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Promises to Keep
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1

My head is bowed, as much in shame as in sorrow, for I have failed him - and her. 'Bring him safely home,' she had whispered to me when we departed in that midnight hour, and I had vowed that I would.

Yet here I stand, eyes moist with unshed tears. I am foresworn, for he is dead.

The enemy whom we had pursued across the plains had been destroyed at the last, here at the edge of the perilous forest, yet we cannot savor the victory - not when fifteen good men and twelve proud horses lay buried beneath the new turned earth. The enemy's fallen smolder still, the foul incense of their funeral pyre filling my nostrils.

The last solemn duty done for our own, we turn back down the trail that has led us to this pyrrhic victory. The wind into which we face sends its thin cold fingers through our ranks, probing for what answers I know not. Nor do I think the West wind would be any kinder in its inquiry.

The youngster beside me is restive, his energy still focused on the fight and on the friend who fell there. The guilt of the survivor is a burden we share, but I cannot offer him any comfort right now. First I must find my own path to redemption.

Could I have saved him? To know the answer to that question is something I both long for and fear.

Everything had happened so fast, and the hours I had spent in training had proven their worth as we battled the foul creatures. Some craven few had sought escape, and we had little difficulty dispatching them. But some there were who stood firm. Battle hardened warriors they had seemed, with a strength and resolve never seen before in their hated kind.

One of these it was who dealt the blow that brought my lord down as they made their last desperate stand at the forest's edge. Had I been quicker in turning to face this new threat, perhaps his blade could have been stayed in its course. If only...

It was Éomer who had come to our aid, dismounting to fight the man-beast hand to hand and thereby granting him a more honorable end than he deserved. I did what I could, too late to save my lord but determined they would have no other chance to strike at him as he lay there on the cold ground. They would not need to. He was dying even then, his life-blood pooling about my feet as I stood over him. Fury clouded my vision, and I had come close to felling Éothain when he drew near to lend his aid.

Éomer it was who brought me to my senses, his steadying hand on my shoulder, coaxing me away as Éothain bent to tend to my lord. I found that I was shaking, and the young Marshal had spoken quietly to me, offering words of comfort that my heart could not accept. I had not done well! If I had he would not have been lying there, cold and still.

This accusation haunts my thoughts as we journey - that and knowing that I must see her grief when the news is brought to her. How can I ever look into her eyes again, knowing that I did not fulfill my vow to keep him safe?

The uplands of the Wold are before us now. Soon our path will lead us southward to Edoras - and home.

"What news from the North, Riders of Rohan?"

The voice, loud and clear, checks us in our course, and we wheel as one to circle round this new intruder - and the two with him whom only now that we have encircled them do we see.

He is tall, this man who faces the thicket of spears which surround him with a calm assurance more befitting a monarch in his own hall. Even when Éomer advances to bring the point of his spear threateningly close to the stranger's breast he does not flinch.

Our leader demands to know who this man is and what brings him and his companions to our lands. His answer astonishes us. Clearly this Strider, as he calls himself, knows little of Orcs to be hunting them afoot with only two to aid him. Even I would not be so foolish!

His companions too are strange. The one, tall and fair to look upon, he names as an Elf. The other, short and sturdy of frame with a beard braided to rival the mane of a Mearh, we are told is a Dwarf, and by his fierce response I can tell he likes not the Marshal's words concerning the Lady of the Golden Wood. Blood would surely have been spilled but for the intervention of the tall Man. His command of his followers is unquestioned, as is the loyalty they display to him and to one another.

Still Éomer presses him to reveal his true name and there is a gasp of astonishment as he responds with his own question: whether or no we serve the Dark Lord of Mordor. No one who knows us could believe such a base notion, for the Dark One has never been a friend to the Eorlingas.

I listen with pride as our young leader declares our unswerving loyalty to Théoden King alone. Yet he does not give the stranger complete satisfaction with his answer, and in his turn demands to know more of this haughty stranger.

"Who are you? Whom do you serve? At whose command do you hunt Orcs in our land?"

"I serve no man, but the servants of Sauron I pursue into whatever land they may go." His words confirm what my lord had suspected - there is an alliance between the White Wizard and the Dark Lord. And what is this he is saying? The Orcs had taken two of his friends captive? The devotion to his friends that would compel him to pursue his foes afoot impresses me more than any other words he might say.

But there is more, and seeing him sweep out his shining blade as he declares himself to be the rightful heir to the ancient kings of Gondor we all instinctively take a step back. There is a power in this man - Aragorn as he gives his right name at last - and there is not one among us who does not feel it. As a young sapling beside a mighty oak Éomer seems.

He feels it too, and with his proud eyes downcast he asks what doom comes from the north where brave Boromir journeyed seeking the answer to a riddle. "The doom of choice," Aragorn tells him, to fight openly against Sauron or be accounted among his minions.

"But of these great matters we will speak later," he continues. "If chance allows, I will come myself to the king. Now I am in great need, and I ask for help, or at least for tidings." His concern for the welfare of the missing cannot be dismissed, even with Éomer's repeated assurances that there were none but Orcs to be counted among our dead foes.

Éothain laughs in disbelief when the dwarf tells the marshal that the friends they seek were Halflings, as were spoken of in the riddling words Boromir had told of. Éomer's lieutenant chafes to be away, leaving the strangers to their fancies or bringing them by force before the king, even as our laws demand. Many in the éored are in agreement with him, including my young friend, but only Éothain is bold enough to speak.

"Peace, Éothain!" Éomer will not be pressured into a hasty decision, and I cannot escape the thought that he has learned at last to be cautious. Do the dead weigh on his conscience as well?

"Tell the éored to assemble on the path, and make ready to ride to the Entwade." Éomer uses the ancient tongue of the Éothéod as he issues these orders, and Éothain obeys, but not without muttering under his breath words which even my keen hearing cannot understand.

We are not close enough to hear their conversation, which was undoubtedly Éomer's intention. It is not a question of our loyalty to him that prompts him to this course. But the time is short, and every moment that we tarry here increases our peril, for war already threatens our Western lands. Éomer knows that the éored must ride with all haste to lend its support to his cousin Théodred at the Fords of the Isen.

Aragorn speaks earnestly with Éomer, and though I cannot hear his words I do not doubt that he is unwilling to abandon the search for his friends. Éomer beckons to me, and as I approach I can at last hear his words. "...When your quest is achieved, or is proved vain, return with the horses over the Entwade to Meduseld..." So the decision is made to let the strangers go. This could bode ill for the Third Marshal when the Worm learns of this, as Éomer is well aware. "...In this I place myself, and maybe my very life, in the keeping of your good faith. Do not fail."

"I will not." These three words are spoken quietly, for Éomer's hearing only, yet the truthfulness that I can see in those grey eyes makes my breath catch in my throat. This is a man you can believe in. I know this, without reason, but like my Marshal I would be willing to stake my life that Aragorn is worthy of all the trust that we can give to him.

And now I learn the reason that I have been called forward. I am to lend my aid to the three hunters, as is my young companion, who eyes the strangers warily. Éomer steps toward me as Aragorn swings easily into the saddle and he speaks to me softly, his hand laid gently on my shoulder.

"Serve him well, and return safely to Edoras. I trust you to do this, my friend." He can see the question in my eyes. "Do not fear. I will tell your lady that you did all that you could for your lord. She knows you too well to doubt this." His hand rubs my cheek gently before he lifts his eyes to speak to the lord whom he bids me serve.

"Hasufel is his name," he tells Aragorn. "May he bear you well, and to better fortune than Gárulf, his late master!"

It seems that Arod, my fiery friend, has found a kindred spirit in the Elf, who rides without the aid of either bridle or saddle. Arod dances lightly about with the graceful being upon his back. Not even the added burden of the Dwarf seems to bother him, so enamored is he with the Elf lord.

"Farewell!" Éomer tells them, with the hope that they will find their friends. "Return with what speed you may."

"I will come." Again that quiet assurance from Aragorn, and I nod my head in agreement.

I will come too. I will keep faith with Éomer. I owe it to him - and to her.

~~~

Author's notes:
~ This is obviously Hasufel's take on events, and any judgements or conclusions are his alone. I have to admit that this is strongly influenced by the much longer story that is still in the process of being written (see If Ever Two Were One). The lady to whom Hasufel and Éomer refer is my OC, whom I have written as Gárulf's wife.

~ All of the dialog that is recorded between Éomer and Aragorn is Tolkien's own. I could not improve on the master, so I hope he will indulge me in having taken this license with his work.

~ The title is derived from a line in the last verse of Robert Frost's poem, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

~*~

Originally written for the "All Good Beasts" challenge at Henneth Annûn, this story was also accepted for publication in TORN's Greenbooks. It was recently honored by the 2004 Middle-Earth Fanfiction Awards, receiving the The Theoden Award in the category for Rohan.


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