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Another Man's Son: 8. Next Of Kin
(note: this is set between III 3019 March 19th and March 25th, probably toward the later end of that.)
The ride towards Mordor oppressed the spirits as much when one was asleep as it did when one was awake. Aragorn was sitting quietly beside the fire, keeping his own personal watch even though the camp was well-guarded. He held Anduril, turning it by the hilt and watching the fire reflecting off the blade. Nightmares were rampant among the men, and not only the simple men but their lords as well. A little to his left he could hear Eomer tossing and turning, when he had been deeply asleep a few moments before by the sound of his breathing. Aragorn turned his head slightly to listen as Eomer made a soft whimpering noise. He should wake him, he thought.
He set Anduril down and moved quietly to Eomer's side. A rustle behind him made him turn his head; Imrahil had sat up. "What is it?" Imrahil asked.
Aragorn shook his head and put his finger to his lips. "Nightmare," he whispered, and knelt beside Eomer. He put his hand on Eomer's shoulder and the young man sat bolt upright with a cry: "Papa!"
His eyes and mouth were wide with horror. Aragorn moved closer and embraced him comfortingly, and Eomer clutched at him as though drowning. "Papa," he whispered, and Aragorn could feel how hard he was shivering. By the ragged sound of his breathing he had begun to weep.
"It is just a nightmare," Aragorn said softly, smoothing his hand comfortingly across Eomer's broad back. The man's shirt was soaked in sweat, and he was still trembling. "We are all having nightmares."
"No," Eomer whispered, shaking his head. He had his forehead pressed against Aragorn's shoulder as though it could protect him, and his fingers were still twined in Aragorn's shirt. "No, it happened. I saw him. It was real." He sobbed quietly, and then pressed his face harder against Aragorn, trying to compose himself. He took a deep shuddering breath. "When they brought him back to us he had been dead two days. Orcs had killed him. Crushed his chest, broke the bones in his face. There was blood in his teeth and I could see the broken bones protruding from his breastplate." He shuddered again.
"Hush," Aragorn said. He had known Eomund. He had known him as a boy, a bright and sharp-witted boy, full of the joy of life and excited about everything a young captain could teach him. He had been an apt pupil, and had proved an able captain himself. Aragorn had heard of his death, had known he would die this way, but to hear of it this way distressed him.
"It was real," Eomer insisted, the tears distorting his normally clear voice. "I was there. I helped wash the body. I wrapped the bandages around his face. He was cold. I couldn't weep. And now I dream of him all the time."
"It is this place," Aragorn said, finding that his voice was unexpectedly thick. He could see the tableau vividly, the little boy wrapping the bandages around his father's body, because he had watched it-- had watched Eomund, then a small boy, help to prepare his dead father's body for burial. And he had known it would happen again.
"It was real," Eomer whispered. His shivering had subsided. "It is not this place. I have dreamed of him in Aldburg, in Edoras, at Helm's Deep, in the Wold, on the Pelennor, in the Firien wood, at Dunharrow, in Minas Tirith."
"Hush," Aragorn said again, putting his hand on the back of Eomer's head, stroking his hair gently. He closed his eyes and remembered holding Eomund this way, comforting him as his father hemorrhaged slowly but inexorably in the next room. "Eomer, it is all right."
"I cannot forget," Eomer whispered. "But I cannot remember him as he was. I cannot remember his face whole. I do not remember what he sounded like when he spoke. I do not remember him. It is all gone. All I can remember is his broken face and the blood in his teeth."
For a long moment Aragorn was incapable of speech. Eomer's fingers tightened in his shirt, and then finally loosened.
"I remember him," Aragorn said finally. "I remember him as a little boy."
Eomer released his shirt and sat back, wiping his face. "You do?" he said, looking at Aragorn with a strange mixture of astonishment and something like hunger.
Aragorn nodded. "He was almost a year old when I met him. He had just learned to walk. He and I learned Rohirric together."
Eomer rubbed at his face with the edge of his blanket. "I didn't-- Why were you in Rohan?"
"I told you when I met you that I had been there before, in other guise," Aragorn said softly, smiling a little. "I served in the East Emnet, protecting the Wold from Orc incursions, for eleven years, under the command of King Thengel. I rode with your grandfather, Eothain, and with King Theoden when he was first a warrior."
Eomer regarded him with naked astonishment. "I did not realize," he said. His eyebrows drew together. "My father never mentioned you."
"He did," Aragorn said. "He spoke of me often, I am told. My name then was Thorongil."
Eomer's eyebrows shot up. "Thorongil," he said, and shook his head slightly, open-mouthed. "You were Thorongil. Yes. He spoke of you all the time. Thorongil the captain. Thorongil the swordsman. That was you?"
Aragorn put his finger to his lips. "Yes," he said. "I was the Captain of the First Company of the Eastfold." He smiled. "Your father called me Fonga until he learned to say his th's and r's properly. It did take him a while, as I recall."
Eomer shook his head wonderingly. "How old are you? I had thought you to be forty at the most."
Aragorn shook his head with a small smile. "Double that, and then some," he said. "I used to give your father horsey rides, on my hands and knees on the floor of the long hall at Aldburg. He was the first child of Men I ever had to mind."
Eomer laughed with quiet delight, his teeth flashing in the firelight. He looked so much like Eomund that it hurt Aragorn sharply. "He did the same for us. I remember him doing it for Eowyn, and she would pull his hair mercilessly." His face suddenly sobered. "She remembers it but thinks it was Theodred. But she was too big already by the time Theodred had the care of us." He looked at Aragorn, and the shadows were deep under his brows and cheekbones. "Eowyn doesn't remember him."
"You look just like him," Aragorn said quietly. "He was a little shorter than you are, when I saw him last, as a captain of twenty. And he spoke like an Eastfolder. But he laughed like you. I knew before you spoke that you were his son, because he glowered like you too."
Eomer laughed a little shyly, pleased. "I thank you for telling me," he said. His expression changed abruptly to one of slight annoyance. "Why didn't you say so when we first met? I would not have taken so long to help you!"
Aragorn shook his head. "I could not," he said. "I still cannot openly claim that name. I would not have told you even now, but I thought you needed to hear it."
Eomer nodded slowly, and looked down at his hands. "Thank you," he said.
Aragorn reached out and clasped his shoulder, giving him a gentle shake. "He would be proud of you," he said softly. Eomer pressed his lips together, his eyes gleaming with sudden tears. Aragorn got to his feet, leaning a little on Eomer's shoulder. "You should get some sleep. Tomorrow will be long."
Eomer gazed up at him a moment. Finally he took a deep breath and nodded. "Yes," he said. "Of course. Good night... Fonga." He gave Aragorn one of Eomund's sudden mischevious grins, and Aragorn laughed softly as he turned away and walked back to his place beside the fire.
"Tell me of Thorongil," Eomer said suddenly. Imrahil jumped and turned in the saddle. For such a massive horse, Firefoot moved quietly, rather like his master.
Imrahil looked toward the head of the column. Aragorn was riding some distance away, brooding, with Gandalf close beside him. Imrahil looked back at Eomer, who was regarding him with no small intensity. He had his helmet on, and looked grim and fell. "Thorongil," Imrahil said quietly, looking down and adjusting his grip on the reins. He sighed. "Thorongil was a captain in Rohan for eleven years. He came to Gondor with a letter of introduction from Thengel, and presented himself to the steward Ecthelion. My father was newly ascended to the princedom of Dol Amroth then. I was a boy in my teens."
Eomer shook his head. "I cannot see it," he said. "I cannot see how he is so old."
"He is of a long-lived race," Imrahil said.
Eomer shook his head again. "He is older than Theoden," he said.
"Theoden was old before his time," Imrahil reminded him. "In Elessar the blood of Elendil runs true. He hardly looks older than he did when I knew him as Thorongil."
"You remember him," Eomer said.
"Yes," Imrahil said, chewing absently on the inside of his lip. "Yes, I do. And I am not the only one who does." He shook his head. "When I think of all the speculation then." He stopped himself. "He was right not to declare himself then. He presented himself as a mercenary, and no more. It was not unknown in those days. Many mercenaries came out of the north. He was a gifted captain, certainly. Men loved him." He glanced at Eomer.
The younger man's face was difficult to read behind the nose and cheek pieces of his helmet. His lips pulled slightly to one side, and he gazed at Aragorn's back. "He still is," he said. "He inspires loyalty. He didn't have to tell me of my father to keep me behind him."
"No," Imrahil said. "And that is not why he did."
Eomer glanced at him, and his eyes were a bright blue in the dim light. "No," he said. "It isn't."
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