My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Twilight of the Gods: 8. Pride and Honour
The sun had turned into a deep red ball of fire on the western sky as its tired shape disappeared behind the White Mountains for the night, allowing the stars on the cloudless firmament to come out and show their splendour for the brief time that was given to them. Éomer stared at the scene from the window of his private chambers where he had spent the evening alone after a day filled with errands. A day of preparation for war. The first duty that had been waiting for him after he had left their bed-chamber in a fury, hardly able to get a grip on his white-hot, raging temper, had been to instruct the messengers Gamling had summoned to the throne room. They had been ready to head out to wherever he sent them, only waiting for his orders. After things had been set into motion, there had been other events to initiate, and suddenly, the day had gone by.
As he stood in the corridor, uncertain of what to do, Éomer heard steps nearing from the main hall, and the door opened upon his wife’s maid holding Lothíriel’s dinner tray in her hands. Their eyes met for brief moment, and the young woman, upon nodding her respect to the king, was already in the process of turning towards the door that led into the bedchamber, when Éomer called her.
“Maia? Wait.” He stepped up to her, not really knowing what he wanted. It had been an impulse, but as he closed the short distance between them, an idea began to form in his head. He would have to talk with Lothíriel again. He could not very well spend the night in his private chambers or the guest chamber and thereby admit to the rest of the court that he was afraid of encountering his wife after their quarrel! How would it look? And also he wanted to speak with her again! The feeling of being at odds with the gentlest, most compassionate woman he knew had been weighing down on him the entire day, and with everything else that was going on, Éomer felt that he needed at least his wife’s support. If only it were so easy to gain ...
“My lord?” The young woman from Dol Amroth looked at him uncertainly. Did she know about their quarrel? Had Lothíriel told her what had happened between them? But no, his wife would never do anything so indiscreet… would she? Still, Maia probably knew anyway. After all, their heated exchange had been loud, and his expression as he left, as well as the fact that he had not been back all day to personally check on his wife’s well-being, had spoken clearly enough. Still concerned, he had asked the healer and the woman that stood before him now how the queen was faring during the day, but not Lothíriel herself, his pride forbidding for him to come crawling back to her after what she had said to him.
He dismissed the thought as he eyed the contents of the tray – tea, bread, and some fruit, nothing fancy. No royal feast. Apparently, his wife was still not feeling well.
“Can I do anything for you, Sire?”
“Just proceed, Maia. Do not let the queen wait. She needs to get her strength back.”
The young woman looked at him uncertainly as Éomer opened the door for her. Quite clearly Lothíriel had instructed her that she wanted not to see him, but a lowly personal servant could not very well oppose the king. With a deep breath, he followed the maid into the twilit bedchamber.
His wife was asleep. There was a candle burning on the small table next to the bed, its warm light flickering and casting dancing patterns onto the walls, but Lothíriel did not stir when they entered. Unmoving, the long, wavy tresses spilled over her pillow, she lay on her side with her back to the door, looking so vulnerable that Éomer felt a twinge of guilt over having caused her such distress. Hands tucked into the pockets of his tunic, he waited for the servant to place the tray on the table and leave before he pulled up a chair and sat down in front of his sleeping wife. From the other side of the room, the sound of the closing door reached his ears, but he did not look up. Resting his elbows on his thighs, hands folded on his knees, he studied Lothíriel’s face… and felt another wave of guilt when he noticed the slight sparkle of moisture that ran from the one eye he could see down the side of her cheek. She had cried. Over him. After the horrible incident she had been through the night before, he had left her alone all day. It must have looked as if he no longer cared.
His mind was still wandering when Lothíriel stirred, woken by the pleasant smell of herbal tea which had drifted over to her from the table. For a moment, she just lay with open eyes, unmoving. Looking into the flickering candlelight with her thoughts unfocussed, she floated for a while through a vague feeling of sadness and despair... until she felt that she was not alone. Shifting her head just the slightest bit, she saw a chair standing at the side of her bed, and her husband sitting on it with a distant, pensive expression on his handsome features. There was no trace left of the fury he had been in when he had stormed out of their room this morning, nor anger over what she had told him. If anything, he appeared… sad, and almost as lost as she felt herself.
While Lothíriel‘s gaze lingered on him in an attempt to read his thoughts, Éomer suddenly woke from his reverie, and their eyes met. It was an awkward moment, and for a while, they remained silent, unsure of what to say. It was the king who finally began, his voice low, hesitant. Insecure. She had never heard him like that.
“I hope I did not wake you.” She let him know that it wasn’t so with a glance, and Éomer took another deep breath. “Lothíriel…” He fought for words and would have much preferred a real battle against an entire host of orcs to this. Apologising had never been something he had been particularly good at, and yet, there was the strong urge to come to terms with his beautiful south-Gondorian wife. They had to find a common ground in this matter, it would not do for him just to have his will done and not care whether his wife felt the same about it. Which she was not doing, as he knew all too well. He did not want her to look at him for the rest of his life as if he were some lowly orc. A slaughterer.
‘The slaughterers shall be slaughtered...’ A shudder ran through his spine, and it took a considerable effort to shun the memory of the cold, cruel voice that had come from Lothíriel’s mouth during her trance. He still knew not what to make of her claim of having had a vision of Rohan’s downfall, but a solution to their situation was needed, and so this had to be done. Still, beginning was never easy. He stared at his hands.
“Lothíriel… I am sorry. I should not have left you like this. I should not have shouted at you…” He lifted his eyes. “But you infuriated me. And you insulted me. When you insinuated that I would place my own honour above the well-being of our people, I was –“ he shook his head helplessly, not knowing how to continue.
“Ssshhh…” Her hand reached out to touch his knee, and he grasped it with both hands, where it completely disappeared. She was so delicate... so frail. A small, forgiving smile formed on her lips. “Éomer... I know. It was wrong of me to say that, all the more since I know that it is not true. I know how much you care about our people. I know how much thought goes into each decision that you make. I can see that in the deep respect and love of the people that come to you. You are being a good king to them, and I know you would tear yourself in two for their well-being. They all know that. I am sorry.”
Deep sincerity and honesty shone in her features as Lothíriel sat up, and before Éomer knew what he was doing, he had shifted his weight from the chair to the edge of the bed and met her with open arms, the feeling of relief so great, it left him speechless. For a while, they just held each other, revelling in the unexpected feeling of forgiveness... and searching for the right words to continue their talk without destroying the delicate balance they had reached. Stroking the back of his head and running her fingers through his hair as he did with hers, Lothíriel continued.
“What I said was wrong, yet I had to make you understand what this matter means to me. How important it is. When you spoke about losing face, it sounded as if all you cared about in this situation was your honour, and it shocked me. Because how can honour be more important than peoples’ lives?”
He pulled back, the dark eyes searching hers and holding them captive with their intensity, and Lothíriel understood that what he was about to unveil was of the utmost importance to him.
“Honour is everything, Lothíriel, at least in Rohan... although I cannot believe that it would be different in Gondor.” His fingers played with the silken straps of her spring-green night-gown while he stared over her shoulder into the flickering candlelight, attempting to collect himself. Bits and pieces from many discussions he had led with his father and his friend and mentor Elfhelm regarding that issue raced through his head. What he knew about honour he had been taught by those men.
“Honour... is something none can take from you but yourself. At the end of the day, you must be able to look at your deeds and not be disgusted by them. We Rohirrim do not write books. We only remember people for their deeds, good or evil. Brave or cowardly. The people of the Mark do not care for riches, but they care for honour. For purity. It is every man’s aim in life to have his memory preserved by those who come after him... and be it peasant or king, none wants his name being spoken only with disdain or even avoided altogether. That fate would be worse than death.”
He fell silent, and she did not cut in, granting him the time to bring order to his thoughts which she knew came from the bottom of his heart. She leant back into her pillows, freeing herself of his embrace but holding on to his hand. If she had learned one thing in her first year as Queen of the Mark, it was that the Rohirrim men rarely offered others a glance into their innermost thoughts. Stoic and stern, they preferred to keep them inside, locked away for none to know, letting only their deeds speak for them. But now Éomer, who was without doubt equipped with the same characteristics and had been brought up to believe in them, was in the process of laying open a piece of his soul to her, an incredible act of trust she truly acknowledged and cherished. There was pride in his eyes as he spoke, a deep honesty that moved her - and yet, some undercurrent ran beneath these notions, too, something she could not lay her finger on until he continued with a deep breath.
“Lothíriel... I am a descendant of the most respected bloodline Rohan has to offer, and the greatest king the Mark has ever had is my ancestor. It is a great honour, and yet the mighty shadow of Eorl the Young can also be intimidating at times, as it brings with it obligations that are not easily fulfilled. People trust in my house, and their belief is a great compliment, but at the same time, it is also a heavy burden to bear, as their respect comes with great pressure and responsibility. With great expectations that are difficult to meet. For me, it has never been sufficient just to do well. My father taught me that from a very early age on. He was a great man and I loved him dearly, but he was always strict with me and did not easily forgive mistakes. It was the greatest of my joys whenever I was able to meet his expectations and receive praise, but those were rare occasions. Whereas whenever I failed him, which was more often the case than not, his disappointment would hurt deeper than any wound a sword could have inflicted.”
His gaze directed at the window from where the darkening sky could be seen, Éomer let the images of his youth wander through mind, his lips a drawn, thin line. The memory was both good and hard. He remembered his father’s stern, commanding voice as he taught him swordplay and the art of riding. On every single occasion where Éomund himself had been able to give him a lesson, Éomer had been determined to give it his best to please the great marshal, to receive a smile, or praise, but it had seemed to him at the time that he had met his father’s demands only rarely. He had been striving for improvement so obsessively and thought himself to be an utter failure for such a long time, that it had come as the greatest surprise to him when the Lord of Eastfold had taken him aside one evening when Éowyn had already been sleeping to explain himself to his bitterly disheartened son. To tell him how proud he was of his skills and his determination of becoming even better. Of his pride to not ever be content with being second-best, and of his fierce will to prove his worth to his father even though his father was making it so hard on him. Éomund had finally admitted that he had been particularly hard on him in order to form Éomer’s will and turn him into a true warrior, who would not yield or be put down before he had reached his aim. He had ruffled Éomer’s hair and finally taken him in an embrace that had made the young lad fear he would come out of it with cracked ribs, but the feeling of utter joy that had raced through him in those moments was one of his most treasured childhood memories. Three days later, Éomund of Aldburg had left for his ill-fated last ride.
Woken from his reverie by the sound of shouting from outside, Éomer found Lothíriel still waiting for him to continue with an expression on her face that told him she understood just how much the memory of his father’s satisfaction meant to her husband. How moved she was by his confession. He collected himself, bothered to have strayed into daydreaming, and their eyes met again as she silently squeezed his hand in affection.
“He would be proud to see what you have become, Éomer. I am certain that your father is looking down on you with a glad heart.”
Her injection earned her a thankful, yet distant smile. He had not yet fully returned to the world of ‘now’ from his childhood memories when she added, almost reluctantly as if she was uncertain whether it was the right thing to say at this moment:
“You miss him greatly, don’t you?”
His attention returned to her, yet there was wariness in his pensive features as he regarded her silently, as if he knew where she was about to steer him with this sentence.
“We never had enough time together. The Marshal of the Eastmark was always required to be someplace else than home. On patrol. At Edoras. Representing, or away with his éored, strengthening other troops in battle. We rarely saw him, and he was taken too early from us. It broke my mother’s heart, and it nearly broke Éowyn’s.”
She nodded and stared at their entwined hands.
“And yours, too, even if you will not admit it, because you think it would make you appear weak. I hear it in your words.” She looked up, sudden conviction in her deep brown eyes. “Éomer, as personal as this tragedy was for you, you were by no means the only children whose parents were taken from them by violence… isn’t it so?”
Yes, he definitely knew where she was going with this, and he had no defence against her arguments, not in this case, because the loss was still hurting whenever he let it near even after 19 years. She hated herself for having to remind him of his pain, but there was no way around it. She lowered her voice to a compassionate whisper.
“Would it not be the most wonderful thing if we could spare future generations from having to experience the same? Like your own child… Éomer, imagine what it would be like for him having to lose you! And how would it be for you if you were to share your father’s fate, never seeing your family because of the never-ending skirmishes you’d have to ride into, never sure whether you would return. You are holding the future of our children, and that of all children, be they of Rohirrim or Dunlandish descent - in your hands right now. What you decide will determine how their lives will be led – in more misery, or in peaceful times the older generations have never known. Even if you do not believe in visions and prophecies… you should do it for the greater good of our people. Do you not see the opportunity?”
“It may be there, aye,” he admitted reluctantly, seeing the images she was evoking all too clearly in front of his inner eye. He had to avoid his wife’s gaze for the images hurt too much, and he wanted not to show her how deeply they were touching him. Breathing in and out for a moment, he stared unfocused over to the window beyond which the world now lay in darkness. “I see your point, make no mistake about that. Do you not think that I would want a lasting peace for our country more than anything in the world, Lothíriel?” He turned around. “Do you not believe that I, too, am sick of the bloodshed and loss? But people – not only my own - do not expect that of me. When they think of me, they see the fierce, intimidating Third Marshal of Riddermark, the man who would hunt down all enemies of the Mark one by one until there was none left. They think of me as a man who loves the battle for itself. Yet I do not love the arrow for its swiftness, or the sword for its sharpness… I only love what they defend.” He fell silent again, and she remained mute, deeply touched by his unexpected confessions. It seemed there were depths to this man, this presumably straight-forward Rohirrim, that neither she – nor the people of Rohan themselves - had even begun to fathom yet.
He cut her off, with a sudden urgency to his voice that told her just how much he believed in his words, how much they meant to him.
“You must understand one thing about me, Lothíriel: As an heir of Eorl, I have to be the best at everything that I do. The strongest. The bravest. I cannot afford to hesitate or show weakness. I am not free in my decisions because of people’s expectations. Because I know what they expect from me. I cannot allow myself to fail at anything that I do, and I cannot afford to be doubtful, for they would not understand. They gain the courage to stand tall in the face of danger from me. My deeds are the source of their resistance to the bitter times the Mark is facing, so I have to make each of them count. The Mark needs a leader with strong opinions and the will and determination to see to their fulfilment. … and it is even more important to remember in this case, where failure will mean the downfall of the entire kingdom… and the extinction of our people.”
Never had there been more seriousness or conviction in his face. They were at the core of things, at the heart of the conflict they had to solve. He had granted her admittance to a part of his soul, and now it was on her to use the gift with the greatest wisdom.
“I know this, Éomer.” She lifted her gaze from their still-entwined hands to his face. “I know what pressure lasts on your shoulders. It is why I want so much to help you to avoid failure. I see the path that has to be walked clearly in front of me, and yet I harbour no doubts that it will probably be the most difficult one you ever have to take, all the more since you will be walking it alone for most of the way. It will be rocky, it will be treacherous, and it will be an uphill climb.” She paused, and – if possible- her gaze even intensified when she continued. “But I also know one thing: If one man can walk it, it must be you. It requires a man with a strong will. A man who is not intimidated by the prospects of having to oppose the will of his people for their greater good, because they do not see the way.” She inhaled. “Know though that I will stand firmly by your side if you choose that road. You will not be alone.”
The brown of his eyes deepened as they filled with wary dread, and his fingers tightened painfully around her hand. He feared what she would say, and yet found himself foolishly hoping that he was wrong as he almost whispered:
“Tell me about that path, Lothíriel.”
She closed her eyes to collect herself for a second. The moment of truth had arrived. Either he would outright reject her idea and shout and storm out of the room like before, and this time probably for good, or he would heed her advice. Which it would be she could not tell as she inhaled deeply and spoke.
“To reach a good end for the Mark as well as our neighbours, you must pursue a course of peace. You must offer them land in the Mark, Éomer.” The deep brown eyes widened slightly, and in them Lothíriel saw his temper flare up again, but he fought it and remained silent. He fought against his very nature, even though it was likely that it was the hardest task ever appointed to him. When he finally spoke, it was low, but with utter conviction in his voice.
“I cannot do this, Lothíriel. It would be utter madness…” Slowly, deliberately, he shook his head, churning anxiety threatening to overwhelm him in the wake of his wife’s suggestion. He felt the strong urge to jump to his feet. He stayed seated. He had sworn to remain calm. Reasonable. Somehow, they had to get through this. Somehow, they had to solve this. Letting go of her fingers, he wrung his hands. “Try to understand: The situation is hard as it is, and we can just barely control it now, it would seem, because we have the Isen to separate them from us. We have a border we can protect, and we can shut them out. But once they are within our land… we will vanquish all control. Once they’re inside, there is no telling what they will do.”
“My idea bears great risk, I agree,” she replied, understanding his anxiety and yet having to overcome it. “Don’t believe that I don’t see that. But do not all great opportunities come with great risk? Aren’t the incidents where much was won those where much could have been lost just as easily?” He remained silent. “Éomer, this war against the people of Dunland is as old as the Mark itself. It cannot be solved without putting ourselves at risk. Let them come into the Mark! Give them the opportunity to work on the fields, be it on those of the Westfold’s settlements or their own in a territory you grant them. It is not only because satisfied, well-fed people will no longer have reason for violence, Rohan also needs their ability to work! We need their strong hands! On numerous occasions you said how little of the fields could be cultivated for lack of strong workers, because the war took so many of them away from us. Our own people are starving because there are not enough hands left to do the necessary work. The people of Dunland and Rohan, they need each other, Éomer. If we can overcome our hatred for each other, then both will be healed... and being the one who initiated this historic peace – against the apprehension of all – wouldn’t it be a deed worthy of Eorl the Young?”
He thought about it. Tasted her words, the implications. And found himself strangely amused all of a sudden. Valar, his emotional, soft-spoken south-Gondorian flower had – in the course of just one day – become a politician as shrewd as he had ever met. A sour smile tugged at his lips as he folded his hands on his lap.
“You are just as manipulative as the Lord of Westfold, Lothíriel. You both want to play me to your wishes. Erkenbrand thinks he can force his will on me by telling me things in a certain order, by keeping the worst for last, as if I would not see what he intends by doing that. He deems himself the shrewdest man who ever lived. He thinks I cannot see through his little ploy.” Suddenly dropping the smile, Éomer shook his head. “And now you assume that you can bend me to your will by telling me how much achieving the impossible would mean for my own honour? I thought we had settled this question. Honour means a lot, but it is not everything.”
“That was not my intention. You know that.”
“Have you ever met a Dunlending, Lothíriel?” Éomer met her gaze unflinchingly. There was anger involved, but it was more directed at himself for seemingly being unable to convey the situation to her. His wife simply knew not what she was talking of, and somehow, he had to make her see the enormity of what she was asking of him. So his voice remained calm, but the intensity in it could not be missed. “Apart from Elfhelm’s scout, who is more Rohirrim than Dunlending in character, and apart from that small delegation that asked us for help in the winter and thus were very well-behaved, have you ever met a true Dunlending who was about to take what he wanted without asking for it?” He shook his head. “No, you haven’t, and how should you? You cannot know about their ferocity when they come at you with their wooden clubs and pitchforks! You have never seen them close in a circle around a separated and wounded Rohirrim like a pack of wolves to beat him to death, even when he is already down! They don’t show mercy on their enemies, and they certainly do not deserve yours.”
“Yet something needs to change in the manner with which both our peoples treat each other, or both will fade to nothingness,” she replied, not backing down, and yet pleasantly surprised over the new quality of their argument. There was no shouting, no accusations. It was a civilised exchange of two concerned minds, and Éomer was hearing her out. She could not help thinking back to Éowyn’s advice to speak her mind even in matters of delicacy. How right her cousin’s wife had been! “The past must be put behind, it must be forgotten. Nothing will ever be achieved if ancient accusations are repeated and renewed for all eternity.”
Now his expression hardened, and a shadow fell on his face, telling her that they were getting to the core of it all. Again his tone was intense, but low.
“That is easier said than done, my lady. We did not rape their women. We did not ambush them in the most cowardly manner. Whenever we did battle, we came at them openly.”
“Because you always had the luxury of being the stronger ones, my lord. You were coming at them on horseback, equipped with armour, lances and blades of shining steel, against which they had but stones and clubs to match. You would have done the same had you been in their position, rather than fighting honourably and running into certain death. And the rapes...” She inhaled deeply. A deed like that could not be excused. Yet still she understood where it had come from. “Raping is about domination. You were the stronger ones in the conflicts, so whenever they had the possibility to humiliate your people, they seized it. Which of course excuses it not.”
He gave her a reluctant nod, surprised by Lothíriel’s unexpected insights. How could it be that she knew so much about warfare and their quarrel? Did they teach such things to princesses at Dol Amroth?
“That may be as you say, but the fact is that their latest attack was unprovoked. It cannot be rewarded with a peace-offering, no matter how right you may be in certain aspects. It would be the wrong signal not only to them, but to all our foes, too. If words spread of the Rohirrim no longer defending what is ours, we may soon face a host of enemies we are not ready for. Why can you not see this, Lothíriel? Do you think I would enjoy the act of eradicating an entire people? Do you think I would pass that verdict lightly?”
“No, I would not. However, if you asked other Gondorians, you would hear different opinions. In some parts of the land, people believe the Rohirrim to be a warrior-race that knows no other way of living – and would not care for it, either. Now I happen to know that neither your people nor their ruler is cruel. I know that whenever you engage in battle, it is out of necessity, not bloodlust. Yet if you follow Marshal Erkenbrand’s demand, it is inevitable that other people, and your allies, too, will question their way of seeing you. They may come to regard the Rohirrim as a ruthless people of war-mongers, a people to shun and not associate with, and that cannot be in your best interest, now can it, my lord?” Lothíriel could hardly believe what she was saying, but even more incredible was that Éomer made no attempt at interrupting her. “Finally, the last thing that has to be taken into consideration is the question of your own honour. What would it mean if you slaughtered innocent women and children? Wouldn’t it be lost forever as well, stained with murder? How could you still hold on to it and not despise your face in the mirror for all time to come?”
She received no answer. Éomer’s expression was overcast now, a deep shadow lying on it. She could tell that this was the weak spot she had to pry her hands into, because it was obvious that he was dreading the prospects as well. He was a good man, not a slaughterer. How much she wanted to take his hands into hers and lead him onto the right path, if only he’d let her! She hated what she had to do next, but there was no way around it. She had to evoke the images in his mind, for he was still denying them. They were but words to him now. They had to become alive!
“Could you even do it, I’m asking you, Éomer-King? Ride them down and stick your blade into their flesh despite their desperate pleas and their crying? It would make you no better than an orc! Could you do it, Éomer? Could you ride down a frightened child or a pregnant woman and cut off her head? Could you invade their villages and burst into their huts and slaughter everyone inside? Could you pull scared, crying children out from underneath their beds and put them to the sword? Because that is what you would have to do. This is what the term ‘eradication’ means! Could you do it, Éomer? Please, tell me that you could not!”
He did not evade her pleading eyes, and in them, beneath the frustration and suppressed anger and concern, Lothíriel saw the answer to her question, and it came as a relief too great to be put into words. No. He could not. Perhaps he had deemed himself able to do it, or perhaps he even wanted to be able to do it, but the overlying fact was that it was not in him, and that epiphany hit Prince Imrahil’s daughter with liberating force. Yet she saw also the struggle in Éomer’s face, and the one question he used as reply knocked the wind out of her, even if it told her at the same time that her battle was already almost won.
“What if we find proof of them slaughtering our men?”
She knew not what to say. It was his way of admitting that he was agreeing to try her approach for now. That she might not have succeeded in convincing him, but for the time being, she had persuaded him. It was enough for the moment.
“It cannot be. I feel it in my heart that it cannot be.”
“But what if it is?”
They stared at each other, none wanting to think about the possibility. What she had to know was written all over his face.
“I will not be able to stop you then, will I?”
Éomer shook his head slowly. And very deliberately.
“If it is true, then even I would not be able to deny our people revenge… even if I wanted to.”
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