Chapter seven: Finding Their Voice
From Finding Their Voice, by Oswine Odmundson, F.A. 610
Whose voices speak to us most loudly from the past? Here in the Riddermark, we tell songs and stories, and pass them down from father to son. Warrior to warrior, the stories spread around the camp fire. Scholar to scholar, they spread in quiet halls. Early in the Fourth Age, we began to learn the habit of writing things down, but to us, the voices of the past speak most clearly when they speak aloud.
But do these voices speak the truth? When a man hears a tale and retells it, he changes it subtly, even if he does not mean to. He brings to it his own preoccupations and those of his age. "Harken now to the words of Éomer the Great!" we hear, but did Éomer King ever speak the words that we so boldly attribute to him? Éomer at least wrote some things down, but his forefathers left us barely any written record at all. All we have is the tales. We cherish them and we rightly value them, but how far can we believe them?
And the stories tell only of lords and kings. The common folk of the Riddermark have left us no word: no stories, no writings, no voice. Theirs is but silence.
It was different in Gondor. Gondor, too, had its songs and its stories, but from the start, Gondor prized the written word. Yet even so, until the dawn of the Fourth Age, we hear little from the common folk. The lords had their libraries, but many common farmers could not read. We have letters from stewards and letters from lords, but the people of Gondor who lived through the War of the Ring left us but scant account of their thoughts.
All that changed in the early years of the Fourth Age. There was a flowering of literacy. All across Gondor, people found their voice. The roads were repaired, and a postal service was established, and men and women, however humble, could send letters to their distant kin.
And send letters they did. The men who marched with Elessar to the Black Gate have left us but little. Just fourteen years later, the men who marched with him against the Easterlings sent letters to loved ones at home. Some kept diaries. Others hoarded the written word, and kept orders and lists, and we can still see them centuries later. And as they marched from Osgiliath through Ithilien, the men and women who watched them pass wrote letters and diaries about what they had seen.
"My worries were groundless," wrote one farmer's wife to her sister in Lossarnach. "They didn't trample anything to ruin. They took only what we wanted to give them, and they paid for what they took. They were very polite. I gave them an extra cartload of potatoes for free. Well, harvests have been something wonderful these last few years, and it's a good cause, after all. And no, I didn't see the king."
"My feet hurt," wrote a man-at-arms. "We did twenty miles today, just going as far as the crossroads. They say we're aiming for twenty-five tomorrow. I hope I get a better night's sleep than last night. I wonder if you'll get this. Captain says that messengers are going back to Minas Tirith daily, and there might be room for them to take messages from us lowly fellows, although not too many, and not at all once. So maybe I won't send this, so as not to waste my turn. I'll save it for when I've got something important to say, not just I love you. I love you."
"I remember watching the army go by," wrote an old woman many decades later. "I was five. My brother was older than me, but he was afraid. I wasn't. I climbed an apple tree and watched them go past: the horsemen first, then the men-at-arms and then the waggons. Some of them passed really close to me, but only one of them saw me. He was quite young, or so I realise now, and he pulled a funny face and gave a little wave. I think he got told off for that."
Trampled crops, sore feet and a child hiding in an apple tree. Those are the voices that have come down to us. They are as much a part of war as the stories of captains and kings.
For twelve years, he had gone by the name of Seregon. It was not his true name, of course. For twelve years, he had kept his head down. He had built a life for himself in this city of his enemies. It was a false life, of course. It meant nothing.
He had friends. He would kill them in an instant. He had taken lovers, but never kept them. He had broken bread with comrades who thought that they knew him. They did not.
And he had gone down on one knee. He had bowed before the lords of Gondor, and he had swallowed his pride and spoken hollow, empty oaths. With all the other hateful fools, he had pretended to be overjoyed when he as much as glimpsed their king from a distance. It was good to be in Minas Tirith in this new age of the world; that was what they all agreed. The man who was not called Seregon nodded along with them. And sometimes… Sometimes…
Sometimes it almost felt…
He clenched his fist; smashed it into the opposite palm. He could not waver, now he was so close to the end. Twelve years of waiting. Twelve years of creating this man called Seregon, and embedding him into the life of the hideous city of the kings from beyond the sea. For years he had worked here alone. Others would come, he had been told, but for years, they had not.
But they were here now. They were here, and they had taken command. They distrusted him a little, he thought, because of the new oaths he had sworn, but those oaths meant nothing. He had told them that hotly, fiercely, and there and then, had sworn again the old oaths he had made upon first becoming a man. They had accepted those oaths in the end, and so he was no longer alone, and the time for the end game had come.
In truth, he had played but little part in the opening moves of the war. To him had fallen the most recent move, but it had not been an intentional one, or not entirely. He had intended to kill someone, but he had not intended it to be that fellow Hastor. Curse the man's keen eyes! Curse his conscientious nature, which had caused him to poke his nose in when he should have walked away! Seregon had killed him to silence him, but had made his death serve the wider goal. The bead was a nice touch, if he did say so himself. Shame that he had lost his cloak, but it had been too soaked in blood to be salvaged. He had endured a few anxious hours before it was safely burnt.
What commands would they have for him next? It was strange to have true masters to command him, after all those years of living alone amongst his enemies. What was the next stage of this war? The bait had been taken, and the king of Gondor had ridden away, chasing shadows in the east. In his absence, Gondor was weakened. The Steward remained, of course, and he was a formidable man in his own right, but he was also a mortal man. The Steward could not command an army of the dead to obey his every command.
Seregon did not fear him, and soon, he thought, smiling. Soon…
In the bright afternoon sunshine, the beautiful towers of Minas Tirith looked garish and brash. Its people were ugly, and kept getting in his way. It was too hot. Instead of attracting him, the smells from the market stalls and taverns made Mínir want to recoil. When people spoke to him, it was all he could do not to shout at them and send them on their way.
I'm in a black mood today, it seems, he thought, as he trudged through the airless streets.
It was too many days without answers. It was too many nights spent searching, always searching for those answers that never came. He'd narrowed the source of the rumours down, but then he'd hit a solid wall. Nobody knew, and no amount of asking could make people remember something that they'd never known in the first place. He still had no idea who had killed the assassin, and no idea who had shouted the warning. With the matter of the striking bell, at least he had some answer, but it was not a useful one. The bell had rung in an abandoned tower. The door had been locked, but somebody had broken in. As to who he was… Well, that was anyone's guess.
And then had come another crime, and another source of rumours racing through the streets. The Easterlings were amongst them! They'd slaughtered an honest, upstanding young fellow from the Watch! At least the king had gone to war against them! That would quickly put an end to their mischief once and for all.
At least, that had been the consensus of the night before. This morning, they had woken to a different world: a world in which their king was no longer with them. Although few had marched from the city itself, most people knew someone who had marched away. Wives had awakened to an empty bed. There were empty places at breakfast tables and around the tavern tables where the same friends gathered, day in and day out.
You wanted this! Mínir wanted to scream at them. You were the ones who were so quick to clamour for war!
But, silent, he trudged on. It was only when he reached the fourth gate that he wavered. He was in a dark mood, and yet he was planning to visit a man who had been caught up in a situation far darker. He hadn't had time before now to seek out the weaver, but he hadn't forgotten him. The king had told him he could do this. It was right, he thought. It was right.
He let out a long breath. He pressed his hands to his face, then scraped them downwards, as if he was gouging away thick layers of dirt. He sighed again, and set out walking more briskly, through the fourth gate and the fifth, and up to the sixth level. He didn't show his token at the gate, because he had no urgent news to report. They watched him closely as he passed, though; more closely than they did at the other gates. Of course, he realised, these were the fellows who had lost a comrade the day before. It was only natural that they would stare at strangers so.
Once through the gate, he headed for the Houses of Healing. He used his token here, saying that he had permission to visit the… prisoner? Patient? He didn't know what the weaver was. It seemed that nobody else knew, either. "Be gentle," said the healer, "for he is still weak," but the guard said gruffly, "Be careful," and, "I'll be at the door, watching you."
It didn't look like a prison cell, at any rate. There were bars on the window, true, but someone had put a vase of flowers on the table by the bed. The bed looked comfortable enough, but the walls were whitewashed stone and the floor was wood, only one thin rug to soften the sound of Mínir's footsteps. He wondered how many other injured prisoners had been tended here while under guard. More than once, his own work had led to a murderer being captured, sometimes after a bitter fight, although not with him, because he was no fighter. It had never occurred to him to wonder what they about the criminal's wounds after they dragged him away.
The weaver lay with his back to the door, and didn't react when Mínir approached the bed. Mínir looked for a stool, and found one, carrying it to the far side of the bed. The weaver's eyes were open, staring at the wall. The weaver? Mínir thought. He didn't even know the man's name, and yet here he was.
Here he was, and why? He had no idea how to begin. He had no idea what to say. And the weaver just lay there and stared, the first casualty of this war. But when the histories were written, would any of them include his name? If he was guilty, he would be reviled, but if he was innocent, he would be forgotten. 'The assassin took refuge in a weaver's loft,' they would say in the histories, and they would leave it at that.
The business of the kingdom continued as normal. Breakfast and lunch were particularly fine, and the gardeners were busy pruning, or whatever it was that gardeners got up to in the summer. Sam would know, Pippin thought, but Sam was too busy being mayor to come with them to Minas Tirith. Lithe began in three days, and there were important decisions to be made about the festivities.
There were important decisions to be made in Minas Tirith, too. This was the day when the people of Gondor could bring their appeals before the king, and throughout the afternoon, there was a steady stream of them. Aragorn wasn't there, of course, but Faramir had the authority to make rulings on his behalf. For hours he had sat in that black stone chair at the foot of the stairs, listening to petitioners, asking questions, making judgements.
Pippin had entered the throne room not long after lunch. The guards there hadn't stopped him, merely opening the doors as he approached, and letting him wander right in. Pippin had expected everyone to turn and stare at him, but nobody had. Although they were such enormous things, the doors made no sound, and Pippin's feet were silent on the stone floor.
The guards stopped everyone else, though, questioning them closely before letting them in. Pippin wandered outside during a break in the proceedings, and saw that they were stopping them at the entrance to the Citadel, too. Of course they were. Gondor was once again at war, and it less than a week since somebody had tried to kill Aragorn. They wouldn't let just anybody wander into the throne room. Petitioners were welcomed, but they were searched, and they had to leave their weapons at the gate below.
I don't know how that makes me feel, Pippin confessed to himself. It was a comfort to think that steps were being taken to make them all safe. The Citadel was full of strangers, and it was nice to know that they weren't suddenly going to whip out a weapon and try to kill Faramir or the queen. But at the same time, it reminded him too much of the dark days of the siege, when Denethor had been so hostile and distrusting, and nobody had known if they would live to see another dawn.
Where was Merry? He looked round for him, but there was no sign of him. Probably reading, or expounding on pipeweed to some hapless healer. Merry was writing a book about it, you see, and had developed quite a passion for old lore. It was a passion that Pippin was beginning to share, but today he couldn't concentrate on reading.
Too many of the stories told of war; that was what the problem was. All the oldest ones were about the death of kings.
Back into the throne room, then, for another session. He wondered if Faramir had managed to snatch a bite to eat. It was late afternoon now, and well past time for a little snack. Had Faramir managed to have any lunch? Strong and serene, he sat in his cold stone chair, and he always seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say. He never said 'er…' or 'um…' or any of the other silly things that hobbits said when they were thinking. He never chewed his lip, struggling to decide. He never even glanced up at the empty throne above him, as if wondering if Aragorn would approve of the judgement he was making. If Pippin had come here as a stranger, he would have assumed that he was looking at the king.
Yet Faramir was troubled, Pippin knew. He had seen it on the battlements the night before, and he had seen it over breakfast. He was troubled and unhappy, but yet…
I'm going to have to do this one day, Pippin thought. Oh, not in the same way, of course. Being Thain wasn't like being the Steward of Gondor. It was little more than an honorary title, but as head of the Tooks, everyone in Tookland would be his tenants. They would come to him with their boundary disputes and their grievances, just as the people of Gondor came to Faramir now. Moreover, Aragorn had hinted that once the rebuilding of Annúminas was complete and the northern kingdom became a reality, he and Merry and Sam would have a part to play within it.
I don't… he thought, but I have to, he told himself.
Finding himself a quiet spot at the foot of an ancient statue, he settled down to watch.
His head hurt. It always did now. He needed a drink, but the healers wouldn't let him have one. Said it was bad for him, or some nonsense like that. They were right, of course, but that didn't make it any easier to hear. At times, they seemed more hard and cruel than the guards were, for all that they talked to him in gentle voices and smiled at him with pity in their eyes.
And the guards weren't cruel, either, just cold. They didn't answer his questions, so he'd given up asking them. Rosseth didn't come to see him. Of course she didn't.
"Do you remember me?" the man was saying. He looked awkward and uncomfortable on the stool beside Lainor's bed.
"No," Lainor said. "You don't look like a healer and it's plain that you're no soldier, but..." You're no soldier… The words struck an echo in his mind, and suddenly he thought that he remembered the man, after all. But maybe not. Memories came and went, and some true things seemed less real than dreams. "Nobody else comes," he said. "Nobody answers."
The man leant forward. "Do you know?" he asked sharply. "Do you know why they're keeping you here?"
"I was struck on the head," Lainor said. "I nearly died. I don't…"
I don't remember. He had been unconscious for days, or so they told him. He had regained consciousness after the injury, then sunk back into sleep. Each time he had seemed to surface, he had sunk back down again. He couldn't remember. He couldn't remember any of it. There weren't even dreams. No dreams, except one.
"Nothing else?" the man said. "They haven't told you anything else?"
"No." Lainor lashed his head from side to side, and it hurt, oh how it hurt! No dreams, except one. He had been so tiny in that dream, alone on an empty plain. Towering above him, there was a statue of a king, as tall as the sky, with eyes that knew every secret of all men's hearts. Lainor had fallen to his knees before him and sobbed, because there was nothing inside him but worthlessness and cowardice, and now the king knew. He knew.
"You were attacked," the man said, "because…" He broke off then, and looked across Lainor's bed towards the guard at the door, presumably waiting to see if he was allowed to carry on. Don't! Lainor thought. Please, tell him no! But the guard must have nodded, because the man continued. "An assassin was using your loft as a hiding place. He tried to kill the king, but he was unsuccessful. He was unsuccessful," he stressed.
Lainor felt tears welling up in his eyes. His head was throbbing. Oh, how his head was throbbing. He couldn't hold onto memories any longer. He forgot things. Oh, please…
"They're keeping you under guard because they fear you might be implicated," the man said gently. "The assassin was hiding in your loft for days, after all."
"Don't," Lainor begged, just as the guard by the door spoke up. "He already knows, sir. He's been told all this before."
Told it before. Told it a second time, when he had put his hands to his ears and refused to hear it. Heard it a third time and a fourth time and a fifth time, alone in the dark and close to sleeping. He slammed the doors of memory, but still it came seeping out. I don't hear it! he cried, and I won't remember it! but still the whisper came.
Because of you, the king might have died.
"I didn't know he was there!" he protested. "I drink too much. I stopped caring about anything, because Rosseth left me. She was right to leave me. I'm just a coward. I deserted the king's army on the way to the Black Gate. I betrayed my people, and now I've betrayed my king. I didn't know he was there, you've got to believe me, but I know it doesn't make any difference. If I was a traitor, at least I'd have done it out of choice, but this…" He was sobbing now. He'd sobbed the last time, too. "I didn't mean to. I didn't know. I need a drink. I didn't know. I'll forget it in the morning. I forget things." He grabbed the man's wrist, holding it tight. "I forget things, you know."
"You should not forget this," the man said quietly. "You made a mistake. Don't let it break you."
Lainor shoved him away. The stool rocked backwards, two legs leaving the ground, then crashing back. "What do you know about it?" he shouted. "You don't understand!"
"You rode out with the king, and then deserted," the man said, and oh, how Lainor hated him! "I didn't even ride out. I refused the call. I hid. I…" He pressed his hands to his mouth, and let out a breath. "For a few years, I let the guilt rule me. It turned me bitter. It made me someone I don't really like that much, when I look back. But I was forgiven by… someone who had the right to forgive. And then I forgave myself. I can't erase the mistakes of my past, but I can make sure that I don't repeat them. I can ensure that my new deeds speak more loudly than the old ones."
Nothing. His words meant nothing. Lainor rolled over, turning away from him, and closed his eyes.
He would forget this in the morning.
The next day was hotter than ever, and there was little wind. Faramir was busy, and the children were with their tutors and their nurses, the little ones playing in the garden, while Eldarion and Elboron were learning about herbs. Snatches of their happy voices drifted in through the window.
It was cooler inside, enclosed by walls of thick, cold stone. Éowyn and Arwen sat together, in silence for the most part. Arwen was busy with her embroidery, but Éowyn had never really developed a taste for needlework. In Gondor, it was the lot of noble ladies to sew, or so it seemed, but in the Riddermark, Éowyn had longed to wield a keener blade.
"Can you see him?" Éowyn blurted out. She had not meant to say it, but like a warrior who drew his sword and challenged his enemy, she was committed now. "Do you know what he's doing? They say you can. The singers that tell your story, they say that you watched over him from afar for many years."
"They turn us into tales, who are yet living." Arwen laid her embroidery ring upon her lap, and rested her needle carefully on the stitching. Éowyn wondered what she was sewing. There were silver leaves there, and golden trees.
"I just…" Éowyn began, but she let it fade away. There was no fire in the hearth, but out of habit, a hound had been sleeping there. It rose up now, and trotted over to her, resting its long nose in her lap.
"I cannot see him," the queen said, "but I know that he is well. If he were to be hurt, then I would know it. I hope I would know it," she said, after a pause, "for I am not as once I was."
"But in the past, when he was hurt, you knew it?" Éowyn asked, as she fondled the hound's feathery ears.
"I knew it," Arwen said.
The hound rested its weight against her, and she pressed her hand against its sleek neck. "Was he hurt often?" she asked.
"More than I would have wished," Arwen said, "and almost always when he was alone. He has never spoken of those times. Even I know little of them, merely that they happened, and that he lived through them, and carried on. He always carries on."
"Yes," Éowyn agreed.
There was always a slight barrier between her and the queen. It was not because of Éowyn's love for the king. Arwen had never doubted Aragorn, and once Éowyn had given her love to Faramir, she had never regretted her choice. But Arwen was an elf, and older by far than Éowyn. Growing up, Éowyn had known little of female company, but after her mother's death, she had been the highest ranking woman in the Riddermark. Sometimes Éowyn wondered if the slight awkwardness she felt with the queen came from the fact that she felt so much smaller than her, not in stature, but in every other way. It was not something that Éowyn, granddaughter of a queen, had often felt in the years of her growing. It was not something that Éowyn, Lady of the Shield-Arm and mistress of Emyn Arnen, was accustomed to feeling at all.
"But I know that they reached the crossroads last night," Arwen said, as footsteps approached the open door. "They plan a longer march today, northwards through Ithilien. Nay," she said, laughing, when Éowyn opened her mouth to ask her how she knew this, when she had denied being able to see him. "A messenger came in late last night, after you had gone to bed. Did Faramir not tell you?"
"Faramir was busy," Faramir said, appearing in the doorway. "I apologise for that, my lady." His face was grave. Éowyn had not seen him all day. She was an early riser, but he had risen yet earlier.
"What is it?" Éowyn asked, rising to her feet. "What's happened?"
"It could be nothing," Faramir said, "but…" He sat down stiffly on the nearest chair. "No, not nothing," he said, "because another man is dead. That is never nothing." He sighed, but his shoulders remained tense. He was deeply troubled, Éowyn could tell. "There are deaths at the best of times," he said. "That is the tragedy of our age. The great enemy has fallen, but we who are left turn on each other. Men kill other men in arguments over women or dice games or money. Some just kill because they like it."
"Who has died?" the queen asked.
"Nobody," Faramir said. "That is what they will say. Nobody of any importance. But still somebody. Somebody." He passed a hand across his face, wiping sweat from his brow. "My feeling is that it is just an ordinary murder, nothing to do with our war. But who can tell? There is violence at the best of times, but now each act of violence just serves to feed the fear."
An army moved unbearably slowly when it was full of men-at-arms on foot. There were footmen in the Riddermark, of course, but whenever Éomer had ridden to war, he had done so at the head of a body of riders, moving like the wind. It was different in Gondor, of course, where too many lords remained suspicious of horses. Aragorn had barely three hundred mounted knights, and they had to move at the speed of a man-at-arms's walking.
Éomer wanted to ride free. He remembered walks with his mother as a child, as the dogs had joyously raced around them, charging ahead, then circling back to them, only to race on ahead again. The dogs must have covered four times the distance that his family had covered, with little Éowyn toddling along, holding mother's hand.
Now I know what the dogs felt like, he thought, as he removed his armour at the end of the second day. Then he chuckled quietly at the ridiculousness of the situation: the he, the lord of the Eorlingas, wanted to race around the army like a dog with an over-abundance of energy. Some of his riders were outside now, galloping in the cooling air of the evening. Dogs, he thought, and he smiled, because like his men, the dogs of his childhood had been loyal, swift and fearless.
Then he turned away from them, and looked over at Aragorn's tent. Its flap was pinned back, letting in air, but it showed nothing of the space within. Does Aragorn feel the same impatience? he wondered. Perhaps he did, but perhaps he did not. He had spent many decades as a Ranger, after all, and had covered many thousands of leagues on foot.
I wish…! Éomer thought, but there was no changing things. Aragorn had explained things to him, and this was how things had to be. Scouts had gone out ahead, and more were going out tomorrow, when Legolas and his elves joined the army. If they came back and reported that more haste was needed, then haste would be found, even if they left the rest of the army far behind.
They were heading through Ithilien now, twenty-five miles north of the crossroads. It was an easy march, no risk of orcs falling upon them from the marches of Mordor. It was a strange thing to set out for war, and then ride so slowly, through a beautiful land that lay in friendly hands.
Tomorrow would be the same, and tomorrow and tomorrow…
And after that…? That was what counted. Would that the days would hasten, and bring them to that day!