Originally all this would have belonged to Chapter 1. But it grew so long that I thought it would be better in two shorter parts.
CHAPTER TWO: THE QUEST
In the next morn almost everyone in Edoras was sleeping out the drunken stupor of the feast. The men of the Mark could keep their mead and ale like no-one else, but even they needed to recover after the High Symbel. Such a feast was held once at every High Tide – one owed the gods and the honoured dead to get stone-drunk.
As he had eaten and drunk very little the previous night, Elfhelm woke shortly after sunrise, as was his wont. Life in a garrison made a Marshal an early riser. For a moment, he was a little confused, ere he remembered that he had spent the night – well, what had been left of it – in the townhouse of his cynn instead of the garrison. ‘Twas a rare thing for him to do, but again, his father did not come to the heahburg often.
Realizing that he would need to return to the garrison in an hour’s time, Elfhelm descended to the ground level of the house, where the kitchens were, to find some breakfast first. What he found instead was Idis, brewing some herbal tea against hangover for the men still sleeping in the upper chambers. Elfhelm froze on the doorstep, but ere he could have made a hasty retreat, Idis turned and spotted him.
“Elfhelm,” she said with a solemn nod, her deep blue eyes uncommonly stern. “’Tis good to see you. I have wanted to speak with you for quite some time.”
“What is there left to speak of, between you and me?” asked Elfhelm bitterly. “You have made your choice, and I respected it. I still do.”
“True,” she said gravely, “But this cannot go on between us any longer. We have not seen eye to eye since my wedding. You avoid me, and by doing so, you avoid your home, your mother and your siblings. ‘Tis not right.”
“I have a burdensome task to master,” replied Elfhelm evasively. “Being the Marshal of Edoras is no small duty to fulfil. I have no time to go home often. My cynn understands that.”
But Idis shook her golden head disapprovingly. “We both know why you would not come home anymore.”
“And what if we do?” he shot back. “Surely, you of all people can understand my reasons?”
“I do,” she said, “yet what you are doing is still wrong. You are hurting your brother who has done naught to deserve this, aside from loving me, and you cannot blame him for that.”
“Who could blame anyone for loving you?” murmured Elfhelm sadly. “How can anyone who knows you not love you?”
“Leave that,” she said sternly. “Your brother is no less worthy your love and respect than I am, and you are not giving him that. You did not come to the name-giving of our first child, and you are very fortunate that Adhemar chose to overlook such insult from his own brother. Not many men would have done so.”
Elfhelm tried to say something, but she gave him a look that was worth the King’s glare twice over. She might have been born in the wrong bed, but she did have Théoden’s steely strength just as well.
“No, I shall not listen to any cheap excuses. My second child is due to be born around Harvest tide – I expect you to attend to the name-giving, or else I shall have your father make you. Fight me not in this, Elfhelm, for you cannot win. I shall have you honour my husband and my children as it is appropriate, even if I have to force you.”
Driven by righteous anger, the golden princess grabbed the teapot and rushed back to the upper level of the house.
“She is right, you know,” and only half-amused voice commented. Elfhelm whirled around and saw his father standing in the anteroom of the kitchen, watching him with narrowing eyes.
Lord Hengest, bearer of the third-highest arung of the Mark after the King and Erkenbrand, and owner of the greatest wealth seconding the King only, was the prime example of a warrior of the Mark – tall and strong, with a handsome, open face, sharp, ice-blue eyes and a thick mane of molten gold that had not shown any streaks of grey yet. The maegtheow of Clan Éowain and the head of Fréabold’s House, he was about six summers younger than his King, yet, as he had married at a rather young age, Iminric, his firstborn, was but a year or so younger than the Crown Prince.
Part of the respect paid him all the time was due to the size of his family – after all, which other ealdorman could proudly state that nine strong sons sat at his table? Nine strong, honourable sons and two fair daughters, neither of them afraid of defending their home to their last breath. And he was a grandsire, too, four times over, through Iminric and Adhemar, and through Hereswidh, his older daughter.
“Idis is right,” he repeated, all hints of amusement gone from his voice. “You have wronged both her and your brother when you were not present at little Octa’s name-giving. You should think long and hard about how to mend the broken frith between you and them.”
“Father, Idis may be cross with me, but I very much doubt that Adhemar would have any harsh feelings. He is the one who has come out of our contest victoriously, after all. If anyone, he ought to understand why I am avoiding them,” said Elfhelm defensively. But his father was not mellowed.
“Frith is more than a mere lack of harsh feelings, and you know that. ‘Tis the one-ness with your cynn that you have broken; ‘tis an obligation towards your family, which you have failed to fulfil.”
“My obligation right now is first and foremost towards my King,” said Elfhelm, “for I am oath-bound to protect not only him and the heahburg but all the people between its walls.”
His father gave him an icy look. “You lived too long among the people of Mundburg, it seems, and their strange code of honour has confused your heart,” he said. “Or else you would remember that when it comes to choose between your cynn-frith and your oath-frith, your cynn should come first. And I do know that Théoden-King would never keep you from honouring your obligation towards your cynn. Nay, my son, ‘tis you who tore a hole in our cynn-fence, this is your task to make it heal again.”
“I cannot waste my time for this now,” replied Elfhelm, harsher than intended in his distress. “The King expects me in his presence at the ninth hour. If Gríma’s hints could be any indication, I shall be sent out on a perilous quest, and soon.”
“A quest you have just oath-bound yourself to undertake during the bragaful,” his father commented grimly. “I have to wonder sometimes, my son, if you are trying to get slain with all your might.”
“I am not,” replied Elfhelm indignantly.
“And I am not certain that I can believe that,” replied Lord Hengest. “Your mother and I are most unhappy about how little respect you seem to have for your own life. Being a warrior cannot mean that one strives for carelessly throwing away one’s own life. Less so ere one would have begotten heirs in the Mark. Your younger brothers, Caelin and Eadwine, are already bargaining for their brides, and even Osred has begun to look. Only you are stubbornly refusing to wed, weakening the cynn-fence the lady Imoleth and I have been building for twice twenty summers. But I tell you now, my son, your mother and I shall have none of it any longer. When you return from this quest, whatever it might be, you will begin to look for a wife – or we will.”
Elfhelm tried to protest, but his father silenced him with another icy glare.
“Be silent! We have waited for you to make up your mind for ten summers and more. We are tired of waiting. If you do not want us to take care of the matter, then you should hurry. I give you time ‘til Harvest tide. You will be wedded by Yule, one way or another – ‘tis your choice.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was a seriously troubled Elfhelm who returned to the Golden Hall at the ninth hour, to finally learn which quest it may be his King wanted to send him on. All remnants of last night’s symbel had been removed already, the Hall glittering again in its dim golden glory – and it was empty, save Háma, who was standing before the doors as always, unwavering like a gold-topped tower.
“Go in,” said the Doorward, “the King is waiting.”
Raedan, the King’s old manservant came to greet Elfhelm and led him to one of the side rooms, which the King used both for holding counsel with his most trusted advisors and to have his letters, addressed to foreign Lords and the ealdormen of the Mark, written. Unlike most of his subjects, Théoden was well-versed in the arts of reading and writing, thus the same room also served as his study and library, although he was said to find less pleasure in those things than Thengel-King, his late father, had.
Entering the study, Elfhelm was surprised to find Prince Théodred there as well. The Crown Prince had little interest for lore or the books of his grandsire (brought to the Mark from Mundburg), as everyone knew. Lady Aelfgifu – who also served as the King’s personal scribe – was the scholarly one in the royal family, as had been Idis before her marriage.
Recently, Éowyn, too, could be seen in the King’s study on occasion, keeping Aelfgifu some company. That was unusual for a shieldmaiden, but Éowyn had a proud heritage and the blood of Westernesse in her veins as well as that of the Mark. She needed a proper education, in case she should be married off to Mundburg one day. With Lord Denethor having two still-unwed sons of the best age, that was not an entire impossibility.
The King looked old, grim and weary – wearier than even a whole night spent feasting and celebrating should have made him. He greeted Elfhelm with a short, almost reluctant nod, as if what he was about to do had been against his better judgement.
“Sit, son of Hengest,” he said. “I need to send you out on a quest… on a difficult and most likely perilous one. Long have I hesitated to ask you to do this, but Gríma never doubted that you would be willing to take the risk, and the sacred oath you swore on the High Symbel proved your readiness, indeed.”
Elfhelm suppressed the urge to groan. As he had suspected, the Worm had skilfully manipulated him into this particular trap. And now it was too late – he had sworn the oath, there was no way out anymore.
“Where do you want me to go, my Lord and King?” he asked in a level tone.
“Where the stars are strange,” the old King replied cryptically. “I need you to go to Rhûn for me.”
There was a long silence following his words. The huge realm of Rhûn, reaching from the Iron Hills in the North to the Ash Mountains (Mordor’s Northern fence) in the South and from Mirkwood and the Brown Lands in the West to unknown reaches in the East, was a realm where the stars were strange, indeed. It also was the home of many quarrelling Easterling chieftains that fought each other just as much as they fought Rohan and Gondor in the service of the Black Lands and were a source of constant peril for the Mark. For one of the Éothéod, it was suicidal to go there. Not even the Dunlendings hated them as fiercely as the Easterlings did.
“What am I to do there?” Elfhelm finally asked.
The King looked at his first advisor to speak for him – something that had happened more and more frequently in recent times, found Elfhelm. And seeing the grim expression on Théodred’s face, he realized that the Crown Prince, too, had noticed t his.
“The King needs you to find a way to the Underground Forges of Nimvarkinh,” said Gríma smoothly, “where Ragnar the Smith resides. We learned that he had become some sort of warlord or prince among the Khimmer jarls… and that he wishes to loosen his ties to the Lord of the Black Lands, seeking out new alliances that could bring his people more food and less suffering. The King intends to offer him exactly that.”
“My Lord King,” Elfhelm still addressed Théoden with his questions, “can we be certain about the intentions of this Easterling?”
“Nay, we cannot,” Théodred answered bluntly, ere Gríma could have said aught,
“That is true,” the counsellor admitted, unperturbed, as if the Crown Prince had not interefered. “Nor can we know whether the rumour is true in the first place. That is why the King needs you to go there and see it for yourself. For if it is true, Rohan can hope for a powerful ally – or for a truce with the Easterlings, at the very least.”
“And if the rumour is false, all Elfhelm can hope for is a quick death,” growled Théodred.
“That would be unfortunate,” replied Gríma without a flinch, “yet the chance is too good to let it pass.”
“But why me?” asked Elfhelm. “I am a warrior, not a negotiator. I shall go where ever my King chooses to send me, for so I have sworn before the court at the symbel – and I would do the same without a sacred oath. But surely, there must be a reason why my King’s choice fell upon me.”
“There is,” said Gríma in Théoden’s stead again. “More than one reason, in truth. You are young and strong enough to bear the burden of the journey across the unwelcoming lands of Rhûn. As the Marshal of Edoras, you have the authority to speak for the King. And you cannot be recognized as one of the Éothéod at once, thus the peril is less grave for you than for anyone else.”
“What is more, you even speak their tongue, thanks to the Lady Imoleth,” added Théodred softly. “You can easily disguise yourself as a half-bred huntsman.”
“So can all my brothers,” Elfhelm pointed out. He did not truly want to send any of his siblings into mortal peril; he just wanted to understand the true reason behind his being chosen. “And they have not the care and responsibility for Edoras entrusted to them.”
“Which is the very reason they would not do,” once again, Gríma spoke ere the King or the Crown Prince could have done so. “They have no rank at court which the Khimmer jarls would recognize as equal to theirs. Besides, you are the only one who has been to Rhûn before.”
“I did not get very far,” shrugged Elfhelm dismissively, “and I very nearly did not return. Yet I shall go there again, when my King wants me to.”
“I do,” the old King said heavily.
“This is a most important quest, one that could turn out either disastrous or fruitful,” added the counsellor. “The King trusts you to make it fruitful, of course.”
“I shall endeavour to do my best to achieve that,” replied Elfhelm evenly.
Gríma lifted an eyebrow. “Then we all hope it will be enough,” he said, the doubt eminently obvious in his tone.
To that, Elfhelm gave no answer. He understood now how skilfully the First Advisor had manipulated him – first into making the sacred oath and now, using his own oath against him, so that he at the end would have no other choice than accept to go on this quest of no return. But there was no way out now – he was oath-bound to obey.
Gríma now whispered in the King’s ear again, and Théoden rose from his seat, looking older and more tired than Elfhelm could remember having ever seen him. The King moved stiffly and ungelenk, as if he had aged years since last night and his tendons protested against moving in the most unpleasant manner.
“The King thanks you for your offer,’ said the advisor. “He needs to retire to his chambers for a short rest now, as he is still weary from last night. Long feasts can be such a burden for an old man of his age.”
The King nodded wearily and left his study, leaning heavily upon his staff. Gríma supported him, wearing a worried expression as they walked out. Elfhelm looked at Théodred with a frown.
“What is wrong with our King? Sixty and six summers had he only seen – that is not such a high age for a Man of the Mark, and he descends from the long-living Men of Mundburg from his mother’s side. And since when does he need a staff to lean upon? A year ago he still wielded his sword with us on the practicing yards.”
“I know not what is wrong,” sighed the Crown Prince. “All I can see is that my father is aging before his time, and I cannot do aught against it. My word reaches his ear and his heart less and less frequently in these days… Gríma is the only one to whom he listens, usually.”
“This is not good,” said Elfhelm in concern. “I feel less and less trust for the Chief Advisor nowadays.”
“And you do well not to trust him,” replied Théodred grimly. “His heart seems to have darkened since the death of Frána; as if the perishing of his brother had unleashed some dark spirit that had been imprisoned in his heart for long and now has been set free.”
“Which still does not explain why he wanted me to go on this quest,” said Elfhelm. “It was his plan to send me to Rhûn, was it not?”
“That was my feeling, too, aye,” replied Théodred. “And there is one reason he might have had for waving this particular web… a reason that explains it all.”
“Would you care to enlighten me, my Prince?”
Théodred nodded. “’Twould make sense if the Worm wished to weaken the Mark, for some reason. See, he cannot touch me or your father or Erkenbrand. But as the Marshal of Edoras, you are the strongest tower in the heahburg’s defence. Should anything happen to you, ‘twould take quite some time for a new Marshal to learn doing your duties. Your removal would weaken Edoras greatly.”
Elfhelm stared at him in shock. “Are you saying that Gríma is a traitor? That he is planning to open Edoras for an invasion from the East?”
Théodred shrugged. “I cannot tell. I had a few of my trusted men watch his steps for a long time, but the only place he had visited in recent years outside of the Mark was Isengard.”
“Isengard? What could he have done there?” Elfhelm was getting a very bad feeling about this. The White Wizard had not been a good friend for the Mark for quite some time.
“We know not,” replied the Crown Prince. “My men could not follow him any further than the Wizard’s Vale. ‘Tis said that Saruman sees everything within the borders of his valley. His ominous birds are always in the sky, watching. His spies slip through every net. I cannot risk sending men there. They would be caught and killed, and we would not gather any more knowledge.”
“But if the Worm has allied himself with the White Wizard, ‘tis almost as bad as if he had sold us to the Dunlendings or the Easterlings,” said Elfhelm darkly.
Théodred nodded in grim agreement. “I know. I just cannot find a way to make my father and King listen to me.”
For a moment they were both silent, deep in worried thoughts. Then Elfhelm shook himself to attention again. “Well, it cannot be helped, not now. I have to leave… what time exactly?”
“In two days’ time,” answered the Crown Prince. “Aelfgifu has collected everything we know about Ragnar the Smith and the balance of power in Rhûn at the moment – unfortunately, ‘tis not much. And once you cross the borders, you will be on your own. Our contacts to the eastern lands are sparse at best. I cannot promise you any help.”
“I know that,” said Elfhelm. “I have been to Rhûn before, ere I was sent to the Gap. ‘Tis an unfriendly land, full of evil things, even without the raiding Khimmer bands. But I came out then, and mayhap I shall come out again.”
“I hope so,” said Théodred gravely. “You are sorely needed here. I beg you, be very careful. We cannot afford to lose you.”
He squeezed Elfhelm’s shoulder and left, letting in the Lady Aelfgifu, who carried several books and scrolls. She looked not the least tired, as if she had not served as the ealubora all night at the High Symbel. She wore a simple brown dress now, with a pale red undergown, and was veiled, as always.
“Prince Théodred asked me to collect for you all that we know about Ragnar the Smith,” she said, putting her books and scrolls down on the desk. “And I have found a map of Rhûn for you – ‘tis not very detailed, but it will help you to find the Mountains of Nimvarkinh and shows the assumed territories of the various Khimmer clans.”
Elfhelm blinked. “The assumed territories?”
“There are no clear borders,” replied Aelfgifu, spreading the map across the desk. “The Khimmer share the lands with Orcs, wolves and other foul things. They serve the Lord of the Black Lands, for they fear him deathly, yet that does not mean they would be spared.”
“Which is the reason why they might be interested in a truce,” realized Elfhelm.
Aelfgifu nodded. “As far as we know, they have been trying to loosen their bonds to Mordor for generations. Beloberch was the first warlord who could unite all the other jarls under his leadership. ‘Tis said, he married a woman from the North, from a city named Esgaroth at the Long Lake, near Mirkwood. Ever since then, his sons and their sons have had some contacts to the Northmen. He was the great-grandfather of Ragnar the Smith and wore the byname ‘the Bear-slayer’. ‘Tis also said that he made a law that each new warlord has to kill a cave bear with his bare hands, ere he is allowed to take leadership.”
“What might that be good for?” asked Elfhelm, a little bewildered.
“The bear is the sacred animal of the Khimmer people,” explained Aelfgifu. “By fighting and killing a bear, without the help of any weapon, they believe to absorb its strength, bravery and magical powers. Then they skin the bear and take a formerly untouched maiden on the bearskin – they believe that the child fathered in this fashion would be the bear reborn and would ensure the good luck of their people.”
Elfhelm shook his head in mild disgust. “My mother never spoke about these things.”
“The Lady Imoleth cannot know of this custom, as her clan was separated from their Khimmer overlords a long time ago,” said Aelfgifu. “The Erza-Morduin people only became the subjects of the Khimmer jarls in Rhûn after Mount Doom had burst into flame again. Your mother’s people had been trying to cross the Brown Lands at that time already.”
“Where do you have all this knowledge from, then?” asked Elfhelm.
“Thengel-King used to have a captain from the North, serving among the thegens,” replied Aelfgifu. “The Men of the Mark called him Heretoga, ‘the Commander’, for he could command both man and beast to yield to his will, quiet and gentle-mannered though he was. ‘Tis said that he knew Rhûn better than all other people, and Thengel-King’s scribe wrote down everything Heretoga had told him.”
“A man like him must have been most helpful for Thengel-King,” said Elfhelm. “What happened to him?”
“He left Edoras for Mundburg, to serve Steward Ecthelion,” answered Aelfgifu with a shrug, “or so the Elders say. No-one has ever heard of him afterwards, and he never returned to the Mark. Now, take a look at this map and plan your journey carefully, for it will be a long and perilous one. Alas, I cannot give you the map, as this is the only one we have. Had I known of your quest in advance, I could have made you a copy...”
“No-one did know of this quest in advance,” said Elfhelm grimly, “not even me. I shall have to learn the map by heart, it seems. Mayhap ‘tis better so; a drawn map could raise the suspicions of a Khimmer patrol. What else can you tell me about these lands?”
“Not much,” admitted Aelfgifu gloomily. “As you can see, the Mountains of Nimvarkinh are marked some fifty miles East from the Sea of Rhûn, but that is by no means certain. Still as they are supposed to be the only mountains beyond the Brown Lands, ‘twould be hard to miss them.”
“Hmmm...” Elfhelm scratched his chin thoughtfully. “If I rode up to the Entwade, I could easily cross the Entwash and travel through the Wold quickly and safely. I could avoid the Brown Lands either from the North or from the South...”
“Both of those paths would have their own perils,” interrupted Aelfgifu warningly. “If you choose to ride along the northern border of the Brown Lands, you will come dangerously close to Southern Mirkwood, which is a very evil place, I hear. Or to Dwimordene, which might be even more dangerous, under the rule of that Elven sorceress.”
“But if I travel South from the Brown Lands, that way would bring me close to the Dead Marshes and the Ash Mountains,” pointed out Elfhelm reasonably. “Not to mention the Khimmer patrols and the Orc hordes roaming the lands between the Great River and the Emyn Muil.”
Aelfgifu nodded in agreement. “True enough. You have to choose between the frying pan and the fire, as they say... unless you want to cross the Brown Lands themselves.”
“Nay,” said Elfhelm promptly. “No son of my mother will ever go there.”
“You may not have any other choice,” said Aelfgifu. “They are the safest of all routes. Neither Orcs nor Khimmer patrols would go there.”
“And we know all too well why not,” riposted Elfhelm. “By Béma, two-third of my mother’s clan died in there, for those lands are as barren as Mordor itself, and what water might be found there is poisonous. I cannot make a journey this long on foot and hope to return before winter – but not even the toughest pack horses bred by my father would survive in the Brown Lands.”
“Then you should choose the northern route,” said Aelfgifu. “’Tis very dangerous, but shorter than the southern one – and it is more likely that you would meet friendly travellers there. The Woodmen of Mirkwood do travel South sometimes, and Dwarves, too, are known to use those paths.”
As she was no mere scribe but also the seeress and a close confidant of her great-uncle, the King, Elfhelm was tempted to follow her advice. Aelfgifu was privy to all secret reports the spies made to the King, as it was her duty to take notes, even though Gríma had tried to take over that particular duty from her a few times. At the moment, though, Aelfgifu knew more about what was going on beyond the Wall of Rohan than anyone else, save the King and the Crown Prince – and mayhap the Lady Aud, with whom Théodred shared everything he knew.
“I might do so,” said Elfhelm, determined to speak to Bercthun first, one of the trackers from his mother’s clan still alive. Although an old man now, Bercthun still had extensive knowledge about the western part of Rhûn – and what was more, he had, by pure chance, accompanied Lord Hengest on this trip to Edoras.
Aelfgifu nodded. “’Tis your choice. I shall not ask you about your route. The less I know the safer you will be.”
“Any insights into the near future you might have to offer?” asked Elfhelm, only half-jesting. Aelfgifu gave him a concerned look.
“All I can offer are possibilities,” she said slowly. “The choices are always yours. But if you make the right choices, you might not only return from a successful quest, but also fulfil the wish of your father.”
Elfhelm startled a little. Aelfgifu’s ability to know things she should not have known could be... unsettling at times.
“Why?” he asked teasingly. “Are you saying that when I return victoriously, I may begin to bargain for your hand, my Lady?”
“I am not the one meant for you, son of Hengest,” replied Aelfgifu calmly. “Even if I were not the Seeress of the King’s House, I would not be the right match for you. ‘Tis a sword that you need, not a quill pen.”
With that cryptic remark, she rose, leaving the books and scrolls on the King’s desk, to Elfhelm’s disposal.
“Read them here,” she said, for they must not leave this room. If you need my help, I shall be in the scriptorium for another three or four hours. Try to keep the details in your mind, for your best chance to come back alive is to be well-prepared.”
arung = rank
cynn = family, which among the pagan Anglo-Saxons (and thus among the Rohirrim) was more important than any other bond
heahburgh = capital
cynn = family, which among the pagan Anglo-Saxons (and thus among the Rohirrim) was more important than any other bond
heahburgh = capital