4. At the Morannon
Prince Imrahil observed Éomer as the young king circled the campsites talking with his men. His cheerful, determined manner appeared to infuse them with courage. Éomer manifested no outward sign of his awareness of the dire circumstance, except that he did not settle in one place.
The smoky grime-filled air burned Imrahil's eyes, causing a heavy congested feeling in his chest, and left a bitter metallic taste at the back of his throat. He could hear wolves howling in the distance and rustlings outside the periphery of the camp of unseen evil things. Among the quiet campsites of the host, the only ones that still gave off the sounds of muffled conversations and occasional soft laughter were those of his own Rohirrim warriors and of the Swan Knights of Dol Amroth.
Imrahil noted how Éomer greeted every rider as a friend and brother, and saw how the sight of their king moving among them comforted all. His easy comradeship, rather than reducing his kingly stature in any way, increased his nobility in the eyes of his troops. This young man is not only a fierce warrior, Imrahil thought, but a magnetic leader and has the potential to be a wise king. Would that our world survives tomorrow to see that promise accomplished.
Éomer ambled toward a fire where the sons of Imrahil were resting. Greeting Prince Imrahil in passing, he squatted near Prince Elphir, the Dol Amroth heir, and his brothers. Éomer shook his head and gestured that he did not wish to interrupt, when the young men made moves to rise to welcome him.
Éomer glanced at Amrothos, Imrahil's youngest son. He had a look about him that was almost Elvish in grace and demeanor. Perhaps the legends of the ancestry of the line of the princes of Dol Amroth had some truth in them. Éomer was struck that Amrothos appeared too slender, boyish and fair for his role in tomorrow's confrontation. But he had seen him on the Pelennor Fields and knew he was not only older than he looked, but a fully trained and blooded Swan Knight. Amrothos smiled charmingly, unselfconsciously in recognition of Éomer and continued with the story he had been telling.
"Then, after we finished dancing, I guided her out of the doorway and onto the terrace. But when I tried to kiss her, she pushed me away from her with both hands, squealing like a stuck pig."
"And, when, little brother, in your limited and citified experiences, have you heard such a pig squeal?" Elphir laughed.
"You should follow father's advice. Stay away from young noblewomen, unless you have serious intentions," Erchirion added intolerantly, clearly making a point he had made countless times before. "She will either react as your young lady did, or worse yet, if she have her wits about her, you may find her father approaching ours the following day demanding you make an honest woman of his not-so-fair daughter."
"I only approach the ones who are fair of form and face, brother. I have not your taste for courtesans or discreet women, as you name them, who are old enough to be my mother," Amrothos answered.
"Such refinement, Amrothos. Courtesan is an elegant name indeed for the majority of our dear brother's regular female companions," chuckled Elphir.
"I object to your 'old enough to be my mother' portrayal. Since when did women in Dol Amroth start bearing children at eight or ten years of age?" Erchirion grumbled.
"What about you, Elphir? You pursued and won the heart of an aristocratic woman without resorting to bored old wives or, if the word courtesan is too refined for your taste, paying whores for comfort?" demanded Amrothos.
"I must insist that the two of you keep my esteemed wife out of your barracks room' twaddle," Elphir said with a pretense of superciliousness, giving Éomer a droll wink. "However, in her defense, I must admit that she certainly did not squeal like a farm animal when I first touched her. I recall the sound she made was more of a low charming moan of pure rapture." At that all three of the young Dol Amroth princes laughed at their own nonsense. Éomer quietly rose, gave them a small nod, and, walking off a short piece, lowered himself to sit cross-legged next to Prince Imrahil.
"My sons are actually less shallow, young or capricious than they sound at times like this. But I am sure you have heard this talk often enough and rougher," Imrahil said. "It is the universal method soldiers use to stave off fear and thoughts of death the night before a battle."
"I will admit that such talk sounds less rough in Elvish words than it does in Rohirric," Éomer answered lightly.
Imrahil laughed, "I was not thinking of the tongue, or even skill in its use, but of the fact that my sons' joking is tempered by the fact that their father is listening. I was much the same at their age, but have made it a point not to engage in such banter with them. A man has to hold onto some dignity at my age."
"I cannot pretend to age or dignity, but I have to admit that unexpected responsibility and loss seems to have had a recent chilling effect on my humor," Éomer answered, sounding tired. "When I walked among my men just now, their talk was much like that of your sons, but, as you correctly noted, rougher—horses are always a welcome distraction for the Rohirrim—not in the same context, mind you," he chuckled dryly. "They boast of the prowess of their horses and exchange bawdy jokes about women. But I heard no words of loved ones left behind or mortality. Those subjects are too close to the dread they seek to push back."
"In such circumstances, my escape would be to mull over and argue strategy," Imrahil said. "But unfortunately that as well is unavailable as a topic tonight."
"True," Éomer replied. "You put it well in our last debate in Minas Tirith. We are like children threatening a mail-clad knight with a bow of string and green willow."
"Yes. As Mithrandir pointed out, we cannot win victory by arms, but in taking up arms again we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though that may be," Imrahil said.
After several minutes of silence, Imrahil spoke again, "It is a necessary gamble, but the stakes are too high. Success tomorrow would give life to our longest held dreams but the result of defeat would be unthinkable. I like to drink, but have never been much of a gambler," Imrahil sighed.
The scent of pipe-weed grew closer, discernable to the two men even on this heavy air. They stood and greeted Aragorn wordlessly, clasping his hand and slapping him on the shoulder in turn. Aragorn settled himself down with them, drew calmly on his pipe, and replied quietly, "I am sorry, Imrahil, my friend. I can offer nothing that will improve our odds on the morrow, but I can provide a drink--compliments of Elrohir and Elladan. I think it will satisfy even your discerning taste."
"I am most grateful, my lord," Imrahil answered, and, raising his voice slightly, asked. "Amrothos, please, can you find three cups for us?"
Éomer appreciatively took the cup that was offered. He stifled the urge to ask how the sons of Elrond had agreed to part with this rare vintage, without at least insisting upon sharing it, when he realized that they doubtless had not the stomach for it on this night. Then, so softly did the sound drift in the windless air that at first he thought he had imagined it, he heard two voices singing of the creation of the stars. Looking in the direction of the music, he saw, illuminated in faint firelight, the tall form, strong and relentless, of the Elf Legolas. With the reflection on his light hair and pale visage, he appeared as luminescent as one of those High Elves of ancient legends, staring off into the darkness seeking the source of the melody as well.
"My brothers," Aragorn said, his expression impassive, "usually so lustful for life and eager in war, revert to their pensive Elvish side tonight."
"I am sorry there are no stars for them here," Éomer, having learned something of Elvenkind in these past weeks, said sympathetically.
The three men, calm and resolute, touched their cups and were content to wait out this night together in silent trust.
When he finally stretched out on the unyielding ground, Éomer allowed himself to think of her. In his imagination, she was a light to counter his personal darkness. Thoughts of her delicate fragrance, the feel, through all those layers of cloth, of her slender yet womanly body, her long fall of raven hair and clear grey eyes, her fragile Elvish beauty so cunningly marked by the charming flaws of mortality, could make long hours of riding pass swiftly.
But, those were not the qualities that drew him so strongly to her, he thought. As a man used to assessing qualities of others quickly and making swift decisions on their employment, he had unconsciously formed strong opinions of her in the three days he had observed her in the Houses of Healing. He had deduced that she was highly born and the sort of woman who had never been spoken to in cold anger or contempt, much less ungraciously touched, and yet she had calmly tended repulsive wounds and reassured combative, gore-covered soldiers who were half crazed with pain and terror. She had none of the battled-hardened courage of those with nothing left to lose, but nonetheless had held her head high when faced with the knowledge that all she knew and loved could soon be mutilated and destroyed. She comforted the coarsest of his countrymen with the same grace she would show a prince.
Instead of feeling the aggressor, as he might have felt in dealing so forwardly with such a young maiden, the lost child in him had sought solace in her self-assurance. Her ability to see and accept his weakness renewed his spirit. Perhaps a woman of her compassion and resourcefulness, although young, might be a fit queen for my beloved and beautiful land, war-torn and plundered as it is. The courage to embrace him, a stranger, a seasoned warrior, so nearly embittered at times by loss and concern, and not fear to be tainted by that shadow, showed that she had strength and hope.
It is childlike foolishness to entertain such thoughts, he judged, but even here so near the end, it is hard to push down yearnings in the hearts of mortal men. He flushed then at the memory of the quick heat in her response to his kisses, despite her obvious innocence. Hope and despair rushed through him in equal measure and he thought of Imrahil's earlier words. Tomorrow will bring the realization of dreams or unspeakable horror.
Thanks to William Shakespeare for providing images and inspiration for this chapter in Henry V, which will always be for me the quintessential night-before-battle description and whose King Henry shares multiple traits with my Éomer.
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