----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- For two years after the Ring War there had been peace in Middle-earth, but suddenly both Gondor and Rohan are pulled into a conflict that could very well threaten their very existence... An epic adventure with lots of angst, battles, intrigues, treason, and a little romance featuring Aragorn/ Arwen, Éomer/ Lothíriel as well as some other well-known Tolkien-characters and a fresh bunch of OCs. Disclaimer: The CC belong to Tolkien's heirs. We do not own them, we do not make any profit. We just burrow them and have a little fun with them... The OC belong to the authors' vivid imagination. Rating: A "PG-13" should put us on the safe side. Authors' notes: This is the epic undertaking by Timmy2222 (Author of the Aragorn-story "Castle", also on this site) and Katzilla (Author of "A Rohan Ghost Story", featuring Éomer, also available here). There are references to both stories in this one, so for anyone who is interested in what happened before (it's not necessary though to understand the story), please, cast a friendly eye on our former Middle- earth-adventures. The plot and storyline were developed by both authors, but the writing was split. Katzilla wrote the Rohan-based CC and OC characters as well as some of the Dunlendings while Timmy took care of the Gondorian-based characters as well as those of other races.. Since this is the start we would cherish every helpful review, and we promise to finish the story in due time, but don't hold your breath! Special thanks go to Raquel for her invaluable advice both regarding the plot and her great beta-reading. What would we do without you? To Mouse from Timmy for the relentless enthusiasm she dedicated to Hilberon and Vlohiri. Huge thanks go to Nureet for the epic task of betaing the main part of this story for us! You are our hero! HAIL NUREET! Also huge thanks to Cindy for her always helpful feedback, and to Tanja, without whose incredible knowledge of the Tolkien-universe and painful, yet always helpful questioning we could not have developed this plot! A note from Timmy: Raquel, I grant you the greatest honour I can give: The hammer and the anvil for you never used it on my heart. Please send feedback to: Katberlint-online.de and/ or Timmy2020gmx.de!
For two years after the Ring War there had been peace in Middle-earth, but suddenly both Gondor and Rohan are pulled into a conflict that could very well threaten their very existence...
An epic adventure with lots of angst, battles, intrigues, treason, and a little romance featuring Aragorn/ Arwen, Éomer/ Lothíriel as well as some other well-known Tolkien-characters and a fresh bunch of OCs.
The CC belong to Tolkien's heirs. We do not own them, we do not make any profit. We just burrow them and have a little fun with them... The OC belong to the authors' vivid imagination.
A "PG-13" should put us on the safe side.
This is the epic undertaking by Timmy2222 (Author of the Aragorn-story "Castle", also on this site) and Katzilla (Author of "A Rohan Ghost Story", featuring Éomer, also available here). There are references to both stories in this one, so for anyone who is interested in what happened before (it's not necessary though to understand the story), please, cast a friendly eye on our former Middle- earth-adventures.
The plot and storyline were developed by both authors, but the writing was split. Katzilla wrote the Rohan-based CC and OC characters as well as some of the Dunlendings while Timmy took care of the Gondorian-based characters as well as those of other races.. Since this is the start we would cherish every helpful review, and we promise to finish the story in due time, but don't hold your breath!
Special thanks go to Raquel for her invaluable advice both regarding the plot and her great beta-reading. What would we do without you? To Mouse from Timmy for the relentless enthusiasm she dedicated to Hilberon and Vlohiri. Huge thanks go to Nureet for the epic task of betaing the main part of this story for us! You are our hero! HAIL NUREET!
Also huge thanks to Cindy for her always helpful feedback, and to Tanja, without whose incredible knowledge of the Tolkien-universe and painful, yet always helpful questioning we could not have developed this plot!
A note from Timmy: Raquel, I grant you the greatest honour I can give: The hammer and the anvil for you never used it on my heart.
Please send feedback to: Katberlint-online.de and/ or Timmy2020gmx.de!
CHAPTER 1: The Deep Breath
The man crouched near the little fire he had kept going during the night, but it was hardly enough to chase away the shadows that haunted him. His lined, weathered face with the dark, wild hair and full beard made it hard to estimate his age, and he was clothed in a torn old tunic and ragged and stained trousers, which comprised to the rest of his shabby appearance. He felt miserable. A wind was coming up from the west and passed over his neck like the light touch of a cold hand. He shivered involuntarily, but not from the cold alone. Dreadful thoughts of despair, hunger, and death ran through his mind. So much had been lost during the last years. So many relatives and friends were now buried on the jagged slopes of the Misty Mountains. So many tears of sorrow had been spilled. He knew not whether the path they had chosen was the right one, but something had to be done. Their misery had to end, one way or the other.
He lifted his water-skin and slowly drank, while his strained senses continued to scan his immediate area for the slightest sound, the smallest movement, but the grass was wet and fresh. It would be hard to hear anything lighter than a horse, and the mist made it difficult to see what surrounded him. He grimaced and sat back, his free hand on the moist ground. Here where he waited the land was fertile. Curse those strawheads, they were so greedy, intent on keeping the wealth of their land entirely for themselves, even if others died from hunger right on their doorstep. Why had so few so much? He put the water-skin away and exhaled, sighing to himself in frustration and twitching as the cry of an owl cut through the silent night. For a moment longer he watched the thick mist that formed now that the morning was drawing nearer. Already, a narrow stripe of a lighter blue could be seen on the eastern horizon, daylight's earliest messenger. He had not slept for two nights now and longed to go home, though it would not be the home he wished to see. What was a cold, draughty cave compared to one of the huts the Rohirrim lived in? With a low moan he shifted on the ground and added some more twigs to the fire which was in danger of going out.
Without warning, a tall figure emerged from the shadows, startling the man. He had not heard his guest arrive. Clad in black and golden armour with a dark red scarf below the face-covering helmet, he looked impressive enough to intimidate the broad-shouldered man waiting for him. With an effort, the man straightened to his full height and greeted the armoured figure with a short nod.
"You asked for this meeting, Lomarin, now, tell me why I had to leave the mountains."
In the glow of the campfire Lomarin's dark-brown eyes were fixed upon the dishevelled-looking man. He took a step closer, allowing the other man to study the glyphs on the plates and lames, but more to intimidate him. He succeeded. Exhaling, the bearded man stepped back.
"You still have no land in the Westfold, Woldro", Lomarin taunted in a low voice. It sounded like a threatening whisper to the man from the Misty Mountains, and he twitched his lips disdainfully. Woldro would not let that man – or woman, he could not tell – determine his life. "Your pain will end soon," Lomarin continued slowly as if he had to think of the right words first. "The people you hate will diminish and flee." Lomarin fixed his eyes upon the stout man with more passion. "You will roam their lands, take back what was taken from you, and restore the old order."
"You said that before," Woldro found the courage to utter, and though he was old compared to his kinsmen, he sounded insecure like a child. A low roaring sound echoed from within the armoured figure. He could not say whether it was laughter or anger. The dark eyes were unreadable. "How much longer do you need? We are waiting... and starving!"
The sound changed. Woldro felt it like a weight on his chest and took an involuntary step backwards. The mist around Lomarin thickened suddenly, as if he were calling it to himself. It swirled around his lean frame, up his legs and waist, strangely shrouding his silhouette.
"Patience! Think first, then act. Two more of us accompany you back."
Woldro knitted his bushy brows in distrust as he took a quick glance around, not seeing anyone. He had thought his guest to be alone.
"Where are they?"
"Close by. Go back now and tell your men to be prepared. Everything you need will be at hand when you return. You shall triumph over those you hate if you do as you are bidden."
Woldro was still frightened in a way he could not describe. He simply lacked the words for the complexity of emotions he was living through. He could only nod his consent, his mouth suddenly dry like sand. He had never feared an attack by his enemies. He had survived many fights against the Forgoils without this feeling of… emptiness, utter loneliness. It made him angry to feel inferior to anyone, so he quickly turned away from the fire.
"I will see that," he spat, but the armoured figure had already withdrawn into the mist.
The winds were blowing as ever over the broad plains of the central Riddermark. Months ago they had been a punishment to a cold and deserted land; now they were caressing wide open meadows of rich green grass, abundantly laced with the bright yellow faces of buttercups and a variety of other orange, white, red and blue wildflowers. Bees and butterflies were busily buzzing from flower to flower, rabbits chasing each other across the grass, and birds were sailing the skies and singing their exuberance down from the branches of trees and the golden, thatched roofs of the greatest city of the Kingdom of Rohan. After a long stern winter and a late spring, summer had finally arrived and once more performed its magic on the unforgiving ancient land once named Calenardhon, before the heirs of King Éorl the Young had been presented with it by Cirion, then Steward of Gondor.
The plains and hills were brimming with life again, and the warm air carried the scent of hay and horses from the great city of Edoras over the grass. Many riders were on their way here and there, travelling the vast spaces of the land, and because the time since the ending of the war had been peaceful, they were in a spirited mood, their guards lowered. Travelling in the Mark had been dangerous in the past, but there was no evil left in the wake of the Dark Lord's defeat. Still, the people of Rohan were watchful, but the signs that the land was healing from the many years of war were unmistakable.
Preceding a small group of riders headed for Meduseld, the Hall of the King, a figure on a great dark horse ascended the steep dusty path to the Royal Stables, sweat-drenched from his efforts to force his will onto the reluctant steed who fought him every step of the way. Where they passed, people stopped in their tracks to look, although they had become accustomed to the strange sight over the past weeks. Some looked impressed by such raw power, while others smiled and asked themselves silently whether rider and steed would ever be of one mind. No one dared to show amusement openly until the strange couple had passed through. Heads turned, and only when the two disappeared in the stables did the people go on their way again...
"You are a demon in horse-shape, but we shall see just who has the stronger will of us two in the end," Éomer fumed as he took the saddle off the black stallion and shoved against its great body to keep it from crushing him against the stable wall. He threw his burden onto the stand and groaned as he squeezed himself through the narrow gap between the wall and Battleaxe's hindquarters into the central aisle. The great black horse casually raised a hoof in a very clear threat and, too casually for his master's liking, turned away from him to search his manger for food. The King of Rohan came to a halt outside the stall and observed his rebellious steed with narrowed eyes.
"How was your ride, Sire?" Carthago, one of the most experienced and oldest stable-hands in his service asked in an interested tone that nevertheless went sideways down Éomer's throat at that moment. "Any improvement with that… difficult animal?"
"Difficult?" Éomer turned his head to glower at the man and snorted, indignantly picking the grass from his riding clothes. It had been a while since a horse had last been able to throw him, and Battleaxe would soon learn that there was a price to pay for making his master the subject of ridicule! As much as he missed his trusted Firefoot for the easy way he could be handled, the black's stubbornness had woken the fierce determination in him that he would come out the victor. Challenges were there to be braved, obstacles existed to be mastered.
"I have tried everything: Patience... understanding... Because of his history, I was loath to force him into obedience, but... as it turns out, all my waiting was to no avail. He should know by now that he can trust me, yet he still chooses fighting over companionship. What makes it even worse is that I think he is actually enjoying our fights by now." He sighed in frustration, and his glance returned to the object of his complaint. "I will get through to him, though, and if it's the last thing I do. Mark my words, Carthago! That …" he searched for the right word – "that…stubborn, insolent… beast will not best me! If he insists upon it, I shall break his will so completely that he can be used as a learning horse for babes! I want to let him keep his fire, but if he thinks he's the stronger of us two, he is mistaken."
Carthago knew enough about the young king's temperament to grit his teeth and remain silent as he stood for a while longer to watch the huge black horse, which had turned its back on them and had chosen to completely ignore the two men. Eventually, he remembered his duties and went about his way with a little nod and a few well-chosen words meant to soothe his king's mood.
"Well, I know if there is but one man in the Riddermark who can master that animal, it would be you, sire. I have every confidence in you." He left Éomer standing to stare further at the backside of his wilful steed and heard the stallion's loud, indignant snort at his remark. It sounded like a very distinct objection.
Éomer was glad that the man had left as he continued to stand in front of the black's stall, contemplating his further course of action. Yes, Battleaxe was difficult. In fact, he was the most difficult horse he had ever bestridden. The four-year old had a violent temper, an inherent distrust of everything approaching him, be it man or beast and a quite uncanny amount of self-esteem bordering on – no, crossing, even! – the line into arrogance… which was the one thing the King of Rohan was not willing to accept. From nobody, and least of all an animal! It was part of why he hadn't given up on the stubborn stallion weeks ago. The other reason, of course, that it was absolutely the most beautiful beast he had ever set eyes upon.
Crossing his arms on his chest, Éomer's gaze wandered admiringly over the shining black coat that looked like a piece of freshly polished coal, the strong limbs with their white socks and the muscular body. At a height of 19 hands, Battleaxe was the tallest horse he had ever seen, even one hand taller than Firefoot. Even if he had no Méara-blood in his veins, no man in his right mind could look at that creature and call it an ordinary horse.
As if he had listened in on his master's musings, the black turned his head and – still eating – eyed the human in front of his box with obvious suspicion, bringing a grim smile to Éomer's lips. No, there was nothing ordinary about this horse, which was why he absolutely had to master it! First of all, the stallion was a born survivor. He had survived the raids of Sauron's orcs, who had been stealing most of Rohan's black horses for their various troops, even though he was only two summers old when the war ended. He had survived the massacre at the Méara valley from almost two years back, too, but there was little doubt that it had been this incident that had turned the black into such a difficult character. He had gone through the fires of Angband and survived, but in the process his soul had been scorched and would not be easily healed.
Éomer had been very aware of that when he had chosen the wild one as his new steed for the summer. He and a handful of his men had made the journey to the herd as soon as the first signs of spring had shown themselves on the plains, because their steeds were the ones left with the strongest Méara-blood in their veins, something that was becoming a rarity. In order to save their legendary line of horses, it had been agreed to let Firefoot and the other stallions enjoy a summer with the diminished herd to refresh their blood. Wonderful for his beloved and trusted steed, but it left the King of Rohan in need of a new horse befitting his rank.
There had not been many horses to choose from, and the ones that came to him willingly had not impressed him. Instead it had been the black one, the wild one that had caught his eye and caused him to ignore the Rohirric tradition of letting the horse choose its rider. Elana, now a burgeoning young woman of 18 summers, had raised her eyebrows at his choice, but spared herself the obvious comment, because she had seen the sparkle in his eyes. Yes, that horse had called to him, even if it didn't know so yet itself.
"You will answer to my commands, devil-horse. You will!" he finally muttered as Battleaxe buried his head in the manger again, oblivious to his voice, and turned away. Behind him stood two of the boys who occasionally helped out by performing light chores that would prepare them for their adolescence, and their eyes were sparkling as they shifted their gaze from the great black stallion to their king and bowed. Clearly over-awed, the seemingly older one of the two then raised his head.
"That is a wonderful horse, Sire! It must clearly be the best steed in the entire Riddermark."
"It also is the most devious steed in the entire Riddermark," Éomer grumbled and turned to go before his anger at his four-legged antagonist would led him to take it out on those innocent boys. "Keep away from him. There is no telling what that black devil is capable of doing!" He walked rapidly down the corridor between the stalls… and turned around again. "Have you, perchance, knowledge of the Lady Lothíriel's whereabouts?"
The boys seemed happy to be able to be of assistance to him, as again the older one beamed and pointed a finger in the general direction of Meduseld.
"I think I saw her with the birds again, my Lord."
He nodded his thanks to the boys and left the Royal Stables, on his way out eyeing the steeds of his éored, which were all well-behaved and trustworthy… unlike some other animal he could name… Sighing to himself, Éomer turned on his heels and walked the last part of the slope back to the Golden Hall, up the steps to the dais, where he acknowledged his door wardens with a curt nod before he turned to walk the narrow path around the left side of the great building all the way towards its back. And there she was, his lovely young wife. His ravishing, melancholic, reserved … and pregnant young wife. Maia, her maid, was nowhere to be seen; yet another subtle hint at Lothíriel's state of mind. As so often during the past weeks, she must have sent her away to be entirely alone. Éomer did not like this discovery. He did not like the thought of his wife wandering about all by herself, with no one around to help her in case of a potential emergency.
'What could happen?' was the instant thought. 'There is no one here who would harm her.' The city folk seemed to think of their queen as a bit on the strange side, someone too different from them to be entirely understood, but still all of Edoras should be perfectly safe for his wife to walk around without needing an escort. Yet, the thought of Lothíriel being alone still left him uncomfortable, he could not help it.
As Éomer rounded the last corner to the new stairs he had ordered to be built and which led to a large aviary where she kept her falcons, Éomer once again stopped and paused to observe Lothíriel from afar. She was wearing the pale blue riding dress that nicely accentuated her dark skin and Éomer had seen on her quite often during the last weeks. It was part of her wardrobe from Dol Amroth and mixed the practical Rohirric style with the south-Gondorian colours, and while it looked pleasant enough on her yet delicate frame, it was nothing representative, nothing to show herself in to the people. So she had never even intended to walk down into Edoras on this beautiful summer day, not even the short distance to the Royal Stables to visit him. Not that the ordinary folk would have cared for that kind of thing at all, Éomer mused. It was rather Lothíriel's Gondorian upbringing that made her feel the need to look stately in public.
The frown on the king's face deepened as he observed his lonely wife. To see that dress on his wife yet again made him uneasy, for he thought that he was perfectly aware of her reasons for wearing it. And even if he could not see her from the front yet, he was ready to swear that she was also wearing the pearl earrings and necklace that went with that outfit. Or perhaps it was the silver swan. Either way, the lady of his heart was clearly demonstrating the reason for her melancholic posture to him, and it hurt Éomer to see his wife in such a sad state of mind. It looked like the Lady Lothíriel was not yet feeling at home in the Riddermark after almost an entire year of being married to its king.
For a while after their marriage, when they had first got to know each other, Lothíriel had done everything in her power to please him, to demonstrate her eagerness to take her place as the Queen of the Mark by his side. Whole battalions of seamstresses had come and gone from Meduseld in order to dress their king's wife in the traditional fashion of the Mark, with velvety and silken materials in greens, gold and white, with jewellery to go with it in their common symbols: The sun, their horses, the dragon. And, for a while at least, Éomer had been under the impression that Lothíriel had been proud to wear the Rohirric clothes. But ever since she had learnt of her pregnancy, everything had changed, and he wondered why. Did she not want the child?
As he looked on, hands stuffed into the pockets of his riding tunic, Éomer's heart ached at the sight granted to him: a perfect picture of breathtaking beauty… and breathtaking loneliness. The strong breeze played with the jet-black curls Lothíriel had meticulously tucked on the top of her head, threatening to loosen them again and preventing Éomer from getting a better look at his wife's expression. But then there was no need to see it, for the young woman's body language alone spoke volumes. Standing at the edge of the cliff, facing north, Lothíriel held out her gloved right hand for the elegant bird-of-prey to land on, and when it did in acceptance of the small piece of meat its mistress held between her fingers, she gently stroked the bird's throat. Yet even from the distance, there was something trance-like in her movements, as if she weren't there. Lost in thought, in her dream world. Back at Dol Amroth? And, if he was not mistaken, talking to the animal! Instead of him! Finally giving himself a nudge to proceed, Éomer went down the stairs as silently as possible. Perhaps he would be able surprise her… and perhaps, lift her spirits this way.
He had hardly reached the grass when Lothíriel let the falcon loose again, and it spread its wings and departed to ride the strong breeze blowing from the mountains, quickly fading to a small dot in the endless blue of the perfect summer sky. Still his wife did not look his way. A sly, hopeful smile tugged at Éomer's mouth. He was almost upon her now…
Aragorn allowed his horse to fall back into a trot. After more than a fortnight of relentless sunshine the grass they were riding on was dry, and the upcoming wind carried sand and dust with it. But after the spring rains, which had made the corn and grapes grow, the sudden dryness would not harm the fields' fruits, and the morning's dew still provided them with the moisture they needed. The time of the harvest was close since Ithilien was warmer than the rest of the land. The rich aroma of corn and wheat was in the air, mixed with the scent of wild flowers growing in different colours on the plains and among the trees in their deepest green. In a few weeks the peasants would harness their horses to the carts and collect the riches of the soil. In some villages the people had already started to pick apples from the trees.
On their ride through northern Ithilien Aragorn and his men had been welcomed in the small villages, and, more than the outlook for the second good harvest, the joy of these simple folks had lightened his heart. Most of the villagers had lived through rough times; their faces carried the lines of grief and despair, and they were yet recovering from the loss of relatives, and friends, and the destruction of their homes. But hope was getting stronger by the day. The lasting peace in Ithilien and Gondor allowed the people to concentrate on ploughing the fields and cultivate their farms. After the long years of suffering, they all had feared that bad weather and too few people to work on the fields would leave them empty-handed. But the harvest of the year before had exceeded the expectations and settled the fears of a winter with hunger like other peoples were facing. The king was grateful for all gifts given by the land.
He had many reasons to be grateful.
Aragorn knew well that not all of his people had cheered the day of his coronation. He knew of their doubts. After all he could not blame them. For years he had chosen exile instead of the crown. He had left the fate of his people in the hands of an old man, whose mind was corrupted by Sauron. It was his fault, and he could not deny it.
His comrades and he – and four Hobbits – had freed the peoples of Middle Earth, but that did not mean he had freed the people of Gondor from doubt and mistrust. More than he, Arwen had won over the hearts of the now free men and women. Her gentleness, her way of convincing the sceptics that all would turn out for the better, had given more hope to his people than the king himself could have given. Aragorn smiled. His heart warmed as he remembered the first speech she had delivered as a queen. Her words had been friendly and well chosen, but the feelings of hope, love, and confidence had been overwhelming. Aragorn had seen the faces of the listeners soften and turn from disbelief to a light smile that had deepened with every minute she had addressed them. She had set more than a seed of love in their hearts. It was the moment Aragorn had felt the deepest gratitude and ultimate devotion for his wife.
The mere thought she could have left for Valinor made him shudder. A life without Arwen at his side was unthinkable. He still would have become king, but the grief would have consumed him, made him worth less than an ordinary man.
Elrond had asked him to let Arwen go. He had been convinced that his daughter had only stayed for Aragorn and not because of her hope for Middle Earth. Aragorn had been willing to let the love of his life leave, but his heart had broken that day. Arwen had told him long ago that day would come when he would have to choose his own path. He had given into his destiny, though the price had seemed incredibly high.
Aragorn shook his head, trying to get rid of the unwelcome memory. Gladly he turned in his saddle when he heard one of the soldiers of his company approach.
"My Lord, there will only be light for another hour. Shall we pitch a camp?"
"Hilberon, if there is still an hour left why should we stop now?" Squinting against the sun Aragorn watched the young man's face. "We have got all we need with us."
"But, sire," the young man's voice was lower now, and he grabbed the rein of the packhorse that he led tighter. "We need some time to build up the tent." And to the man's utmost astonishment King Aragorn laughed. "Sire?"
"Your are not giving up, are you, Hilberon son of Hiregon?" The young soldier did not answer. Had he insulted the king? He broke into a sweat. His father would not take it lightly if he turned out to be unworthy of the honour to serve in the royal guard.
"I do not understand, my Lord," he stuttered.
Aragorn lifted his eyebrows in amusement. He liked the man with the fair-haired beard, which covered the slender features of a face still growing into character. The soldier sat upright in his saddle, trying to straighten out his tall figure and cover his insecurity that way. The king turned to not let the young man see his smile.
"For how many days have we ridden together now?"
"Ten, my lord."
"On which night did I desire to sleep in a tent?"
There was a slight pause. On some nights the villagers had provided them with shelter so it had not been necessary to use the tent. But for the rest…
"On none of them, my lord."
Aragorn glanced over his shoulder, unable to conceal his mocking smile any longer.
"And we shall not change that tonight." He faced forward again, pressed the heels into Brego's flanks and let him fall into gallop. Immediately the wind caught his hair and cooled his sweaty face. He closed his eyes for a moment and exhaled. Without his kingly duties and outdoors in the open lands he felt like a free man. It was true that he had never wanted the power of a ruler. But there had been no other choice. After the fall of Mordor and his coronation he had to face the royal life. Minas Tirith became his home, the White Tree of Gondor his morning's first sight. And though he reduced the formalities of the court to its limits he still felt caged. Arwen consoled him with a teasing smile that he would get used to it. In almost two years he still had not. He took up every opportunity to flee the halls, and corridors, and all the servants looking after him. He would never settle down like Arwen had hoped he would.
When rumours had reached Minas Tirith that some strange things had happened in the north and east of Ithilien, he had not left the task of riding out to one of the captains, but had preferred to saddle up his own horse. The royal guard had done the same, and Arwen – his beloved Arwen, who understood him better than he sometimes understood himself – had convinced him to let the men ride with him.Now they were gaining up on him, and with a short call in Sindarin he spurred his steed even more. Brego seemed to share his rider's opinion and almost flew over the plain. Closer to the outlines of a small forest Aragorn slowed his horse again. The royal guard arrived at his side, and not for the first time the king would have preferred to be alone. The men truly would have followed his order to stay behind, but Aragorn found it rude and let them be. Still in thoughts something caught his eye. He stopped his horse and dismounted.
"Is there something wrong, sire?" Halamin, one of the more experienced soldiers among the guards, asked with his soft and always polite voice.
Aragorn did not answer, but knelt in the grass. Slowly, carefully he pushed aside some loose twigs and leaves and revealed a small and cold campfire site. While the other riders slid out off the saddles Aragorn moved two steps away from the remains and around it, examining the ground with keen eyes.
"A man waited here – the whole night." The king stopped, turned on his heels and wiped another spot. He shook his head. "Another man came. He wore boots, but…" He went a few steps more to the north. Halamin and Tarés, a friend of his since his childhood, exchanged glances while Hilberon frowned, then stepped closer. "Do not ruin the tracks," Aragorn said lifting neither his voice nor his head. Hilberon stood like hit by a fist. Halamin pressed his lips tight to prevent himself from bursting into laughter. The young man swallowed, hardly daring to breathe. This was supposed to be the second mistake within the hour. Another one would truly send him back to the stable-boys' quarters. Aragorn put his hand flat on the ground. "It is almost a man's size, but these footprints are strange. I have never seen anything like that before."
"A troll?" Tarés offered, stroking his long brown beard, and Halamin shook his head only slightly. He knew that the king had fought against almost every creature that walked, crept or crawled on this earth.
"No. Trolls walk on two broad, flat feet," Aragorn answered, still focused on the tracks he found. He followed them further away from the campfire site. "These tracks indicate it was a kind of animal – walking on all fours. Without haste." He knelt again on one knee, rested his arm on it. "It had big paws."
"Paws?" Tarés echoed and frowned. "I heard… well, it was just a rumour, nothing more than idle chatter."Aragorn rose and turned with a questioning look.
"Speak up, Tarés, if you know something of importance."
"As I said… I did not deem it important. People said there were, well, some beasts attacking their cattle."
Tarés nodded with his chin.
"More to the east, they said. But I would not give much to it, my lord, there have been rumours like that for quite a while."
"For how long?"
"A year… perhaps. But no one has yet seen any such beast in Ithilien. As I said it's just a rumour."
Aragorn nodded. Silently he focused on the tracks again, walking away from the guards, who did not dare to follow. Hilberon had not taken a step and looked as if lightning would strike him if he did. The king was unaware of the young soldier's misery. He had not told his men, but he found it strangely irritating that the tracks indicated it had been an animal the man rode, but it had obviously stood still until it had departed again. The footprints left to the north, crossing those of its arrival. The man at the fire had only risen and left to the west later. Again the king inspected the animal's footprints closer, but in spite of all his experience he was at a loss. An explanation must be possible, but he did not find it. He wiped the dust from his hands and got up. His gaze wandered to the east. If any threat would seize Gondor it would come from the lands beyond the eastern border. The messengers he had sent north beyond Henneth Annûn had not reported about any intrusion. They had only told him that tents were set up near Dagorlad. Though the king hoped the free folk living there would not attack Ithilien he would not count on it.
When the sun set they pitched a camp nearby, two men stayed on guard while the other three slept without any coverlets for it was still warm. Dumarin snorted softly when Halamin lit himself a pipe and exchanged last words with Tarés before the latter went about his duty. Hilberon had laid his head on the saddle of his horse and was asleep a moment later, his features relaxed and his mouth slightly open. Tarés, who pointed at him as he passed by, mimicked Hilberon's expression and shook his head. Halamin nodded and returned the smile.
Aragorn could not even close his eyes. Staring at the starlit sky, he thought about the strange find he had made. What kind of animal had it been? What kind of man had ridden it? Who had attended the meeting and for what reason? And – stranger – how could it be that the animal had not moved while the man had walked away? It seemed clear that the man had been riding it, so it had to be a beast of a pony's size at least. But the prints had not been too deep. Perhaps there was more to the rumours about wild beasts attacking cattle.
He closed his eyes and tried to rest. It was of no use to speculate about those incidents. He would know more when they rode further east. All by itself the picture of Arwen came to his mind. He remembered the night of the coronation. He had not let her hand go, afraid she might vanish that very moment. For so long he had wished for that day to come that he had been hardly able to breathe when they entered the hall. They had sat down with all the noble men and women of Gondor and the friends who had accompanied him in all the battles he had fought. But he had been a bad host. Overflowed with thankfulness he had been unable to focus on more than his wife-to-be. She had smiled reassuringly and claimed her hand back to take up fork and knife. He had felt like a fool. Gandalf's smile had been the only sign that anyone had noticed his behaviour, and with a deep breath he had started to eat. He could not recall what he had eaten. After all the ordeal he had survived he needed time to realise that the years of war were over. The banquet had been nice, the spirits high, and the Hobbits had been drunken with more than music. And Arwen had been smiling. All her hopes had been fulfilled. Even her father had accepted that she had chosen her own path to happiness. Finally Aragorn had been able to let go his worries. She would be his wife for all time that was left for him to live. He could share everything with her. And still he left the city alone, needing to ride out and find peace in the open land. He ought to be at her side more often than not, but he could not shake off his nature. Houses were narrow, even a city was not more than a collection of houses, barrens, and stables. If he wanted to breathe it had to be under the open sky.