Chapter 49: The Gift
"Lady Lothíriel?" The distant voice of her Gondorian handmaid woke the Queen of Rohan from her state of reverie, and her dark eyes turned from the family of falcons riding the breeze that surrounded the lonely hill in the middle of the plains. There was an unfamiliar urgency in Maia's posture as she hastened down the stairs, and for a moment, it filled Lothíriel with dread. Until she saw the radiating smile on the younger woman' face. "Lady Lothíriel, they are coming! The king is coming! They are already approaching the gates!"
Her words stole Lothíriel's breath away. With an unconscious gesture, her right hand slid down to her by now considerable bulge, while the other grasped the trailing fabric of her long cape she had laid around her shoulders against the wind. Most aware of how clumsily she was moving these days, the Queen of Rohan hastened toward the stairs.
"Is he well, Maia? Was he riding himself or-"
"His host was still too far away for me to see properly, my lady, but I did see that it was preceded by a huge black horse. I know no other who would attempt to ride this demon, so it must be your husband." Her smile deepened as she saw the reaction in Lothíriel's face, and she extended a hand to help the queen up the stairs. "We all have been missing him, my lady. I know how you feel. This is a most fortunate day for Rohan."
"Eru be praised. I do not know what kept him in Minas Tirith for so long after the battle, but I feared for the worst. Yet if he is riding by himself… Come, Maia, let us welcome him as we should!"
The two women hastened up the stairs that brought them to the back of the Golden Hall, and while they ascended, the sight of Edoras' population rushing toward the main road that led up the hill spoke of the imminent event. When the horns from the great gates rang out in greeting, the Rohirrim had already assembled on the slope, and with the distant thunder of hooves and a great dust cloud, cheers erupted.
"The king! The king is coming!"
Her hands digging into the wool of her cape, Lothíriel felt a shudder racing through her, a tremble of anticipation, almost unbearable in its intensity as she came to a halt in front of Meduseld's gates. The Royal Guard had already assembled there, and their chief bowed his head to her with a relieved smile on his lips.
"You see, my lady, that it takes more than wild men and Easterlings to keep Éomer from returning to you. Your husband is renowned throughout the Mark and even beyond its boundaries for his determination. Whenever the king has set his mind on something, he is apt to even move the mountains of the Ered Nimrais to achieve it."
"I see now that you were right, Lord Gamling," Lothíriel admitted with a little nod. "Forgive me for doubting your words even for a second. Little did I know of Rohirric willpower." The cheers grew louder as the host proceeded through the lower parts of the city, slowly approaching. Taking her eyes from what she could not yet see, she gave her counsellor a smile of gratitude. "Yet I would like you to know that your insistent words were a great source of comfort for me. Éomer and I consider ourselves fortuitous indeed to have you in our service. Thank you, Lord Gamling."
An expression of moved surprise on his haggard features, the red-haired Rohir indicated another bow. "I am glad to have been able to help, Lady Lothíriel. Ah, here they come now!"
Under the dust cloud stirred up by their horses, the host of riders slowly ascended the steep slope toward the Golden Hall, clearing the last curve under the cheers of the flanking crowd. Lothíriel's heart suddenly jumped into her throat at the sight of the great black horse preceding them, and the figure in the brownish-red armour on its back that waved at the people they were passing. She knew what was expected of her, of a queen. She knew what the people of Gondor would have been expecting of her: royal composure. Joy, yes, but no unruly dash down the stairs, shouting for her returning husband. And she could no longer dash, not with the bulk of her womb hindering her, but Éomer's name was rising in her throat, on her tongue, her lips. It wanted out, and holding back was nothing short of torture. As was standing next to the Royal Guard, all regal and erect, awaiting the returning riders in front of Meduseld as they approached under their kinsmen's cheers. Just when Lothíriel thought she could not possibly hold back her joy any longer, the king finally shifted his attention, and when his searching glance found her, it sent a jolt through her body that swept all of her considerations of regal composure aside like a tidal wave. Before she knew what she was doing, Lothíriel was rushing down the steps, not even looking. Not wanting to ever take her eyes away from the sight of her husband's face, over which a slow smile was spreading now, lighting up his eyes.
The heads of the foremost bystanders snapped around, but she did not notice as she hastened on as fast as her feet would carry her. She did not see the wondrous smiles on their faces at the sight of their queen's exhibit of unrestrained joy. There was only Éomer, and the sparkle of exuberance in his dark eyes as he slid from the saddle even before he had reached the foot of the stairs. Her vision blurred as she threw herself into his open arms, laughing and crying at the same time.
"Éomer! Oh, Éomer, you have returned! Praised be the Valar! I missed you more than words can tell!" The strength with which he was crushing her to his chest was comforting. Even though he was holding her so tight that she could barely breathe, she could not be close enough to him. Her hands caressing his face, she opened her eyes to see the great effort of the past weeks in his features, but even more overwhelming joy over being back… and his deep love for her.
"Lothíriel…" Hunting for the right words was folly with the overwhelming emotions racing through him, so Éomer did not even try. The passion with which his mouth claimed hers under the whooping cheers of their people instead said all there was to know…
Around midday of a clear but cool day, they finally arrived at the northern rim of Ithilien's realm. With Prince Faramir rode his captain, the Royal Guard, and Ridasha, who sat behind Hilberon on his mighty steed since she had refused to ride alone. On the other side of the prince sat King Elessar on Brego, his hands resting loosely on the pommel, while his gaze was directed north. He was content with what he had achieved during his journey, and looked forward to the meeting with the Easterlings. But his first sight was the herds of sharos, which had grazed there for eight weeks. They looked healthy and had grown their thick fur again. If the king was surprised to see so many of these animals roaming the plain, he did not show it.
Still Ridasha was anxious about the outcome of the king's ride, and she had watched his behaviour and expression for the duration of the ride, unable to word her fears or even ask about his verdict. For a week after his return to the White City he had been too sick to get up, and the tidings from the Royal House had been few. She had feared for his life until he had shown himself on the streets. He had still looked pale and haggard, but the rumours of his imminent death – caused by the evil spell of the Easterling leader, word of which had spread like wildfire – had been drowned that day. Still he had not uttered a word about the solution he had proposed that day at the base camp near Osgiliath, and Ridasha had not dared to talk to him. With the Royal Guard and a few trusted men as well as his wife, he had left Minas Tirith for Calas Galadhon, while the Easterling woman had been ordered to remain in the City, not as a prisoner, but as a guest with restricted freedom.
Ridasha had seen the Rohirrim and Gondorians return from Rhûn, and wherever she had walked she had heard reports about their captivity, one lie crueller than the next, and some she could not tolerate. Her attempts to correct them, though, had been futile, but she knew better. Though not treated with kindness, none of them had been marked, the Easterling had found out, and she was glad at least about these revelations. She learned that Harishdane had ordered all high priestesses to wait with the consecration to Úshemor until her return. There was much joy and relief in the White City that the war – as suddenly as it had begun it had been over – had been won without many losses on the sides of Gondor and Rohan. Songs were sung about the help of the Riders from Rohan in the hour of Gondor's need, and the soldiers from the western realm, who had waited on the Pelennor Fields for the recovery of their king, now had returned home.
The young Easterling woman thought about her own home, now that she saw her people on foreign soil, which they had been allowed to live on by the lenience of the Prince of Ithilien. She knew King Elessar would not grant them to settle here, though Ridasha had foolishly hoped for quite some time that the king's mercy would reach this far. He had obviously denied that option, but had refrained from further explanations of his journey to the Lady Galadriel.
Hilberon leant forward in the saddle to stroke Harolyan's neck. His thoughts were with his father and the joy they had shared in the moment of reunion. Hilberon had never before seen his father weep, and knew how hard the times had been for him, uncertain if his only son would return home. They had spent hours until late into the night talking, relieved to know the dark days were over. Hiregon had been interested in every detail of his son's adventure, and when the night waned they had prayed for the King to survive.
King Elessar had recovered, and the day he had shown himself for the first time with his wife in the City had been celebrated by the folk. Yet their contentment was incomparable to the pride Hiregon had come to learn. The young man blushed even now, remembering the morning the king had come to the smithy to praise Hilberon's deeds. His father had not known what to say, but had bowed low and stuttered words of gratitude. Then the king had turned to Hilberon and had put a hand on his shoulder, conveying all he wanted to express with just a look. The son of the smith had been overwhelmed with blessedness.
The Easterlings had spotted the entourage from afar and had gathered to meet the Gondorians. Enorishdon was among them, tall and unafraid, unlike his fellows, who knew not what to expect. They all greeted the king and the prince respectfully by bowing their heads. Ridasha could see that none of her people looked famished or maltreated, and she was content. The Gondorian soldiers, as she understood, had not been revengeful.
After they had dismounted, the king looked adamantly at the Easterlings. Ridasha was greeted by members of her tribe, and with a feeble smile she stood between her people and the Gondorians, feeling at odds with herself. She neither belonged to her tribe nor to the strangers from Ithilien, who held the fate of her kin in their hands. Her heart pounded heavily in her chest when she looked up to King Elessar once more. His stern expression did not give away his thoughts.
All men and women present looked at the Gondorian ruler in anticipation of his verdict. Silence fell. Finally the king spoke.
"After a time of war, peace shall follow and allow the peoples to live side by side again in freedom." Aragorn's eyes rested on the woman from the east, and she swallowed, silently praying for mercy from both the king and her goddess. "No victor should cause the annihilation of the defeated, and no revenge – even justified – should condemn a people to perish."
Some voices rose in doubt, and Enorishdon looked at Ridasha uncertainly, but she did not heed his worry. Her gaze was directed to the King of Gondor, and her lips were parted in a smile, though unbeknownst to her.
The king continued, "So hear then my verdict on the people from Rhûn. You will leave this land immediately. For too long have you roamed our northern borders and caused the settlers harm by letting your animals graze on the plain. You will drive your herds westward until you reach Dol Goldur." The king let his gaze travel over the men and women listening to him. Some looked at each other, uncertain where this statement would lead them. "Once that land was occupied by dark forces, but now it is deserted, and with the allowance of the Lady Galadriel of Lórien you are free to dwell on the fertile soil between the mountains and the river, for as long as you remain peaceful and mind your own business." He held the stares of many, until they bowed their heads once more. To some it seemed a harsh verdict to be pushed away from their own land to the unknown west. But to others it sounded like a chance to start anew on land that they would not have to share with any other people.
Ridasha knew she should say something. She knew she had to thank King Elessar for his benevolence. After the incidents in Dunland none of her kin had had the right to expect mercy, let alone a new home by his negotiation. They were granted a fortune – more than Ridasha could imagine at the moment – and still none of her people were able to utter a word.
Only when the king's gaze found her again, she wet her lips and said: "Better than anyone present I think I can measure the greatness of this gift, King Elessar of Gondor. Your generosity will be praised in our songs and lore, and we… we are grateful to receive the gift of your wisdom and justice." Her voice betrayed her emotion at last, and she bent her knee and lowered her chin, as did the rest of her kinsmen.
"Rise," the king ordered them, and stepped forward to meet Ridasha in front of her people. His grey eyes rested with kindness on her tanned face. "Rilon Avas Damelon Rhûneshan, you stayed true to your people. You never strayed from the path your goddess taught you, and you did everything in your power to save your kindred." He turned to the expectant Easterlings. "Since this woman from the tribe of the Musheni deserves your respect and has earned mine, it is my wish and my command that she shall lead your people on. I see wisdom and clarity in her actions, and I am convinced that she will serve you and your gods well in the future." And those standing around murmured in astonishment that he selected her and had called her by her full name. Ridasha smiled gladly, and her cheeks flushed.
"It will be as the king commands."
The king looked at Enorishdon, and the Easterling nodded his approval.
"We will follow your bidding, King Elessar, and will accept your verdict."
Ridasha thanked him with a friendly look, and then faced the Gondorian ruler again.
"We cannot measure your kindness, my lord, nor can we ever repay you for saving our people from certain death." She was glad Hilberon had followed her with the package she had carefully wrapped and now handed it to her. She gave it to Aragorn. "But I hope that this small gift will be a reminder of our gratefulness and taken as a sign of peace between our peoples."
The King of Gondor bowed curtly and, with an amused frown, opened the package. A fine woven blanket came into view, and Aragorn unfolded it. The main colour was red, but intriguing patterns were interwoven, and it was indeed a work of art to remember.
"I thank you, Rilon Avas," the king said with a slight bow. "Your gift will be honoured to represent the new peace between our peoples. But we, too, did not come here without a small gift." He handed the folded blanket to Halamin, and the prince handed Elessar a parcel wrapped in leather.
"This is my gift to you, Ridasha, to see and remember, to honour and cherish." He put the parcel into Ridasha's trembling hands, and she found an artfully drawn map of Northern Ithilien and the way to Dol Goldur. "It was done by the Elves," he explained quietly, "and can be regarded an invitation to your new home." She was not able to speak, and so the final words were left to the king. "So it may be, people from Rhûn, that after the long time of hatred and misgivings, there will be peace at last for all of us. May the Gods of both our peoples look upon us with benevolence."