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Great River, Grey As Tears

by hossgal

[Story Headers]

Along the river shore, bodies lie twisted, arms interwoven as though it were a nest of lovers, there, tarrying in the sun-masking mist. Dark limbs drape across shattered helm over blood-streaked shield. Man and Orc alike line the bank - Uruk-hai, Dunlending, Rohirrim - all dark and malformed in the iron light. All cold, all still. The river is loud against this mortal shoal, protesting the wreckage that makes the current stutter and slow about the metal-shrouded limbs. Above the ford, the water is clear and touched with silver. Downstream, the river flows rusted and ashen, washing red blood and black down to the sea.

Eomer sits his horse at the edge of the ford, helm in the crook of his arm and the river fog setting into his bones like true frost. About him, the king's eored are shadows that make their own swirls in the damp air. They are silent now, save for the click of horseshoes on stone and the creak of leather. Eomer is as aware of them as he is of the shifting of his own mount, the heft of his spear. He has eyes only for the squad checking the bodies. Dismounted, the Rohirrim wade among the dead like bulky marsh herons, probing here and there with lances. As if to mock the Rider's hard-learned caution, the fallen bodies remain unresisting. Finally, the leader waves a hand - ground clear, move on. Eomer breathes a sigh and flexes fingers he had not realized were clenched around the spear shaft.

Grey riversides are no comfort to Rohan's king.

A rattle of stones and a warhorse's snort merges with a dark figure and becomes Moradan, the Third Marshall of the Mark. Eomer does not look away from the scattered bodies as the older man draws rein beside him. There is blood on Moradan's breastplate, not all of it from the veins of Orcs.

Eomer's armor and his blade are still unstained. Five days chasing a bare handful of orc to the north, and then a hard night's ride after Moradan's messenger found the King's company deep in the hills. And still he has come an hour late to this riverside.

Moradan waits to speak, and Eomer is content to let him wait. The count of the slain will be no less bitter if he hears it in another breath, or another hour, or another day. The dead will still not breathe, the lost will still not return.

His mind seeing another ford, in another season, with other dead soaking up winter frostmelt. Eomer knows it is a fancy, to think that he could urge his horse down this bank and up the other slope and be back in the Westmark, on the Isen shore, in the Mark before the War.

That country is far distant now. Gondor itself - across the mountains, down the passes and into the tame cultivated lands, with its city of white stone and people of houses and paved roads and their odd speech - Gondor is closer than the Rohan Eomer left behind with Theodred's shattered shield.

The dismounted men put away their swords and draw knives. There will be little to loot from the Orcs, but Eomer will begrudge them nothing. In the thick air, the rattle of shifting armor is quiet. Up river, Riders call back and forth as the clearing squads sweep the steep cliffs.

If Moradan wearies of indulging his king, he does not betray it in how he sits his saddle. The lined face is clean of impatience, naked of haste. Eomer watches the rippling water and wonders how long his liegeman will wait.

"How many dead?"

The words are lost in the fog before Eomer realizes he has spoken.

"Five dead. Rostaen Unda-son took a sword to the gut, but he still lives. Eight others wounded."

"When we are done here, I will see Rostaen." Moradan nods. Eomer watches the ripples beat against a Dunlending's bare head, making the hair writhe in the water.

We have lost too many men, he wants to tell Moradan, an assessment that meets the days past as well as it does this damp morning's action. But he is King now, not a thane leading other warriors. And it is nothing that Moradan does not already know.

The air shifts, too little to strip the mist away but enough to bring the stink of dead Orc and the split entrails of Men to Eomer's nose. Moradan's horse snorts again and dances in place, belaying the sweat dried on the bay neck. Eomer's own mount blows and shakes his head, bit rattling in his mouth.

They are green mounts, younger than their saddles, the old saw goes. Born of mares dropped since the ending of the War, both of them. But they are of the old Rohan lines, with a taste for blood and the stout hearts to carry a rider for days. And horses grow faster than men.

"How many horses?" As soon as the words leave his mouth he regrets them. The men lying here - most of them left wives to wail over them. Some left children that will have to be settled with other kin. All will leave barley unsown this spring, hay uncut this summer.

"Three down, my lord. Four as not yet caught up. Two we may lose still."

Eomer nods. In the old Mark, that count would have been bitter to tell. It does not lie sweet on Moradan's tongue now. Nor the Marshall's next words.

"My lord, it is too early in the year for the Dunlendings to come down the hills. They should be huddled about their stink-earth fires still, not come down to the grasslands."

A retort rises in Eomer's throat - he can count the days as well as any man, and he needs no one to tell him winter has not yet run its course. But he swallows the gall back down. It is the counsel he chose Moradan for - why he made the man Third Marshall when there were other men - better Riders, better warriors. Moradan knows his words are unwelcome. He says them still. His king can bear to hear them.

"Aye. Too early. And I had not thought there were so many orcs left, outside Mordor's borders."

"We track them, and kill them, and they return." Moradan looks at Eomer, then away. Whatever the Third Marshall would say is lost in the rising hails and a flurry of hoof beats crossing the river. The fog deadens Eomer's ears, but he can still track the horses riding up river.

"My lord, my lord -" The mist parts beside the commanders and a young rider comes to a sudden halt, his horse throwing its head in protest. "My lord, Eomer King - it is Gondor - the knights of Gondor and the King."

"The King?" Moradan's voice is cool, respectful. "Where?"

The rider waves a hand downstream. "They come now, my lord."

And so they do - four abreast on the rocky shore, the mist dulling the shining armor and their horses muddy to the knee, but still a sight to catch the heart. Forty knights in the lowlands plate mail and on thick-legged chargers who make the earth ring under their hooves. There is the Silver Tree on the mist-pale banner, and beneath it, a man with a green gemstone at his throat.

Not so fine are the four Riders that act as honor guard - their horses with mud-splattered flanks and foam crusting their breaststraps, but still dancing back and forth between Eomer and the Gondor riders. Even battle worn, the Rohan horses bring a light to Eomer's heart.

The Rohirrim banner man has come down the cliffside as well, bringing the White Horse to match the Gondor standard. Moradan waves dismissal and the squad falls to one side, their leader raising a bloodstained spear in salute before riding away. The standard-bearers stand their horses together and wait, a curious brotherhood.

"Orcs and Dunlendings are not the only things come early this year," Moradan says, for Eomer's ears. Eomer shakes his head, his eyes only for the man in Gondor dress on a Rohirrim horse.

"Riders of Gondor!" The hail rings up to the high riverbanks and back. Even as Eomer speaks, Aragorn has thrown up a hand, bringing the column to a halt. "What news of the White City?"

Eomer watches Aragron's chin lift, catches the glint of teeth. It is as easy a thing as that - Eomer is there again, back five long years and more pain than he had thought to see in a lifetime of battle, back on the wind-swept plains of the Mark, newly exiled and grieving an uncle not yet dead. No matter that he is king now, no matter the War behind him - behind them both - himself and this King long-awaited.

He is back in the Mark of the old, and watching it slip away under the weight of another man's destiny. Everything of the Rohan he had loved - his king, his future, his sister - had been brushed aside by the forces that brought this man to the southern throne.

Would Aragorn have been so generous, Eomer wonders, with advice, with free-passage, with horses - if he had been in my place, and known what was to come? If Aragorn had happened across three strangers on his land, and knew one for the man who would remake the world, would he have let them pass?

Hope has deserted these lands, Eomer had said. Even then he had thought the old Mark lost. He had not thought to see any hope in the ragged traveler and his stranger companions. He had been right.

Aragorn must have seen some of this on Eomer's face. There is a moment when Aragorn might have reached to embrace him, and Eomer fears that most of all.

He had never wanted to be King. Never thought to be more than a Marshall as his father before him - loyal to his lord, valiant in battle. Then his father had died, and his mother. Theodred embraced him as a brother. Theoden, as a son.

And now both are gone, Eowyn as well - his sister lost to Gondor, if not dead. Three quarters of the companions of his boyhood are dead.

This morning another lies dying of an orc ax to his stomach.

"Lord Aragorn," Eomer says, and bows in the saddle. Aragorn returns the gesture. The grey dances under Eomer. "What news of Gondor, my lord? Is the border secure?"

"It is. Word has reached the White City, that the orcs are pressing hard again on the borders of the Mark. We have come to offer what assistance we can. Although," and here Aragorn does smile, in that way that makes Eomer love him even as he fights the pull, "It seems that the Riders of the Mark have already set their swords to the task."

"We have, Aragorn King. Rohan thanks Gondor for the offer of aid. The War, as you see -" a sweep of the hand, taking in Moradan's blood-stained armor, the dark water, the dead-laden ford. "The War is not yet done."

The words hang there in the fog. There is more to be said. Eomer knows without glancing aside that Moradan is sitting easy beside him, hand just off his sword hilt.

Aragorn does not move, but suddenly Eomer sees weariness, a sorrow to the man. Eomer looks again and sees the travel dust dark on the king's face, shifts his eyes and notes the sweat sheen on the Gondorian horses.

The War had come upon the Mark like a storm out of a summer sky - a thundering, shuddering leviathan that Rohan could no more outrun than the land itself could take flight. For all that the War had done to the Mark, it had swept across and gone on. There had been little forewarning, no long hesitation as the clouds gathered. For the Mark, the War had struck and then faded, leaving only rumblings and scattered hail behind.

That wind had ripped away lives, shattered halls, torn crops from the soil. In its wake, all of Rohan had wailed for their dead. And then they had begun to rebuild.

Slow, slow - crops grew faster than their herds, and horses faster than the Men that planted the crops. Old walls had to be torn down, to raise new ones to ward off the winter. The orcs and the Dunlendings still rode to raid on Rohirrim crofts. But the War was only a single phrase in the long song of the history of the Mark.

It had not been so for this man. Aragorn had lived his life - scores of years, the tales tell, though Eomer's eyes deny that even now - watching the storm build. Traveling under the lashings of rain, the threat of lightning. And now, after the worst of the winds had passed, he rides out again.

In the old Mark, they had no need of Gondor and its interferences. No need of near-forgotten alliances. Eomer pushes this thought away. The old Mark is gone.

Eomer finds his voice again. "Rohan will be glad of Gondor's aid. It has been a boon in days past, to have such brave companions at our side. In the days to come, they will be most welcome."

Aragorn's face is still troubled. He urges his horse forward, until Eomer could set a hand on the King's shoulder. The king bends his head to stare at the water flowing past and his words come slow. "In the days of the War, when we did such deeds, I had thought the world we built would not have such a need of swords and warriors. I thought we would remake Middle Earth into a land at peace."

The admission shakes Eomer. Words tumble from his lips. "They say the people of the Lady of the Wood have eyes that can see far distant things - things leagues away, or years."

Aragorn frowns, shakes his head as if confused by Eomer's strange babbling. "Yes. Some elves have such gifts. Some. But -"

Eomer presses on. "Gandalf Greyhame said you were of elfkind. Could you not see what was to come? Did you not know -"

A shout, thin with distance, cuts across Eomer's words. He pauses, listening to the clatter of horses coming down the steep riverbank. Sentries pass the word, "Riders with word for the king!"

The squad of Riders in the ford takes up the call, "Outriders, outriders ho!"

The sound of approaching horses grows louder. Eomer sees the helms at the far end of the Gondor column nod as men turn to look behind them. The hoof beats change; gather the more chaotic nature of passage through water. Aragorn turns with Eomer as the unseen riders become grey shapes and then, all of a breath, become visible as the horses come along side the Gondor riders.

For an instant, they seem to hang there in full flight - three Rohirrim horses, as like eagles as they are the earth bound steeds on the river bank. Those lesser mounts shy away as the riders pass. The riders of the racing horses bend low over their backs, cloaks rippling and golden hair flowing back from iron helms. Water rises in pale arcs, unlit in the thin light, dashing silver all around. It holds for a heartbeat, then another, and then falls away, as the lead rider catches sight of Eomer and draws rein. The riders come to a halt beside Eomer, a jumble of whinnying horses and excited riders.

"Eomer King! Third Marshall!" At the lead rider's shout, Aragorn straightens in his saddle. The murmurs of the Gondor knights increase. The rider finally focuses on the strangers met with Rohan's king and stops, eyes widening at the banner of the Silver Tree and the Man beneath it.

It is hard to say who is more astonished. Despite himself, Eomer smiles. The butter-colored hair might have belong to any youth of the Mark, but it is the voice that betrays one of the shieldmaids.

"Alfsuh, report," Moradan says.

"Marshall, orc trace, leaving the river a league down stream. Heading east."

"How many?"

"We found tracks tell of near a score, sir. Less one they left as trail scout." The rider jerks a thumb over her shoulder at one of her companions, a smaller woman with an archer's ring on her thumb. "Laedia sent that one back to the Shadows in haste, without his body. Captain Fenruon sent us back to report, sir, while he followed. He begs you send us back quickly, sir, as he intends to move swiftly on the trail."

Moradan nods. He keeps his eyes on the rider before him, but his words are canted to reach beyond the knights' middle ranks. "Well enough that you did. My lord, Alfsuh Elfhamsdotter and seven others held rear-guard this morn. It is because of that guard that we lost only five riders, and not more."

"Any such warriors are a credit to their people." Aragorn is grave, and does not mock. Eomer remembers the King's care of his sister, and wonders if Aragorn sees something of Eowyn in this youth, with her tangled hair and her bandaged arm. Eomer does.

He tells himself it is only because Rohan still needs warriors so badly that he has done this. Because Rohan's halls are full of widows and her barrows are full of dead Men. Because when Theodred had shouted, Reform the line! Reform the line! before the walls of the White City, the Rohirrim had, and rode forward, in their thousands, against the mumakil. And had died there, in their thousands.

Now there are fatherless daughters and stone-faced widows who stare out at horizons that will forever remain empty of longed-for silhouettes. Like Eowyn, many of them trained with the sword and the spear.

And the Orcs still come. Rohan has horses enough now, but not the Men to ride them.

Eomer tells himself it is only that, and not the ashen taste of shame in his mouth when he opens another of his sister's letters. He struggles with the words, fights to follow the trail of letters across the page. They tell Eomer that Eowyn claims joy there, in Ithilien. That she is happy with her husband and her children. That she does not regret leaving the Mark. That she has a fine palfrey to ride, and that Aragorn King receives her graciously in his hall, and that the King, some days, requests her counsel.

And that, now, is enough for Eowyn.

But for these women, it is not Aragorn's praise but the words from Moradan that brings color to their faces. They keep their heads high under the gaze of Gondor's knights and clearly wish to be gone.

"My lord Gondor, my king. I will take these Riders, and the Eastmarch, to join Fenruon on the trail," Moradan says, not quite asking permission.

Eomer shakes his head. "Send these three back, if they can be spared, but we must not leave the ford uncleared in our haste." Moradan nods, reluctance well hidden away. Eomer curses himself - once upon a time, he would have been a mile down the river, eager for action. In the old Rohan.

Aragorn's voice breaks into Eomer's thoughts. "Gondor's steeds are not as swift as the falcons of Rohan, Eomer King. But perhaps we can be of aid here." His eyes find Eomer's, hold them. "Each one does as they can."

Eomer nods. "Third Marshall, go. We will follow." The shieldmaids are already turning away. Moradan pauses only long enough to salute Eomer before he follows.

Eomer turns back to Aragorn, half expecting mockery now.

But Aragorn's eyes have darkened again. When he speaks, it is not of Eomer's riders.

"I am no elf," he says, and the pain in his voice makes Eomer regret his wayward tongue. "The future comes to me as it comes to all Men - each hour at its own pace. All else is a fog, a wall, until that hour passes."

Now the far riverbank is visible, and the near cliff wall. The mist is clearing, Eomer thinks, and wonders at the anger he feels falling away from his mind. He swallows and looks away from Aragorn's eyes.

"The King my uncle saw the Rohan he knew pass away even as he died." Eomer's gaze lies upon the cut, where the shieldmaids go up the trail in a rush. "I am building a new Rohan, and every stone I lay, every strand I weave - they tear at the old ways, rip apart the old songs. I do not know if what I do is for good or ill."

Aragorn nods as though these were familiar thoughts, as if he and Eomer had spoken of this before. The silence stretches out as the fog continues to burn away. Finally, Aragorn breaks the silence and his words, too, echo in Eomer's mind as though he has heard them a hundred times before.

"Be of good heart. With Gandalf gone across the sea, there are no more in Middle Earth who can see the future before it comes to pass. But all Men know this: the line of your forefathers runs back into the past, into the earth as it sprouted up the grass that would become the Riddermark. For balance it must run forward as well, far away to the horizon where the heavens meet the earth."

The wind freshens then, and makes the banners dip and sway, the White Horse's green field a dark shadow for the Silver Tree. The mist around them boils. Upon the ridge, the air clears completely, laying sunlight on the riders along the ridgeline. Eomer turns his face to them. Moradan raises his spear and gives voice to a long halooo. The call echoes from the riverbanks. The Gondor riders murmur together. Their horses know the sound of a call to arms and stamp restlessly, their hot breath holding the mist in place a moment more.

On the ridgeline the horses spin as one, a flock of birds bending on a single wing. Alfsuh and her companions are lost among the press as they ride away, out of sight, the sun like molten gold on the rider's helms and the gleaming haunches of their mounts.

Eomer lowered his eyes to meet Aragorn once more. This time he nodded. "Past to the first grass that sprang from the earth, and forward to the horizon, where the earth welds the sky." He set a hand Aragorn's shoulder, and the King covered it with his own. "Will you come with me, my lord? There are orcs to hunt, and the day grows long."

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Fandom:  Lord of the Rings
Title:  Great River, Grey As Tears
Author:  hossgal   [email]
Details:  Standalone  |  PG  |  gen  |  20k  |  08/21/05
Characters:  Eomer
Summary:  "I tell the tale that I heard told. Mithridates, he died old." – A. E. Housman
Notes:  LoTR, Movieverse influenced, Post War of the Ring. Slightly AU.
Disclaimer/Other:  Written for the Rohirrim Ficathon. For Voleuse, who requested "Eomer becoming king, slight angst, and no elves, if possible." Title from Tolkien, "Song of the Mounds of Mundburg." Many thanks to Erewyn the wise for her beta and comments – this would be a far lesser thing if not for her. Thanks also to Sabine for finding me Erewyn, Searose for the read-through and Vic, whose fault it is that I'm writing in this fandom at all. Also thanks to Vic for the hand-holding and encouragement. This is a work of fanfiction, I do not own the characters and no money is being made.

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