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Adventures of an Éored: MIDSUMMER
Note: I dedicate this story to Maddy, who, with her "Healer and the Warrior"-series, set a standard for all Éomer-fanfiction as well as I am concerned. Not only this, but she was a wonderful person and friend, as well. It is a shame we will never know the wonderful stories she still had in her mind, but while she is greatly missed, her legacy remains on this site to be enjoyed by everyone who is into well-written, Rohan-centric fanfiction.
Maddy, this is for you!
Chapter 1: Preparations
Dawn spread over the hills and bathed the landscape into the soft light of early summer morning. As temperatures began to rise, wafts of mist rose lazily from the wet grass into the air and as the haze lifted, the endless meadows were ignited by the gleam of uncountable dew-drops like a hoard of jewels all the way to the horizon. After a short night, nature began to stir as birds greeted the new day with their songs, and for a while, nothing disturbed the peaceful atmosphere as the world was being reborn.
And yet the sun had not climbed up much further above the horizon when that peace was broken by the sound of rapid hoof-beats. Three riders chased each other over the plains at breakneck pace, deeply crouched on the backs of their horses as they urged on their steeds. No enemy was on their heels, neither orc nor warg, and yet as the threesome turned into a curve and headed for the little forest ahead, they accelerated even further.
Éomer hovered over Stormwing's back still like a statue; slightly raised from the saddle to transfer his weight onto the mare's shoulders where it wouldn't hinder her movements as they flew above the ground. His eyes watered, although they were narrowed to slits against the wind's assault, but it roared in his ears and the grey mane whipped his face. Still Eomund's son would not have traded both sensations for anything in the world. He felt alive and one with his horse, his heart singing with joy as it pumped the blood through his veins like a churning mountain stream. Life did not get better than this.
One quick look over his shoulder revealed that Éothain and Scatha were not far behind them, and another length back, Tondhére and Scéadu did all they could to keep up. Up ahead, the trees of the Aldburg forest loomed darkly as they drew closer, and a self-confident smile spread over Éomer's face at the prospect of the new challenge.
"Soon, Little One;" he whispered, and noticed how Stormwing's ears flickered toward him. "Soon, you can show your true mastery. I know you are enjoying this as much as I do." With the gentlest tug at the reins, he steered his mare toward the barely visible path between the trees, and the grey ears turned toward their destination. There could indeed be no question to anyone who watched that Stormwing revelled the race, from the way she held head and tail proudly to her eagerness to follow even her rider's most subtle commands immediately. Already, the mare eyed the narrow path before them closely, looking for the best possible route between the trees while her ears constantly moved to and fro for anything her master would say, and drank the air with widened nostrils in deep breaths. One league behind them, another league to go.
The forest. Diminishing their speed in exchange for better control, Éomer directed his mount onto the path. Twilight greeted them as they thundered through the undergrowth, alarm in the foliage following them in response to the disturbance of the peace. There, the first mark! Ripping off the blue ribbon as they passed the bush, Éomer threw Stormwing into a sharp right turn. Up ahead, the sparkle of water through the trees beaconed him on and he made for it, the route unfolding clearly in his mind. A moment later, they splashed through the shallow river, and he threw another quick glance back just as Éothain made the turn.
Beneath him, Stormwing snorted, as if she meant to remind her rider that his attention was needed for the way before them, and Éomer grinned and gave the grey neck a quick pet.
"Aye, Little One, I know. The tree."
And there it was, a mighty oak that had been felled by one of the last winter storms to provide a wonderful natural obstacle over the river once its side-branches had been removed. With a click of his tongue, Éomer claimed the mare's attention and collected her for the jump. The grey ears twitched, and the great body between his thighs tensed like a spring. A brief moment of flying, and then they were on the other side and immediately performed another sharp turn; this time to the left... and there was the next mark.
Up the steep ravine now. Again Éomer shifted his weight and gave the mare her head as they ascended. Instead of the wind, it was now his horse's deep breathing that filled his ears, and from the way her lungs expanded with each breath, he knew that his mare was into the challenge with her entire heart.
"Not too hard, Little One. This is only exercise; the great race is yet to come." he murmured soothingly, and gently tugged at the reins to his horse's great anger. They climbed out of the depression, Stormwing furiously shaking her head against the restraint, and found another challenge in the form of two parallel lines of trees adorned with ribbons left and right that would force them into a zigzag course for their collection. Éomer grinned as he directed her toward it.
This was it, Stormwing's greatest strength and the one skill that actually gave him hope to beat the five-years-in-a-row champion, Flame, at the weekend's Midsummer Festival. He had worked hard to reach his aim, had trained with his horse every spare minute his duty with the éored left him, and when he had won the competition a month ago and crossed the finish line with the foxtail in his hand, it had been an indescribable feeling of achievement. He would be the youngest competitor in the great race ever, and he would race against the best rider and the best horse that legendary competition had ever seen – Godric and his stallion Flame. It was a dream come true... and now that he would be granted the opportunity, Éomer was determined to seize it and also become the youngest winner of all time. What a thought that was!
A branch he had not seen lashed his face, and surprised, he almost let go of the reins. For a moment, he hung precariously to the side and the ground seemed to move toward him... until he righted himself with great effort, at the cost of almost coming to a stand. Deep in her throat, Stormwing voiced her protest over the unexpected disturbance, and blood shot into Éomer's face as he realised that they had almost missed the first ribbon. Béma, what was wrong with him? If he committed such a colossal mistake at the race, all he would see of Flame was a dust cloud on the horizon!
Flushed with shame, Éomer steered his mare toward the first ribbon just as his pursuers climbed out of the depression. All his precious advantage – he had wasted it on daydreaming, and now there was only half a league still to go. But it did not matter, because victory would still be theirs! Setting his jaw, Éomer kicked his heels into Stormwing's flanks, and the mare responded. With a burst of agility, she leaped forward to the next ribbon, already readying herself for the next abrupt turn. Like a hare she moved through the trees while her master collected the ribbons, quickly leaving their challengers in the dust. Now down a steep slope with another obstacle at its end, and finally, out of the forest and into the last quarter league... and just before they cleared the last trees, a rider on a dark horse burst from the undergrowth before them.
Éomer sensed Stormwing's indignation to see another horse in her way when she had thought to have the lead, and grinned as he felt the mare's exasperated huff and her iron will when she took the bit with new determination. The great grey body tensed beneath him, ready for an explosion of speed, and once again, the son of Eomund stood up in the stirrups.
"Now, Little One! Show them what you're made of!" And he all but thrust her forward. With a challenging whinny, Stormwing stretched, and her hoofs hammered the ground in a frantic two-beat rhythm as she charged after the dark bay. Ears firmly pressed back against her head now, she ate up the distance between them. Up ahead, Éomer saw Tolgor look over his shoulder, the fox-tail dangling luringly from his saddle. As their healer had been appointed the task of boosting the mare's self-confidence, he was not supposed to race as fast as Wildfire, fresh and without already one and a half leagues of hard running in his legs, would have allowed him, but he was not going slowly, either. The distance between them dwindled, but not far behind his competitor, Éomer could already make out the shapes of Findarras and Arnhelm who marked the finish line.
"Run, Stormwing! Run!"
Ever deeper he crouched on his mare's back to diminish wind resistance, and even though his thighs were burning with exhaustion, Éomer held his position above the saddle. He rode Stormwing now with everything he had; rider and horse united in their fierce will to win. A blurred dark shape appeared beyond his horse's head, and as Éomer briefly blinked back the tears, he could see Tolgor and his mount four lengths ahead. Wildfire was stretching himself now, as well, and still they came closer and closer. It was a characteristic of the Mark's horses that they enjoyed challenges and hated to lose, and so the dark bay fought hard against the reins that held him back.
"Let him run, Tolgor!" Éomer yelled, and again, the healer looked back, surprised to see his pursuer so close already. It took him another precious moment to turn back and make his decision, and Stormwing used it to diminish the distance even further. Two lengths, but now Wildfire accelerated as well as he was finally given his head. Still, momentum was with the mare as she came charging down the slope like an avalanche. She had already reached her greatest speed while her competitor still struggled, and as they raced toward the two waiting warriors, Éomer knew already that they would make it. One leap brought Stormwing alongside the bay stallion, and Éomer ripped the fox-tail from Tolgor's saddle...and with the next, they crossed the finish line first.
"Whoohoo!" His fist with the trophy held high above his head, Éomer let out a jubilant yell and then laughed when he was suddenly catapulted off the ground. It was Stormwing's very own celebration of her victory as she rounded her back and kicked at the air with a playful squeal. "Ha ha, well done, Lass! Well done!" Enthusiastically, Éomer clapped the foam-lathered neck and steered his mount in a circle back to his waiting comrades, and he smiled as he noticed her proudly lifted head and tail as they approached the other riders. Ah, Stormwing was truly his steed!
"My, what a feisty thing!" Findarras laughed, highly amused by the mare's quirkiness. "No doubt will she will turn the stallions' heads at the competition!"
"I hope not!" Éomer gently ruffled the white lock between Stormwing's ears. "I hope they will have to look ahead to see her!"
"Ha ha, well said!" Findarras shook his head, and nodded his greetings at the last two riders as they reached the finish line. "I must admit that the two of you were a sight to behold, although it almost went wrong at the last moment. I thought we had agreed that we did not want to send you to the race with a defeat?"
"I knew we had them... and I did not want Tolgor' horse to be cross with him on the ride to Edoras."
The healer laughed as he clapped his stallion's neck.
"My, that was very considerate of you, son of Eomund! I thank you from the bottom of my heart, for you do not know what a beast this wonderful animal can turn into if he feels mistreated. Is that not right, Wildfire?" He was granted an indignant snort which made them laugh even harder.
"Éothain! Tondhére! So glad you could make it, too!" Findarras grinned at the two young riders as they , but Éothain only shrugged.
"Scatha is much older than Stormwing. Of course she is faster. And Tondhére... well, at least he knows how to stay on a horse."
"Watch what you're saying, bean stalk, or I will volunteer you as Bard's next wrestling victim!"
"Bard? I would eat him alive." Éothain's cocky remark earned him mocking glances.
"Bard the Bear would have disassembled you into hundreds of parts before you even got a finger on him, young man!" Findarras shook his head. "There would be an orderly pile of your bones and an orderly pile of your clothes side by side in the grass—"
"I would jump on his back and dig my teeth into his backbone before the start signal, and he would try in vain to get me off. And when he finally needed a break, I would start to eat him."
"We'll tell him that when we get back, Éothain!" Findarras' grin broadened. "I hope you're hungry!"
Unimpressed by his comrades' playful banter, Arnhelm let his eyes travel over Stormwing's trim appearance and stepped closer.
"You've done great work with this mare, Éomer," he said appreciatively, and Éomer turned around, surprised. It was rare that the scout handed out praise, so when he did, his words meant even more.
"Thank you, Sir."
"I mean it. It takes dedication to do this kind of work when you're weary from the day's demands... and one rarely finds this kind of dedication and will in an apprentice of seventeen years."
"Well..." Éomer evaded his gaze, suddenly feeling a bit self-conscious under the older man's stare. He clapped Stormwing's neck. "I wanted to win that race ever since I first witnessed it. It would mean so much to me. Stormwing was my father's gift shortly before I lost him, and he would have been so proud to see that foxtail on my saddle." He fell silent, uncertain whether it had been alright to bring his father into play when he knew about the scout's mixed feeling toward the late Third Marshal of Eastfold.
And yet Arnhelm gave no sign that the mention of Eomund angered him. After their initial problems, the scout had accepted the son of his former commander unconditionally and found an eager and earnest young man at his disposal, to be formed into a warrior. Ten months they had ridden together now, and still his recruit surprised him with his abilities almost on a daily basis. He nodded and clapped the mare's shoulder.
"I understand that. Just don't be too disappointed if you don't get it."
The smile vanished from Éomer's lips and was replaced by the resolute expression Arnhelm was already very familiar with. It usually meant that one had greater chances of talking sense into a rock than into Eomund's son at this very moment.
"I will do whatever is necessary to get that foxtail, Sir."
"And so will every other rider who participates. You will be competing against the best riders and the best horses of the Mark, most of which will have years of experience at this game. Anything can happen in that race."
"Aye. Even that a recruit wins the Mark's most important trophy."
With a dry smirk, Arnhelm turned to his captain, and just as he moved, felt a whiff of hot, wet air as Stormwing snorted into his hair. With a quick step, the warrior moved out of harm's way and shook his head.
"You talk to our eager recruit, Findarras, perhaps he will listen to you. Oh, and tell him to keep that insolent beast of his in check if he wants to avoid problems at the festival!"
The red-haired warrior was still smiling, but the expression in his eyes was serious.
"Perhaps that is the very attitude one needs to have in order to win this race," he reflected aloud. "Why even compete if you don't think you have a chance?" He saw mutual understanding in Éomer's eyes, and turned his horse around. "We will find out. Right now, we should return to Aldburg and get a few hours of rest, or the éored will leave without you this afternoon!"
It was well after noon when Éomer emerged from the house he shared with the other young riders and recruits, but the sun was still relentlessly burning from the cloudless sky, and a few steps down the main road were sufficient to make him break into a sweat again.
"Béma have mercy!" Éothain complained as he followed him, the sack with the few belongings he would take with him on the ride on his shoulders just like his friend. "It's hotter than in the smithy out here! We'll melt before we reach Edoras!"
"It's still two hours till departure. It will be cooler by then."
"Oh?" Éothain snorted, and kicked up a dust cloud. "I doubt that. There is not a single cloud on the horizon that could shield us. The only difference to now will be that the sun will stand a bit further in the west, as far as I see it."
"So go and ask the Captain; perhaps he will let you stay here."
"That is very funny, Éomer!" His eyes narrowed to slits, Éothain squinted down the hazy street. "Am I mistaken or is that Bard over there? Is he still training? If he loses his title, it will be because he is not rested enough."
"I'm certain he knows what he is doing." But Éomer's curiosity was aroused. "Come, let's watch him! Perhaps we can learn something."
"Learn something? From Bard the Bear?" Éothain gave a dry laugh. "Before we can learn something from him, we will need to double our weight. Béma, I surely couldn't have lifted the weights he was working with these past weeks even once! Whoever will have the bad luck of fighting him at the festival will get crushed."
"Not Thorwald." Éomer remembered the times when he had seen the big warrior from Théodred's éored fight at previous midsummer celebrations. He had been the undisputed champion of wrestling for the last six years, but had lost his title the past year because of a muscle rupture within the first moments of the final fight against Bard. There had been bad blood between the two men ever since, as Thorwald had felt cheated of his title and let no opportunity pass to say so whenever their éoreds had met, and it was clear to everyone that this year's wrestling contest would receive at least as much attention as the big race.
The two friends reached the fence and dropped their bags, resting their arms on the crossbeam to watch their fellow rider's training fight just like many other inhabitants. Bard's opponent was Gaerwolf, whom many believed to be the second-strongest man in Aldburg. He, too, would participate in the contest, but it was clear to the observing crowd that it would take a miracle for the warrior from Anfald's éored to defeat his younger training partner in a title fight. Even so, Gaerwolf had won a respectable fifth place the previous year, so he was certainly not to be underestimated.
Right now, he had Bard in a firm hold on the ground, trying to push his shoulders down and thus end the fight, a situation that would probably not have developed had the younger man not insisted to train a specific technique to disentangle himself. Both fighters were covered in dust and sweat and oblivious to the cheers of their audience as they struggled for the better position.
"You can barely tell who is who under all this grime!" Éothain wrinkled his nose in disapproval and looked along the fence, astonished to find that the majority of the observers were female. "And still the womenfolk really seem to enjoy this."
"Well, it's Bard." It was explanation enough, for the mighty warrior was seldom seen without changing female company. Éomer did not know whether he approved of his comrade's loose way of life or not, but the women he had been with didn't seem to mind that they were not the only ladies in their hero's life. He sighed. "What I wouldn't give to have his build...!"
"If you had his muscles and his weight, you wouldn't have won the foxtail, and you would never compete in the great race with any hope to win," his friend stated matter-of-factly, and Éomer knew that Éothain was right. "I mean, just look at his horse! Éoten* may be the tallest and strongest horse in our éored, but he would never win any race. He would surely make a good plough-horse, but-"
"Don't let Bard hear that you think of his noble stallion as plough-horse, or he will grind you into bone powder," the son of Eomund laughed, and then nodded approvingly when the subject of their discussion slipped out of his opponent's hold with a powerful move and threw him onto his shoulders. The fight was over, and the applause his' as he rose to his feet and wiped his hands on his dirty trousers.
"Damnation!" Gaerwolf grumbled remorsefully as he allowed his opponent to help him up. "That was a good trick! I thought that I had you, and then you used my weight as a lever. I can't wait to see whether Thorwald will fall for it, as well."
"Provided he doesn't rupture a muscle again to evade the fight. He's getting old, and he knows it," Bard snorted and picked up his belongings, only noticing now that his entire frame was caked with dirt, much to the delight of the women beyond the fence.
"Come with me and I'll wash you," one of them offered.
"And I'll rub you dry afterwards," the red-head next to her and obviously her sister, giggled, and Bard, having spied their recruits beyond the fence, cast them a big grin.
"What can I say? It's a hard life!"
"Certainly, Sir." Éothain nodded earnestly. "A fight against a horde of orcs would no doubt be much preferable." He didn't see the women's sudden indignant glares, but felt Éomer's elbow painfully against his ribs. "Ow! What? This was a joke!"
With an apologetic expression, Bard turned to the blushing women.
"Eadgyth, Mildburg... I would no doubt greatly enjoy what you're offering, but unfortunately, it seems that today, I am a little short of time, and the river will have to suffice ..." He saw their disappointed faces and added: "For now. I will gladly get back to it upon our return if your offer still stands by then."
"My," the older one said, and coyly inclined her head. "If the double champion of wrestling would still bother with us simple women?"
To which the tall warrior raised his hand in defence.
"I am not double champion yet, and would prefer not to be named that until I have the title, please. It is just something I believe in. And of course I will still enjoy being with you two delightful ladies upon our return."And with those words, he gallantly took his suitors' hands to brush a fleeting kiss on them. "Until then." He turned around to his two stunned recruits. "To the river, boys!"
Two hours later, Aldburg's marketplace was overcrowded with people and horses as half of the city's three éoreds assembled for the ride to Edoras. As war-time demanded, the other half would stay behind in protection, knowing that it would be their turn in the coming year. Only those lucky enough to be in possession of a title would be allowed to defend it the next year, which – aside from natural competitiveness – provided another reason for the men to give their best in the contests.
Although the shadows had lengthened, Éothain had been right to suspect that the temperatures had not much changed in the course of the afternoon, but now that everyone had packed their belongings and saddled their horses for the ride, an exuberant atmosphere was in the air when the city gates opened. All looked forward to the contests and the meeting with old friends among the other éoreds they saw only rarely and usually in grim times.
"Ride safely, and return with a few titles for our proud city!" Findarras, who would be in command of Aldburg in Elfhelm's absence, shouted over the marketplace and was rewarded with wild jeering when the riders thundered past him. The dust cloud they swirled up still hung in the air long after the gates had closed behind the last rider...
*old English for "Giant"
Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer
Oh my, has it really been over 9 (!!) years since I left my favourite éored on the dusty plains below Edoras and you, my fellow readers, thinking this was a one-piece? Well, it was never intended as such and while my main hobby has switched from writing to photography in those past years, I suddenly felt this unmistakable twitch in the back of my head, the heartbeat of a story longing to be finished (I just hope my English hasn’t become too rusty in the meantime…)
I also hope that my muse has woken long enough to actually let me do this, and that you, my dear readers, are still roaming ff.net and that you will let me know your thoughts just as you did back then. Of course, I will be equally happy to hear from anyone finding my stories for the first time. Cheers – and a happy New Year to you all!
Chapter 2: Meeting Legends
It was still early when Éomer made his way through the quiet festival grounds over to the horse corrals. The vast camp was bathed in twilight and nothing moved except for the occasional bird in the sky or on one of the many fence poles where they sat on their perch to examine their surroundings. Wherever the young warrior looked, tents small and large lay strewn across the plains beneath Edoras, a temporary city for the dozens of éoreds who would compete in this year’s festivities, its inhabitants still asleep.
Banners of all colours marked each éored’s camp space, not to be mistaken. And yet for now, they hung limply from their posts, as the wind which usually harrowed this sea of grass was likewise still dormant. It would only rise later in the afternoon, lifting the heavy fabric and unfold the shapes of horses, suns and dragons embroidered upon them in long hours of passionate work to the eye of the beholder, a splendid picture of superb artistry which belonged to the festival as much as its competitions.
Éomer loved this time of the day, the early summer mornings at least an hour before the sun showed its face on the horizon and turned the dew on the meadows into innumerable sparkling jewels for as far as the eye could see, until they quickly evaporated in the rising heat. Here, on the outskirts of their vast camp, the scent of fresh grass and horses was stronger than that of the cold ashes from the campfires, left-over food and the occasional spilled ale; the air cool and invigorating. A multitudinous choir of birds greeted the new day, the only sound aside from the young rider’s own footsteps and the occasional snore of those of his brothers-in-arms who had chosen to sleep beneath the open sky rather than in a stuffy tent.
Éomer smiled to himself. It had been a night to remember. Hundreds of warriors from éoreds all over the Mark meeting their kin and long-time friends, for these three days of the year released from their duty to protect the people of their ward from evil, celebrating the summer solstice together. A celebration of life, nothing less. It formed bonds among the men, renewed them, strengthened them. It gave them purpose.
He had loved the Midsummer Festival from when he was only a boy. He had marveled at the spectacle of the competitions, the sight of all those battle-hardened warriors proving their skill to the audience, their colourful ancient banners proudly rippling in the wind, but only now that he was part of the Armed Forces did he truly understand what it was all about. They had sung together, laughed together, shared their food and stories all through the shortest night of the year, until the first light of dawn had fallen onto the Great Plains again.
And still, Éomund’s son mused as he kicked aside a stone in his path, he had also felt a strong sense of competitiveness among some of the warriors while he had sat with his comrades, observing rather than competing in their boisterous telling of the many stories and anecdotes the past year had written into their lifelines. He had noticed the calculating glances with which Thorvald and Bard had measured each other when their paths crossed shortly after their arrival, had felt the tense atmosphere as the two men greeted each other with only the barest of a measured nod. There was no question that this year’s wrestling competition would at least receive as much attention as the Great Race; too great was the rivalry between those two accomplished warriors.
A flutter of excitement stirred in Éomer’s stomach when he thought about what the next two days would bring. In the past years, he had been a visitor only, joining the festivities only on the day of the Great Race and the finals of the different competitions together with Éowyn and their uncle. This was the first time he was actually part of it, a challenger even. Not only moving between the warriors as a stranger, but accepted and belonging, and even more, allowed to be fighting for the honour of his éored despite his obvious youth.
The Great Race… All of a sudden, the feeling of an anthill in his stomach made a dramatic reappearance at the thought. Hundreds of warriors would be watching; Theoden-King would be watching… and his sister, too! All of Edoras would bear witness as he and Stormwing challenged the greatest racehorse the Mark had ever seen. What if Godric and Flame would leave them in the dust? What would his brothers-in-arms say? Wouldn’t he forever become the target of their ridicule if he failed?
A sharp right turn around the largest drinking tent brought Éomer closer to his destination. Up ahead, he could already make out the corrals in the brightening light, where large, multi-coloured shapes moved about calmly behind the fence posts. Yet just before his eyes had found his beloved Stormwing amidst the mares, movement to his left made him turn his head just in time to see a late fox slink away from one of the expired camp fires with a meaty bone between its teeth. The son of Éomund shook his head, a sigh escaping his lips.
It was too late for such thoughts. He had committed himself heart and soul to this undertaking. He had wanted to win the Great Race ever from when his father had first seated him before him in the saddle, and he had worked like a madman all this past year to bring himself into a position not only to participate in the name of his fellow riders, but to actually challenge the reigning champion with any hopes to succeed.
They had all lauded him what a fantastic rider he had become in the past months, even Arnhelm, who rarely handed out praise. And they had cast admiring eyes upon his mare, remarking how trim and fit the grey looked and praising her stamina and speed whenever they travelled around the Aldburg plains in performance of their duty. And whenever he sat on her back, the wind roaring in his ears and eyes, feeling the pulse of life, he could feel Stormwing’s will to go faster, ever faster, until there was no one left in front of them. It was like flying.
So yes, Éomer concluded as he came to a halt before the nearest corral, his eyes looking for the familiar light-grey shape. They were ready. As ready as they would ever be. No matter what happened tomorrow, he had done everything in his power to enter the challenge prepared. Whether it was enough remained to be seen.
And there she was, his precious Stormwing, in the far back of the corral together with the other mares, her head buried in the juicy grass for an early breakfast, relaxed and calm. With a proud smile upon his lips, Èomer let his gaze glide over her long, sinewy limbs, her heavily muscled shoulder and hindquarters and the flowing light grey tail and mane. Never before had a mare won the greatest race of the Mark. Perhaps they would write history tomorrow.
He clicked his tongue, and his smile deepened when heads shot up and dozens of ears flickered in his direction. And yet after a moment of thorough scrutinizing by scent and appearance, most of the mares immediately lost interest in him and lowered their heads again to resume their early meal, except for his beautiful mount who approached the fence in a swift trot, greeting her rider with a playful squeal.
“And good morning to you, too, Precious,” Éomer chuckled and extended a hand to caress the grey’s soft nose. Warm air was blown into his face in response, and affectionately, he buried it against the silken skin.
“How are we feeling today, Little One?” he murmured, rubbing a hand over Stormwing’s brow. “Ready to take on the world?” An explosive snort answered him. “Aye, so am I. I can hardly wait. But we must remain patient. They will show us the course later today, and only then I can plan our strategy. Just see that you rest and don’t quarrel with the other mares. I know you can be a haughty thing sometimes. Don’t anger them. It simply would not do to have you limping just before our great day.”
An indignant huff answered him as the mare butted her head against his chest, almost succeeding in knocking Éomer from the fence.
“It would also not do to incapacitate your rider just before the competition!” he scolded her, and yet laughed at the same time; on impulse quickly slipping onto Stormwing’s bare back and burying his hands in her thick mane. At once, he felt the powerful body between his thighs tense, only too eager to follow his commands.
“Easy, Precious, easy. We will not race today.” He turned her around and urged her into a swift, effortless trot along the fence, unable to suppress a broad grin as he felt the subdued power beneath him, only waiting to be unleashed. For a while, the son of Éomund cleared his head of all thought and just enjoyed the moment as he put his mount through some easy exercises first, then proceeding to bending her this way and that in order to improve her flexibility and heighten the mare’s awareness for his commands, riding backwards, sideways and in circles and even in place as Stormwing’s muscles gradually warmed with the effort and her moves became smooth and gliding like a cat’s. A wistful smile formed on Éomer’s lips. If only his father could have seen them like this!
“My, what a sight for sore eyes the two of you are!” a voice suddenly cut through his reverie, and as he turned his head, Éomer saw a familiar shape in a silken green tunic standing by the far fence, arms resting loosely folded on the crossbar. “Methinks I should warn Godric about a certain cousin of mine. So far, he only considers Thunderclap a threat.”
“Théodred!” Éomer beamed and directed his mount back to where his cousin had taken position, having watched them for Bema-knew how long. He extended his arm in greeting to the older man and inwardly winced when his hand was almost squashed in a firm handshake. “When did you arrive? I looked for you yesterday, though your riders told me you went to visit Uncle.”
“Aye. I gave him my report and stayed for dinner. I only returned to the camp in the middle of the night. By then, you were already fast asleep.” Théodred winked, and Éomer felt heat creep into his face.
“We travelled all the way from Aldburg yesterday and—“
“No need to explain yourself, Cousin. I know it’s quite a long journey, and the sun is relentless on the plains. Where is the wind when one needs it?”
“Aye. I hope the temperatures will go down a bit until tomorrow, or the race will become even more unpredictable.” A brief glance to the eastern horizon confirmed to Éomer that the sun was on the way and it would be another hot day. “I cannot remember that it was ever like this around the time of the festival.”
The remark earned him a sly smirk.
“Who knows, there might be a thunderstorm later on. It was rather humid the last two days, don’t you think? And yet whatever the conditions will be, I have to admit that the two of you certainly look ready to do battle. Elfhelm told me of all the relentless work you put into your preparations.” Théodred shrugged. “What can I say? It shows. I wish Uncle could see what you made of his little mare.”
“Perhaps he can.” A moment of silence passed between the two cousins; a good silence. A silence of remembrance. At last, Éomer slid from his mare’s back, sending her off with a clap on the muscular hindquarters as he climbed back over the fence and cast a probing glance at the older rider he regarded as his brother. “You look rested, Cousin. How are things in the Westfold?”
“It is true, they’ve been quiet for a while,” Théodred mused, lifting an eyebrow. “But I don’t trust the calm. The Dunlendings know about our festival. As much as I loathed it, I only took a third of my éored with me and left the others with Marshall Erkenbrand. It would not be the first time the stinking filth decides to attack us during the festivities.”
“Aye, it’s the same in Aldburg. Elfhelm only took one third of our éored and one third of Findarras’ riders with us. There have been no orc-attacks for a while now that the days are so long, but who knows?” Éomer shook his head in disgust and frowned. “It’s a shame though. Everyone should be able to enjoy Midsummer, don’t you think, Cousin?” Kicking a stone out of the way, he followed the older man as he directed his steps in the direction of the stallions’ corral.
“I am quite sure that the people of Aldburg and Westfold know how to compensate their riders for the unlucky fate of having to stay back. Do you not remember the festivities in Aldburg from when it was your home? Did you find them lacking in any way?”
“I was only a child then, Théodred. I had nothing to compare them to.”
“True.” Without warning, Théodred came to a stop, and his keen glance measured his cousin from head to toe. “You are certainly not a child anymore, Éomer. You have grown this past year, in more ways than just in height. Although that is astonishing as well: you are almost my height now. If you continue at this rate, this might be the only year you can participate in the Great Race with any hopes to win, because you will soon become too heavy for your horse, especially once you begin to fill out.” He looked into suddenly dismayed eyes.
“Gods, I hope not! I mean…” Éomer wrung his hands. “Of course I want to grow further,--“
“--and you want to be able to split orc-sculls with your sword strikes, which means adding some muscle to those long bones!”
“That, too, but I also want to win this race! You know what it means to me.”
“Aye.” Théodred chuckled. “My ears are still bleeding from all the times you went on and on and on about how you would become the greatest rider the Mark has ever seen, and how you would win the race each year you participated until old age stopped either you or your steed.” He laughed at the younger man’s dark glance.
“You will not jest like that after tomorrow,” Éomer grumbled, again to the older man’s amusement. As if to mock him, laughter rose into the quiet morning as the camp slowly rose from sleep behind them. Good-naturedly, Théodred clapped his shoulder.
“Ah well, Cousin, forgive me. I certainly did not mean to ridicule you. All the more as I heard nothing but praise from Elfhelm about the things you did in your first year... except for your little adventure in Firien Forest perhaps, but that would be unfair, as it was at the beginning.”
“Elfhelm told you about that? But I thought…”
“That he promised you to keep it secret? Don’t worry, I am the only one he told. I made him promise to keep me informed on your progress when you joined his éored, so that promise is in fact older than the one he gave you. But fear not, Father knows nothing about what happened in the past summer, and we best keep it that way. Not because of what *you* did, but for the good of your scout and commander.”
“Do you really believe he would punish them? Seriously, I mean? Like… banishing Arnhelm, or pulling him from our éored?”
Théodred’s eyebrows twitched as he turned his head, an unmistakable warning in his eyes.
“I dare not say what he would do, so my advice would be to just exclude it from your report when you meet Father tomorrow. Elfhelm will not mention it, and I trust that the two of you are in agreement about what you *will* tell him… are you, Éomer?”
A disturbing thought raced through Éomer’s head, and he came to a sudden stop.
“Aye, we talked about that, but what if Grima knows what really happened?”
“He always knows about things he has no business knowing, even if we cannot explain where he gets his information most of the time. What if he heard about this and tells Uncle? What if I’m caught lying to him?”
“No one is asking you to lie. You are simply leaving something out, something of little to no consequence to your éored or the Mark. After all, you are not expected to give a detailed report of each and every day of the past year.”
“But what if Grima asks me about it? Or perhaps he already told Uncle, and he will ask me himself? I cannot lie straight into his face!”
“I believe he would already have mentioned something while I visited him last night.” Théodred dismissed Éomer’s misgivings with a throwaway gesture. “Trust me, Éomer, there are limits even to Grima Wormtongue’s knowledge. He cannot hear about every little thing that happens in the field. Now, let’s no longer talk about him on such a fine morning. I came to show you something.” He turned on his heels and pointed with his bearded chin towards the corral they had reached during their conversation. “Do you not want to have a look at your main opponent in the race and meet his rider? Search for weaknesses?”
“Good luck with that,” an unexpected answer came from within the corral followed by a laugh, and as Éomer followed his cousin’s gaze, he beheld a slim young man with light brown hair, dressed in the earthen colours of Théodred’s éored, standing alongside a tall chestnut stallion with a brush in his hands.
His mouth fell open as he realized he was looking at a pair of living Rohirric legends. The Great Race had a history of centuries, and out of the hundreds and thousands of the greatest riders of the Mark and their horses who had competed in it, only those two right before him had managed to win it five times in a row, with no competitor ever having reached the finishing post closer than four lengths behind Godric and his magnificent Flame.
His breath involuntarily caught in his chest, Éomer feasted his eyes on the most perfectly built horse he had seen in the now seventeen years of his life. As he had already expected, Flame was tall, certainly quite a bit taller than his precious Stormwing. Almost nineteen hands, he estimated with a brief flash of reluctant admiration. Although heavily muscled at the perfectly angled shoulders and hindquarters, the stallion still appeared rather lean and light to him, a hint of his unmatched speed and stamina which Éomer had so far only witnessed from the distance of the Royal Stands for the past years of their reign as champions. The long red mane spilled over a muscular, elegantly curved neck and would look like raging fire once Flame moved fast enough. Likewise the long and thick tail which Godric was just now working on with his brush to loosen the knots and the dirt which had accumulated in the coarse hair during their journey, making certain his mount looked every bit the legend it was. He swallowed. Béma, what a horse this was! Did he really think he stood a chance with his little mare?
And it appeared that Flame recognized his challenger as he stood still like a statue in the brightening morning light: ears untwitchingly pointed in the direction of his breathless admirer whose scent he probed with quivering nostrils, answering Éomer’s silent challenge with a fiery look out of large dark eyes. A heartbeat later, the sun cleared the last mountains on the eastern horizon, bathing the plains in its golden light and igniting the stallion’s coat in a spectacle of red hues that would have awed even a colour-blind man.
“Éomer, meet Flame,” Théodred’s voice seemed to reach his cousin’s ears from the distance of another dimension. “Flame, meet Éomer.”
Adventure of an Éored: Midsummer
Author's Note: Thanks to everyone who commented on my first new chapter in a *really* long time! It feels good to be back, and I hope that this time, I will finish my little tale (so far, it feels like my creative juices are finally flowing again. Yeah!)
As I usually see the scenes which I'm trying to describe playing like a movie in my head, I thought I'd share a few of my casting options with you (now I only need to find the money to actually shoot it! ;-)):
Éomer/ Éowyn/ Théoden: as in the movies, only a lot younger (obviously)
Elfhelm: a younger version of Stellan Skarsgard (in his early 30s)
Théodred: Garrett Hedlund
Bard: Chris Hemsworth
(more to follow, although you are of course very welcome to your own version of the cast)
Chapter 3: Day One
The silence stretched for another thirty heartbeats during which Éomer found it impossible to avert his eyes from the red stallion, and it was only when Flame's image began to slowly spin around him that he realized he had been holding his breath.
"Are you well, Cousin?" Théodred sounded closer now, and highly amused. "Or have you swallowed your tongue?"
"Not that this isn't quite a common reaction to seeing Flame up close for the first time, Marshal" another voice added with quiet laughter, and it was this which finally woke Éomund's son from his reverie. Likewise breaking the spell, the chestnut before him turned away with a low whicker deep in its throat and shook its head, sending the long mane flying as the stallion jumped into a gallop without transition to rejoin the others on the far side of the corral. "After all, as you can see, that stallion is ensuring any way he can that he receives his adequate share of attention and admiration. He's really quite the drama-queen… I do love him, though."
With a deep breath, Éomer turned around to find Flame's rider standing next to his cousin on the other side of the fence, a good-natured smile on his young, weather-beaten face.
'He is not much older than I,' Éomer wondered as he regarded his opponent for a few more silent moments. 'Six, maybe seven years. He must have first won the race when he was about my age.' He also noticed that Godric stood half a head shorter than Théodred and, in contrast to his heavily muscled cousin, was of rather lean but wiry built. A little scar parted his right eyebrow, yet otherwise Éomer's probing glance could not find any other of the damages of war. Grey-blue eyes regarded him with the same, barely disguised interest he was given himself. 'What did Théodred tell him about me?'
"My apologies, Lord Godric," he offered with a slight incline of his head. "I did not mean to ignore you. I was simply taken by your wonderful steed. What is its lineage?" The smile before him deepened.
"Flame is of the Hammerhand-line, my lord," Godric offered. "He was sired in the great herd of the Westemnet. Also, if I may be so bold and correct you, I am not a lord, myself. I am but a simple rider who has had the incredible luck of having been chosen by this magnificent beast."
Behind him, Théodred snorted and scratched his short, neatly trimmed beard.
"A 'simple rider' who just accidentally happens to be my best scout, archer and errand rider. It is not as if you merely had to stay on your horse's back to win those races, Godric, you are one of the best riders I have ever seen. Your instincts are acute, your evaluation of terrain and situations is always correct, and your balance puts most of the other riders to shame… although from what I've heard, my cousin here might share some of these traits, despite his youth. He has always been a wizard around horses, from when he was just a wee lad… and he is determined to beat you to the finishing line this year." He lifted his eyebrows and cut his rider a part calculating, part teasing glance.
Godric nodded good-naturedly.
"Then I am looking forward to your challenge, Lord Éomer. Let us give them a race to remember tomorrow, what say you?" He held out his hand in the warrior's greeting, and Éomer was happy to return it, astonished by the rider's humbleness and at the same time wondering how he himself would carry himself if he knew that his name would forever be remembered for his achievements by the people of the Mark.
"I would be honoured," he said… and meant it. A quick glance found Théodred, silently thanking his cousin for this magical encounter. A small nod confirmed to him that the older man had understood.
"Why then don't the two of you inspect the course together later today," the king's son suggested nonchalantly, his mien non-telling. "I understood that a full walkthrough has been scheduled for two hours after noon."
"You mean you want me to reveal all my little tricks and shortcuts to your cousin, Marshal, is that it?" Godric asked tongue-in-cheek, his eyebrows almost touching his hairline. "Should you not be routing for me, as I will be the one defending the honour of our éored, bloodkin or not?" A brief wink told Éomer that his indignation was faked, but without transition, the Second Marshall of Riddermark became serious.
"I am not asking you to reveal your shortcuts, Godric," Théodred answered him, and yet his eyes were pinning his cousin instead of the man he was talking to. "I want you to keep Éomer safe… or at least as safe as possible. I know complete safety can never be guaranteed in a race."
"Théodred, I will not need a…" Éomer began forcefully, but immediately found himself interrupted and in the focus of the older man's piercing blue eyes.
"I mean it, Éomer! There have always been accidents at this race, some of them serious. Anything can happen when twenty riders and their mounts thunder along that difficult course at breakneck speed. You know this yourself, you witnessed it from the stands all these past years. I am not asking Godric to remain by your side all the way to the finishing line; you are – after all – a capable rider yourself and proved this by beating every other contender of your éored in the qualification."
"What is it then that you are asking him to do?" Deep furrows formed on Éomer's brow like thunderclouds.
"Nothing more than that he reveals the most dangerous sections and pitfalls of the course to you. I would also advise you to remain as close to him as possible for as long as the riders are close together, if you can, for the simple reason that Godric knows how to stay out of trouble."
Huffing and wringing his hands, Éomer hunted for the words to express his utter indignation over having his cousin think he would need a wet-nurse for the race, but instead it was Théodred's kinsman who answered in a calm, sincere tone.
"I will be glad to do that for him, Marshal." And with a brief nod, Godric turned to the still silently fuming young rider before him. "Your cousin's request is reasonable, my lord. The Great Race's renown does not only stem from the fact that it has been held for centuries… or at least, that is not its greater part. It has always been the hardest race held in the Mark until this very day. Its two leagues combine all possible terrains – open plains, rock, steep and narrow mountain paths, forest… even river-crossings and tunnels, and as if that were not complicated enough, the conditions will change vastly if it rains. The Snowbourn might flood and need another approach; the forest part of the track will become swampy, the rocky part slippery… At the best of times, this course is difficult; it can get dangerous without warning and from one heartbeat to the next, and you should be very aware that you are putting your very life and the life of your steed on the line upon entering this race."
Éomer opened his mouth for a sharp reply, but reluctantly swallowed it when he beheld the seriousness in Théodred's sudden glare and his commandingly raised hand. Flame's rider continued as if he had not noticed their brief dispute.
"It is my firm belief though that many of the course's dangers can be minimized with the help of experience. Do not turn aside my offer or your cousin's advice out of pride, Lord Éomer. I do not intend to hand you the title on a plate… and should it put your misgivings to rest, I would be willing to solemnly swear the following: should we be in the position to charge for the finishing line and the title side by side after those two leagues, I will do whatever it takes to leave you in the dust."
For the longest time, Éomer stared at the scout, still indignant but at the same time seeing the wisdom of Théodred's suggestion, while he fought to come to a decision.
"Well, Cousin?" Théodred tried to shorten the process, his eyebrows questioningly raised. Quite often had he encountered the younger man's stubbornness and pride in the past, and he had expected Éomer's protest to his suggestion despite all its reason. And yet he also knew that once past his indignation, Éomund's son was usually able to put aside his bullheadedness once he had calmed down and allowed himself to think a matter through to find it made sense. "What say you?"
Éomer took a deep breath, and his attention shifted to the Second Marshal of the Mark.
"So this was your true reason for seeking me out, Cousin. Was it Uncle's plan or your own?"
Béma's balls, the youth could be truly irritating sometimes! Yet forcing himself to remain calm and patient, Théodred confessed with a deep breath:
"It was my idea from when I first heard that you would be competing for your éored, and when I told Father about it yesterday, he agreed whole-heartedly to it, if this is indeed of any importance to you. I regret having to remind you, Éomer, but you are not 'nothing' to your family. As Godric said, you are putting your life on the line by competing in this race, and not only that, but you will be responsible for the health of your mount, as well, which you have been surely aware of before my mentioning it. Tell me, what good reason would there actually be to reject our proposal which is given only with the best of intentions?"
Éomer just stared at him wordlessly, and in his eyes, Théodred was relieved to see the ancient battle of pride and reason, and he knew he had won. Still, he knew a way to make agreeing even easier for the young headstrong rider. He lowered his voice to an understanding tone.
"You do not have to decide this now, Cousin. Think some more about it, and then tell Godric what you think when you come together for the walkthrough. Can we all at least agree on this?"
Godric nodded and granted Éomer a non-committal smile.
"My offer stands, son of Éomund. I would be honoured to walk the race course together with you."
Slowly but surely, Éomer began to feel stupid… and also increasingly annoyed with himself. Béma, the Mark's best rider was offering his advice, so why was he acting so bloody pig-headed? Did he really think he could best Flame and Godric as a first-time competitor and without prior experience in any race whatsoever except for the qualification? Deeply ashamed of himself, he cleared his throat and addressed the other rider directly, forcing himself to look him straight in the eye although he was fairly certain that his face was sporting an embarrassing shade of crimson.
"I apologize, Sir. To you as well, Cousin. Your proposal is very gracious. I do not know what came over me."
"Well, I do. You wanted all the glory for yourself, as usual, Cousin," Théodred grinned. "And yet I believe that there might just be enough glory left for you if we do it my way, as long as you make certain that both you and your mount complete the course in good health. Trust me, that will be hard enough."
"There are only five new riders competing this year," Godric was quick to add. "And you can rest assured that they will seek advice from the previous contenders of their éoreds, as well. The rest has already gathered first-hand experience on the race course. As no one participated for your éored for at least the last two years, we are only trying to provide each rider with equal chances."
"And I am grateful for it, sir, even more so as you are the one to beat. It must be most unusual in the history of this race to have the competitor of another éored giving advice to his challenger."
"Heck, there have to be some advantages to having grown up beneath the same roof with the Second Marshal of Riddermark." Théodred's said with a dead-pan expression, and Godric grinned. At last, Éomer found it impossible not to laugh with them.
"Well, I thank you. Both of you. Although it is not usually my habit to accept favours given to me because of my ancestry."
For a brief moment, his cousin turned semi-serious again.
"Which is well and the way it should be, Éomer. You will only earn the respect of your fellow riders by walking your own way. Yet this is a special situation and Godric is right: every rider will have his own source of information, and one would have to be daft not to milk it for every available clue. I know you are many things, Cousin, but *daft* is not the word that immediately springs to mind."
Godric quickly turned away to hide his amusement, while Éomer could only stare at the older man. Yet before the right reply had formed in his mind, loud shouting from the waking camp behind them interrupted his train of thought. Théodred's attention, too, shifted to a point somewhere in the distance behind his shoulder, and all three men noticed with a start that the sun had ascended a good distance into the sky during their talk.
"Ah well, it seems that our brothers-in-arms are at last getting ready to break their fast," the king's son remarked. "Why do we not join them before Elfhelm sends a search party for you? I also do feel quite hungry."
Day One of the Mark's two most-anticipated summer days had far progressed into the afternoon ere Éomer found the time to join his brothers-in-arms in the spectacle of the ongoing competitions.
The sun glared relentlessly out of a cloudless sky as he made his way through the throng of warriors, their conversations and laughter a constant din in his ears as he passed the tents where scores of cooks and servants ensured that none their Armed Forces would have a chance at passing out from lack of food or drink. Any trace of the morning's freshness had long since evaporated in the merciless heat and been replaced by a somewhat questionable aroma of sweat, leather, horse, ale and roasting meat. In addition to the combined stench, a stifling dust cloud blanketed the temporary city of riders thoroughly, loose particles sticking to every inch of exposed skin, creeping into body folds and garments and even crunching between their teeth, and although he had enjoyed a brief plunge into the Snowbourn's cooling waters upon his return, Èomer already felt sweaty and dusty again before he had even reached the outer tents.
After his early morning foray, the young rider had found that he had indeed already been missed by an extremely nervous Éothain, but not by his captain, which confirmed to him that Théodred had thoroughly planned his little assault to the point where he had made Elfhelm his co-conspirator. And yet Éomer had also felt that he had indeed made his peace with his cousin's proposal and that his initial anger over the older man's stroke of paternalism had vanished into thin air. He had, in fact, started to look forward to the experience of the walkthrough by the famed rider's side.
The walkthrough… now that he knew the true scope of the undertaking he had committed himself to, Éomund's son could no longer suppress a certain amount of concern and growing doubt. Was he indeed up to braving the manifold obstacles the track presented to every rider who harboured the wish to see his name written into the history of this greatest of races?
Reluctantly waking from his contemplations for a moment to orientate himself, Éomer quickly located the arena where the apprentice archers' competition was already in full swing and where his friend Éothain was hoping to make his mark today. With a few lowly mumbled apologies, he squeezed into a narrow gap between the spectators and rested his arms upon the improvised brattice, looking for the score boards.
"Ah, there you are, Éomer!" he was greeted by Tondhere, one of the youngest riders of their éored save for him and Éothain. "We were wondering whether you would actually make it for Éothain's big day. It would have been tragic if he won this and you were not there to witness his ascent to glory. He might have slept right through your big race tomorrow in his vengeance... even if it is only in the late afternoon." He grinned.
Éomer sighed tonelessly. It had been mainly Tondhere who had been responsible for showing him and Éothain the ropes when they had joined the Armed Forces exactly a year ago, and the skinny Aldburg lad had delighted in no longer having to be the one who suffered in the fulfilment of all those unwanted tasks that were always happily bestowed upon each éored's apprentices. Their relationship was brotherly, with all the support but sometimes also the glee occurring between siblings of different age. And yet Éomund's son found that the heat and past activities of the day had drained him of his usual willingness to wage verbal battle with his fellow rider, and he chose to ignore Tondhere's quip.
"The walkthrough took longer than I thought. So, is he winning?"
"He's doing well," Tolgor informed him from the other side. "He was a bit nervous at first, but so were the others. There is only one more round left, and Éothain is leading together with two others. They outdistanced the rest already so far that they would have to miss the target completely for them to catch up… which I don't think will happen."
Éomer nodded, and his eyes strayed over to where his friend was readying himself for the last round of shooting. After having appeared like a nervous wreck during their morning meal, Éothain now looked remarkably concentrated and calm as he picked up his bow.
"He really wants to enter the open finals tomorrow and test his skill against the older riders. But in order to do this, he must win."
"Which is still very possible." Tolgor assured him.
"You better hope that he wins, or his mood will be disastrous for the next four weeks," Tondhere added with a laugh. "Especially if you should win the race!"
"I do not believe for a moment that Éothain should begrudge me the win, should it really come to pass… which, in any case, does not seem the likeliest course of events"
His fellow riders creased their brows as they shared an irritated glance at his sudden skepticism.
"So..." Tolgor probed cautiously. "I take it that the walkthrough was… different from what you expected?"
"It was…" Éomer took a deep breath, not knowing how to express his mixed feelings, while his eyes followed the shot of the first of Éothain's main rivals. The third ring. Not bad, but good enough to stay at the top? He pursed his lips. "It confirmed to me that the race will not be lightly won."
The older man laughed.
"Oh well, of course not, what did you think? Everybody could do it if it were easy! Even good old Tondhere here!" He prodded an elbow playfully against the other apprentice rider's ribs and reaped a dark frown.
"I have other qualities," was Tondhere's haughty reply, prompting Éomer at last to join in their banter.
"Aye! Even I have to admit that you are really good at mending torn clothes. Did they add a sewing contest for you this year?"
A piercing look skewered him.
"Just keep laughing, Éomer. I will remember this when you come to me next time, begging for advice. You can ride around naked in the future for all I care, for sure as hell I am not going to help you with your clothes any longer."
Tolgor's grin widened, but even as Éomer was hunting for the right reply to Tondhere's threat, he saw out of the corner of his eye Éothain raising his bow.
"Shhh, quiet! It's Éothain's turn!"
Silence spread over the arena as Céorl's son stood erect at the drawn line, holding his breath as he briefly aimed for the target, sixty paces away… and released his arrow, only narrowly missing the bullseye.
"Good shot!" Tolgor applauded him and enthusiastically slapped Éomer's back. "He's in the lead now. Let's see if the other lad has the nerve to best that!"
A tall, brown-haired young man with the King's symbol of the running horse embossed in the leather of his jerkin stepped up for his last shot while Éothain made room for him with an expression of both relief and ongoing tension as he beheld his friends among the crowd.
"Who is that?" Éomer inquired under his breath into the thick silence.
"Falk, of Céorl's éored. I've heard only good things about him." Tolgor looked worried. "But what the heck, Éothain will at least be the runner-up."
Éomer shook his head with conviction, his eyes not leaving his friend's challenger.
"No, he will win. I am certain."
Before their eyes, Falk picked up one of the provided arrows with deliberate calm and fitted it to the string. He raised his bow and aimed. Everyone seemed to hold their breath now, and his own left his lungs in a long, even blow… and then the shot! A murmur went through the crowd.
"Béma's balls, it's tight!" Tondhere's eyes were narrow slits, but the distance to the target was too great to determine the victor of the competition from their position.
As they watched impatiently, the three jury-members left their seats and walked over, pointing and measuring and talking among themselves in voices too low to understand their words through the din of the audience's murmurs.
"What is taking them so long?"
At long last, it appeared that the men had come to a conclusion, and as they slowly made their way back to their table, still talking, the head of the jury signaled the three best archers to approach. With quick glance at his friends that was both hopeful and skeptical, Éothain followed his rivals and came to a stand just when Lord Folcred of Snowbourn raised his voice.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, honoured Lords and Riders of Riddermark… We have had the luck of witnessing an exciting and high-class competition of the next generation of archers from éoreds all over our land, a testimony to the high quality of training our young warriors receive from their elders. It fills me with hope to see these skills successfully handed down from generation to generation year after year, thus ensuring the survival of our people for many more years to come and preparing us for whatever storms we may have to brave in the future. Please, give a hand to both our young contestants as well as to their teachers!"
Cheers and applause erupted from the crowd, and both Éomer and Tondhere turned toward Tolgor while they clapped their hands enthusiastically, smiling in appreciation and thankfulness. Visibly touched, the older rider answered with an implied bow.
"It was and will continue to be my pleasure," he said, barely audible over the din.
"Now, as I am certain that all of you long to know the winner of this year's contest now, let us proceed without further delay to the victory ceremony," the Lord of Snowbourn continued, and the crowd fell silent. "The third place with very good eighty-seven points goes to Aelfric, son of Kaelen, of Captain Éadgar's éored!"
The young man of Westfold stepped up, beaming, and received his ribbon along with a few encouraging words under the thunderous applause of the spectators. Lifting it up for everyone to see, he stepped back in line. Lord Folcred cleared his throat and cast a quick glance at the two remaining young riders who stood before him, eagerly awaiting the jury's verdict.
"Now, in previous years, eighty-seven points would have been good enough to secure victory, but this year's contest brought something which we haven't experienced for quite some time: a shared, very high result of eighty-nine points for our two best young archers: Falk, son of Ecberth, of Captain Céorl's éored… and Éothain, son of Céorl, of Captain Elfhelm's éored!" He inclined his head in a respectful nod. "You should be very proud of yourselves, gentlemen. Eighty-nine points are quite an achievement. Stay on that path, continue to learn from your teachers with the same willingness you displayed so far, and we can all rest assured that the future of Riddermark lies in very good hands."
More applause interrupted him, and graciously, he waited for it to subside before he continued, granting the two apprentice riders their moment of fame.
"However…" The crowd fell silent again as the Lord of Snowbourn lifted his hand. "The rules of this ancient contest define that the amount of points is not the only measure by which the winner is to be determined. It is therefore that we award this year's first place to … Éothain, son of Céorl, on the grounds of his faster release."
"Yes!" Éomer balled his fists, only barely succeeding in not jumping over the fence to congratulate his friend first, while around him their entire éored erupted into cheerful celebration. From the middle of the arena, Éothain beckoned to them with a wide grin upon his lips as he was handed the blue winner's ribbon, and happily accepted Falk's good-natured congratulations. Only Tondhere creased his brow as he turned to Tolgor.
"For his faster release? What does it matter if they both hit the target equally?"
"In battle, a faster release can mean the difference between a dead orc and a lost head. You are, after all, learning this craft for a very serious reason."
"Ladies and Gentlemen!" Lord Folcred raised his voice again in a doomed attempt to continue against the wall of cheers and laughter of the crowd. It took a while for everyone to realise that the Head of Jury had not yet finished. "If I may interrupt your merriness for another brief moment…! There is one more decision to announce. After that, I will gladly leave you to your celebration."
He cleared his throat while the audience followed his request.
"Usually, only the winner of the apprentices' contest will be allowed to enter the final of the "Open Contest". Yet it is this jury's decision to award Falk, son of Ecberth, likewise the participation, for his outstanding achievement today. Congratulations, my son!" And with a nod, he included Éothain in his last words. "May your aim be just as true in tomorrow's competition, Gentlemen. Good luck."
"Well done, Éothain! Who would have thought you'd actually win this?" Tondhere shook his head to himself in wonder.
"I always knew he would," Éomer said matter-of-factly and clapped his friend's shoulder while they hurried to make their way over to the wrestling competition, where the semi-finals were about to be decided. A great crowd had already gathered around the arena, and their reactions left no doubt that the first fight had already started. "Couldn't you have made a little more haste, though? I really wanted to watch Bard's match."
Éothain shrugged and took special care to pin his blue winner's ribbon to the left side of his leather jerkin, where everyone would be able to see it. "Is it my fault that Falk's last shot was just as good as mine?"
"Of course. Had you hit the bullseye, the following examination wouldn't have been necessary!"
"You're the right one to be talking, Éomer! Why don't you see that you first win your competition tomorrow, before you presume to scold the winner of the archers' contest?"
"I suppose you will be harping on about your victory for the rest of the year…"
"No, no. Only when I can be certain that it will annoy you." Éothain granted his friend a self-conscious grin before he scanned the wall of bodies before them for members of their éored who would let them sooner squeeze into their midst than the rest of the crowd. "I see what you mean though…"
Just as the three young riders came to a stop, a mixture of a groan and loud cheering erupted from the wall of people before them, followed by enthusiastic applause and shouts of "Bard! Bard!"
"Well, that was that… Whom was he fighting again?"
"Some Westfold-bloke, I think," Tondhere answered. "From Captain Grimbold's éored." He shrugged. "So what, we always knew he would reach the final, right? As long as we will be able to watch him beat up Thorvald tomorrow, I will be satisfied… provided Gaerwolf doesn't beat him to it. He has been sparring a lot with Bard these past weeks, I wouldn't be too surprised if he made mincemeat of the old man!"
He turned to see what his friends thought, only to find himself in a spontaneously opened corridor in the crowd and a deep voice answering him.
"The old man, huh?"
The warrior was towering above him, his upper body bare and sculpted with rippling muscles, and even before the question of why this human mountain was wearing neither tunic nor shirt or jerkin when he stood in the crowd had consciously formed in Tondhere's mind, his breath left his lungs in a little shocked gasp when he recognized the man. For the longest moment, during which the young rider was quite convinced that his heart had actually stopped beating, Thorvald pierced him with his slate-grey eyes, before the right corner of his mouth slowly curled upwards in a disparaging smirk and he turned away to enter the arena.
"Tondhere!" Éomer hissed from the side, whereto he and Éothain had cleared the way when they had beheld the presence of the big Westfold-warrior behind them. "Over here!"
Not remembering what commands were needed to set his feet in motion, Tondhere stood rooted to the spot, oblivious to the amused glances he was given by the people around him before their hunt for the best vantage point for the upcoming second semi-final occupied their attention once more. 'Béma help me…`
"Come here!"Éothain, too, scolded him now with a consternated frown upon his face as he grabbed Tondhere's sleeve and pulled him over. "Dammit, your big mouth will kill you one of these days!"
"I know. That's what my brother used to tell me, too… and my parents. And my friends." Tondhere's eyes were still glued to the shape of Bard's powerful adversary just before the crowd obstructed his view. He offered no resistance when Éothain pulled him along on their way to their éored.
"You must learn to pay more attention to your surroundings, Tondhere!" Éomer shook his head as he looked back. "How could you not have seen or at least sensed him? That man is a walking mountain!"
"Do you think he will kill me later for calling him an 'old man'?" was Tondhere's feeble reply. "He is old, though! He is at least ten years older than Bard! Fifteen!"
Before him, Éomer and Éothain exchanged another disbelieving glance.
"If you continue to call him that while you're making your way through the members of his éored," Éomer snapped, "you might just set yourself up for a thorough beating later, even if I personally assume that you are too unimportant to him."
"—his éored, aye. Haven't you seen the Westfold-dragon on their shirts? Elfhelm and Bard and the rest are over there…"
"You and your tongue…" Éothain rolled his eyes. "It is really quite amazing that you have managed to live for eighteen years with this poisonous thing in your mouth…"
For the rest of the way, the three remained quiet as they quickly cut through the suddenly silent crowd.
"Ladies and Gentlemen…" a commanding voice arose over the expectant quiet. "I am sure that you all agree that this was a fight worthy of the occasion! And now that we have found our first finalist, we have even more for you! There can be no doubt that the second fight will be at least as exciting as the first one! Let's all give a big hand to our two contestants as they enter the arena! First the man who had won this title for six years in a row, until our first finalist took it from him last year. No doubt will he do whatever he can to get it back! You know him all! His name alone will put fear into his opponents: he's Thorvald, son of Tolen, of Captain Grimbold's éored…"
Through the deafening din, the young riders finally reached their temporary safe haven, where they were greeted by their fellow riders.
"Éomer, Tondhere…" Elfhelm acknowledged them with a curt nod and gave Éothain a hearty clap on the already heavily abused shoulder, almost spilling his ale in the process. "Éothain! Well done, young man! I saw your victory, but decided that I could congratulate you here as I was certain you would not want to miss Bard's fight, either. What a shame that the decision took so long." He briefly ran his index finger over the blue ribbon in appreciation. "That was quite a lesson in concentration you put on display back there, Son of Céorl… not to mention that you really do seem to have the eyes of a hawk. Your father will be proud to hear of your achievement."
"Ah well…" Éothain blushed. And then winced when Bard pulled him into a hug that would not have shamed a Uruk. As the warrior was also still dripping with sweat and caked with sand, it was a somewhat questionable pleasure for the young rider, and he wrinkled his nose, much to the amusement of their bystanders.
"That's my man!" the big man blurted out and then continued to ruffle Éothain's hair as he pulled back, much to the embarrassment of the latter. "I always knew you had it in you! I swear, Captain, our éored has only the finest recruits! And tomorrow, two more wins will make it obvious to anyone watching that the riders from Aldburg are really the cream of the Mark's Armed Forces!"
"So, how was the fight, Bard?" Éomer inquired, grinning at the warrior's exuberance while behind him, the two combatants of the second fight were announced to the cheering crowd. "It cannot have lasted for too long, or we would not have missed it."
"It ended in round two," Elfhelm answered him and nodded toward the arena, where their fellow rider Gaerwolf was about to be announced. "Gaelen was a worthy opponent, but he stood no chance." He took a swig from his tankard and cast his fellow rider a sidelong glance. "You just want to beat up Thorvald so badly that no one could have stopped you today, isn't that the truth?" Bard's expression told him clearly that it was so "And what will you do if Gaerwolf wins his semi-final? Instigate a brawl tonight at the drinking tents?"
"There's an idea, Captain!" Bard grinned, but quickly sobered down as his gaze found the two contestants in the middle of the arena. "I do not believe though that he can best Thorvald, as happy as I would be for him if he did. That orc is out there for my blood… but I shall have his' instead."
To his right, Éomer and Éothain exchanged a rather troubled glance, but the announcer and another wave of applause soon claimed their attention.
"…yet another of the Aldburg-warriors, and a formidable opponent for anyone on the way to tomorrow's big final! He's Gaerwolf, son of Gúthlaf, of Captain Findarras' éored! Let's hear it for him!"
"Aldburg has your back!"
"Send the ugly warg home!"
In the arena, their fellow rider lifted a hand in greeting, while his rival turned around to cast a calculating glance at their side of the crowd. For a moment, his probing eyes found first Éomer, then Éothain… and finally Bard. There they rested and his gaze hardened, the cold expression making Éomer think of a bottomless abyss beneath an only thinly frozen lake, and he felt a chill travel the length of his spine as he swiveled his head. What he saw gave him pause: there was the exact same expression on Bard's face.
Éothain, who had followed his gaze, whispered into his ear: "They really, really hate each other! I wonder why."
Éomer could only shake his head, but before he could answer his friend, the announcer's lifted arm fell – and the match was on!
ADVENTURES OF AN ÉORED: MIDSUMMER
Chapter 4: Friction
Both fighters dropped into a crouch. Muscles tensed and eyes locked furtively, they began circling each other in the expectant silence. Measuring each other. Ready to act upon the briefest twitch of the other.
"You really think you've got a chance, do you?" Thorvald asked lowly, a cruel smirk upon his lips, slate-grey eyes fixed with a predatory glare upon his opponent. "You think sparring with that arrogant Eastfold loudmouth prepared you for me?"
"You will soon find out." Possessed of an – for a Rohir – even temper, Gaerwolf did not think twice about his rival's attempt to break his concentration. He had fought Thorvald several times before and knew what awaited him. He knew that, when it came to raw power, there was no way for him to beat the Westfold warrior, so swiftness and wit had to be his weapons. He twitched, feigning to the right, but his hands were slapped away before they found their grip.
"Think you're faster than me?" Now he moved, only to find his efforts likewise countered.
"First of all I think you talk too much, Thorvald." Gaerwolf stared into the grey eyes before him. "This is a fighting contest."
The big man's grin broadened and became somewhat wolfish.
"A fighting contest, you say. All right, then let's fight!" He jumped at Gaerwolf with the speed of a striking snake, both hands finding purchase at his rival's shoulders, and spun him around. A well-placed foot robbed the Eastfold warrior of his balance, and he tumbled to the ground – only to roll over his shoulder and land on his feet to the cheer of the crowd.
"Finish him off!"
"This is like two bulls fighting each other. I'm not sure I like this," Éothain mumbled, his hands involuntarily clasping the barrier so tightly that his arm muscles stood out. One of Bard's big hands painfully squeezed his shoulder.
"You will like it once that bastard's on the ground, bleeding. The gods know he has it coming…"
"What did he do to you, Bard?" Éomer inquired, his eyes remaining glued to the fight. "Why do you hate each other so much? It's only a competition!"
His strange tone made Éomund's son turn his head. The same cruel smirk he had just seen on Thorvald's face was now playing around his comrade's lips, but he was denied an answer. With another worried glance at Éothain, he directed his attention back to the two combatants – where Gaerwolf now staged his counterattack.
Both bodies collided with an audible sound that made the young riders flinch, grappling for the best hold on the sweat-glistening skin of their opponent, their fingers leaving angry red marks on the other's shoulders as the crowd cheered them on to give everything.
"Hurrah for arching," Éothain muttered again to no one in particular. "It is so much more civilized!"
Grunting and groaning, the two fighters pushed and shoved, each trying to fling the other to the ground and bury him beneath their weight until their rival's shoulders touched the ground for the required time span to secure victory. Yet neither succeeded in gaining the upper hand before the announcer stepped in to declare the end of round one.
The combatants parted, heavily breathing as they stepped back and trying to ignore all the well-meant advice that was thrown at them from the crowd in an unintelligible din.
"Go for his left side, Gaerwolf!" Bard joined in and squeezed his massive body between Éomer and Éothain when his fellow rider approached the fence near them. "He is not moving well. I think he might have a problem with his left knee. He stumbled in the previous match."
Gaerwolf acknowledged him with an almost imperceptible nod, his eyes still focused on his opponent as he pumped air into his lungs.
From up close, his shoulders, arms and upper body revealed the abuse they had already taken in the first round of the match, and inwardly, Éomer had to agree with his friend Éothain. Abrasions and welts aside, what bothered him most was the crowd's bellowing and whooping during the fight. There was something primeval about it, something that reminded him of a band of orcs. This was different from an arching contest, or a good old-fashioned sword fight, somehow less… refined. It did not require the mastery of an instrument. This was about raw, brute strength, and somehow, it woke different reactions in the audience, as well. No, he did not like it.
With a deep breath, he watched as Gaerwolf pulled himself together and stepped forth for the continuation of the fight.
Thorvald was already waiting for him, and when the announcer's arm feel once again, he charged with all the strength and ferocity of an angered bull. Again the two bodies clashed, a human knot that was pulled in all directions at once, tightening with each passing moment to the deafening din of the crowd. To and fro they moved, in circles, pulling and spinning each other along in the rising dust cloud that helped them to a secure grip, but also rendered both opponents almost unrecognizable.
Again Gaerwolf pushed, and, with a quick feint, attacked his rival's left side. For a brief moment, Thorvald's body gave way… but then, without warning, something collided with the center of his brow and stars sprang up before his eyes. Only an instant later, he found himself in the Westfold warrior's less than tender embrace, one of Thorvald's massive arms wrapped around his neck and cutting off his air-supply in his effort to force his opponent to the ground. Through the thunder of his heartbeat, he heard his éored's outcry, but it seemed very far away all of a sudden.
"Fight, Gaerwolf! Fight!"
"Yes! Thorvald! Thorvald!"
Éomer swallowed, and his lips formed a firm white line in his face, but he still found himself unable to avert his eyes from the gruesome business. Thorvald's sudden thrust had opened a cut on Gaerwolf's brow, and blood poured over his fellow rider's face as he desperately fought to escape the terrible grip.
"That was on purpose! You fucking warg!" That was Bard's voice, almost shattering his eardrums in its anger, and in response, Thorvald's eyes found him. The expression on his angular face left no doubt that he reveled in his rival's dismay.
Éomer narrowed his eyes. He did not know much about the rules of wrestling, but could it really be that the participants were allowed to hurt each other? The competitions only lasted for two days, after which all riders returned to the protection of their respective ward. It could not be in the best interest of the Mark that her warriors crippled each other for sport, could it? As he watched on with growing anxiety, Gaerwolf's complexion began to turn increasingly blue.
"Yech, that is disgusting!" Éothain exclaimed forcefully. "How can anyone actually enjoy that?"
The faintest smile curved Thorvald's lips as he continued to stare at Bard despite the fact that there was a fighting opponent in his grip, an opponent whose efforts became increasingly desperate the darker his complexion turned, but strangely, the crowd's shouting ebbed away although it was clear to everyone watching that the fight was nearing its end. A message was passed between those two, they understood, a challenge uttered as loud and clear as if it had been shouted into the other's face, and most eyes turned away from the fight to see how Bard was taking it.
It was that moment when Thorvald made his move: a quick scything half-circle with his left leg robbed Gaerwolf of his footing and he crashed to the ground … and screamed when his right shoulder gave way with an audible pop.
"It's over! The fight is over! Step back!" the announcer hurried to get between the two rivals, but the two combatants were only the lesser of his problems, as with a roar, Bard jumped over the fence, immediately followed by his captain and their healer.
"You sick bastard!" the big Eastfold warrior bellowed and charged toward the older man, who quickly stepped away from his beaten opponent in expectation of his assault, arms raised to both sides like a bear expecting a pack of wolves.
"Come on, whelp! You think you've got what it takes?"
"Bard, don't! Bard!"
Elfhelm's usually calm and considerate bearing made it easy to underestimate the Captain of Aldburg's éored, yet if circumstances so required, he was able to act with astonishing speed and resolve, which he now demonstrated to the spectators by somehow managing to get a grip around his kinsman to slow him down. Only a heartbeat later, Tolgor joined him, and still Bard somehow, miraculously, managed to move towards his waiting nemesis.
"Step back, all of you!" the announcer shouted in despair, and then quickly moved aside when he found himself ignored, fearing for his own safety.
"Come, Éothain!" Éomer acted without thinking, and a moment later, he, too, clung to his fellow rider's rage-quivering body. Yet more joined them, and slowly but surely, their combined efforts brought the big Eastfold warrior to a halt, apparently much to Thorvald's amusement.
"Let me fight him!" Bard yelled, the veins on his temples and neck standing out like ropes as he continued to struggle against the surrounding riders of his éored. "That swine hurt Gaerwolf on purpose! You all witnessed it! He let go of his arm far too late!"
"Aye, we saw it, and I will deal with it," Elfhelm declared forcefully, his pale blue eyes piercing his subordinate as he stepped around him. "Calm down and let me deal with it! That is an order! Bard!"
The two men stared at each other, and gradually, it began to seep into Bard's awareness that he was being shouted at… by his commanding officer. His efforts to free himself died away.
Relieved to have solved at least one of his immediate problems, Elfhelm finally dared to turn away, looking for their healer, and found him already crouching next to a pain-wrecked Gaerwolf.
"How is he?"
"His shoulder is dislocated. It must be set back as quickly as possible… but it will be painful."
"It is already painful!" Gaerwolf groaned and gritted his teeth. "Do it, it can't get worse than this!"
"Anlaf, Torben, help Tolgor!"
With a deep breath, Elfhelm at last turned his attention to the silently observing Thorvald… but then chose to address the warrior's captain instead, who had likewise entered the arena.
"Your man is out of line, Grimbold. He deliberately wounded a rider of my éored in order to anger his rival, and I will have to protect my ward without his help for the next weeks, perhaps even months. What will you do about it?"
"Both fighters are disqualified!" Lord Aethelmaer, a distinguished member of King Théoden's court and head of the wrestling jury, interjected heatedly as he approached them. Behind him, Elfhelm also saw their Second Marshal approach. "There will be no final tomorrow, and no victor of the wrestling competition this year! We cannot tolerate this kind of behavior in our contest. These men are a disgrace to the craft!"
Grimbold, Marshal Erkenbrand's stout second-in-command, nodded his head in agreement and, with a fierce sideglance at the silently waiting Thorvald, turned to his eastern counterpart.
"I can only apologise, Elfhelm, although I am aware that this alone will not help you in performance of your duty during the next weeks. Let us talk some more later, and in private, when tempers have cooled and a constructive conversation can be had... Lord Aethelmaer? What say you, Gentlemen?"
"The jury's decision stands," Aethelmaer emphazised once again, his face a dark shade of crimson in his indignation as he glared at the warriors. "There will be no final tomorrow. I am also going to discuss the possible exclusion of your fighters from all future wrestling contests with the rest of the jury. What you want to do with them in addition to that is up to you, my lords." With those words, he left them standing.
With another deep breath, Grimbold turned to his still waiting warrior, his tone curt.
"Thorvald, head back to our camp and wait there. You will go there directly, with no detour whatsoever, be it to the drinking tent or the latrine. Should you not be there when I arrive, you will find yourself in deeper trouble than you have ever experienced. Have I made myself clear?"
"Aye, Captain." Thorvald's expression was unreadable as he gave his commander one last glance before he did a brisk about-face and left the arena. Théodred's eyebrows shot up as his glance followed the Westfold warrior until he disappeared in the crowd.
"He's still difficult. I really would have thought the last lesson you taught him had been enough to drive the message home."
Grimbold shook his head, a sorrowful and somewhat helpless expression in his eyes.
"What can I say? I'm at my wit's end with that man! I did what you told me and I always place him in the first assault line, but so far, neither orc nor Dunlending managed to get even close to him! The truth is rather that Thorvald is possibly my most efficient warrior in the field. From a tactical point of view, it would be a severe blow to the fighting capacity of my éored if I lost him… and yet he brings strife with him wherever he goes. None of the other riders truly gets along with him. I don't know whether you noticed, but the ones who cheered for him during the match were not the men of our éored. They were from everywhere else, only cheering the name of an ex-champion, but not the man himself. If they truly knew him…" He shrugged, and his gaze found Bard who, now that Thorvald had left, had calmed down and knelt by Gaerwolf's side, helping to hold down his friend while their healer worked on his shoulder.
"Bard is different. He is impulsive, yes, and possessed of a fierce temper, but I don't even think he can be blamed for this. I would probably have reacted in the same way had I been in his position. I mean, we all saw the look Thorvald gave him just before he hurt Gaerwolf."
"I will try to speak with Lord Aethelmaer later about this," Théodred offered. "I agree, Bard should not be disqualified. He won his match fair and square, and it speaks only in his favour that he tried to protect his friend… Still, the men will be disappointed that there will be no final this year." He looked around with a sigh. Most of the spectators had already left the arena for the other competitions, and only the members of Elfhelm's éored remained. Close by, he detected his cousin, who was still looking a bit pale to his eyes.
Upon hearing his name, the young rider woke from his absorption and approached the three commanders with a doubtful expression on his face. Had he been wrong in entering the arena? But it had only been in good intention!
Théodred dispersed his fears with a quick smile.
"I'm sorry you had to see this for your first wrestling match, Cousin. It is usually a more civilized affair. Are you alright?"
"Aye." Éomer nodded. "I just hope that Gaerwolf's injury is not too serious."
"Well, if I know anything, it is that he is in good hands," Elfhelm assured him. "Tolgor will do what he can for him." He was interrupted by Gaerwolf's pained groan and turned his head. Their healer gave him a satisfied glance.
"The joint's been set back. I will bind his arm at the camp." Shifting his attention back to his patient, Tolgor leant forward. "Will you be able to walk, Gaerwolf?" His question earned him an indignant glance.
"It is my shoulder that's hurt, not my legs! Of course I can walk." He quickly demonstrated it, much to the relief of the other men.
"Your shoulder and your brow," Tolgor added, unaffected by his fellow rider's gruff tone. It seemed to be their people's nature to see any only minor injury as a personal insult. "I will clean it and stitch you up while I'm at it. And don't say you don't need it because you look like a stuck pig! ... We will see you later, Gentlemen." He laid a hand on Gaerwolf's good shoulder and gently but determinedly pushed his brother-in-arms out of the arena.
"All right…" Théodred nodded to himself. "Nothing ever gets easier, does it, Gentlemen? May the gods prevent that there will ever be a Midsummer Fair without complications! Now, before we concern ourselves further with those, though, I would be most honoured if the noble Captains of Aldburg and Westfold would join me for the sword-fighting semi-finals… in hopes that the participants there will be better behaved. Cousin, you too, of course, should you have the stomach for another contest!" He extended his arms and laid them around his kinsmen's shoulders, slowly steering them towards the exit.
"Just a moment, Théodred." Elfhelm quickly freed himself. "Bard?"
His fellow rider, who had likewise been in the process of leaving, turned around.
"Will I have to worry about you? You are not heading anywhere in the vicinity of the Westfold camp, are you?"
"I was about to follow Tolgor and Gaerwolf and see whether I can be of use. I am not aiming at causing you any more difficulties, Captain… and I apologise for my lack of restraint. Yet I cannot say that I would act differently if a situation like this arose again; I am sorry. I would like to be able to promise you this, but I just cannot. It is my duty to defend my kinsmen when they are attacked."
The big warrior's expression was guarded, but Elfhelm did not have the impression that he was being lied to. He nodded.
"We will talk about this later, then. I'm sure Tolgor will appreciate your help." He turned back to the waiting riders. "So, off to the sword-fighting contest!"
The long, eventful day was nearing its end as Éomer and Éothain made their way from the Snowbourn back to the camp, having enjoyed another quick dip into the river's cool water to rinse off the accumulated crust of grime and sweat and to replenish their energy for the following evening.
The atmosphere was peaceful as they passed by the corrals; there was not a cloud in the sky and a last stripe of daylight far in the west illuminated their path as they headed towards the glow of the campfires. Birds sang their evening songs and the crickets played along to it, and a gentle breeze that smelled of horse and hay caressed beasts and riders and the parched earth alike.
Behind them in the near distance, Edoras rose from the growing darkness in all its splendour, the light of fires from its open places and streets illuminating the City of Kings all the way up to the grand hall of Meduseld. For a moment, Éomer wondered whether Éowyn was outside on the terrace and looking down, perhaps even seeing them, two small dots on the twilit plains on their way back to the camp. He could barely wait to meet her tomorrow; so much had happened in the past year he wanted to tell her. How had her year been? Had she changed or was she still the Éowyn he had left exactly one year ago? He sighed. If Éothain had heard it, he was polite enough not to comment on in… although he was probably just wrapped up in his own musings.
A brief glance at the mares further back in the corral revealed to Éomer that Stormwing seemed to be dozing, and he smiled. So much had happened at this first day of the festival that he felt rather exhausted and ready to go to sleep himself… as soon as he had seen to his empty stomach. Somehow, the inspection of the race course and the different contests had kept him occupied all afternoon, with the result that he had not eaten more than an apple since his morning meal. He felt ravenous. He had barely started to imagine what delicacies the cooks had prepared for them, when a loud growl arose from the center of his body. Éothain laughed.
"My, Éomer! Tell me, when did you manage to swallow that wolf? He sounds rather pissed off about being confined to the limits of your stomach!"
Placing a hand on the middle of his body, Éomer groaned.
"I wish there had been a wolf to eat! I am certainly hungry like one! I've only had an apple since breakfast. I'm starving!"
His friend grinned.
"Well, maybe you should just have another one and go to bed. If you stuff yourself tonight, poor Stormwing will collapse beneath your weight tomorrow and there will be no race for you."
Éomer rolled his eyes.
"I know exactly how much I'm allowed to eat, thank you, Éothain! After all, I also need to uphold my strength. It is not as if Stormwing will be racing by herself."
"Is it not?" Éothain cast him a bewildered look. "I was under the impression that the running was, in fact, done mainly by your horse!" He winked – and then quickly jumped back when Éomer lifted his fist as if to hit him. "Tsss, such poor behavior! I will speak with the Head of Jury to have you excluded from the race. You're danger to the other riders!"
"As long as they believe that, they will hold their distance and all will be well." Yet the implied reference to the past afternoon's events sobered Éomund's son quickly and thoroughly. "I wonder what they will do with Thorvald. From what I heard, it wasn't the first time he injured a fellow rider."
"That brute is not right in the head, that's for certain. I wonder what his problem is. It does not seem to me, though, as if his problem is only with Bard, if not even the riders of his own éored seem to be able to stand him. I'm just relieved that Gaerwolf's injury does not seem too serious. Tolgor said that the tendons in his shoulder appear to be all right."
"Did he? I had not heard. That's good."
Before them, a popular drinking song with decidedly bawdy lyrics rose into the peaceful night, making it clear to the two young riders that their brothers-in-arms had already been at their camp's supplies of ale for quite some time. More and more voices joined in as the riders bellowed out the numerous verses, until everything dissolved in laughter.
"Oh well…" Éothain scratched the back of his head. "I'm not sure I'm up to sitting with them if they're already wasted like that. It will end in them forcing us to drink with them, and me killing someone with my arrow tomorrow at the contest, because I cannot decide which of the ten targets in front of me to aim for. Let's just get something to eat quickly and make for the darkest corner, what say you?"
"Sounds like a wise plan to me. I could use a pounding head tomorrow like an arrow in my eye," Éomer agreed, already looking for the best path that would lead them to the food tent without attracting the attention of their éored's members or his cousin. "Follow me."
Using the shadows between the tents as cover, the two young men quickly managed to reach their destination, grasped a tray and got in line. Satisfied to find that their brothers-in-arms further behind still seemed happily engaged in eating, drinking and their various conversations, Éomer slowly allowed himself to relax. From the pots, pans and spits before them, the most wonderful odours rose into the air, and Éomund's son had to use the rest of his waning self-control in order to not simple jump the queue and plough through the displayed food like an unfed warg.
"Ah, potato soup!" Éothain beamed with anticipation. "Do you smell it? I love it if it really thick, with lots of garlic and bread. Sometimes, they even pour the soup into the bread and-"
"I'd rather have a piece of that!" Éomer pointed at the spit where an enormous pig hung above the fire, the thick crust glossy and hissing when one of the cooks approached it to pour another tankard of ale over it. "And your potato soup! And some of that bread!"
Right before their eyes, a big brown loaf was placed on the table, still steaming hot, and Éomer groaned.
"I swear, if I'll have to wait any longer, I will –"
"So…" A rosy-faced, big-chested serving wench at last turned toward them. "What can I get you fine gentlemen?"
"A big bowl of potato soup, please!" Eothain rushed ahead and presented his wooden tray. "Do you serve it in a loaf, as well?"
"Naw. But you can have some bread with it if you like."
"If you would be so good?"
"Sir? What will you have?" A younger woman smiled at Éomer, who had enviously watched Éothain with a furiously growling stomach so intently that he had failed to notice that it was his turn to be served.
"Uh…" He pointed at the spit. "A big slice of pork, please… and some mashed potatoes with a lot of sauce."
"Some vegetables, too? They're fresh from Snowbourn."
"Aye, that too, please." Impatiently waiting for the maid to fetch his dinner, Éomer failed to notice a sudden presence behind him until he was addressed.
"So… you're from Bard's éored, right?" The voice was deep and guttural, the words slurred… and when Éomer turned around, the intense stench of ale hit him as he stared into slate-grey eyes. He froze. "I saw you... in the arena."
"So?" he managed to bring out despite the sudden lump in his throat. 'What is Thorvald doing here? And Béma, he's utterly drunk!'
"Yes." The big man nodded. "You're Bard's friend, aren't you? You're one of those little whelps he seeks to impress with his bullshit."
"And you're drunk," Éomer, to his dismay, heard his own voice say. 'Gods, what am I saying? Is this Tondhere's influence?'
"Does Captain Grimbold know you're here?" Éothain came to his aid, but his friend sounded just as tense as Éomer felt himself.
"Why?" Thorvald turned his head. "Are you implying I would need Grimbold's permission to get something to eat? Do I have to hear that… from a recruit? Such fucking cheek!"
"We are not implying anything, sir. All we want is to have something to eat." Éomer could see the young serving wench with his tray in her hands standing behind the table with an alarmed expression on her face, and anger rose in him over the delay caused by the big Westfold warrior. "So if you would kindly leave us to it…"
"If the two of you think you can talk to me like that, you are mistaken! Fucking recruits, getting more brazen every year! I'll teach you how to speak to your superiors!" Thorvald growled, and there was a sudden sparkle in his dark eyes that sent a chill down Éomer's spine. A big, rough hand shot out and pushed him against the shoulder with such force that he stumbled backwards against the table, and the dinner he had been so much looking forward to landed in the grass.
His adversary made a quick step in his direction and pulled him up by the collar, but suddenly let go of it with a pained bellow. Transfixed, Éomer watched as a steaming, chunky stream trickled down the big man's brow and face. Éothain's potato soup! Coming to his aid, his friend had smashed the earthen bowl against Thorvald's head hard enough to shatter it, and now a darker flow began to seep into the creamy yellow to form somewhat surreal patterns on the man's face.
"You craven piece of shit!" The warrior swiveled, and things might have ended badly for Céorl's son, but another roar, loud and furious enough to drown out the sudden dismayed din around them brought everything to a halt.
'Théodred! Béma be praised!'
With a deep breath of relief, Éomer took another step back to distance himself from Thorvald, not knowing what to expect. The man was completely out-of-control, and even though he now released Éothain, there was no telling whether the night would not end with further blood-shed as he turned toward the swiftly approaching Second Marshal. In his wake, Elfhelm and Grimbold could be seen, but it was his cousin's expression which drew his attention: never before had he seen Théodred in such a rage of fury.
"What is this, Thorvald? What are you doing here? And why are you pummeling our recruits?"
"They were respectless,… Marshal."
"Respectless, you say… because your guise and behavior would command their respect?" Quickly assessing the situation with a quick glance at his cousin and Ceorl's son and noticing that nothing serious had happened to them, Théodred drew himself up to his full, impressive height and squared his shoulders, and the glare in his blue eyes would have caused lesser men to freeze with terror.
"We were only getting something to eat!" Éomer explained. "Suddenly he appeared and began to insult us for being from Bard's éored… to which I remarked that he was drunk, which he is!"
"Aye." Théodred wrinkled his nose in disdain. "There is no mistaking that." He narrowed his eyes and made another step, now standing directly before Thorvald. "I seem to remember that your captain explicitly forbade you to join the festivities tonight. At least he told me so."
"Aye," Grimbold confirmed from behind. "That I did."
"Which brings me back to my question: What are you doing here, Thorvald? Did you hope to find and fight Bard, now that you won't be allowed to do it officially?"
The Westfold warrior remained silent and he stared into the void, unwilling to meet Théodred's piercing gaze.
"If it is a fight you want, pick someone your own size and leave our recruits alone! Béma knows they carry themselves with much greater grace than you do with all your years of experience."
To which Thorvald mumbled something unintelligible, at last returning his Marshal's glare as he straightend himself defiantly to the collective gasp of their bystanders. Suddenly, a hard tension filled the air.
"Care to repeat that, Thorvald?" Théodred's right hand crept down to come to rest threateningly on the pommel of his sword. He did not receive an answer. "You are still looking for a fight, aren't you? Alright, I'll fight you… but it will be with the sword!"
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