him out of the darkness of a cave. Behind him, Harishdane smiled with deep satisfaction. She had never doubted King Elessar to emerge victorious from the duel. The blade was held in mid-air for a moment, aimed to be thrust through the Rohirrim's body, and she fixed her eyes on Éomer's blood-smeared face to revel in the sight of his dying pains. Thus, she reacted too late as the King of Gondor swivelled and threw the weapon at her.
The blade caught her right below the red and golden cuirass, impaling her. Unable to comprehend and too surprised to do anything else, she stared at it. There was no pain yet, and only a little blood. It took her a few heartbeats to realise that she was dying. The polearm fell from her hand. Her knees buckled, and then she collapsed, her eyes still open. Gasping in vain for breath as the taste of blood filled her mouth, Harishdane succumbed to the pain.
Aragorn felt the last onslaught of Harishdane's power before the connection broke. He panted and could not see clearly. On his hands and knees he watched his enemy go down, her fingers clutching Gúthwine's hilt without being able to remove the sword. It made no difference. She would die on that rock. Weak and yet grimly satisfied, Aragorn rose and, picking up Andúril, gave the stunned Easterling guards a hard look.
"Your leader is destroyed. Lay down your weapons if you do not wish to share her fate!" He lifted the sword threateningly, already seeing Elfhelm's dark horsetail-crest behind them. The Easterlings, uncertain without their leader, stood for a moment longer until they understood that they were caught between the hammer and the anvil, and only letting fall their weapons saved them from the Rohirrim marshal's onslaught as he charged toward them with the men he had assembled. Only then did Aragorn dare to look after his friend. Éomer stared at him as he drew close, his breath coming in ragged, painful bursts and doubt in his eyes. Although he did not feel like it, Aragorn gave him a feeble smile as he kneeled down beside his friend.
"It is over. My brother…" He flinched at the sight of the wounds he had inflicted on the younger man. "I am… I am sorry. Are you…"
"I am all right, and I know it wasn't you." Éomer pressed Aragorn's hand in reassurance and gave his ally a curt nod, telling him that his wounds were not severe. Yet there was Erkenbrand… Éomer shifted his attention to his fallen kinsman and held his breath at the sight of the puddle of blood that had formed around the warrior's head. Following his gaze, Aragorn's lips became a bloodless line. He exhaled. Behind them, Elfhelm's concerned voice cut through the noise of the battle.
"Éomer? My lord, are you…" His eyes widened at his ruler's condition and although he seemed sceptical when the younger man assured him that he could wait, Elfhelm followed his order to see after his comrade. Together with Aragorn, he gently turned Erkenbrand on his back and hissed. "Tolgor!" A moment later, the exhausted-looking healer was at his side, his face and hands already smeared with the blood of the men he had treated. Cautiously, he drew the helmet from the unconscious warrior's head, already seeing the source of the blood.
"His helm was indented during the fall and cut into his head. See?" He indicated the long gash and pressed a piece of cloth against it, feeling an enormous bump in the marshal's hair. "Apparently, he hit his head quite hard. Can you please hold this in place, marshal?" He turned toward the straps of Erkenbrand's armour to inspect his torso where Andúril had cloven his cuirass asunder. A few long moments later, he straightened on his heels, and his expression lightened a bit. "It appears that the blow did not penetrate his hauberk. He may have one or two cracked ribs, but apart from that, the injury doesn't seem serious. We need to get him to the base camp." He turned around to look at Éomer. "My lord…"
His king did not see him. His attention was directed at Aragorn, whose expression was an odd mixture of relief and dismay. With an almost invisible nod, he told his friend that he understood.
"Go and take back what is yours. There is nothing for you to do here."
Returning the little nod, Aragorn rose and crossed the plateau. Harishdane's wide open eyes followed his movement, as the king faced the soldiers of the armies and cried aloud:
"Harishdane is dead! The fight is over! Lay down your weapons and surrender!" The warriors in front of him, who were pressing closer, looked up in shock. Through the lines of Rohirrim, who kept them at bay, they saw Harishdane lying on the ground. The shouts resounded all over the place, spreading like waves from a stone thrown into a lake, the word that the Easterling leader had been overthrown travelling from mouth to mouth.
Aragorn fell to his knees beside Harishdane, and after a moment of breathless immobility, pulled the chain from her neck. She opened her mouth, and with her last strength, uttered: "You still lose…"
Aragorn ignored the warning. With the chain and his ring in his hand, Aragorn stared at his adversary's face with a wrath he would never have thought to be able to feel. It was the moment she spent her last breath.
The king looked at the Evenstar in his hand, content and deeply grateful, and he thought of his wife when as all strength left him and he sank into unconsciousness.
In an outbreak of joy through her exhaustion, Arwen mounted Asfaloth and steered him down the rings of the City and beyond the Pelennor Fields, and all, who saw her, shook their heads in bewilderment, for the mirth radiating from the queen was mysterious to most of them. She spurred her horse on with her voice, making herself as light as possible. She had to get close to Aragorn. She wished she could fly and reach him sooner. Never before had she felt the bond so tight and rewarding, and through her tears she laughed as she rode on. The stallion raced over the plain as if the earth itself was rolling under his thundering hoofs. Even though she would have to ride all night she knew she would not rest, and Asfaloth would carry her as long as needed. They both had to cover much ground before they would be content.
North of Osgiliath
Tarés gave a shout of both joy and distress as he forced himself through the last ranks defending the dying leader of the Easterlings. He had heard the king's clear voice announcing Harishdane´s defeat, but only a moment later he had collapsed right beside her, and Tarés feared that the Easterling had used a last foul trick to hurt his ruler. Not far from them, the Rohirrim had also assembled around their own fallen king, and the warrior felt the distinct dread that their victory had come at a high price.
The Easterlings looked around in dismay and hesitated. There was no one else to take over command immediately, for Lomarin had likewise fallen. And while they were still pondering and slowly realising their defeat, Tarés ran forth, pushing aside friends and foes alike to climb the rocks. He sheathed his sword and breathlessly prayed that the gods would not let him be too late.
And while around him the clamour of the battle slowly subsided, and Prince Faramir's voice rose to take over command, Tarés turned his ruler over onto his back. He sighed with relief when he found him still breathing, but the feeling died when he saw the king's bloodied neck. Cursing his own helplessness, Tarés took the ring of Barahir from the king's hand and put it back on Aragorn's index finger, then stowed away the chain in the pocket at his belt. Halamin came up to him, leaving his steed behind.
"By the Valar, is he alive?" he asked breathlessly.
The captain turned worriedly.
"He is, but barely so, as it seems to me."
Halamin knelt, and with a piece of cloth staunched the bleeding.
"We have to get him away from here," he muttered, looking up to where scattered fights were still going on.
"Aye, and quickly."
Again the prince shouted orders above the lasting skirmishes, and his captains joined him, passing on the commands. The dread on the faces of the Easterlings was obvious, and not all of them laid down their weapons willingly. Some had to be convinced by force, while others in the ranks further behind turned and fled. It was upon the Riders of Rohan to round up and disarm the defeated warriors, who grudgingly gave in to their fate since Faramir had ordered that their lives be spared.
"We can do nothing for him here," Tarés decided, and his expression told how much he blamed himself for having been unable to come to his ruler's aid sooner. With Halamin he lifted the king from the ground. A soldier who'd been called to aid held the horse's reins, and Tarés mounted with the king sitting in front of him. A hardly audible moan escaped Aragorn's lips, and his captain flinched compassionately when the king's head sagged against his shoulder. He hoped that among those garrisons which had already fought in Northern Ithilien, a healer would be present when he reached the base camp.
Ridasha could not believe the fate Úshemor had bestowed upon her. At the same time sobbing and laughing, she clung to Hilberon's waist, and tears streamed freely down her cheeks. She pressed her forehead against the backplate, and when the young Gondorian soldier craned his neck to look at her, she thanked him and wept even more. He gave a short nod and with his horse herded the enemy to the place Faramir had chosen.
Disarmed and uncertain of their fate, the Easterlings gathered, all dreading the final verdict of the Gondorian ruler. Some of them had witnessed Lomarin's death at the hands of Prince Faramir, while others shouted in dismay that the King of Gondor had slain their leader. Yells of accusation rang over the battlefield, but Prince Faramir kept his men from further retaliation by only ordering them to watch the enemies closely. Expecting another eruption of violence at any moment, perhaps led by one of the shape shifters, he needed his men to be alert.
Remounting, Faramir saw one of the Rohirrim marshals help his brother-in-law to his feet, while Aragorn was lifted onto the horse of his captain, and sudden anxiety cut through his relief over the won battle. It would be a price too high for their victory if Gondor's ruler had been killed for the safety and defence of his land. But he had no time to spare for grief. Without Éomer and his own king, it was his duty to take care of the captives and put an end to the fighting.
Tarés asked the soldiers he passed for a healer, but no one could tell him for certain whether there would be one present at the camp they had pitched south of the battlefield. The captain decided to take his ruler further, to the base camp at Osgiliath, and sent Hilberon, whom he had met along the way, to inform the prince, while Halamin and a few other soldiers of the Royal Guard accompanied Tarés.
Ridasha watched the unconscious king, who hung limply in Tarés' arms, with great worry. Elessar would have searched and dealt for another place to live on for her people. She was sure no one else would ever take on that effort on their behalf. If the King of Gondor died, the new leader would expel the Easterlings to Rhûn… and to their death. She would have wanted to stay at the king's side, but she was no healer, and Tarés would not allow it. Again the painful memory of Gishvané's death assaulted her. The high priestess would have known a solution; she would have helped the king. Now Ridasha could only watch as the steeds of Tarés and Halamin went in a fast trot back south.
Tarés looked back over his shoulder before he turned to Halamin.
"I did not see Dumarin. I expected him to be with us. Where is he?"
"Aye, I saw him," Halamin answered gloomily. "He fought three Easterlings at a time, and… he went down and was slain by one of them when he defended a wounded Rohirrim." His captain exhaled, and they rode on in silence for a long time. "It seems to me he sought such an ending."
"He kept his honour in battle," Tarés said grimly. "That is what shall be told about him."
Hilberon reported that King Elessar would be taken back to Osgiliath, and even while he spoke, Prince Faramir noticed Ridasha sitting behind the young soldier.
"I am glad the king is taken care of," he said, relieved. "Do you know about his condition?"
"He seemed to be badly wounded and was unconscious, my lord, so I cannot tell."
Faramir nodded grimly and faced the woman.
"You are the woman they call Ridasha?" She swallowed nervously. Close behind the prince some soldiers of her kin started accusing her in shék, and for the second time only the protection of the Gondorian soldiers saved her life. "You will help me to find those of your people, who can shift into those beasts," he ordered.
Together they rode along the ranks of Easterlings. They stared at her with hate, and she wanted to end this procedure as soon as possible. She could find only three of them, who were bound and taken aside, and finally admitted, "Either many of them have fallen or fled to avoid being defeated. I am sorry, but I cannot help you."
Faramir looked at her gravely before he exhaled and turned southward. Like many of his soldiers, he too was tired and wounded, but neglecting the threat those beasts represented could quickly prove fatal. Hilberon mimicked his movement and held Harolyan at the side of Faramir's steed, though it felt odd to be so close to yet another mighty commander of Gondor.
"Stay in the nearby camp," Faramir ordered at last. "You will have to talk to your people tomorrow. By then I will have decided what shall be done with them, since the king cannot make this decision at the moment." He gave Ridasha no time to react, but spurred his horse to reach the camp. When he dismounted, she slid out of the saddle behind Hilberon, and ran to the prince, quickly seizing his right hand with hers, stopping him.
"Don't send my people back to Rhûn! Please, I beg you! Do not sentence them to die of hunger and thirst!"
Faramir looked down upon her as she knelt before him, the bitter sweetness of victory mingling with regret.
"The offer to help you search for a new home was made on the condition of immediate surrender," he reminded her sternly and freed his hand. She looked up to him pleadingly, her eyes brimming with tears. "Yet I am not a man who revels in vanquishing his foes. I will not pass final judgement without consulting with King Elessar, yet your people will not be allowed to stay on Ithilien's soil."
"If you send them to Rhûn they will die!"
"Their choice was ill, and to grant them their lives is the utmost kindness I will bestow upon them." He turned away from her to enter his tent.
Weeping, Ridasha sat on the ground for a moment. When she finally turned, she noticed Hilberon standing wearily beside his horse. His face was contorted with pain, and only then did she realise that the right sleeve of her tunic was drenched in blood.
Faramir knew not what in the name of the Valar kept Éomer upright as he saw his brother-in-law approach his tent with the aid of one of his kinsmen. The Rohirrim King's face was smeared with dirt and blood; he was holding his right arm close to his body which indicated another injury, and the stiff way in which he limped toward him told of yet even more. His expression a mixture of concern and relief, the Prince of Ithilien stepped forth to greet his wife's brother.
"It is good to see you, Éomer, even if you do not look as if you should be here. You should have been loaded onto a horse or wagon and transported off to the base camp for treatment along with the other wounded men. Where is your healer?"
"Treating those who are more urgently in need of his help. I will live." Éomer cast a dark glance at their surroundings. He had experienced the aftermath of battle often enough, yet the cries and moans of the wounded soldiers as they were being tended to never failed to make his skin crawl. He could not yet tell how many of the men he had taken along would not return to Rohan with him.
"Shall I send for one of ours then?"
A dismissive gesture answered his question.
"I can wait, and there is still much to be done before I can head for Osgiliath. With Aragorn and Erkenbrand down, it will be on us and Elfhelm to bring order to this chaos." Sending his kinsman away with a few words, Éomer turned his attention fully to the other man. Faramir looked wretched - as did they all - but well enough considering what lay behind them. Briefly he came to a halt next to his relative and laid a hand on his shoulder in greeting. "I am relieved to see you as well, Faramir. Éowyn was beside herself with worry for you." A nod toward the tent. "Shall we go inside?"
Faramir understood. While Éomer was adamant to uphold the impression of strength for both his men and their foes, he was in desperate need of a respite. Laying a hand on the Rohirrim's back, the steward gently directed him into his tent, acknowledging with a curt nod the guard who opened the flap as they passed him. Only now that he was shielded from the eyes of others did Éomer give up his rigid bearing. His shoulders sagged as he stared for a moment unfocussed at the back of the tent, the faces of his injured friends and kinsmen passing in front of his inner eye. Faramir could not help noticing how pale the Rohan ruler looked underneath the dirt and blood that caked his frame, as the Rohirrim cautiously lowered himself onto a nearby chair, carefully outstretching his leg. With concern clouding his expression, Faramir opened a water-skin to wet a piece of cloth and passed it to his wife's brother, who accepted it gratefully.
"I heard strange tidings about a duel between you and Aragorn. Are they true?"
Nodding wearily, Éomer wiped the cloth over his face, for a moment relishing the cold. Yet the sensation of existential fatigue would not abate. He knew not for how much longer he would be able to stay focussed. Elfhelm had better come soon.
"It was some Easterling devilry. I cannot even tell yet whether it has ended with that witch's death, for the King's men have taken him southward, to the base camp." He broke off, momentarily losing his train of thought as he stared into nothing.
"I heard about that. But the soldier could tell me nothing about his injuries." Faramir's features darkened with concern. "Do you know more? What happened? Did you wound him?" When no answer came, he repeated his question, and furrows appeared on his brow. Éomer seemed leagues away in his mind, as his gaze slowly found its way back to his brother-in-law, and at length he recapitulated quietly what he had witnessed, without pretence of understanding. He frowned as his gaze returned to Faramir.
"I do not know what changed my fate, but his resistance seems to have exhausted him to his limits. He did not regain consciousness after he collapsed. I wished that I... I wished I had remained there with him. And Erkenbrand ... he... he... " Words failed Éomer, and his throat tightened as he ran a hand through his tangled, blood-matted hair, flinching at the stabbing pain behind his brow. His eyes filled with dread as he stared at Faramir. "I would be dead if it weren't for him. If he dies..."
"He won't. I am certain of that. Your sister told me many stories of the Mark's recent history, and Marshal Erkenbrand, from what I've been able to gather, played a great part in most of them. He is too stout a warrior to be subdued by foul Easterling trickery." Faramir's gaze became insistent. "But you, brother, look as if you should lie down immediately. And no matter what you say, I will call one of our healers to have a look at you."
"It is not necessary," The young king mumbled and shifted his attention to the sound of Elfhelm's voice from outside, unable to suppress the grimace at the sudden movement. Now that the rage of the battle was finally subsiding, his body was crying out over the abuse it had been forced to endure. There was no way to deny any longer that he felt as if one of their great herds had stampeded over him. For a moment, Éomer's vision blurred, but then stumbled into place as his marshal entered the tent.
"Sire… Lord Faramir…" With a curt bow, Elfhelm came to a halt in the middle, addressing both men at the same time, even though he was looking at his seated king. His keen eyes noticed at once how white Éomer's knuckles were as his fingers clenched the armrests of the chair. "I report that the hostile forces – or at least those who did not flee – have been rounded up and are under control. Also, scouts are on patrol to keep watch and see to it that none of those beasts return. It appears that the Easterling leader as well as her second-in-command were killed, so there is no one currently available to lead the negotiations on their side."
"There will be no need for negotiations before tomorrow," Faramir stated with a brief look at Éomer, waiting for objection from the wilful young man. Yet it seemed that the Rohirrim was hardly hearing them. "By tomorrow, I assume the captives will have organised themselves. Until then, we shall use that woman Aragorn used as consultant to communicate with them. Éomer?"
Again, his opposite was looking as if he were slowly waking from a dream, causing both the prince and the marshal to wrinkle their brows in concern.
"Aye… Aye. It shall be so." Fighting to keep his thoughts coherent even though he felt his strength waning and his vision caving in, Éomer turned to Elfhelm. "How great were our losses, Elfhelm?"
The marshal's face clouded.
"I cannot say yet, as there is still much confusion in the wake of the battle, and many men are being treated as we speak. So far, it would appear that we lost between sixty and seventy horses…" he saw Éomer flinch, "… and between seventy and eighty men." He swallowed. "I am sorry, my lord, I had hoped to have better tidings." He straightened. "Is there any word about King Elessar? I saw his men move him from the battlefield, but I did not see him in the lazaretts."
"King Elessar is on the way to the base camp at Osgiliath for treatment," Faramir reported grimly. "Apparently, he fell prey to some Easterling scheme, but I cannot give you any details as of yet."
"What about Erkenbrand?" Dread stood in Éomer's eyes as he asked the question. His marshal had still been unconscious and under their healer's care when he had left to oversee what had to be done in the aftermath of the battle.
"He, too, is on the way to Osgiliath," Elfhelm reported dutifully, but it seemed to Éomer as if his voice was coming to him from a great distance. "I know how it looked, but Tolgor is certain that his wounds are not life-threatening." When no answer came from his ruler, he stepped forth to come to a stand before the younger man, who again was staring into the distance with bloodshot eyes. After a quick exchange with Faramir, the marshal squatted down in front of his friend, laying a hand over the one with which Éomer was holding onto the armrest so desperately . He lowered his voice. "My lord, you should accompany him. I understand that there is much to think of to keep the situation under control, but I assure you that the Prince and I know how to handle it. There is nothing left to do here that we couldn't do for you… Éomer?" The distant brown eyes finally met his, but there was no one behind them. The next moment, the king sagged into his arms, unconscious. "Éomer!"
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