The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 69: King of the Living and the Dead

As the battle ebbed away from them on the Fields of the Pelennor, Éomer dismounted from Liath and walked over to Aragorn. The Ranger had paused for breath, his great sword Anduril, stained with blood, gripped in his hand. His chain mail was torn and scored and his face was grim but he smiled with joy to see Éomer alive....

Behind Aragorn Éomer saw his comrades Gimli and Legolas. The Dwarf's axe was notched and dyed with orc blood; the Elf held his bow with an arrow ready to shoot...

‘Well met, well met, Aragorn! You come just in time...’ said Éomer, his voice hoarse with shouting his commands to his men over the din of battle. He saw Aragorn’s eyes resting on his stained and battered chain mail and torn leather armour.
‘Well met, indeed’ said Aragorn quietly, embracing Éomer. When the Lord of the Mark stood back, his face had a stricken look.
‘We have suffered grievous loss, Lord Aragorn….’

And Éomer’s voice trailed off; how could he tell Aragorn that Éowyn was dead? That she had ridden to war in despair, perhaps because of his departure on the Paths of the Dead? His voice failed him, for all his courage, and he strove in vain to find words to tell Aragorn of his sister and his uncle King Théoden’s deaths.

‘Do not speak of these things!’ Aragorn said suddenly, shaking his head and resting his hand on Éomer’s arm. Then the Lord of the Mark looked at Aragorn, and he saw in him a change; during the long dark ride through the Paths of the Dead, at the head of the army of the oathbreakers, the unburied wanderers of the half-world between life and death, Aragorn had aged many winters.

Éomer looked closer; through Aragorn’s dark hair ran threads of silver. On his face too, lines were etched deeply that had only been shadows before. In the depths of his grey eyes was another shadow, a haunted memory that from this time to his death would never leave Aragorn.

The Ranger guessed some great sorrow had befallen Éomer, but it was more than his heart could bear to hear it at that moment. He raised Anduril and spoke loudly to Éomer;
‘Let us avenge these things before we even speak of them!’

The Riders gathered round Éomer and Aragorn heard these words and gave a loud shout, and with that their leader swung himself up onto his warhorse again and seizing the White Horse standard he bore it himself, alongside the black banner with the silver tree and stars wrought by Arwen for Aragorn. And together they drove the hosts of Mordor back towards the river….

At the ragged end of the army of Rohan Callanach struggled to keep up. His horse Star, the little black Harad pony, went more and more slowly until at last he started limping and Callanach reined him to a halt. Sliding off he examined his mount, and found a deep cut, from sword or lance, in his shoulder. Blood stained the glossy flanks and the brave little horse hung its head down, blowing hard.

‘Good boy, rest, rest!’ said Callanach rubbing his neck gently. ‘You have fought enough for one day, I will not urge you any further…’
The little horse ******** up his ears as if he understood. Callanach wished he had water for the beast, but to ease the burden on the wounded animal he undid the saddle and pulled it off. He tugged up a handful of dry grass and fed the pony, and looked round.

Aragorn and Éomer had led the Riders in their last assault on the enemy, and Callanach was left alone in a field of dead and dying. A hot wind blew acrid smoke across the scene and all the lad could see was the dead; of Rohan, of Harad and of Mordor. A field of death….
‘Líofa!’ thought Callanach suddenly. ‘where is he?’

Leaving Star he ran back through the debris of war, looking through the fallen for the bright glint of Elven mail. The battlefield seemed endless, but at last he saw a banner of Rohan stuck in the ground.

Callanach’s blood ran cold; he hurried to the spot and found what seemed to be a whole éored of slain warriors of Rohan; perhaps they had made a stand by the flag and been overrun, fighting to the last man. Callanach recognised many of them, and with a heavy heart he pulled their cloaks over their faces. Then he was roused by a whinny behind him.

Half afraid of what he would see, he rose to his feet and turned round; there, behind him, stood Brand, Líofa’s tall grey horse. As he stared at the animal it dropped its head and nosed at a body lying on the ground; Callanach looked and saw it was Líofa…

The sky was lightening towards dawn, grey-blue over a plain white with frost. Elves do not suffer from cold, but Líofa felt chilled to his very bones. Ahead of him King Théoden led a great body of Riders to the edge of a long grassy escarpment and halted, looking out over the Mark. Behind the distant line of mountains, jagged black against the stars, rose the moon, a bright shard casting shadows on the plain.

The tips of the Riders’ spears glinted in the ghostly light and the jingle of bits and thump of hooves on the hard ground was all that broke the frosty stillness. The King beckoned Líofa to his side and when the Elf had come up to him he smiled and said;

‘You have borne yourself bravely in my service, Harpist and Elf of the North. Now it is time for you to leave us…’

Líofa looked at Théoden as if to protest but the King held up his hand and prevented him.
‘We are of the earth, the people of the Mark and of Gondor. But you Elves are of the Stars. Where we go you cannot follow.’

Líofa said nothing, but looked at the other Riders. Beside Théoden a young warrior in richly decorated armour sat on a white horse, looking at Líofa with an expression of indifference. Líofa wondered how he had not noticed such a noble young Rider before…then the King spoke again.

‘When in summer the cloud-shadows race each other across the plains of the Mark, there will we be, our hearts beating like the hooves of swift-running steeds. In winter when every blade of grass is imprisoned by snow, we will feel the keen wind blowing as if spring will never come. Under the green grass of the Riddermark, our hearts will be stilled at last, we who fought for her today.’

Líofa looked again at Théoden, realising at last the meaning of his words. And he knew then that the young warrior by the King’s side was his son, Théodred…

Líofa looked over his shoulder. All the host sat silent and motionless on their horses like men carved from stone. The tips of their spears glittered like diamonds and the gilded helms shone with a dull fire. But the gold was tarnished and the silver of the harnesses corroded. Over their heads the banners of green seemed black in the moonlight, hanging like ragged graveclothes. In the eyes of the host burned a pale cold fire, but that was their only sign of life….

Líofa turned back to Théoden and went to speak but found he could not. Then the King gathered his reins in his hand and said;

‘When you take up your harp again, Elf, do not sing my lament. Make for me a song of rejoicing, of victory. Tell those who may live to hear song again how the earth shook to the sound of our horses’ hooves; how our swords shone in the sun like silver, and our helms like gold. Say to those who do not yet know how this day Théoden King earned his place among his fathers, the Eorlingas….’

And the King looked towards the West and said in a voice that wounded Líofa to the heart;
‘..tell them how fair the springtime will be on the plains of the Mark. And tell my sister-daughter Éowyn…..farewell….’

And without looking at Líofa again King Théoden urged Snowmane forward and his men followed and his last words were lost amid the sound of hoofbeats on the iron-hard ground.

They rode down the slope into a hollow between two hills. A mist lay on the low ground and it hid them for a while. Líofa, straining his Elvish sight to follow them, at last saw them emerge from the sea of silver-white and surge out onto the plain. But now they were not a body of armed and mounted men but a great herd of wild horses, black and grey and dun, their manes glistening with frost and their eyes bright in the moonlight. With a thunder of hooves they broke into a gallop, tossing their heads and, led by a great, grey stallion they headed towards the West and were lost to Líofa’s sight…

When they were gone a great weakness came over the Elf. He was forced to lie down on the cold ground with his cloak wrapped round him. He wondered if he too was dead.
‘Sooner or later, by war or by slow decay, you will die in Middle Earth like any mortal!’
The words of Saruman echoed in his mind, but Líofa no longer cared. He wanted only to sleep..….