13. On the Road
The next morning they woke early. Right before sunrise, rain fell and woke those that slept. They gathered their things, huddling against the cold and damp. The fire spluttered and threatened to go out, but the rain was not heavy enough; the fire had been kept burning through the night. That gave them a warmer breakfast than they else would have.
Not long after sunrise, they were ready to go. The rain lightened, but did not stop, and a light drizzle followed them all day, soaking into their clothes and boots and hair. Their cloaks grew heavy with water but the thick wool kept them warm and dry inside. The road became heavy with the water, and their progress slowed. Éomer grew concerned with their pace, and he could feel Firefoot tiring underneath him. They might have to go even slower; at a good pace there were still some three days' travel left before they reached Minas Tirith, and the horses had to hold all the way.
They halted twice that day to let the horses rest, and it was not until after nightfall that they finally reached Pelargir. The guards at the gate did not want to let them in, not after nightfall, and it took Aduiar a long time to convince them to let them in. Being a mayor of a small town was not enough here. In the end he resorted to bribing the guards to let them through.
It was suspiciously easy to find room at an inn; the first inn they found had room enough for them all, and even then there were empty rooms to have.
"We are late," Aduiar said. "Pelargir should have been full; most of the people will have to pass through here to reach Minas Tirith."
"The celebrations begin on the seventh," Ingold said. "And that is in five days. Perhaps we are early?"
"Let us hope so. I would have liked to have more than a day or two to speak with the Faithful in Minas Tirith, and for that we are late, but even so we will not be able to do much before the celebrations begin, I fear." Éomer rubbed his eyes. "There is little we can do about it now; late or early, I am happy to sleep in a bed tonight. With dry bedclothes."
"If we are in luck, we may be able to find room on a ship up the Anduin."
"We may hope it is so," Éomer said, "though I am not too fond of ships."
"It might be difficult to find a ship with room for us and the horses," Húrin said. "We might have to split up even more and have some take the horses by road."
"No, we should not split up more," Éomer said. "If we cannot find someone that has room for us all, we will all go by road. Unless Bergil is still unwell."
Bergil found the attention turned on him. "No," he said. "I am well. Or will be after a night's rest."
"Then we should all sleep while we can." Éomer rose, and all with him.
The next morning Éomer sent Ingold and Borondir to the docks to ask for passage on one of the boats there. For himself, he took Bragloth and Húrin with him to trade some of their pelts for more provisions, and Aduiar took Bergil with him to the magistrate of Pelargir to seek permission to arm his guards on the last stretch of the road. Such a request had to be delivered by the mayor in person, and only a few of the more important magistrates were allowed to grant permissions. The one in Dol Amroth was the closest to Calembel, and Aduiar knew that he could be denied simply on that reason, but it was too much of a detour. They did not need the permission for their plans, but it would simplify everything. All of Éomer's men had some hidden weapons, but it was risky, and they would probably not be able to smuggle them inside the City.
Fastred was left at the stables to ready the horses.
He understood the king's reasoning, he really did. He told himself again and again that the king would be safe with Húrin and Bragloth. Safer, most likely, than with him accompanying, who, in spite of his dyed hair, did not have the appearance of a man of Gondor. Or mastered the accent.
It was all in vain; he could not shake his worry.
One thing always calmed him: the grooming of his horse. He sought refuge in that now, working with calm, long strokes to brush the horses' coats until they were free of all sand and mud from the road, free of all straw from the stable. He could not make them shine, but he was able to rid them of the worst winter-hair. They felled so much that he could but let the wind blow through the stables, and before it reached the other side, it would carry with it a cloud of hair. Fastred took a curry-comb, and set to work.
Isnod loved the attention. He scratched all the spots that itched and scraped off layers and layers of hair. And still more hair would be loose. If he was back home, he would have gathered the hair to use it, but here there was no time for that.
An hour later he was still working, and a huge pile of hair was gathered around the feet of the mare. He could see little difference in her. She was still moulting. Some places she had shed her winter-coat completely, but the darker summer-coat made her look shabby and un-kept even after all the grooming. He might as well give up and move on to another horse.
Figuring that the mayor's mare should look the most well-groomed, he continued with her.
Her coat was sleek compared with their own horses'. She had been stabled all winter, with a rug to boot, he guessed, and had very little shedding to do. Even so he took his time to groom her until she shone. She was a pretty bay, the coat on her body a deep reddish brown and with no marks on her. She was smaller and slimmer than the horses of the Mark, but she looked strong enough, and her feet and hooves were strong. Her head was curved, and from what he had understood when he asked Aduiar about it, it was considered a sign of good breeding and noblesse. Unlike the arched noses of the best breeds in the Mark. If he had seen her in a field, he would have guessed it was a lady's horse. Pretty and vain, but without the courage or power needed for war or work. But the Southrons valued such horses, it seemed. Before he had thought that they just did not know horses well enough, but now he was not certain.
After the mare he thought he should give Firefoot some care, but the scruffier the stallion looked, that better, he guessed. It was hard enough to hide his quality as it was. But he checked the legs and hooves for swellings or heat, or if any hurt had come to the soles or frog. The feet were a little swollen, but he guessed it came from the night in the stable and would disappear as soon as the horse had walked a bit.
He then checked the other horses. Ingold's horse seemed more tired than the rest, but the innkeeper was tall and heavy, and less used to riding than his companions. Perhaps he should suggest that he would change horses with Bergil for a time if they had to continue on foot. The young man was easily the lightest of them all, and his horse was strong, but calm enough for Ingold to master.
It took time to go through all the horses, but still he had to wait before the rest returned. Húrin and Bragloth came first with the provisions they had been able to barter.
"Where is the King?" Fastred blurted out before he could think.
"Master Rodhaer," Húrin stressed, the rebuke clear, "was called upon by the mayor to appear before the magistrate for questioning."
"Nothing sinister," Bragloth said. "Relax! The magistrate would not grant the mayor permission to arm his guards without speaking to their – that is our – leader. Bergil found us, and he left it to us to finish the bartering. Come, do something useful and help us load."
There was not much else to do.
Ingold and Borondir had asked every ship in the harbour if they had room for passengers, but those few that had, were not going to Minas Tirith. Or they would go, but only in two days' time. That would take them there in time for the celebrations, but not in time to contact the Faithful and coordinate their plans. As the morning passed, and no passage could be found, they became more and more convinced it was a waste of time. Time they could ill afford to spend; they had already been late out of Linhir.
"I hear you are looking for a ship that can take you to the White City."
It was a voice coming out from an alley. It somehow did not seem right, as if it should have belonged to someone that did not skulk around in alleys, even though they could not see the owner. He was half-hidden in shade, and the other half by the rubbish littering the alley.
"I am right, am I not," the stranger said. "You want to book passage to Minas Tirith for the celebrations."
"We are looking," Ingold replied. "But we are rather a large group, and we wish to arrive some days before. Get rooms in a good inn, and so forth."
"I might be able to help."
"That is good and well," Borondir replied. "But we do not deal with strangers that will not show their face. Who are you, and what ship can you offer us room on? We will give you nothing before we are all on board, so if you seek to swindle us, you will not get much."
"Swindle you? I would do no such thing; my mother taught me better than that. Such rude accusations will not speak for your case; I might decide I do not want to take uncouth men on my ship."
"My companion is a bit too suspicious for his own good," Ingold hurried to say. "Forgive him; these are not days where people easily trust."
The shape in the alley moved. "Come closer."
Fastred had not needed to worry about his king. The meeting with the magistrate went without trouble; it was the mere formality they had been told it would be. Éomer returned with Aduiar and Bergil just as the men finished loading the provisions.
Éomer noticed that Ingold's horse had been given a smaller load than the rest. Fastred saw his gaze, and answered before he was asked.
"It shows more signs of weariness than the rest, S...Master Rodhaer," he said. "I thought it best to spare it somewhat. Perhaps, if Bergil will consent, he and Ingold might change horses every other day. Bergil is the lightest of us, and his horse is steady and calm."
"Unless we can catch a boat, that might be wise," said Éomer. "We need to reach the White City in two days, and before the Gates close at night. For that we will need to ride hard; we were delayed too long in Linhir, and then even further today."
"Should we perhaps take the horses and meet Borondir and Ingold at the harbours?" Aduiar suggested. "Even if there are no ships that will take us, we will have saved some time."
Éomer nodded: it was wise, and he wanted to move on as quickly as he could.
It did take them some time to find Borondir and Ingold. The harbours were not all that big, but they were standing a little outside the busiest part, close to one of the numerous alleys that Pelargir was full of. When Éomer hailed them, he thought he saw something move in the shadows.
It was Ingold that turned to answer his greeting.
"Master Rodhaer," he said. "We did not expect you to meet us here."
"It was the lord mayor's idea. He wanted to meet you here, to save us some time."
"Have you found a ship that will take us?" Aduiar asked.
Borondir turned to them as well. "No, my lord," he answered. But Ingold answered "Yes" at the same time.
"Well, what is it? Yes or no?"
"My lord," Borondir said. "Most of the ships here are too small to fit both us and our horses. Among those that could hold us all, some have already take on too many passengers; the rest will not leave as early as we wish. They think they can get more passengers if they wait a day or two."
"But?" Éomer asked. "There must be a reason that Master Ingold thinks there is a ship."
"This man claims to have, or know of, a ship that can take us today." Ingold pointed behind him to the alley.
"Who?" Éomer could see none in the shadows of the alley-mouth.
Both Ingold and Borondir turned. "He was just there!" Ingold sounded confused. "A young man, hardly more than a boy by his looks and the sound of his voice."
"A young boy would have a ship?" The disbelief was clear in Éomer's voice. "Did he say what ship?"
"He gave no name, but he said it lay by the first pier. A large ship with blue sails."
Éomer turned to see if he could spot the ship Ingold described.
"I see it," Húrin said. "It is anchored apart from the rest. Large, with two masts and many men standing on the deck. They look like soldiers. A banner flies from the tallest mast, but I cannot see its device. The wind is too weak to unfurl it."
"I know that ship," Aduiar said. "The magistrate spoke of it. He was quite proud, I think, that it stopped here; it is the ship of the Prince of Dol Amroth."
"Prince Imrahil is here?" Éomer was not sure what to think of that. "It has been many long years since I heard news of him. The last rumours would have him dead."
"After his release five years ago, he has hardly left Dol Amroth," Aduiar said. "I do not know if the rumours are true, but it is said that he serves the Eastern Lord more faithfully than even the Master of Isengard."
"That is not possible!" Éomer would not believe that. "There is none that are more willing to do his will than the Master of Isengard, unless it is one of the Ringwraiths. What rumours are these?"
"Ones that should not be discussed upon the open road," Aduiar replied. He kept his voice low, but still he did not want to risk being overheard.
"Lord," Borondir said. "I do not think this boy has the connections to offer us room on the Prince's ship. Most likely he only wishes to earn some money by swindling strangers. His aim might even have been to simply rob us; just as you came, he tried to lure us into the alley, but he scarpered as soon as you showed."
"He sounded sincere," Ingold objected.
"With respect, Master Ingold," Borondir said. "I do not know how an innkeeper can be as trusting as you, and still keep his inn."
"I am a good judge of character!"
"And what about Sedil?"
"She…" Ingold had no reply.
Éomer spoke up to end the quarrel before it began. "Even if the boy could get us room on lord Imrahil's ship, I can not risk it. Not even had his loyalties been beyond question: he is surrounded by Corsair soldiers."
Aduiar nodded. "I agree. I would rather go by road, even though we must ride hard to make up for the lost time."
The decision was made, and the two men mounted without any more words. They did not see, and neither did the rest, the shadow that stood unmoving in the darkest pat of the alley. Hearing all that was said, and marking the faces of all in the company.
"You should have said yes," the shape muttered when they had left.
If they had, many things would have been different, but whether it was good or bad it is hard to know. What did happen is all we know, and the ways of fate and luck are hard to tell.
After the company was gone, and could no longer be seen, the shadow moved out of the shade, out of the alley, and a small shape hurried along the harbour towards the blue-sailed ship.
That day the company tried to move faster, but it was already past midday when they left Pelargir. Even with a lighter rider, Ingold's horse lagged behind, and they were forced to stop more often than they would have otherwise. When darkness forced them to stop for the night, they had only covered two thirds of the distance they had hoped.
Guards were posted, but they also had to rely on the horses to warn them if any evil thing drew near; Éomer would hear the rumours about the Prince of Dol Amroth.
"We have heard little news of him, " Éomer said. "And I would know why."
"What have you heard?" Aduiar spoke softly. Even with the guards, he was cautious lest they would be overheard.
"Nothing, or close to it," Éomer replied. "I learned of his capture a week or two after we received the news of the lord Aragorn's fate, and that was by chance."
"They both were taken at the Black Gate," Ingold said. "And both held hostage against the Steward."
"And yet that seemed to have been forgotten when the news reached me. As if only the news of the lord Aragorn mattered." It was too dark to see Éomer's face. They had lit no fire, for the day had been fair and their clothes had dried at the inn. And the less attention they drew, the better.
"The return of the king was great news," Aduiar said. "And other tidings, though grave and of great importance too, were overlooked at first. I have often wondered what quality the King Elessar possessed that the people should love him so readily, in such a short time."
"Perhaps you will find out," Húrin said. "In Minas Tirith."
Aduiar nodded, a dark shape hardly noticeable in the darkness of the night. In the silence that followed, the nightly noises could be heard: the buzzing of the first flies, the soft hiss of the night-breeze in the grass. And the sound of horses grazing close by.
"Tell me of Imrahil," Éomer said. "For I have heard little, and if the risk had not been too great, I would have taken the offer – if only to see him from afar. I remember him a good man."
"Prince Imrahil, "Aduiar began, "was, to the best of my knowledge, first and foremost held to secure the good behaviour of Dol Amroth; the Dark Lord did not trust that they would care enough about the fate of a king they never knew."
"This much we have known," Éomer said. "Or guessed."
"His sons never returned from the last battle, but his daughter remained in Dol Amroth during the War. At first, when she learned of our defeat, she took refuge in the hills and with her she took Alphros, her brother's son and father's heir. For her father's sake she returned to the castle, but she returned alone. The lady remained in Dol Amroth, and no tidings of the young heir have been heard. Some say he died in the wild, and that, more than her father's plight, drove her from hiding. But some rumours claim that the child lives, hidden away in some valley or on some island in the Bay, unknown to any but the sailor-folk of Dol Amroth.
"But few are allowed to travel between the land of the Prince and the rest of Gondor, and even fewer bring tidings."
"So rumours are all that remain to learn," Éomer said. "I did hear, some three or four years ago, that lord Imrahil was released, but little else. I was not sure if the rumours were to be believed; at the time it was also rumoured that he had died shortly after his release."
"It was five years ago, as I said before." Aduiar paused; there was a tone in Éomer's voice that promised danger.
"Remember," he began anew, "that even I have only heard rumours. I, who have been given more news than has been spread to the common people."
"Do not lead the stallion past the mare."
"I do not understand," Aduiar said.
"What the lord of horses means," Húrin translated, "is that you should tell us more about what you know, than what you do not."
Aduiar tipped his head and gave a small bow. "My apologies," he said and his lips narrowed. "In my position I do not have the privilege of frank speech. What I have heard said is that the Prince came back a changed man."
"Five years as the captive of the Enemy would do that to a man," Éomer said. "That is no strange news, nor as sinister as your hesitations suggest."
"True, but the rumours say that he was released because he bowed to the Enemy, and that now he holds his lands as a fiefdom from him, serving his will."
"Faramir rules on the sufferance of Mordor," Éomer said. "Yet none here doubt his loyalties."
"Lord Faramir has little choice," Aduiar countered. "He never had any, unless he would see some minion of Mordor rule, and be helpless to act. Even so lord Faramir is watched, and his every move is reported back to the Dark Lord, for he is not trusted, and it is the King that will suffer for his mistakes. Thus it has been from the beginning; Lord Faramir cannot refuse to rule on Mordor's behalf, lest he must see both his people and his king suffer worse."
"Worse than what?" Húrin asked. "There is always a choice. The Dúnedain know this. The Chieftain would have ordered him not to bend to the demands of the Shadow; he would think no bribe or pressure grave enough. Not even his life. This we know, and we have never bowed."
"Do not speak ill of my sister's husband," Éomer said. "You have no land nor people to protect; your people live scattered, and the Enemy cannot find your leaders to pressure you. Nor threaten your peasants, for you have none. Do not speak of a cost you know not."
"You made another choice," Húrin answered.
To that Éomer answered: "I no longer have a king whom I must serve. And often enough I second-guess my choice."
Húrin bowed, and said no other word. Aduiar waited, but the king gestured him on.
"The difference between the lord Steward and the prince, is that prince Imrahil was held for five years, and Dol Amroth governed without him. If the Enemy' s hold on him is the same as his hold on the Steward, why wait five years? Or why, after five years, release him if nothing new has happened?
"These questions, more than anything else, have fed the rumours and the speculations that abound."
"So, the rumours are that lord Imrahil is broken. He has bowed to the Enemy, and as reward he was released and allowed to rule his lands as a puppet to Mordor. Or the Enemy's servant," Éomer summed up Aduiar's speech.
There was not much to add to that. They sat in silence for a time, in the dark night. Each with his own thoughts, each with his own fears, and none would speak, or yet seek rest.
It was Aduiar who voiced their deepest fear. The one they did not want to allow into their thoughts.
"If five years could break the Prince, will ten have broken the King?"
"No!" Húrin said. "Not ten, not ten thousand years will make him bend!" If his voice had been softer, they might have been convinced that he believed his own words.
"In ten thousand years he would be dead," Aduiar remarked, his voice dry. Húrin glared at him but did not speak.
"I spoke with both the Prince and his sons in the days before the last battle." Éomer spoke as if nothing had been said. "His sons spoke with love about their sister, and of their land. Imrahil spoke no words about either land or daughter, but his eyes lit up whenever they were named.
"He did not strike me as a man that would be easily broken by torment."
"The Enemy is skilled. He knows many ways in which to break a man."
"You said his daughter returned from hiding for his sake," Éomer said. "When?"
"Right before midsummer, six years ago. The people of Dol Amroth proved less than eager to comply with the Enemy's will. Ten years ago the enemy displayed him before the walls of Dol Amroth until the people relented and opened the gates. A Corsair captain was left in charge, but the people remained rebellious, thwarting the captain as best they could.
"A rebellion broke out in the land of the Prince during the celebrations in three thousand and twenty-three. The peasant and fisher-folk seized the castle and held it for a month before the soldiers could re-take it and quench the rebellion. From what they learned of the survivors, the people had many complains against the Corsair's rule, and resented the rule of any that were not of the Prince's house.
"The Enemy had the Prince brought there, and in retaliation they hung him from the walls of the castle. Three days he hung there, and on the fourth they took him down, still alive; his daughter had returned to beg for his life.
"The lady Lothíriel ruled in his stead, at least in name, but the captain remained to assist her, or so they said. He often spoke for her, and chose her words as well. But the people have not rebelled since then.
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I can well believe that any threat to her would be more devastating to him than threats to his king. He honoured Aragorn as his liege-lord, but his daughter…"
"His daughter is his child, his blood." Húrin finished Éomer's thoughts.
"Her return might have prompted the change, though a half-year lies between the lady's return and his release."
"I have heard one other rumour," Aduiar said, "that can explain why Prince Imrahil might have bowed to the Enemy."
"Let us hear it," Éomer said.
"The Corsair captain had, so I've heard, grown accustomed to rule and began to covet a higher position; one of name as well as power. He has pressed the lady hard to take his hand in marriage. She refused long, and after lord Imrahil's release, the matter has not been spoken of again, and the lady is still unwed."
"If Imrahil had truly turned," the king interrupted. "If Imrahil broke and became a servant of the Dark Lord, he would not have stopped the marriage, or he would have given his daughter to some Haradrim prince by now – if only to avoid the Corsairs." It had to be the reason of Imrahil's surrender. I have not misjudged him. But Éomer did not regret his decision in Pelargir; hair-colour or no, Imrahil would have recognised him. He could not risk trusting the Prince not to betray them. Even if he wished to.
He stood, and the others with him.
"We should seek rest," he said. "Tomorrow we must break camp before the sun, and ride through the day to make up for the time we have lost."
They did, and sleep came quick to those that rested. But with sleep, dreams came as well. Two men wakened that night, at the same time. Their hearts beating in their chests. Their breath heaving from a race. Their eyes, for a moment, seeing not the night-sky above, but a churning, angry darkness without stars. On both lips a silent scream.
Éomer panted in the darkness when the world returned. That dream, so vivid! And for a second time. He could still taste the stone closing about him.
"Who is there?"
That voice, so familiar by now, helped fade the dream even more. Helped bring him further back to the waking world. He spoke in answer, and that helped him to shrug off the last whispered tendrils of his dream: the cold stiffness and despair.
"Éomer king! You are ali… well."
Was it relief he heard in Fastred's voice? As if he too, was caught in some nightly vision, some dream of terror he fought to cast off.
"I am well. 'Twas just a dream."
A pause, then the answer came.
Another pause. Then:
They were but voices in the dark night, not moving, not rising, as if their bodies had not yet escaped whatever place they had been when their minds tread the path of dreams. Then a horse snorted close by, breaking the spell that held them unmoving with its warm, earthly sound. Familiar.
Éomer rose, and he could hear Fastred rise beside him. They did not speak while they looked around, seeing that all was dark and none was awake.
"Who is on watch?" Éomer asked.
"Bergil, I think," Fastred answered. "He knows better than to sleep on guard; something must have happened."
"The horses have been quiet," Éomer said. "They would have alerted us if someone had approached."
They found Bergil not far from where they all slept. He was sitting propped up against the trunk of a tree. His eyes were closed and he did not stir when they came close.
He was asleep.
His breath was even and deep and his face was calm. He must have been in some pleasant dream, for he smiled. When Fastred bent to wake him, he did not stir.
He shook him gently. The young man stirred, but he did not wake. Éomer had not the same patience.
"On your feet, boy!" he snapped. "What do you think you are doing, sleeping on your watch?"
That woke Bergil, but he was sluggish and slow. He blinked at Éomer.
"I said on your feet! Are you deaf as well as blind?"
But even facing the ire of the king, Bergil was slow and clumsy. Something was wrong.
Even so Éomer stood waiting, quiet and stern, and watched while Bergil struggled to his feet. The youth swayed, and then his legs gave out. He fell back to the ground, despite Fastred's helping hand. Éomer stood there for a moment longer, his face still stern as he looked at Bergil. The youth tried, feebly, to stand again.
Something is wrong.
The night was too quiet, the silence too strong, and Bergil too weak. He knelt down and took Bergil's head between his hands. The forehead was a little clammy, but cool to the touch. No fever.
"I am sorry, my lord," Bergil said.
"I… I do not know. I suddenly became tired. Too sleepy, more than I should have been, and then I was asleep before I knew anything more."
"Go check the horses," Éomer ordered Fastred. "And take care, lest this is more than a tired boy's negligence."
Fastred nodded and disappeared into the night. Éomer turned back to Bergil.
"Can you stand?"
"I think so, lord," Bergil answered. "I was dizzy, but the dizziness has past." He tried to rise on his own, but stumbled, and Éomer caught him before he fell again.
"I want Húrin to take a look at you," Éomer said. "And you will take no more watches until he says that you are well."
"I thought I was well, or well enough," Bergil excused himself. "I really did. I do not want to skip my part."
"When we are back in Fangorn, you will receive punishment for this." Bergil made to speak again, but Éomer cut him off. "It does not matter that you meant well; you endangered us all."
"I am sorry," Bergil said.
"I am sure you are. But it matters little: you have seen, and know, enough to know better."
Húrin woke quickly and took care of Bergil while Éomer lit a fire for him to see. The king was awaiting Húrin's judgement when Fastred came back.
"The horses are well," Fastred said. "They are clam and either resting or grazing. Though your horse, my lord, is keeping Isnod away from the rest."
"Are they mating still?"
"No, they are not, and that is strange. She should not have taken so quickly, and we should have heard them earlier this evening for them to be so quiet now."
"I do not know about the horses," Húrin said. He turned to Éomer. "But from what I can tell, Bergil is well."
"And the dizziness?"
"I am not a healer," Húrin said. "I just know a little more than the rest of you. I do not know; perhaps he rose too quickly while he still was groggy from sleep."
"It did not seem like normal grogginess," Éomer said. "He could not walk on his own the short distance here."
"Then my guess is that the dizziness comes from some lingering effect of the blow he took to the head. That might explain the tiredness as well."
Éomer nodded. "Very well," he said. "Bergil should not be given any tasks other than those strictly necessary until we can be sure that the blow will not cause more dizziness, or any other effect. No guard-duty at all during the remainder of the journey. It is too risky."
Éomer took what was left of the watch and sent the rest to sleep. Fastred sat beside him for a while, but neither spoke. Above them the stars came out, wheeling overhead, and the moon rose, casing his silver across the landscape. He grew so strong that Éomer could see the horses clearly; even the difference in colours could be marked, if not seen clearly. On the ground the shadows grew sharp and clear, distorted by the strange light. On the far side of the field, there was a dark line where the trees of a small wood began. There, between the dark and the silver light, something moved. A fox, perhaps? Éomer strained to see, but it was too far, and even in the bright moonlight it was too dark to discern anything under the trees.
He nudged Fastred and pointed. "What do you see there?"
"I see nothing, sire," he answered.
"I saw some movement, but I could not see what it was."
Fastred got to his feet. He too strained to see, to no avail.
"Could you tell its size?" he asked. "Could it have been a man?"
"Or something man-shaped," Éomer said. "I do not know. At first I though perhaps a fox, but it is too late for foxes; they hunt at twilight, not in the deep night. But the movement was too slight for me to see. Or too far off. It could have been man or a cat for all I could see."
"The horses are calm," Fastred said. "And I have learned to trust them more than my own eyes; they can sniff out evil far better than even the Elves."
"We will have to trust to them, then." Éomer watched as Firefoot lifted his head and snorted, as if he was commenting on their words. The horse bent down again to graze. Éomer smiled to see it. "Firefoot agrees." Fastred just nodded, and they fell silent again.
Time passed, and nothing else happened that night.
The next morning Bergil was no longer dizzy, and that day they were able to move a little faster. Until midday.
About four hours' hard ride after their midday pause, they began to pass more and more travellers, all moving towards Minas Tirith. Éomer had to slow the pace and a few hours before nightfall they were reduced to a walk, and then forced to stop. Up ahead the River Erui ran, the last they had to cross before they came to the White City. There was only one bridge close to the Road, and unlike the other crossings, there were not settlements around it, not even an inn, much less a village or town. And yet, they saw when at last they came near enough to see, the bridge was controlled.
A small company of soldiers – from Harad by the looks of it – stood at each end of the bridge. All that wanted to pass had to have their papers checked by them, and pay a fee. They said it would but cover the cost of keeping the bridge safe and in good condition, but the soldiers kept far more than was ever used.
They did reach the other side that day, but darkness fell once more and they were forced to camp at a shorter distance to the river than they liked. The Haradrim soldiers shut the bridge for the night, and pressed their protection on some of the travellers that were forced to wait. From across the river Éomer could hear them, but do nothing. He almost ordered the men to break camp and ride a few more hours into the night, but Bergil had grown worse again, and Ingold's horse was far too tired for them to press on.
That night they did not speak before they found their rest, and sleep was slow to come.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.