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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 fell 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 when it`s 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!"
Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer
Writing frenzy! This has happened to me several times before (best of all, "Untold Tales of the Mark" had initially been planned as a story of perhaps 30 pages… it ended up being 80 CHAPTERS long), and still it is amazing to me each time it happens that a story begins to write itself in totally unexpected ways. I hope you will bear with me as I keep exploring the many things that can happen during a two-day celebration in the home of the horselords.
Just one more thing: we all know that writing is a lonely business, and writing in a copyrighted fandom results in feedback being the author's only payback for her/ his efforts. If you enjoy this story (or any of my other stories on this site), or even if you have issues that you would like to address, would it be too much to ask for a little feedback? I understand that time is precious, but then again, even a single-lined review would make me very happy and confirm to me that there are people out there truly reading my work. Thank you so much!
And now, without further ado, on with the story:
Chapter 5: A Risky Plan
The silence that followed Théodred's threat was deafening, and for the longest time, only the crackle of the fires behind them could be heard while the two men glared at each other. Éomer held his breath. It was not for nothing that his cousin was deemed the best swordfighter in the Mark, but Thorvald was unpredictable, and even now he stood his ground defiantly, fists balled by his side while he tried to decide upon his further course of action.
"I haven't got all night for this nonsense, Thorvald…" Théodred's voice was dangerously low and left no doubt that he meant what he said. "Will you fight me, yes or no? The festival is about celebrating brotherhood between the Armed Forces, and I will not let you ruin it for everyone with your misguided attempts of unleashing your personal frustration against whoever happens to cross your path. If you need an opponent, here I am! Just be aware that neither will the fight be with blunted training swords, nor will I hold back. The choice is yours."
If possible, his gaze intensified even further. Another breathless long moment passed… until, at long last, Thorvald averted his eyes, and a gasp of relief travelled in waves through the bystanders. For a few endless heartbeats, the possibility of the night finding an unexpected ugly end had been very real. Still Théodred did not permit himself to relax as he addressed his men, his eyes remaining focused on the man before him.
"Anlaf, Déorwine, you will escort Thorvald back to his camp and make sure he stays there. Your relief will be sent within the hour, as I do not want you having to pay for your fellow rider's lack of decency by missing the celebrations. Dismissed!" With a last warning glance, the Second Marshal of Riddermark stepped back and watched as the Westfold warrior obediently turned around to precede his appointed guards. Slowly, the crowd began to disperse, whispering and muttering in reaction to what they had just witnessed as the riders headed back to their places around the various fires.
With a deep sigh, Théodred turned his head to send an unspoken message to Grimbold. 'We need to discuss this now.' The Westfold captain gave him a resigned nod and looked at the silently waiting Elfhelm.
"Come on, old friend. Let's find a place to speak about this in private."
"Bring Bard, too," Théodred added on sudden impulse. "I might have use for him… And Éomer? I want you to come, too."
His cousin looked at him in confusion, so the King's son laid an arm around the younger man's shoulders and steered him away from his friend for a moment.
"This is one of those occasions where there is a lot to learn for you, Cousin," he said lowly. "In a few years, you will hopefully become a captain or even a marshal yourself, and as you have seen today, there are not only battles against orcs or Dunlendings to brave. There will also always be matters between people, be they riders of your éored or villagers of your ward, which you will have to resolve, and trust me, those can be infinitely more complicated."
Éomer nodded, but his eyes involuntarily strayed longingly back to the plate on the ground. He frowned. Well, at least the ants would enjoy the feast. Théodred caught his glance.
"Have you had anything to eat yet?"
"An apple since breakfast."
"Oh well…" Théodred gave him a sympathetic clap on the shoulder. "We can't have that, Cousin. I refuse to be responsible if weakness causes you to fall from your horse during the race. See that you get a new plate; I'll wait here."
"You want me to eat while you are discussing serious matters with the other captains?" Éomer furrowed his brow. "What will they think of me?"
"I won't mind, and I'm sure the others won't, either. I'm bringing you along to observe, and I'm confident that you can do that even with your mouth full, Cousin… as long as you do not speak thus." He smiled. "Now go… oh, and Éothain?"
Céorl's son, who had patiently been waiting nearby for his friend to return, looked up.
"Thank you for having Éomer's back. The gods know that there is nothing more important in a bad situation than having a loyal friend by one's side. What you did was very courageous."
"I did not even think about it. It was simply a reflex."
"Then that is all the better. In these dangerous times, it is a good thought for me to know that the two of you will be looking out for each other."
Only a short while later the two cousins left their celebrating brothers-in-arms to their business to make their way over to the tent Grimbold had temporarily claimed for their cause. The men awaited them outside.
"I believe we are far enough away to not be overheard by others, but if you want to go inside, we can do that, too." Grimbold held aside the flap, but Théodred stopped him with a wave of his hand.
"Naw, I believe you are right, Grimbold. Fresh air can only help with the decision we will have to make." And without further ado, he lowered himself to the ground and crossed his legs, briefly waiting for the other warriors to follow his example before he began. "Do not mind my cousin. Circumstances prevented him from eating all day, so I told him to should bring his dinner with him, as he will certainly need his energy in the race tomorrow."
Blushing furiously while the men smiled at him, Éomer made it a point to seat himself a bit behind the circle of warriors, where he would not disturb the impromptu meeting with his chewing, and where he would not feel as closely under observation from his commanding officers.
"So…" Théodred began and looked at Grimbold. "I had hoped that we would have been permitted to postpone this unfortunate business until after the festival, yet as your kinsman seems quite determined to force our hand, let us recount what happened over the past year. Will you start, Captain?"
The Westfold warrior sighed.
"As we all know, you placed Thorvald in my éored one and a half years ago, in response to the incidence with Bard. Your idea was to separate the two rivals, but it seems that he brought his problems with him, and while it remains Bard whom he mainly sees as his nemesis, it is of little concern to him these days whom he strikes when his mood turns foul… which is increasingly more often. Over the past year, he clashed violently with three of my riders, to the point of bloodshed. One of them even had to permanently leave our éored due to the serious injuries sustained in the fight with Thorvald. He broke his wrist in such a way that it will never fully heal again… That was only four months ago."
Forgetting to chew over what was just being revealed, Éomer could only stare at the warrior.
"And yet you granted him permission to attend the festival?" Elfhelm wondered and wrinkled his brow. Grimbold nodded wearily.
"Aye, I know how that sounds, and seen in the light of today's events, it was certainly wrong. Yet perhaps you will be able to understand my decision once you've heard me out." The Westfold Captain stared into the fire, his thoughts far away.
"Immediately after that incident, Marshal Erkenbrand incarcerated Thorvald for a fortnight to teach him a lesson, and he also threatened to expel him from our éored if there ever was another problem. There were no occurrences since, although Thorvald's mood has been dark ever since he emerged from the dungeon. None of my men feel comfortable around him. He is like an old, lone wolf – unwilling to endure company and quick to defend his territory with violence. If he did not fight so well, I would long since have given up on him. I had hoped to get a positive response from him by permitting him to come along to the festival, but it seems that he never even reckoned he might be left home. He certainly never thanked me."
"Hm…" Théodred scratched his beard pensively. "How about Daléna? Is he still trying to find her?"
"She is still at Fenmarch," Bard replied. "Should Thorvald ever track her down, he will find the people there ready to defend her."
"As Fenmarch lies as far away from my éored's ward as can possible be, it would take a strange coincidence for him to find out where she is." Grimbold took a deep breath. "And yet this cannot go on. Sooner or later, something tragic is bound to happen if we don't act."
"And what are our options, now that another incidence has happened?" Théodred asked, and began to count them on the fingers of his hand after a short pause. "Option One: you inform Erkenbrand and you follow through with your threat of expelling Thorvald from the Armed Forces. That would leave an embittered, yet powerful warrior prowling the Mark with the feeling of being shunned by the world, which would make him infinitely more dangerous."
"And what would our second option be?" Elfhelm asked quietly, the fire's glow illuminating his thoughtful mien. "Béma help me, but I can't think of one. Certainly you are not suggesting that he should be executed. Yes, he wounded his comrades, but as long as he did not kill anyone…"
"Option Two is only theoretical," Théodred conceded. "It would mean proceeding with handling Thorvald like before by punishing him, incarcerating him and humiliating him by stripping him of his titles upon each new incidence. As we have been clearly demonstrated, this doesn't solve the problem."
"Which is why you already have a different plan," the Captain of Aldburg assessed. "I can see it plainly on your face, even if I cannot for the life of me guess it."
"I do indeed, but I must admit that my idea bears a high risk. I will not follow it through unless I have your approval… and by that, I mean the approval of all three of you." With that, Théodred shifted his attention to the silently listening Bard. The warrior knitted his eyebrows in question.
"Marshal… I do not understand. Surely you do not need my permission. It is not my place to question your plans."
"And yet I am asking for it, Bard, as you would play a vital role in them. I must be honest with you: it is very likely that you might be placing yourself in harm's way if you agree to them." Now all four men, captains, simple rider and recruit, stared at him with obvious unease. Sure of their undivided attention, the King's son continued.
"I believe that there is really only one option left to us in dealing with Thorvald, and that is to drive out the demon that has been tormenting that man for far too long. Let us open the boil that has been festering in his mind for the past eighteen months, and see what comes out."
Grimbold took a deep breath, his eyes skeptical.
"That certainly sounds like an interesting idea, Brother, but tell us, how do you plan to achieve this? And what would Bard's role be in it?"
Théodred turned his head, only regarding the big man now.
"You still want to fight him, Bard, don't you? For what he did to Daléna… and to Gaerwolf."
The Eastfold warrior seemed even more confused.
"I was under the impression that more restraint was being asked of me, Marshal… and now you are, what, offering me Thorvald's head on a plate? Do you plan to humiliate Thorvald? But how will that solve anything?"
"It won't, so that is not my plan. But aye, I want you to fight him… in an unofficial fight, with no rules, and no spectators…"
"—just as long as you can guarantee you can best him! If I sanction this fight and he beats you, the effect might be catastrophic."
For the longest time, the warriors stared at their marshal in dumbfounded silence, their expressions aghast. It could have been a comical image had their business not been rather serious. Grimbold was the first who found his voice again.
"Forgive me for doubting you, Théodred, but what do you hope to achieve by having Bard beat him up? Provided Bard will not be the one who ends up on the ground as a bloody mess! I do not think I have to tell you that there is the very distinct possibility that these two end up killing or at least permanently crippling each other if you allow them to fight!"
The King's son nodded.
"I said that my plan was risky. And that is why we all would have to be there, too, in order to prevent that the fight gets out of hand. All the more as I do not want Thorvald beaten senseless, or seriously hurt. " Again Théodred bent his blue eyes upon the man from Aldburg, the intensity of his gaze leaving no doubt that he knew that he was asking something of his brother-in-arms which he had no right to ask. He leaned forward. "We need to bring him to the point of losing control. Rather than pummeling him, you would have to mainly evade him: float like a butterfly, sting like a bee… again and again and again, until he breaks. And yet that would not be all. We all know that Thorvald likes to ridicule his opponents during a fight; he talks a lot. And you would have to reply to his provocations in just the right manner and make sure that you won't be the one losing control. You would have to walk a very fine line, but I am confident that you would be able to pull it off, Bard, wouldn't you? You are fast, I've seen you fight… and now that you know the particulars of my plan, you would be able to restrain yourself even if he insults you beyond measure."
"I assume I would," Bard replied after a lenghty moment of contemplation, but his expression clearly bespoke his doubts. "And yet I fear that I cannot guarantee you the outcome of such a match, Marshal. Thorvald is, after all, a formidable opponent, and in a fight without rules, there is no telling just what tricks he might have hidden up his sleeves."
"Permission to speak to you as a friend, Théodred?" Grimbold interrupted them rather forcefully, but the King's son only lifted his hand to silence him.
"You want to ask me whether I have just taken complete leave of my senses, Grimbold. I know how it sounds what I'm asking, and yet I do not see any other way to get to the core of the problem. We need to get Thorvald to the point of cracking, and if I know one thing about him, it is that he will never reveal the cause of his torment voluntarily while he is in control of his senses."
"Bard is one of my most powerful warriors," Elfhelm joined in, deep worry edged into the lines of his broad face. "If anything were to happen to him, I could never replace him!" He exhaled sharply. "Why would you want to take such a risk for a man like Thorvald?"
Théodred did not evade his hard stare, and he lifted his chin in determination.
"Because I knew the man he was before. We all did. Or have you forgotten, Elfhelm? Grimbold? Bard? There is none among us who does not owe his life to Thorvald! " His gaze found Éomer, who had put his plate aside earlier, deeming it inappropriate to eat while matters of such weight were being discussed, and offered, by way of explanation: "You must understand, Éomer, that Thorvald was born and raised in Aldburg, and he was the captain of Findarras' éored until almost a year before you joined. In the beginning, he was just like Bard, possessed of a fierce temper against our foes, but respected and well-liked by all who served with him. But then something happened that changed everything. Thorvald was grievously wounded in an ambush, and it took him many months just to regain his feet. On the long path of his recovery, he lost most of his strength and began to feel inadequate and inferior. His whole character changed in those months, and his mood darkened and he became impatient and hurtful to the people he knew."
"To the point where he began beating his wife,"Elfhelm added quietly, and Éomer paled. "Daléna was many years younger than he, and friendly with all the riders, especially with Bard, since she had been his sister's best friend since their childhood. So it was Bard she turned to one day in her plight. We had all noticed for weeks that something had been going on, as we had seen her only rarely in those months after Thorvald's injury, and we never saw her smile again after that incidence. On the contrary, she soon began to avoid all contact with us… until that dreadful afternoon." He looked at Bard, wordlessly prompting his kinsman to go on.
For a moment, the powerful warrior seemed reluctant about delving once again into his hurtful memories, but upon his captain's unspoken plea, he cleared his throat and continued with a deep, husky voice.
"Daléna came to my house that day, wrapped into a shawl from head to toe, although it was quite warm. Fighting not to cry in public. Thorvald's éored had just left for patrol, but just before that, he had beaten her black and blue…" He inhaled deeply. "She begged me to take her and the children away from Aldburg that very day, out of his reach… which I did after a quick consultation with Captain Elfhelm. You can imagine what happened when Thorvald returned and found them gone, and their neighbours had seen them leave with me…"
Aye, Éomer could well imagine that. Béma, what a mess! It had been easy to hate the man after everything he had heard in the weeks before the festival, and after what he had done to Gaerwolf, but to hear now that Thorvald had once been an honourable rider and an asset to his éored… Éomund's son knew no longer what to think.
"I had hoped he would come to his senses again when I ordered his transfer to Westfold, and Grimbold's éored," his cousin continued. "That distance would help him to see clearly and understand what he had done. Instead it seemed that he only dug himself further into a hole. Everyone became his enemy, and a few months later, he even lost his wrestling title to Bard when his wound broke open again at the beginning of their final match. Since then, things have been spiraling utterly and completely out of control."
"Would you have fought him?" Éomer asked. "When he attacked Éothain and me? Were you ready to hurt him… knowing all of this?"
Théoded's expression was dead serious.
"Aye, Cousin, I was, if that had been the only means to stop him. There is only so much reasoning to be done with a drunk, bitter man. When words fail, deeds must speak. Thankfully, he understood that my threat was not an empty one…" He inhaled deeply. "So, now you know the whole story, Éomer. Tell me, what would you do, if it was your decision?"
Feeling the scrutiny of the other warriors upon himself, all that Éomer could do was stare back at his cousin, his head reeling. Théodred could not seriously expect an answer from him after the enormity of what had just been revealed to him, could he? And yet, one thing at least seemed painfully clear to him.
"Well, at least I agree with you that things cannot go on like this," he offered, his heart beating furiously in his chest. "I do not know the answer to this situation any more than you, but I share your opinion that a point has been reached where something needs to be done about it."
Satisfied with his answer, Théodred nodded and shifted his attention back to his silently listening kinsmen.
"Which brings us directly back to the decision we need to make, Gentlemen. We have been talking for quite a while now, and all facts are lying on the table while the subject of our discussion sits in Grimbold's camp, still inebriated and watched by two guards. As we can all hear our fellow riders sing and laugh around the fires, my guess is that they have already forgotten about that last incidence. I say the time to act is right now… provided you trust my judgment."
A long, heavy silence ensued, and again it was only the crackle of the fire that could be heard, together with the distant din of the celebrations. Finally, Elfhelm looked up.
"I cannot deny that I am still having misgivings, but I am willing to support your idea… provided Bard agrees to it. It should be his decision whether he submits himself to that risk."
"I agree with Elfhelm. Let Bard have the final word about this."
The warrior from Aldburg inhaled forcefully, and at last locked eyes with his marshal.
"Then let me summarize, Marshal, just to ensure that I fully understand you plan: you want me to fight Thorvald, right now, while he is not in full possession of his senses, in a battle far beyond the rules of wrestling. And while my opponent will do whatever he can in order to hurt me, you do not want me to hurt him in return."
"At least not seriously, no."
"Instead you want me to evade him, yet at the same time deal out pin-pricks which will fuel his rage further and further, until something happens. What exactly are you hoping for? And how should I recognize it, provided I succeed?"
"I'm afraid I cannot tell you that, Bard," Théodred admitted. "I suppose I am hoping for some kind of emotional breakdown, but such a reaction would require a significant amount of guilt Thorvald is keeping locked inside over the things he has done. Whether that is actually the case…" He shrugged. "All I know is that there might be a better chance of unleashing it while your opponent is still inebriated."
The powerful warrior regarded him thoughtfully and inhaled through his nose. At last, he nodded.
"All right, then. I will do it. I have just one last question, Marshal: what if we don't get the reaction you are hoping for?"
The King's son returned his questioning look with brutal honesty.
"Then you will make an enemy out for your destruction tonight."
Author's Note: Okay, There are some truly adult themes present in this chapter as it heads towards the heart of darkness. Some rough language, too, but nothing too bad, I'd think.
Yet I'm confident that things will lighten up again with the next chapter. Hoping against hope that some of you might find it in yourself to drop me a quick line or
two of feedback (be it negative or positive, yet hopefully constructive), I'm leaving you to your reading now. Cheers!
Chapter 6: The Exorcism of Thorvald
"Halt! Who goes there?"
The guard's voice sounded gruff and nervous, and a telltale prickle in the pit of his stomach told Éomer even though he could not see the man yet, that in all likelihood, an arrow was pointing in their direction. Not that he could blame the man. Even if was common practice to always have two guards share their duty at any given position, standing out here in the dark a good distance away from the camp was bound to leave any man jumpy. Not that anyone seriously expected an orc-attack to happen in the middle of the Mark during these shortest nights of the year. Cover was in short supply on the plains, making it difficult, if not impossible for orcs to reach their destination without running the risk of having the sun burning their skin on their way back, or worse, being detected by one of the patrolling éoreds. Yet it could never hurt to be careful, and so twenty positions had been established in a wide circle around the festival grounds in order to keep everyone safe.
"It is I, Théodred, Second Marshal of Riddermark," his cousin answered calmly enough, obviously having expected to run into their guards. "And in my presence are Grimbold of Westfold, Elfhelm of Aldburg and a few others of my riders."
In the meantime, they had approached far enough to make out the shapes of the two men before them in the pale light of the half-moon. And aye, Éomer noticed unsurprised, the taller of the two did only now lower his bow.
"Marshal Théodred? It is I, Héorulf... and Fastred is here with me, as well." His voice clearly betrayed his surprise over meeting his commander so far outside the camp at such an ungodly hour, but the warrior knew that it was not his place to question the cause of this strange event. "Everything has been quiet so far, although it seems that a thunderstorm is headed our way. Either that or it is just heat lightning. Is there anything we can help you with?" His puzzled gaze travelled over the little group, which accompanied the King's son.
"Aye, Héorulf." Théodred inclined his head in greeting at the two men. "We will leave the camp for a while, but we will not go far. I would like to ask of you that you reposition yourself for the next hour about three hundred paces further towards the festival grounds. We will inform you when we are done here… oh, and you might hear the odd noise coming from our direction. This will be no reason to be alarmed. Just ignore it."
It was obvious that his order did nothing to clarify things to the guards, and his cousin did not seem willing to lessen their confusion. Had Éomer not felt rather tense himself, he might have laughed at the other men's thoroughly bewildered expressions as they turned to leave with an implied half-bow.
"Aye, my Lord Marshal," Héorulf nodded. "We will be behind that next rise, should you need us anyway."
"Very well, Héorulf. Just one last thing: you never saw us, and you will not mention this to anyone. Have I made myself clear?"
"Very clear, my Lord Marshal. Come, Fastred." The guards slowly back away with a last greeting, and then disappeared into the night. For a while, none of the warriors spoke as they continued in the darkness, and yet all of them felt the tension rise with every step that they took.
"Are you certain you want to witness this, Èomer?" Théodred had silently inquired on their way over to the Westfold camp to see whether Thorvald agreed to his plans. The others were trailing a bit behind them, lost in their own dark thoughts, and so the older man had gladly seized the opportunity. "It will get ugly; that I can guarantee. And it is already late. A hard trial is waiting for you tomorrow; mayhap you should really make for your own camp in order to meet its requirements."
"Then why involve me in this affair at all, Théodred?" Éomer had asked, his brow furrowed. "You cannot first present a matter of such heavy consequence to me and then expect me to forget about it only because of the late hour. Now that I know the full extent of the problem, I need to witness the outcome. There are fates at stake, that I understand. You want me to learn, and I am willing to learn from this."
"All right then…" With a short affirmative nod, Théodred had come to a halt just outside the still mainly deserted Westfold camp, and for a moment, his pensive gaze had rested on his cousin, unmistakably sizing him up. "Just remember, you do not have to watch this. Should you, at any point of the fight, decide otherwise, I will not hold you to your word. You can leave whenever you want."
"I have already been in battles," Éomer had replied curtly. "I am not known to faint at the sight of blood."
"Well, it's your call, Cousin. Now stay here while I am going to establish whether Bard's rival will be ready to play." Théodred had clapped his shoulder and signaled for Grimbold to follow him while Elfhelm had left to catch their healer.
Temporarily left with Bard, Éomund's son had regarded his fellow rider for a few long, silent moments, anxious. True, over the course of the past year, he had seen how powerful the big warrior could be in battle, and yet at the same time, the scene of Thorvald deliberately hurting Gaerwolf repeated itself before his inner eye… and there was no question that the Westfold warrior had probably far worse ideas in his head about what to do with his rival.
"You need not be afraid for me, son of Éomund," Bard had replied to his unvoiced question, the slightest of smiles playing around his mouth while his gaze stayed glued to the scene before him, where their Marshal had reached his opponent's guards. "I can hold my own against Thorvald… provided he agrees to the plan. Although I cannot imagine why he would not. After all, this is what he wanted all along."
"It is strange to think of him in Findarras' place, as a captain."
"And yet he was, and he was good at it. The riders were eager to follow him into battle." Bard had sighed. "Théodred was right to remind us of this. It is easy to forget when things have been bad for a while. But we do owe Thorvald this chance."
"Is it true that he saved your life?" Éomer had inquired, to which the warrior had nodded.
"Not just mine, your cousin's, as well. And Eflhelm's. Grimbold's, too, though not in the same battle. He really was a force of nature on the battlefield. I suppose he still is… only these days, it seems he gathers all his energy from a dark place, and that slowly but surely it consumes him."
Together, they had watched in silence while their marshal had presented his idea to the Westfold warrior, and neither of them had been particularly surprised when Thorvald had quickly risen to his feet.
"So," Bard had commented. "I guess we will have a fight tonight…"
"I suppose we are far enough away now. This is perfect." Théodred eyed the natural hollow with a satisfied expression on his face and turned around to face the two combatants. "This is it, Gentlemen. Should any of you want to back down, now is the time to speak up. Otherwise, we will leave you to your business."
"I certainly have not come all this way to simply walk back now," Thorvald replied, his gaze fixed on his opponent in obvious anticipation. "Although I would not be surprised if Bard here decided to turn tail, now that he's about to get his just come-uppance."
Bard issued a grim laugh.
"Me? I'm looking forward to this, believe me. I have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time."
"Just remember…" Théodred raised his voice, "…that I will not allow you to seriously hurt each other. We will step in at once should you attempt to break each other's bones… or worse. Short of that, the rules of the fight are up to you. See that you get this matter settled once and for all, or Béma help me, the next time it is me you face!" With those words, the Second Marshal stepped aside and indicated to the other captains to follow his example. A hard tension suddenly filled the atmosphere as the two rivals walked into the middle of the hollow and turned to face each other.
Stepping up to his cousin, Éomer held his breath, suddenly certain that Théodred's idea would lead to a catastrophe. And it seemed that his anxiety had been clearly written all over his face, for at the next moment, he felt the Prince's hand upon his shoulder, giving it a slight squeeze.
"Do not worry, Éomer," Théodred whispered under his breath, his eyes never leaving the two warriors. "I've got this under control. Trust me."
Before them, Thorvald rolled his shoulders and there was a dangerous glint in his dark eyes in the light of the stars as he began to circle the younger man. "So, Bard… I hope you are prepared to receive the worst beating of your life. You certainly deserve it."
"Will you try to talk me to death, or are you actually going to do something, Thorvald?" the Eastfold warrior replied, cracking his knuckles in answer. "I'm right here. Let's see whether you have the guts to actually approach me!"
His opponent uttered a short laugh and inclined his head. Then he charged. With all the momentum of a wild Westfold ox, he leaped at the younger man. With a quick sidestep, Bard easily evaded his swinging fists and instead scored a hit to Thorvald's neck himself. His rival pivoted, and his grappling hand almost found purchase in the younger man's shirt had he not quickly bent backwards. Another punch missed the Eastfolder's jaw by the breadth of a hair.
"You fight like a craven, Bard! What is this? Are you going to evade me all night?"
"You are only too slow, old man!" Bard grinned. "I can see your blows coming from miles away! Perhaps you are still too drunk for this. Shouldn't we rather wait until tomorrow in order to grant you even half a chance?" He sidestepped another charge, this time succeeding in scoring a kick against Thorvald's standing leg and sending the big warrior to the ground. "See, you can't even walk properly! This is easier than fighting a blind Uruk!"
Now seriously enraged, his rival picked himself up, and in the brief light of a distant bolt of lightning, his eyes seemed to spray sparks of hatred as he threw himself at Bard with a roar, unleashing a fistful of sand into the other's wide open eyes. The next moment, the two bodies collided with an audible sound.
"Gods…" Clenching his fists into his shirt so hard that his fingernails dug into his own skin, Éomer flinched. The true fight was on now, all ridicule and foreplay forgotten as the two warriors shoved and pushed each other around, their hand grappling for hold in the other's clothes and hair, grunting and groaning from the strain of their efforts.
With a sudden jolt, Thorvald's brow crashed against the bridge of Bard's nose, breaking it. A pained grunt escaped the Eastfold warrior as he stumbled backwards, still unable to open his eyes. A dark torrent shot out of his nose. And still his opponent clung to him, now starting to bludgeon the younger man's side with his freed fist.
"Théodred!" Éomer gasped.
"Not yet," the King's son muttered under his breath, but it was easy to hear that he, too, was dismayed about the turn of events.
Although not being able to see and catapulted into a sudden world of hurt, Bard' survival instincts kicked in as he first dragged his rival down with both hands and then rammed his knee into the other's abdomen, satisfied to hear a muffled grunt. He followed it with a quick blow of his elbow between Thorvald's shoulder blades, again sending the older man to his knees. Three fast steps back brought him out of his opponent's reach, finally succeeding at wiping the sand out of his watering eyes.
"You fucking bastard," he hissed with a quick glance at his bloodstained hand while before him, the Westfold warrior scrambled to his feet again. "I knew you'd fight dirty! You could never win an honest fight!"
"What would you know about an honest fight?" Thorvald spat. "This is nothing! This is but the start of it! Prepare to get hurt!" And again he lunged, yet this time too uncontrolled to evade Bard's glancing blow to his cheek bone. More blood flowed.
Théodred felt the questioning glances of his two captains as well as his cousin upon himself and wordlessly shook his head. No, the time to intercept had not yet come.
Before them, the two combatants rearranged themselves for another round. Wary now after each had drawn first blood, they circled each other, arms expanded to both sides, knees bent and muscles ready to catapult them to either side in order to evade their opponent's charge at the slightest twitch. For a moment, their sculpted silhouettes stood in stark contrast against the sky when another lightning illuminated the night, then everything plunged into darkness again. No thunder followed. The night seemed to hold its breath.
Then the next flicker revealed intertwined bodies, wrestling, grappling each other in their efforts to gain the upper hand, then darkness again, followed by groaning, grunting, hard bursts of breathing and the dull sound of heavy punches against flesh.
When Éomer's eyes readjusted to the blackness, the two opponents had separated again and stood a few paces apart in similar defensive stances. Both fighters breathed heavily, and their shirts hung in rags from their bodies, dirty and stained.
"You're bleeding," Thorvald stated with obvious delight and wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. "Though not merely enough for my taste. You stole my wife from me, you dirty rat! What kind of man would do that to his brother-in-arms? To think that I saved your life once! I should have let the orc-scum have their fun with you!"
"What kind of man would hit his wife until she bled?" Bard rebuked, quickly evading another punch that was aimed at his chin. His own fist connected with a sickening thud with Thorvald's lower ribs. "And in front of your children, too! I did not steal your wife, Thorvald; she left you! You scared her away! She was afraid you were going to kill her! Get it in your thick head!"
"You're lying! I saw how Daléna always looked at you! You could barely contain yourself until I was gone to slip into our house!" Thorvald bellowed. "What a rotten thing to do to your fellow rider! And yet I am the one who gets all the blame!" He spat, a mixture of saliva and blood. "The time when my injury forced me to stay home must have been excruciating for the two of you… or did you bang my wife whenever she told me she would go to buy provisions? Did you shag her somewhere in a barn while I was lying broken in my bed, fighting for my life?"
"We grew up together, Thorvald! Your wife is like a sister to me! We have known each other from the earliest days of our childhood! That's why she was friendly with me, and we never made a secret out of it!" Bard shouted. "Yet we were never in love! She loved you! And it was you who destroyed that love with your suspicion and your foul moods! You made her life an unending nightmare! You have no one to blame for this but yourself!"
"How dare you!" With another enraged roar, the Westfold warrior catapulted himself forward, and this time, Bard's fist connected with his jaw with full force, knocked his teeth together and split his lip. For a moment, Thorvald stood swaying as his blood pattered onto the ground, and it seemed as if he would remain on his feet. Extending a hand for his rival, the fighter stumbled forward. One step, two steps – until all balance left him, and he crashed to the ground with a pained grunt.
With a sharp breath, Éomer averted his eyes. Aye, Théodred had warned him… and yet this was beyond what he had expected. Far beyond. It was unclear to him why his cousin had not already stopped the two rivals, as it seemed to him that both men would rather die than give in… even if Bard made no move to take advantage of his opponent now that he had landed the first really severe blow. Instead he watched impassively as Thorvald scrambled around in the dirt before him in a desperate attempt to regain his feet, and suddenly knelt down before his opponent.
"You know what Daléna told me just the other day, Thorvald?" He inhaled. "She told me that your son did not speak for a full month after what you made him witness! He was like a puppet, she said, some lifeless thing, not a child. He would not respond when he was being talked to; he would not even blink! She barely managed to feed him! And after all this time, the poor lad is still having nightmares about it almost every night! Every night he sees you charge into the room to beat his mother bloody, and he wakes up screaming and will not stop crying! How can you live with that?"
Thorvald froze, and in the pale light of yet another lightning, Bard could see that his last accusation had penetrated the older man's defenses.
"You heard me," he said, calmer, but with the same intensity. "You became a monster to your child's eyes. An orc."
The accusation stunned the older warrior, and all of a sudden, his efforts at regaining his feet stopped, and a strange expression crept onto his face, one that Bard had never expected to see in these broad, angular features. Was it really shame? Had Théodred been right after all?
Thorvald's mouth worked, but it took him a while to actually form the words, and even when he uttered them in a voice husky with emotion, they were barely audible.
"You are only saying this to hurt me."
Bard lowered his voice.
"It is the truth, Thorvald, and you know it. Little Wulfric saw everything, and of course, it had an effect on him… as it had on his mother. Daléna is no longer the same, Thorvald. The incidence lies eighteen months in the past, but I have yet to see her smile again. Do you remember her smile? I do." He inhaled, the pain in his broken nose fresh and sharp. "It was such an innocent, pure smile. We all loved her for it, but it was not that kind of love. She was yours, and we all understood and accepted that. It is possible to love someone without wanting to be together with them. You used to understand that, too, but after your injury; you were never the same again. What happened, Brother? Tell us. We are here to help you."
The Westfold warrior uttered a bitter laugh.
"You want to help me, you say? This is what you do to help me?" He ran a hand over his bloodied beard, and his accusatory gaze found the other men when he held out his bloodied fingers, the blood black in the cold starlight. He stared at his marshal with such hatred that it sent a chill down Éomer's spine. "You gathered your men around you, Théodred Théodensson, and then waited until I was so drunk that your henchman could beat me up without risk. And now that I'm on the ground, you see to it that every abhorrent thing I have ever done is thrown into my face. Tell me, what is it that you want me to do, kill myself? Do you think that I haven't tried?"
"Thorvald, you misunderstand." The King's son stepped forward, his voice low and compassionate as he approached the fallen rider. "Brother…"
"Don't call me 'brother'!"
"You left me with no choice when you attacked our recruits earlier tonight. I would have liked to wait until you had sobered, but you forced my hand. And yet you misunderstand me when you think that we are here to punish you for the things you've done."
"What else should this be, a reward? You even brought your recruit so that he could witness my destruction!" Thorvald's hateful glance made Éomer shiver, and he barely felt Elfhelm's soothing hand on his shoulder. Before them, his cousin lowered himself to his knees, the expression on his face serious and sincere.
"This is not an attempt to destroy you, Brother. It is rather a last, desperate attempt to find the man you once were inside this maelstrom of blackness that devoured you in the wake of your injury. You used to be a man we all respected, and your riders were eager to follow you. You might even have been promoted to marshal by now had this accursed ambush not happened. We all know that the path to recovery was long and hard for you, and it seems that somehow, you lost your way on it." He interrupted himself, and if possible, his gaze became even more intense. "And yet you are not the first man who had this happen to him, Thorvald, nor will you be the last. If one thing is certain, it is that each of us can fall, every day. The important part is to get up again. And if it is too hard to do it by yourself, you must allow your brothers to help. Let us help you, Thorvald, for the path you are headed is leading to nothing good."
Thorvald snorted, and there was a self-derogatory, horrible undertone in his voice when he answered.
"And how exactly do you plan to help me, 'Brother'?" he mocked Théodred. "Tell me, what had you hoped to achieve by cutting my roots and sending me to the Westfold? Did you not think that the riders would inquire why an Eastfolder was transferred to their éored? Did you not think they'd find out?" Now his burning eyes met Grimbold's in raw accusation. "And did you think that I would not understand why you ordered me into the vanguard for every assault we performed, Captain? Did you think that I would not understand that you hoped for our enemies to rid you of me? That I would not see the disappointment on your face whenever I returned from an attack with your riders?"
"It was only after your second clash with Raedwulf that I decided so, Thorvald," he confessed in a low voice. "You almost killed him, barely a few days after our last conversation. What was I to do? Not only did you defy your orders time and again; you actively went and sought trouble. I thought that, by placing you in the vanguard, it would help you focus your destructive temper exclusively against our foes. That you would spare your fellow riders if you were allowed to unleash your frustration against orcs and Dunlendings instead."
"Mayhap you truly believed that." Thorvald shook his head in resignation, and suddenly it seemed as if all energy, which had flooded him during his fight with Bard, had left him. "And yet I dare you to deny that you were also hoping for our enemies to kill me." He stared at his captain and at last, the other man had to avert his eyes. With a deep breath, the warrior continued.
"I knew it. And I will confess that I was hoping for it, too, each time that we rode into battle." He saw the shock in the others' eyes. "What was there left for me? My wife and children were gone and the men of my éored despised me for what I had done to them. I was forced to leave my home, and the riders of Westfold never accepted me. And at last, my own captain ordered me into the most dangerous position on every charge that we rode. Had I killed myself in my despair, Sleipnir would have refused to carry my soul up to the halls of my ancestors, and even if he had, they would never have permitted a coward who took his own life to enter. So I hoped for our enemies to release me from the burden of existence… to find an honourable death on the battlefield in defense of the Mark. But my survival instincts are too strong, I suppose, so I am cursed to live on." With a shaking breath, Thorvald hid his face behind his hands.
"There might still be a way to turn your life around," Théodred offered quietly. "To come back from the abyss, back into brotherhood. You may even find personal happiness again, Thorvald. It is not impossible."
"How?" The warrior shook his head despondently. "There is not a single rider in the Mark who has not heard of my monstrous deeds. No matter where you transfer me to, Marshal, they will all know who I am. "
"True, they will recognize you," the King's son agreed. " And yet you could change the way they regard you by taking responsibility for the things you did… and by apologizing to the people you hurt… starting with Gaerwolf tomorrow… and the riders of your éored. Let them know that you regret the things you've done, and that you are willing to do what is necessary to change."
Thorvald's hands dropped to his lap, but the glance he gave Théodred in answer was deeply skeptical.
"And Daléna? How should she ever forgive me, if things are the way Bard just said? And what could she even want from me, now that I am no longer a real man?" Even in the dark, he noticed the sudden look of understanding in Théodred's eyes, and nodded grimly. "Aye, Marshal. Even if I ever found another woman who could love me in spite of my history - I would be incapable of giving her children. Worse yet, I could not even please her. My wound made sure of that. I may still be able to fight for our land, but otherwise, I am completely and utterly useless."
"How can you say this, Thorvald?" Grimbold at last joined in, with another long glance at his kneeling marshal before he addressed his rider. "There are so many women, not only in the Westfold, left widowed by the war, and who are barely able to provide a home and sufficient food to their children, now that they are alone. Do you know what they would give for a man who provided protection and a pair of strong hands to help them master the challenges that each and every day presents them?"
"Aye, perhaps one of them might take me in, out of pure necessity. But how could I ever be more than a farm hand to them if they knew about my limitation?"
"There are other ways to please a woman." Théodred remarked evenly, meaningfully lifting his eyebrows. Then his gaze became piercing. "You are more than your cock, Thorvald. I understand that for a while, this might have seemed like the end of the world to you, but it is time now for you to realise this. Look at yourself: you are a powerful man, one of the most powerful warriors of the Mark. You have two strong hands. You can wield a sword with them, or build something. You can fondle a woman with them. You can carry children in your arms, or rock them to sleep. You have two strong legs. You can walk with them, run with them, ride with them. You have a head with a capable brain on your neck; you were a captain! You know how to inspire people and make them follow you! You only need to remember it!" He shook his head with vigor. "Béma, it would be an utter waste to have a capable man like you pursue death, when the Mark is in such desperate need of defenders! Your land needs you, Thorvald… and I won't even start about the vow you took when you joined the Armed Forces, but it is high time that you see what you still have to offer!"
Dark eyes regarded him doubtfully, and for the longest time, silence spread between the warriors.
Hugging himself in the increasingly chilly night breeze, Éomer barely dared to breathe, and his head reeled from all the things that had been disclosed. It had been so easy to hate Thorvald after everything he had done, and yet now that he knew the whole story, Éomund's son could not help feeling for the warrior who was still on his knees in the middle of the hollow. He had only been with the riders for one year yet, and yet even those twelve months had confirmed to Éomer that his brothers-in-arms hardly ever let an opportunity pass to brag about their virility around the camp fire, proudly stating the many villages where they had unmarried wenches desperately waiting for their éored to pay them another visit, as if it were some kind of contest to them. How was a man supposed to feel who had lost his abilities? And wouldn't he naturally begin to see his fellow riders as a threat to his own marriage? What a mess!
"I would like to believe in what you're saying, Marshal," Thorvald said at length, his voice low and beat. "I would like to believe that there is indeed a way back for me—"
"But there is!"
"—but I think too much has happened. Too much that can't be forgiven." He shook his head. "The riders have formed their opinion of me, and I do not see how it should be possible to change it."
"If you think that you will not be given a chance in the Westfold," Théodred said with another long, telling glance at Grimbold, "I will offer you this, Thorvald: come to Edoras with me after the festival, and I will give you a place in my own éored. I will personally see to it that you get a fresh start. The rest is up to you. It might very well be the last chance you ever get." In the flickering light of another faraway lightning, the King's son found himself staring into widening eyes.
"But why would you do this for me, Sir? The Prince's personal éored… I do not deserve such a chance!"
A thin, determined smile formed on Théodred's lips, and behind him, the others slowly began to relax. Silently, Bard stepped over to where Elfhelm and their recruit were silently observing, and meaningfully cocked an eyebrow.
"Why?" The King's son repeated. "I tell you why: I want to see that man again who came to our aid when we found ourselves surrounded by orc hordes in the Eastemnet, outnumbered four to one. That man rode through the night in the middle of a snowstorm when he had learned about a trap the enemy had laid for us, and his charge saved the lives of two hundred and forty men; Elfhelm's, Bard's and my own included. We owe you, Thorvald, and that is why we are here. Accept our help and take the first step towards a new life tonight, Brother. I implore you."
And with those words, the King's son proffered his hand to the kneeling man… and his smile broadened when it was, at last, accepted.
"Welcome back, Brother. You have been missed."
Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer
Chapter 7: Day Two: The Finals
"Run, Stormwing! Run!"
A quick glance back. Still no sign of Godric and Flame behind them. They were alone on this last stretch to the finish line, and at last Éomer was convinced that victory was his. No matter that the weather had deteriorated all day from a hazy, humid morning to a thunderous downpour that had transformed the hard soil into a swamp, but there was no way that anyone, not even Godric's wonderhorse, would be able to overtake them on the quarter league that was left. He could already hear the cheer of the crowd in the distance, celebrating their new champion, and a broad grin spread over his face.
"Do you hear this, Little One? That's for us! They're celebrating us! Only a bit further; we're almost there! We'll be champions!" Another look over his shoulder, just to make sure. Éomer frowned. The forest behind them had disappeared in a thick mist, and even as he asked himself how on Béma's green earth it could have risen so fast when there had been no sign of it only a moment ago, he beheld the thick white tendrils beneath his mare's legs. With an irritated huff, Stormwing began to slow down when the ground disappeared beneath her hooves, her ears flickering in every direction in a vain attempt to find the cause of this unexpected occurrence.
A quiver of unease settled in Éomer's stomach when the landscape before them was obliterated as well, and the shouts of his kinsmen were swallowed by the thick whiteness. Instinctively, he pulled on the reins, and his mount was only too happy to comply when they came to a stop.
"What kind of devilry is this?" the son of Éomund muttered to himself as he turned Stormwing around in a tight circle to see whether there was any landmark to make out in this strange mist at all, but there was only this thick, swirling whiteness around them.
"Hello?" he shouted, and strained his ears for a reply. At first, the silence was complete, and a feeling of utter disorientation washed over him and made his flesh crawl. Trying to soothe himself just as much as well as his nervously prancing mare, he patted the grey neck. "It's only mist, Precious," he whispered, his glance quickly darting around for any hint of his whereabouts. "It's not dangerous. The camp is close, you saw it yourself. Just calm down for a moment and we will hear them. Ssshhh…"
There – hadn't there been a noise? At last, now that Stormwing no longer moved, Éomer thought he could identify some kind of low murmur. Trying to hone in on its direction, his thighs commanded his horse to turn around, but the mare would not budge. A deep dismayed grunt rose from the depths of her chest instead.
"What is it, Little One?" Éomer inquired, only to feel it himself a moment later. The ground beneath Stormwing's hooves was no longer stable, and slowly but surely, they were sinking into the mud. 'At the best of times, this course is difficult,' he suddenly heard Godric's words repeated in his mind. 'It can turn dangerous in the wink of an eye, and without warning.' Well, this was bloody ridiculous! Solid ground could not suddenly turn into quicksand, could it? And still there was the reality of said quicksand suddenly reaching his feet! Unable to free her legs, Stormwing issued a frightened neigh, yet only succeeded in working herself deeper into the mud.
"Help!" Éomer screamed frantically, suddenly aware of the wetness of rain upon his face. It was pouring. From somewhere to their left, a low metallic clang suddenly reached his ears, and again he strained his eyes in order to determine its source. Now his shins disappeared, along with Stormwing's lower rump. "Help, please! Come quickly!"
The noise intensified, and it seemed closer, but Éomer could still not make out anything in the whiteness. "Quick, please! We're here! Help!"
Only his mare's neck and head were left to stick out of the mud, and she squealed in panic. The din was deafening now, but Éomer could still not make out what was causing it.
"Please, whoever you are, help us!"
"Help us, please!" Something grabbed him. Shook him vigorously, and instinctively, Éomer lashed out.
"Ouch! Éomer, dammit, wake up!"
Another jolt, and suddenly Éomund's son found himself looking into a worried face… a face he knew. Widened, blue eyes, a slight fuzz of red-golden hair along an angular jaw-line…"É… Éothain?"
"He recognizes me! Thank you, Béma!" Céorl's son grimaced and gingerly fingered his nose. "Damnation, Éomer, what were you dreaming? Were you just being eaten alive by wargs?" He cleared his throat. "I would be very thankful if you could please let go of me; your grip is rather painful! Thank you."
Still confused, Éomer released his hold and instead craned his neck to find that the rain had followed him into reality. The downpour, to be exact. 'Oh no, the race…!' He sat up, still waiting for his wildly beating heart to calm down while his gaze travelled slowly over their camp. It seemed to him that most of his fellow riders were already up and about, some of them grinning as they looked in his direction.
"How late is it?" he inquired, unable to make out the sun through the thick layer of clouds. "And what was that noise? Was that you?"
"You still have about two hours for breakfast and to make yourself presentable until the King comes, and aye, that was me," Éothain grinned and pointed at the heavy pot and ladle he had used for a drum. "So you heard it after all! I had been banging away on it for quite some time, but you never reacted. I really thought that I would have to resort to the water bucket to wake you, but then you started to scream. Sheesh!" He shook his head. "What did you do with Théodred last night? Did you drink? I thought you wanted to avoid the ale?" He leaned forward to take a sniff, but then shook his head. "Doesn't smell like it though."
"Do you really think I'd get hammered when I have to race today?" Massaging his head while the morning's reality at last solidified around him, Éomer narrowed his eyes at his friend. Éothain shrugged.
"Not really, but then there is the fact that you overslept and that I almost had to resort to violence in order to wake you." He cleared his throat. "I would have woken you earlier, but the captain told me to leave you alone for a while longer, so he's probably in on whatever took place last night. You must have returned rather late, because you were not here when I turned in. None of you were." He lifted an eyebrow meaningfully.
"I cannot tell you about this, Éothain," Éomer said apologetically. "I promised Théodred."
His friend shrugged.
"Ah well, it's not as if I had expected differently. Just excuse me while I'm drawing my own conclusions."
"Your own conclusions?"
"You're a mess this morning, you oversleep, you almost scream your head off just before I wake you… and Bard, who was likewise still missing when I returned to the camp last night, is looking like one of our great herds stampeded over him. Now I just need to see Thorvald to confirm what happened last night." He wriggled his eyebrows and leant forward confidentially: "My guess is that your cousin assembled you and Bard and whoever else he could convince and went to the Westfold camp to teach that brute a lesson he won't forget so soon." Éothain's grin broadened, but then dropped quickly from his face when his friend did not react in the way he had anticipated.
"You're wrong," Éomer said simply, and his gaze went over his friend's shoulder in search for the big warrior. "Did you ask Bard what happened to him?"
"Aye. He said he walked into a tent post."
"Then that is probably what happened."
"Sure," Éothain deadpanned. Only to add with a sigh: "I seem to remember some silly old saying about friends always telling each other the truth…"
Éomer shook his head with a deep sigh and began to peel himself out of his bedroll.
"I am telling you the truth, Éothain: I am not allowed to speak about last night. And as my friend, you might just want to make an effort to understand that. Now tell me, what kind of weather is that?"
Éothain raised an eyebrow.
Éomund's son rolled his eyes.
"What I obviously meant was: does anyone know how for long it's supposed to stay like this?"
"The Captain thinks it will clear up soon. And once the sun comes out again, it should dry the race course long before Stormwing sets a hoof upon it. There, are you satisfied now?"
"Aye, that was much better. See, you knew what I wanted to know, Éothain, so why did you make me ask twice?" Fetching the water-resistant leather pouch with his good clothes, Éomer shook his head. His friend groaned and turned to go.
"My, aren't we testy today? All right, I'll leave you alone now until your bad morning mood has passed and you look and feel like a human being again. Please refrain from crossing my path until that is the case."
As it turned out, their commander's assessment of the weather situation had been correct, and two hours later, the two young riders stood at attention together with the other warriors alongside the broad main path of the festival grounds, well-groomed and in expectation of their king. Théoden's entourage had already been spotted when the great gates of the wall that surrounded Edoras had opened and spilled out the line of splendidly clad royal guards, preceded by their king on his mighty snow white Meara-stallion and a smaller figure to his right, which had to be Éowyn. Trailing the royals and their guards, a long line of riders followed, whom Éomer knew had to be the new recruits who had all taken the oath of the Armed Forces this past morning and would be distributed among the éoreds in a joyful celebration later today. A smile of remembrance tugged at the corners of his mouth. Exactly one year ago, Éothain and he had been part of that group, nervous like a herd of colts before their branding. So much had happened since then…
As he watched on, his cousin and the captains of the assembled éoreds rode out of the festival grounds to meet their king halfway. All warriors looked resplendent in their richly embroidered shirts beneath full sets of shining armour, their banners rippling in the wind. It was a glorious picture and finally lifted the shadow under which Éomer had been walking all morning in the wake of his nightmare. It would not be much longer now until he would see Éowyn again.
"There's Thorvald!" Éothain whispered into his ear from the left and thus confirmed to Éomund's son that his friend had still not given up. "And he looks just like Bard, perhaps even worse! I will eat a pile of warg shit if he didn't run into the very same tent post as Bard…" He gave Éomer a long, suggestive side-glance, yet found his inquisitiveness thoroughly stonewalled. He sighed. "You, my friend, are as much fun as a stomach bug today. We are meant to enjoy ourselves at this festival!"
"I am enjoying myself, Éothain," Éomer muttered under his breath, his eyes remaining glued to the group of approaching riders. "It seems that it is only you who has a problem. Is it because of the competition again? Are you nervous?"
"Tsss… I've already won my ribbon, perhaps it is you who is nervous! " Éothain rolled his eyes, yet as several heads had already turned to look for the source of the disturbance, he did not pursue the issue further… and his friend would not had heard him anyway, since the festival's guards used that moment to set their horns to their lips and sounded them in the ancient greeting of the Armed Forces to their king.
Meanwhile, the riders had approached far enough for Éomer to make out Éowyn's face behind Windfola's big, grey head, and a wide, joyful smile spread on his features. How proudly she sat her horse, his little sister; her chin lifted and the expression on her face one of regal composure as she greeted their cousin and his accompanying captains. And how beautiful she looked with her fair complexion and her long, wavy hair flying on the wind where it had not been tamed by one of her artfully plaited braids. The dark green riding habit she was wearing was new to him, the fabric tightly hugging her slender shape.
As Éomer watched on, his cousin fell in line at the king's other side, now framing Théoden together with Éowyn, while the other captains regrouped behind the Royal Guard. Their Uncle looked imposing in his artfully crafted red-brown armour, yet something did not sit right with Éomer as he beheld Théoden's guarded expression. He looked tired somehow, even from a distance, as if he were not feeling well. And behind him… Éomer inhaled deeply, at once berating himself for his dismay when he should have expected it. Of course, Gríma accompanied the King.
Having met his uncle's new counsellor only once since he had joined the Armed Forces twelve months ago, Éomer's first impression had been one of unease and immediate suspicion. It had taken some intense contemplation on his part in the weeks following that first meeting until Éomund's son had had last arrived at the decision that his immediate dislike of the man had been more a result of the inscrutable look he had been granted out of Gríma's pale grey eyes, rather than his quite un-Rohirric appearance. No, that man had sized him up and categorized him as an opponent, of that he was sure. And even now, when he saw the dark-haired, pale-skinned counsellor following in his uncle's wake, a clammy feeling seized his stomach all over again and made his skin crawl. Somehow, that image made him think of a crow trailing a wounded animal, just waiting for its chance to overwhelm the unlucky beast.
"Why must he be here?" he heard Éothain mumble to himself beside him, and nodded in silent agreement. Gríma's presence seemed to cast a shadow onto a so far beautiful day. And still Éomer joined in as his brothers-in-arms began to sing the ancient song of the founding of the Mark while the King's procession passed through the corridor in their midst, a powerful chant out of hundreds of voices which ended with a resounding "Westu Théoden hál!" when the riders stopped at the big open place. The King of the Mark lifted his hand in greeting and his warriors erupted into cheers as their orderly rows dissolved.
"Éomer?" The son of Éomund heard his name uttered and turned around to find his captain waiting. Elfhelm laid a hand onto his shoulder.
"I know you can barely wait to meet your sister. I will not keep you for long, only know that I spoke with your cousin this morning, and we agreed that you should watch the competitions from the royal stands together with her and the king."
"But our éored—"
"The men of our éored know who you are, Éomer," Elfhelm stated with a good-natured wink. "And I am certain they all see it the same way. None will hold it against you when you sit with your family for the finals… just make sure that you leave in time to prepare for the race. I will meet you by the corral at four."
"Aye, sir. And thank you."
"Now go. And Éothain?"
"The same goes for you. Go and meet your family… just don't forget the archers' competition starts in two hours."
"Thank you, Sir."
Together, the two friends made their way through the throng to where they could see the spears of the Royal Guard above people's heads. Halfway there, Éothain detected his father, one of the captains of the Edoras-based éoreds, among the riders, and bid Éomer his farewell, leaving Éomund's son to make for the circle of armoured warriors alone.
With a big grin on his face, Éomer made for their captain; a man he had known like his own father for the past six years now.
"Westu hál, Háma! How good it is to see you, my Lord!"
"Éomer? I'll be damned if that isn't Marshal Éomund's lad!" The big guard beamed and offered him a hand in the warriors' greeting, which Éomer accepted only too gladly. "You have grown, young man. Soon you will have reached your father's height, and not only that, you look more like him every day. It is almost uncanny." Háma's nodded in approval. "It seems to me that life on the plains becomes you, young lord. Would I be correct in that assumption?"
"Aye," Éomer confirmed eagerly, but before he could further elaborate, he was suddenly assassinated.
"Éomer! Brother!" Two surprisingly strong arms were thrown around his neck, and he was only too happy to return his sister's passionate welcome, rather pleased with himself when he found that lifting Éowyn up and pivoting while he supported her weight did not feel like a big exertion to him. Laughing along with her, he set her down again.
"The last two days felt like they would never end," Éowyn confessed breathlessly. "To know that you have been here already for the last two days, but that I would only see you now…" She shook her head, blue eyes sparkling with heartfelt joy while she examined his appearance. "You have further grown since Yule, Brother." She extended a hand and laid it lovingly against his cheek, grinning when she felt the stubble. "And you have finally decided to grow a beard."
"Well, you have grown, too, Sister," Éomer replied and returned the grin. "But I'm afraid I cannot detect a beard on you, yet. You must try harder!"
"If I grew a beard, would you let me join the Armed Forces?" she returned, and Éomer laughed.
"Alas, I fear it is not the only thing required of a rider." He grasped her hands, and for a moment, brother and sister stood in the midst of the din and yet a thousand leagues away in their own world, as they regarded each other lovingly. "Béma, it is wonderful to see you, Éowyn. Trust me, those last two days seemed just as long to me as they did to you. And yet here we are…"
"Will you be able to spend some time with us before the race? I can still barely imagine that you will really participate in it today. Everyone says that it is dangerous." Éowyn shook her head. "At first, Uncle said he would not permit it, but Théodred talked to him and changed his mind. He said you needed to prove yourself." She grimaced and sighed. "Why are men always permitted to 'prove themselves', but not the women?"
"Oh, but you are 'proving yourself', Éowyn," Éomer replied. "It is just that you are faced with different tasks."
She gave a very unladylike snort.
"What could you ever prove by stitching? If Théodred did not help me, I would never get any training with the sword. What do they expect me to do if an enemy ever manages to invade Edoras – stab them with my needles?"
Éomer's eyebrows shot up.
"Théodred trains you?"
"We'll talk about this later," Éowyn said, sudden alarm in her eyes as she stared at something behind him. As he followed her gaze, Éomer beheld Gríma and his uncle on the way over to them, accompanied by their smiling cousin.
"And here he is! Tell me, Father, do you not think that your nephew is becoming the spitting image of his father with each passing month? I had to look twice when we met again two days ago."
"Yet hopefully, he has not his father's temper," Gríma added in a light tone meant to indicate that he was joking, although the look he gave Éomer told him that the man meant what he had said. He briefly narrowed his eyes, and then chose to ignore the remark to greet Théoden-King instead by inclining his head and indicating a bow.
At which his uncle smiled, and yet Éomer could not suppress a sudden dash of worry. From up close, the lines on Théoden-King's face seemed to have multiplied over the last six months they had not seen each other, and the expression in his light blue eyes was one of tiredness and exhaustion.
"Éomer… you do not have to *sire* me, young man, at least not today. Come here." Théoden opened his arms and gave his nephew a hearty embrace, before he straightened himself to give Éomer an approving glance. "I have to agree with Théodred; you resemble your father more every day. He must be proud to see what a fine rider his son is becoming." The smile faded. "Although I do not dare to think what he would have said about your decision to participate in today's race."
"I am sure he would have encouraged you," Théodred was quick to throw in, and Éomer was thankful for his support. "Age aside, you are a consummate rider, Cousin, as you proved by winning your éored's qualification. It is only fair that you should be given the opportunity to show us your skill."
"And yet it is a risky undertaking, Marshal," Gríma pointed out, as he had when Éomer's plans had first become known. "Men have been crippled in this race. Your cousin is the last male descendant of the line of Eorl; I can still not see the sense in having this young man endangering himself while the Mark is in desperate need of able-bodied warriors for her protection."
"And how do you presume should he grow into a fearless, skilled warrior if we exclude him from all the things we subject other recruits to without second thought, Lord Gríma?" Théodred's eyes met the counsellor's in open challenge, but before Gríma could answer, the King interrupted them.
"Peace, you two!" he said rather forcefully and raised his hand. "It is idle to start this discussion again now, as the outcome has already been determined." He granted Éomer a small nod. "Worry not, Éomer. You will race today… although I will admit that I am still having misgivings. Théodred informed me about the arrangements he made, and it eases my heart at least to some degree… just promise me that you will heed his advice. Will you, sister-son?"
With a brief, thankful side-glance at his cousin, Éomer nodded.
"I already promised Théodred, and I gladly promise it to you, as well, Uncle. I will be careful."
"Then that is good enough for me." The king spread his arms and, laying them on his sister-son's and daughter's shoulders and gently steered them in the direction of the arenas. "Now let us make for the stands, as I wouldn't want to miss the sword-fighting final when I will already have to forgo a wrestling final this year."
And so at last, the climactic second day of the festival, the longest day of the year, commenced beneath a bright blue sky with scattered clouds. The morning's downpour had cleared the air and lowered the temperatures to a more bearable degree, and yet the fighters of the first competition found it not easy to move around the arena in the slippery mud, leaving Éomer concerned about the conditions he would find on the racecourse later on. According to Godric, especially the passage through the forest before the last open stretch to the finish line quickly became swampy and treacherous in the rain, and more than one bad accident involving several riders had happened there in the past.
With a clammy feeling in his stomach, Éomund's son watched the two best swordfighters slide around and battle each other until a winner was determined. The three best contestants were honoured by their good-humoured and animated king in a splendid celebration, and then the whole crowd went on to the next final – the arching contest, in which Éothain – despite Éomer's mental backing – found himself quickly out of his depth among the seasoned veterans of this challenge. And yet the son of Céorl took his defeat in good humour as he left the arena, reveling in the fact that he had at least managed to leave two of the fifteen contestants behind him.
At last, the time arrived for Éomer to excuse himself, and he gladly accepted when Éowyn volunteered to help him with his preparations, knowing full well how glad his sister would be to escape the counsellor's attention at least for a little while.
After a brief detour to the Aldburg camp to fetch Éomer's belongings, brother and sister walked side by side through the deserted parts of the festival grounds over to the corrals, and for moment, Éowyn grasped his free hand and gave it a hearty squeeze.
"Thank you, Brother, for letting me come along. I would have suffocated if I had to bear that man's presence for another hour." She sighed. "He is creepy, don't you agree? Sometimes it feels as if he's not looking at you, but inside you, seeing every little thought in your head… especially if that thought concerns him."
Éomer looked at her in alarm.
"I do not know yet what to think about him," he confessed, "other than I don't trust him. Is he behaving improperly towards you in any way?"
"He sometimes stares at me in a strange way." Éowyn furrowed her brow as she recalled the counsellor's gaze, then shook herself inwardly. "I never know what he is thinking when he looks at me like that; his face is like a mask… and he is careful not to let anyone see behind it."
"Have you told Théodred? What does he think?"
His sister shrugged.
"Théodred told me to keep him informed, but it is not as if I could give him any solid reasons for my qualms. I simply do not feel well when I have to be in Gríma's presence… which is entirely too often. How I wish I could be with you on the plains, Brother..." She walked straight through the middle of a big puddle without even noticing that she had thoroughly soiled the hem of her riding outfit.
Éomer grinned as he imagined his slender, but oh-so-fierce little sister fighting with the daily requirements of life among the éoreds – and quickly scolded himself. No doubt would Éowyn prefer that life even if it meant carrying heavy water buckets and saddles until your muscles vibrated with exhaustion, or chopping wood until your hands would be covered with blood blisters, or riding through the driving rain or snow for hours in the cold time of the year and going to sleep in the straw somewhere in a barn instead of a well-made bed.
"So," he said, taking a turn to where he could already see the mares' corrals in the near distance. "Speaking of Théodred: you have really been sparring with him?"
"That would probably be saying too much. But he started to teach me how to defend myself with a knife and the sword… and surprisingly, Uncle agreed to it… against Gríma's objection."
"Again?" Éomer raised an eyebrow. "That man certainly seems devoted to denying us anything that would render us able to defend ourselves. What might he think a noble should be? An incompetent weakling who needs to be defended by the members of his household?" He snorted. "Shouldn't we rather set an example for the people to follow? At least that is what Father used to tell me."
"Aye," Éowyn agreed. "Thanks to Béma for making Uncle seeing it the same way." She came to a sudden halt as she beheld the unexpected activity in the corrals before them. "Look, Éomer, we are not the only ones. Your rivals are already here!"
Éomer, having followed her gaze, nodded, and sudden tension assaulted him to the point where he found it hard to maneuver his voice through his tightening throat. Slowly but surely, things were coming to a head, it seemed. In about two hours, he would embark on the possibly most daring undertaking of his life so far – the little episode at Firien Forest aside. He swallowed.
"Come!" was all he managed to say, and walked up to the fence, already looking for the familiar grey shape among the little herd of mares. Putting two fingers to his mouth, he gave a sharp whistle… and was instantly rewarded with his mount's attention.
"Come on, Precious!" he called her and climbed onto the highest beam. "It is time." And with eagle-eyes, he studied Stormwing's movements as she approached them in an effortless canter, finding to his relief nothing wrong with them. On the contrary, it seemed as if the mare was bursting with energy.
"Oh Éomer!" Éowyn exclaimed beside him. "Is that truly Stormwing? She looks so different! I know that last time, she was in her winter coat, but still… I cannot believe how trim she looks!"
"We trained a lot… in addition to performing our éored's daily duties. Her stamina is incredible." Meanwhile the subject of their conversation had reached them and greeted her rider with her traditional head-butt. "Aye, I love you, too, Little One. Just remember, I will have to ride you later today, so please leave me in one piece!" He embraced the big head and affectionately pulled it against his chest. "Éowyn? Can you please give me the halter? It's in the bag… Thank you."
Quickly he put it on Stormwing and tied the mare to the fence. A moment later, he stood by her side and upended the bag he had brought with him.
"I've got two currycombs. Are you of a mind to help me, Sister?"
"Do you really feel you have to ask me that?" A heartbeat later, Éowyn stood beside him and held out her hand, a wide grin on her face. "Let's make your horse presentable, dearest brother."
For a while, brother and sister worked in silence like a well-attuned team, and the world was simple and good. Beneath their strokes, Stormwing's grey coat soon began to shimmer with a silken sheen, and the mare stood still and enjoyed the unusual ministrations of not one, but two of her admirers. It was only when Éomer had finished with the brushing of her mane and tail and proceeded to adorning them by braiding green leather bands into the long course hair, that she finally began to fidget and sidle about, her patience running thin over having to stand so long in one place. Annoyed, yet well accustomed to his mount's antics, Éomer gave her a sharp slap on the neck.
"Stop that, you dreadful beast!" he scolded her, fighting with the last knots. "If you continue like this, you will have depleted all your energy long before the race and all we will see of Flame is a dust cloud on the horizon!"
"She can feel your tension," Éowyn explained. "She knows that today is the big day." As she stepped back in order to examine the result of their work, she detected, out of the corner of her eye, two mounted warriors on the path; the taller one balancing a large object in front of him. "Éomer? We've got visitors."
Questioningly looking up from what he was doing, Éomer raised his eyebrows as he recognized the two men.
"It's Elfhelm… and Tolgor. And what is that on the saddle before him?"
"It's another saddle, and a cloth!" Éowyn narrowed her eyes, then suddenly she understood. "It's your racing saddle, Brother." She smiled as she turned around to look at him. "I remember what Théodred told me about the race just after you qualified: every éored has its own racing saddle that is loaned to the rider who represents them. Likewise the saddle cloth."
"Aye, now I remember, too… and I also seem to remember that Elfhelm told me how it's been a while since last a winner sat in it for Aldburg." At last finished with Stormwing's mane, Éomer stepped around his horse to greet his fellow riders who had almost reached them. "Captain Elfhelm? Tolgor! Is it time?"
"Not yet. "
His commanding officer granted him an appreciative nod from as he eyed his apprentice's work from his elevated position.
"She looks stunning. Éomer? Lady Éowyn? You two have done a great job. You will do our éored proud… and in order for you to do so, here we are with your racing saddle." He handed it down to the son of Éomund, inviting him to a closer look.
Holding his breath, Éomer carefully placed it on the highest beam of the fence, surprised by its weight, and his fingers glided over the polished leather, exploring the finely embossed details of ancient racing scenes. It looked old, but extraordinarily well cared-for.
"It is beautiful… and so light!"
"Aye." Elfhelm grinned. "That was the idea. It will be hard enough for your mare to compete against the stallions; we should not make it even harder for her by placing a heavy saddle on her back. Now, there is only half an hour left. Shall we put in on her and see how it feels?"
It turned out that both horse and rider approved of the new saddle, and when Éomer turned Stormwing around for a few lessons in order to warm his mount's muscles, it seemed to him as if they were nearly flying. Excitement rose in him as he felt the barely restrained energy in his mare's smooth gait, and from afar, he could already hear the crowd's shouts in the distance. The cheers were not meant for them yet, as there was still another contest going on, but perhaps, in an hour, they would be. He certainly felt ready now to take on the world, and if the way his mare held herself was any indication as they came to a stop now, waiting for Elhelm and Tolgor to open the gate, Stormwing was ready, too. Proud and erect she stood; eyes and ears pointed in the direction of their rivals, who were just now leaving their corrals in a long line. He was just about to direct her out of the enclosure, when Éowyn touched his leg.
"Éomer! Brother!" Éowyn looked up to him, an expression of urgency in her eyes. "Wait! I almost forgot: there is something I want to give you." She pulled a piece of cloth from her pocket and handed it to him. "Here. May it bring you luck and keep you safe."
Surprised, Éomer unfolded the dark green piece of linen, onto which a fierce-looking white horsehead had been embroidered. Eorl's banner. He ran a finger over the stitchery, touched. It did not look like professional work, but it was certainly far better than any handiwork of Éowyn's he had ever seen before. He met her gaze, aware that behind her, his captain was waiting impatiently to leave. Still, this was important to him.
"Did you make this?"
"Aye." She gave him an uncertain smile. "Do you like it? I felt that this race would be something like a battle, and that you should have some token of the people who love you to take with you into the fray. I only finished it last night… It was my fifth attempt." She blushed.
"Your fifth attempt?" Éomer was stunned. For his sister, stitching and embroidery lessons were impositions she would gladly evade whenever possible, so for her to sit down and do this for him of her own, free will… five times… He shook his head, speechless. Éowyn frowned.
"You don't like it?"
"What? Are you mad? This is beautiful… and I will gladly carry it into battle with me from this day on." On sudden impulse, he leaned down and handed it back to her, stretching out his arm. "Will you be so kind and wrap it around? This way, they will all see it."
Quickly, Éowyn slung the banner around his biceps, her hand resting a moment longer on his arm as she met his gaze.
"Be safe, Brother… and may your dream come true. Ride to glory!"
Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer
Alright, here it is, the reason why I ever began writing this. I would like to dedicate it to Thanwen, for the inspiration her stories are for me. If you haven't discovered her wonderful Rohan-stories yet, you should definitely do so!
Still hoping to hear from you, even if it is only a single line of feedback, I'm leaving you to the highlight of the Midsummer Festival now. Cheers!
Chapter 8: The Great Race – Part 1
The line of riders snaked through the deserted camp; proud captains and the representatives of their éoreds who would fight for their honour in the Great Race in just a moment. The noise of the crowd increased steadily as they drew nearer to the stands, and while the son of Éomund had succeeded in keeping anxiety at bay for as long as he had been busy with his preparations, it now claimed him whole. Éomer's hands, clenched around the reins to the point where his knuckles turned white, felt clammy, and a similar cold feeling settled in the pit of his stomach as his gaze glided past the riders before him to where the noise was originating. He drew a sharp breath, causing his captain to turn his head.
A compassionate smile curled Elfhelm's lips as he regarded his nervous recruit.
"There is no reason to fear this experience, Éomer," he said with conviction. "Enjoy it. This is your day. You are ready for it. You are an extraordinary rider, and you come prepared. I have every confidence in you."
Éomer swallowed. His mouth felt so dry all of a sudden…
"It is only…" He shook his head, unable to express his feelings, but Elfhelm understood him without words.
"I know. And I agree, it is a big occasion… but you are up to it. You already proved it." Elfhelm reached out and grasped the young rider's hand, giving it a brief squeeze. "Trust in yourself, Éomer. Take heart. You have been waiting for this day for so long, and at last, it has arrived. Now make it yours."
Éomer nodded wordlessly and inhaled when the salute of the horns announced the participants of the race to the crowd. From the corner of his eyes, he saw a rider on a black horse race in the direction of the Royal Stands, a shorter figure in the saddle before him. He smiled and briefly touched the banner around his arm. Tolgor was bringing Éowyn back just in time to witness the whole event in all its splendor. Oh well… he better saw to it that he gave her something to remember, then.
Righting himself in the saddle, Éomer brought his prancing mare to a stop.
"Shhh, Precious," he made, clapping her muscular neck as she fought against the bit. "Be patient. We will only have to wait a little longer. Conserve your strength."
He looked around and saw that his rivals were mainly fighting a similar fight to his; most of their horses were already dark with sweat, some even lathered in foam and unable to stand still. To his left, a mighty dark-grey stallion trotted around in tight circles, his rider swearing as he fought with his mount. It was Thunderclap, Éomer noticed. During their walkthrough, Godric had introduced him to the other participants, every now and then adding some valuable information about the pair. He considered Thunderclap and his rider his strongest rivals, he had said, not only for the fact that the colt of the great Thunderbolt had been the runner-up for the past two years.
Éomer could see why, and yet he could also follow Godric's evaluation of the couple: the stallion was strong and lightning-quick, but he had always lost the race on the last quarter-league against the lighter-built Flame and his lighter rider. Bréolaf was tall and muscular, no doubt an intimidating opponent for every foe he faced, but in a race over two leagues, his weight was a hindrance… which was about to become his own fate in the near future, if Théodred was to be believed. Éomer snorted. He would prove to his cousin that one could be tall and strong and win this race!
Tearing his eyes away from the two, he sought Godric and Flame in the bustle, and found them calmly moving about among their rivals, waiting to be announced. As if the scout was feeling his undivided attention, he looked up and met Éomer's gaze. A faint smile played around the corners of his mouth while his eyes sent out a silent question. Éomer understood. He nodded. Aye, with Béma's help, he would try to stay close enough to avoid the pitfalls of the racetrack. The problem was only that he would probably not be the only one trying this tactic.
From the arena, the announcer's voice now pierced the expectant silence.
"And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, Lords and fellow riders… the time has come for the last competition and the highlight of our beloved Midsummer Festival! Let us greet them together, the best twenty riders of Riddermark and their noble steeds, out for glory on this beautiful summer day! Let's give them a hand!"
Thunderous applause rose from the stands, and for a moment, Éomer saw his sister in front of his inner eye, jumping to her feet and clapping her hands as she cheered him, and despite his anxiety, the thought brought a smile to his serious face.
"You all know the first contender, for it is the fourth time in a row that he qualified for the Great Race: it is, of course, Adelher, son of Áldwyn, and his stallion Fealca, representing Captain Fingal's éored of Firien Forest."
More applause, as Adelher directed his mount into the arena.
"Next comes a first-time participant from Snowbourn…"
"Èomer?" Elfhelm claimed his attention. "You will be called in next. I wish you the best of luck, and I know you have the skill to make your dream reality. Know that there is not one among your fellow riders who hasn't asked Béma to be on your side today." He clapped his recruit's shoulder, pride in his eyes. "Show them what you're made of, son of Éomund!"
"I will do my best."
And with a deep breath, Éomer directed his mare through the throng of his rivals and into the arena.
"Another first-time participant and at the same time, the youngest contestant in the field comes to us from Captain Elfhelm's éored of Aldburg: he is Éomer, Éomund's son, and he is riding Stormwing, the only mare in the field. Let us bid them a hearty welcome!"
The applause was deafening as they paraded in front of the stands, and Éomer felt distinctly how his mare was soaking up the energy, her ears flickering back and forth as she proudly lifted her head high and regarded the cheering crowd.
"Aye, Precious, that is for us," he murmured with another little clap on her neck. "And with a little luck, it might be for us, too, when we return, and it will be even louder." He followed her gaze over to the Royal Stands and saw Théodred and Éowyn standing side by side, enthusiastically clapping their hands. Théoden-King sat behind them, likewise applauding… unlike the darkly clad counsellor next to him. A grim smile spread over Éomer's lips. If he could ruin Gríma's day by winning, he'd give it an extra effort. On impulse, he touched Éowyn's banner, knowing that she would see the little gesture and be glad.
When the announcer concerned himself with the next rider, he pulled gently on the reins, easing Stormwing from a swift trot to a walk as he slowly directed her towards the start line. The ground looked dry enough here even after the morning's downpour, but Éomer remembered Godric's advice, which he had shared during the walkthrough: most accidents happened during the river crossings or in the forest, especially after rain. The hilly passage likewise was not to be trusted as the rock became slippery and kept pools of water long after the rain had ended, and yet the scout had only marked a steep slope which only the most daring riders ever used as dangerous terrain. Éomer planned to steer well clear of it.
Briefly meeting Adelher's gaze as he rode toward him, Éomer granted his opponent a short nod and directed Stormwing away to resume their calm circling while the space before the Royal Stands slowly filled up with the rest of the contenders. Paralleling the start line, he stared down the race track they would soon thunder along, squinting into the sun. In order to grant the audience as much overview as possible, the first quarter league would also be the last, a level expanse of short grass that was kept in good order and free from rabbit holes and other deadly traps all year round by dedicated volunteers. There was nothing to be gained by good riding and whatever tricks on this part of the course; all that counted here was speed. He would have to see to it, though, that they were not boxed in and remained able to gallop freely the closer they came to the river. Falls happened almost every year at the Snowbourn's shores, and to be in the throng of riders when the horse before you went down could easily prove disastrous.
Forcefully suppressing the picture of a writhing heap of mud-covered, screaming bodies in his mind, Éomer chose to look up just in time to see Thunderclap enter the arena in a smooth, energetic trot, still fighting his rider's iron control. Their éored burst into cheers, but quickly, the din was replaced by an expectant silence. The last to be announced as befitting their status as five-times champions, only Godric and Flame were left, and the audience was getting ready to celebrate the pair as befitted them.
"And now…" the announcer began, clearly enjoying his task mightily although he already sounded as if he would soon lose his voice, "…the moment you all have been waiting for has at last arrived, Ladies and Gentlemen. Here they are, the pair who won this hardest of races an unprecedented five times in a row. I give you… the reigning champions of the Midsummer Race: Godric, Wulfhart's son, and his stallion Flame, representing Marshal Théodred's éored of Edoras!"
The cheer that greeted them was deafening, and Éomer grinned when his mare flattened her ears against her head with a vehement snort.
"You do not like it when they cheer for someone else, Precious, do you?" he laughed, and observed as the pair approached the waiting riders in an effortless canter. Once again, he could not help feeling awed by Godric's beautiful chestnut. Béma, what a horse that was! Could they truly hope to best those two?
With a deep sigh, Éomer sat back in the saddle and allowed himself a last moment to relax before the mighty effort, which lay ahead of him as he slowly directed Stormwing over to the start line. He opened and closed his hands, which had clenched around the reins ever since Elfhelm had collected them from the corral, surprised to find that his former anxiety had subsided and, now that the start of the race was imminent, had been replaced with an expectant tenseness. No great deeds were ever achieved without a certain level of anxiety, he knew, further calmed by the thought. The warriors called it 'battle-readiness', and he could feel it now in his blood, flooding his muscles and clearing his head for what lay ahead.
"Gentlemen?" a voice called out behind him, and as he turned his head, he saw to his surprise Éothain's father Céorl ride up with the Mark's ancient banner in his hand, clad in armour from head to toe. Every year, the task of starting the Great Race was awarded to a man of renown, a man whose outstanding deeds over the past year had had an impact on the fate of the Mark and its people. He remembered now how his friend had told him of the many battles his father had waged and won on the central plains and in Westfold, while their own éored has guarded the eastern territory. Whenever a letter had arrived for him, Éothain had been afraid to open it for fear that it contained the news no one ever wanted to receive about their kin, but instead, it had always contained tidings of his father's victories.
"Gentlemen, please take your positions now. The race will be started as soon as you're ready." Céorl overtook them and directed his powerful white mount to a marked point in the middle of the track, twenty paces behind the start line.
Thinking about what Godric had told him, Éomer directed Stormwing over to the left side, yet found that he was apparently not the only one who wanted to avoid the dangers of a position in the midst of the field. It took some serious pushing, shouting and shoving until Éomund's son at last found himself in an acceptable position only one horse away from the left fringe of the field, and to his right, only one horse separated him from Godric and Flame. Excitement rose as the last riders struggled to find their place, while in front of them, Céorl lifted the banner. The crowd became quiet.
Éomer took a deep breath, his eyes focused on the Edoras Captain. He saw everything, felt everything. Time seemed to slow down. There was the quivering of Stormwing's muscles between his legs, ready to unleash their energy. The scattered, muttered swearing of riders complaining to each other or scolding their fidgeting mounts. The heat of the afternoon sun on his face. A breathless moment passed… and the banner fell.
Stormwing's jump almost unseated Éomer as the mare catapulted them forth. Almost in phalanx, the twenty riders and their mounts darted away from the starting line, and for a moment, Céorl's unmoving form was like a rock in the rapids as they flooded past him to the left and right, accelerating in their first furious bid for the lead.
The crowd's outcry was lost to Éomer as he quickly rearranged himself in the saddle and crouched behind his horse's neck. There was only the roar of the wind in his ears and the thunder of hoof beats all around him. Half a length ahead of them, the horse to their left was already being steered into their path in an attempt to steal their position, and Éomer yelled at its rider even as he kicked his heels into Stormwing's side, encouraging her to run even faster. She complied willingly, closing the gap with just a few mighty leaps and made it impossible for their rival to set himself before them.
With an appreciative clap on her neck, Éomer thanked her, and looked to the right where Flame's red-brown neck and shoulder were already emerging from their formation as the stallion accelerated seemingly effortlessly. His long mane whipped his rider's face, but Godric smiled, and Éomer could not help share it. This was what it meant to be alive, to feel the pulse of the earth! This was the essence of the Mark: horse and rider becoming one in whatever challenge was thrown in their way.
He clicked his tongue, ordering Stormwing to follow the chestnut, and now crossed himself into the path of the horse between them. The bay's rider shouted angrily at him as their hoofs came dangerously close to touching, but it was to no avail. Éomer's maneuver had been quick and aggressive, leaving his rival in the dust. A grim, satisfied grin spread on the younger rider's lips. First mission accomplished.
"Well done, lass," he muttered under his breath, and noticed just the slightest movement over to his right. Godric had turned his head, and when he beheld Stormwing's grey head on a level with his own steed's hindquarters, he granted them an acknowledging nod… or at least Éomer thought he did. Side by side, they raced down the track, eating up the distance to the riverbank, and where at first, the riders had fought for their positions with an explosion of speed, the field now stretched from a parallel formation to a line, led by… Thunderclap, Éomer was surprised to see.
The grey stallion had been on the far right side at the start, and barely seemed to touch the ground with his hooves. His rider sat deeply hunched in the saddle, and his shoulders moved with the rhythm of his mount's leaps as they accelerated further. Éomer furrowed his brow. Bréolaf's tactic to seek refuge in flight came as a surprise to him, and he hoped that Godric had the appropriate reply, as the scout had rather expected his main rival to make for a slower race in hopes to conserve Thunderclap's energy for a strong finish this time. So far, Théodred's kinsman did not seem concerned over their growing advantage, and Éomer decided to trust in his judgement for the time being. The race had barely begun yet, so much could still happen. The only thing of importance to him right now was to get into a good position for the river crossing.
Behind them on the stands, Éowyn found herself far too excited to sit as the field made for the Snowbourn at breakneck speed. She had jumped up at the start signal, shouting for her brother without a care what the other nobles around them would think of her and secretly wished to be with them on this wild chase across the plains. A wistful sigh escaped her as she imagined herself on Windfola's back, the wind roaring in her ears and all worries far behind them as she rode to glory. The world was so unfair…
"What is it, Éowyn?" a deep voice asked her lowly, and suddenly, a strong arm was laid around her shoulders and pulled her close. She did not resist. "You would like to ride with them, is that it?"
She nodded, her eyes not leaving the horses once.
"Aye, Cousin. Why are there no races for women? I cannot be the only one wanting to participate."
"But there are!" Théodred objected, and gently squeezed her in comfort. "Just not at this festival, as it is only for the Armed Forces. There are no women in our éoreds…" He lifted an eyebrow and smiled, but Éowyn's frown only became more pronounced.
"Aye. And you know how I feel about that."
"All know it, Cousin, and yet you also know that there is nothing I can do to change that… nor would I want to, for all the reasons we have discussed many times." He was not surprised when Éowyn freed herself forcefully from his embrace, and made no effort to follow her when she climbed up the stands to the highest point to distance herself from him. She would not want him to follow, nor was there anything he could say that would make her feel better.
Although… perhaps there was something he could do for her, if only temporarily. With a short glance at her proud, but forlorn shape against the sky, Théodred began to plot…
Another noise reached Éomer's ears through the wind's roar and the thundering hooves, and tension flooded his veins anew. It was the river's voice, and even if he had not heard it, the increased activity in the field told him that they were getting close. Another furlong mayhap to the water's edge and one of the most precarious parts of the track. The rules allowed the riders to cross it anywhere they liked, and yet the only reasonable place for that was a rather narrow corridor of not even eight yards where the Snowbourn bent around a small rock outcropping and became shallow enough to be forded with the bidden care. Several other approaches had been tried over the years and ended with disaster, so every rider in the field was prepared to secure the best possible position for the crossing by any means necessary.
The horse to their left suddenly bumped into them, his rider fighting to make it into the narrow corridor in time. It was Adelher, Éomer noticed angrily.
"Hey, watch it!"
"Out of my way!"
Relentlessly the pair pressed against them, forcing their way in and pushing them against Flame. Stormwing flattened her ears and bared her teeth at Fealca, but suddenly, the path before them cleared when Flame accelerated. A brief glance back at the clamour had revealed Éomer's dangerous position to Godric, and with a quick command, he created the room for Éomund's son to evade, yet soon saw himself confronted with similar problems when the horses to his right battled for position.
Two lengths ahead of the field, Thunderclap alone galloped undisturbed towards the glittering water, and Bréolaf's quick look back revealed to Éomer how relieved he was not to be trapped in the dangerous knot of bodies. His tactic made sense to him now and he wished Godric had followed closer in his rival's tracks. Now they were caught up amidst their pushing and shoving opponents where one false move could easily lead to disaster, with the Snowbourn looming before them… and its shores were still wet and deep and swampy from the morning's rain!
A horrible premonition seized Éomer. They had to get out here! Right now! Not wasting any time on thought when every moment counted, he tossed his weight to the left, pulling hard on the rains and all but threw Stormwing through an almost non-existent gap into open space. Another quick glance to the right to check on the situation revealed a dark thing flying toward him, and suddenly he could no longer see. The next moment, hell broke loose.
Godric had seen it coming at the same time as Éomer, but he was too close to the source to evade it when the battling opponents to their right hit the deep mud and slipped, straight into his path. A horrible squeal pierced the air as horses and riders hit the ground in a whirl of hooves immediately before him. There was only time to react, not to think: Flame's hooves left the ground, and with a mighty jump, they sailed over their fallen rivals and landed with a splash in the water behind them, miraculously unscathed even as the following horses rode straight into the twisting bodies on the ground.
For a few seemingly endless heartbeats, Éomer fought against the mud in his eyes, desperately holding on to Stormwings' neck with one hand and yet unable to control her as she charged ahead, the sloshing sounds telling him that they were in the river. Furiously he wiped over his face and blinked, and at last, his watering eyes cleared enough to let him see the opposite riverbank immediately before them. Three leaps brought them out of the immediate danger zone, where he pulled sharply on the reins and brought his mare to a stop against her will.
His glance back showed him a terrible scene: at least five horses were involved in the accident, but he could not tell who under all the mud. Even as he frantically sought for Théodred's scout, the rest of the field who had somehow managed to bypass the fallen horses and riders, climbed up the riverbank before him and resumed the race under Thunderclap's leadership, knowing that the guards and healers stationed at this point of the track would take it from there. From the corner of his eyes, Éomer already saw them heading their way, and at last, he also found Godric and Flame, thankfully unscathed… but with an additional rider in the saddle as they headed towards the shore.
He blinked. The man Godric cradled in his arms had a bleeding head wound and seemed unconscious, and surely he would have drowned had his fellow rider not wrestled him free from his fallen horse and onto Flame's back. Their eyes met.
"Go!" Godric mouthed, knowing full well that this year's race marked the end of his remarkable series. "Get going, or your dream ends here!"
Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer
Chapter 9: The Great Race – Part 2
The first of the guards assigned watch at the Snowbourn's shores reached them and quickly relieved Godric of the injured rider when he came to a stand beside Éomer, dripping wet.
"We will take it from here, Godric," the man said, dismay and pride mingled in his eyes over seeing their champion sacrificing his chance to win in order to help one of his rivals. "I do not believe his injury is serious, but he will have to thank you. Now make haste, or-"
"You think there is still a way for me to win?" Godric snorted, but he threw Flame around nonetheless and began to accelerate again, while Éomer imitated his actions to his right. The field had already far progressed and seemed to have a lead of almost a furlong on them; the riders were already well on their way to the hilly part of the track. Éomer's heart sunk as he regarded the distant figures over Stormwing's pointed ears, and yet he was convinced that he had done the right thing in stopping.
"You threw away your best chance to win this race, Lord Éomer," Godric scolded him from the side. His expression was guarded, non-telling. Whatever his thoughts were about the unfortunate happenings at the crossing, he kept it well hidden from his younger rival. "You were one of the first on the other side. It was foolish to wait for me."
"I don't care." Éomer's gaze remained on the ground before Stormwing's hooves, alert and watching for dangerous spots. He had learned his lesson at the Snowbourn's shores. "This is not how I want to win."
"The others certainly did not share your considerations. Which is all right, as it is the guards' duty to deal with accidents… and yet I do not think they would have arrived at the scene quick enough to keep Waryk from drowning."
"It was a noble thing you did." For a brief moment, Éomer turned his head, and the two riders shared a look of mutual respect while their horses raced over the plain side by side. "However, I believe we can still beat them. The race has only just begun."
Godric gave a mirthless laugh.
"Aye, and there is already a great gap between us and the rest of the field… only not on the side we would have wished for."
"There are many other difficulties on the track. We do not know what the situation is on the hill path, or in the forest. After the Snowbourn, I assume it will not get any easier… for any rider in the field. We still got more than one and a half leagues to close the gap." Éomer inhaled and asked himself whether he truly believed in what he was saying. To his surprise, he found that he did.
By now, the rocky elevation grew threateningly out of the ground before them. Soon, they would be upon it. The path across it was so narrow that they would have to ride single-file. It was not altogether unlikely that the necessary process of merging had considerably held up the other riders before them. A faint smile formed on his lips. What was a challenge for, if not to be braved?
And when Godric answered, it sounded to Éomer's ears as if his cousin's scout had picked up on his mood… and been infected.
"We will have to ride as if the Dark Lord and all the orcs in his service are on our heels though," he said grimly.
"Aye." Éomer cracked a grin. "But aren't we here because we have already proven that we can?"
High up on the stands, Éowyn had followed the proceedings anxiously, and when the accident at the river's edge happened, her breath had left her lungs in a horrified gasp. All around her, the spectators had jumped from their seats, even her uncle further down, and they all waited anxiously to hear who the unlucky pairs were who had not made it past the Snowbourn. Prayers were sent to Béma to keep horses and riders safe and unhurt.
Her eyes narrowed to slits, Éowyn tried to discern the wet horses as they climbed the opposite riverbank, but they were too far away to say with any certainty that Éomer had made it safely out of the water. All she could tell was that the main part of the field had already crossed and was just now resuming their way towards the rocky hill that awaited them next. Two riders were lagging behind, one of them even still in the river, while the guards hastened towards the scene of the accident. She balled her fists as she watched on. The last rider seemed to have another man in the saddle, which he now passed over to the guards. 'No no no no… it cannot be! Please, let this not be him!"
Out of the corners of her eye, she beheld a line of waving banners nearing the stands. The guards along the racetrack each had a set of the participants' banners, and whenever a rider dropped out from the competition, the signal was given to the next man in line, in order to keep the audience informed. She had just recognized the first flag when the announcer stepped up to the stands.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, as you have seen yourself, there has unfortunately been another accident at the crossing this year. I have been informed that that neither riders nor horses have been seriously hurt, but the following pairs do no longer compete: Brytta of Westemnet with Earhfaru, Waryk from the Folde with Cempa, Cenhelm of Snowbourn with Gaersume, Cyneweard of Fenmarch with Wintersong and…" Éowyn balled her fists even tighter, a cold feeling in her stomach, "… and Hereweald of Dunharrow with Scínna."
There were moans and mutters all over the stands in a mix of relief and dismay, and Éowyn closed her eyes and exhaled. The relief was almost painful.
"However, it would seem that two further pairs were severely disadvantaged by the accident, among them Godric and Flame!"
A cry of dismay rose from the crowd.
"The other one was Éomer of Aldburg with Stormwing. Both pairs have resumed racing, but their disadvantage is substantial. They are currently at the end of the field, about half a furlong behind the others."
'No!' Éowyn stared down at the announcer, inwardly begging him to correct himself and say it that it was not her brother whom she could see as a tiny dot on the way to the hill, which all other competitors were already climbing, but she felt that it was the truth. Despondently, she let her gaze travel over the rows of nobles… and met Théodred's regretful look.
'Come down here, Cousin,' he mouthed, and with a deep breath, Éowyn composed herself and descended the stairs to accept Théodred's comforting embrace again.
"This is so unfair!" she spoke into the leather of his jerkin, fighting back tears. "Éomer dreamed of this for so long…"
"The race is far from over yet," her cousin replied and caressed her hair with his free hand. "Don't count your brother out yet. And you certainly should not count out Godric. I am convinced they've still got some tricks up their sleeves."
Halfway up the hill, Éomer and Godric soon detected the rest of the field before them, snaking along the narrow path in a long line. And really, Éomer found to his joy that the gap did not seem as great as he had feared at first. Whether the accident at the river had made the riders extra careful or arranging themselves along the track had taken even longer than he had thought, he could not say; fact was that their advantage was perhaps even less than half of what he had assumed.
"There they are! Look!" he shouted and pointed ahead and soon heard Godric's answer.
"You were right, son of Éomund! All might not be lost yet… though we cannot overtake them on this path. Unless…"
"Unless we try the scarp." Éomer felt his hackles rise at the thought. Although…
"Forget it!" Godric corrected himself quickly. "I never said anything."
They both jumped over a small gap in the path where the morning's torrent had washed away the soil, and rounded the next corner, reaching the top of the hill. The track lay openly before them now, and a stiff breeze pressed against them from the south. The view from up here was incredible, and yet Éomer's entire attention was focused on his mount, who had stopped so suddenly that her rider almost bumped his nose against her neck.
With a low whicker, Stormwing communicated her discontent over their exposed position, her ears flickering back and forth as she sidled about beneath Éomer, unwilling to proceed. Not far above them, a hawk cried, and her gaze went up in alarm. Éomund's son could tell that his mount was quickly becoming agitated, a dangerous situation in their lofty location.
"Shhhh…" he made, distinctly aware of his horse's trembling. He laid a steadying hand upon her neck. "It's only a bird, Precious, nothing to fear for someone as tall as you. Now come on…" Éomer encouraged her silently. "I'm aware that you are not a mountain goat. But you should know by now that you can trust in me to keep you safe. Come on, I know you can do it. You are a courageous girl." He clicked his tongue and gently applied further pressure with his thighs, and at last, convinced Stormwing to take her first hesitant steps upon the hillcrest, which quickly became a cautious trot. With a smile, he stroked her behind the pointed ears. "That's my lass!"
"Is all right?" Godric asked from behind. His own mount battled impatiently against the reins.
"Aye," Éomer confirmed. "It is only that Stormwing is not accustomed to such exposed paths. We Eastfold riders roam the plains, not the mountains."
"Then let me ride ahead. Flame knows this track well, and he is eager to proceed. Stormwing might take courage when she sees that there is nothing to fear. This might, in fact, be the only part of the path where we can safely switch places."
"All right," Éomer agreed, his eyes again straying to their distant rivals. They could not afford to lose more time, if they ever wanted to catch up. "Ride ahead, then. It might be a good idea." He held Stormwing back and turned her aside, while Flame and Godric overtook them, and just when they were at the same level, he felt a deeply resentful grunt rise from the mare's chest, and she accelerated against his control.
"Your mount doesn't seem to think much of it though," Godric laughed. He did not have to do much to let the chestnut fall into a fast, sure-footed trot, and quickly found the younger rider and his steed closely on their heels.
"No. You were right: she'll rather run along this hated hillcrest at breakneck speed than have someone overtake her! Now ride as fast as you dare to; I have an inkling she will follow you regardless."
As it turned out, Éomer was correct in that assumption, and with Flame in the lead, they made good progress upon the long stretch of bare rock, even risking a canter along its broader passages although the ground proved tricky. Stormwing's initial unease stood back behind her desire to keep up with the red stallion, and Éomer was relieved and delighted to find that, once she had gotten the hang of it, his mare was eager to put her newfound skill to good use.
Repeatedly his gaze went ahead to the rest of the field, and it seemed to him that they had further closed the gap, but he also saw that the riders were already descending. Their advantage would grow again once they reached the ground. From there, the track would take them up and down the gentle grassy hills in a long berth towards the forest, where further difficulties would await them. The hills held no tricky obstacles in store, but the constant up and down drained each contender's stamina, something they could ill afford when they already had to ride harder than anybody else in order to catch up. However Éomer weighed the pros and cons in his mind, it seemed to him that there was really only one option left to them if they still wanted to hold on to their chances of winning, and they had almost reached the spot where that decision needed to be made.
Craning his neck, he stared at the path beyond Stormwing's ears, and a cold chill travelled down his spine when he beheld the steep slope to their left. It was a legitimate alternate route, Godric had told him during the walkthrough, thought to reward the daring rider with a much more direct route towards the forest, but it was also immensely dangerous, much more so than even the river crossing. Only few contenders had tried it over the past years, and horrible accidents had happened as horses panicked on the descent and went down head over heels, burying their riders and breaking their bones.
'You promised your uncle to be careful!' a loud voice made itself be heard in his mind. 'You promised it to Éowyn and Théodred, too! What will you say to them if you fall – provided you are still alive when you reach the ground? And what if anything happens to Stormwing? How could you ever justify that?' Éomer inhaled sharply. 'But I know we are up to this! Up to today, Stormwing had no experience on exposed mountain paths, and yet she is following Flame with the nimbleness of a goat. This is our chance, and if we don't take it, we might as well stop racing right now!"
Conviction hit him with sudden clarity. And not a moment too soon.
"Godric!" Éomer cried, and pulled on the reins against his mount's protest. "The slope!"
The scout turned his head and likewise urged his stallion to an abrupt stop.
"No, Éomer! Forget it!"
"It may be our only chance!"
"It may be our only chance to kill ourselves!"
"But we can do it! I know it!"
Godric shook his head.
"No way, Éomer! I promised the Marshal to keep you out of trouble! Come, we need to make haste!"
"Exactly…" Once more, the son of Éomund peered down the steep hillside, his heart in his mouth. Was this madness? Or a chance? Weren't those two sides of the same coin, really? "We can do this, Precious," he mumbled, one hand on Stormwing's neck. Her ears were pointing in his direction. She was listening to him. Waiting for his command. He gave it.
"Éomer, no!" For a brief moment, Stormwing tensed beneath him… and then set her hooves upon the scree.
Immediately they began to slide down the slope with increasing speed. Doing what he could to help his mare balance, Éomer shifted his weight back onto her haunches until his horse was almost sitting.
"You can do this, Precious!" he calmed her, feeling rather than hearing the dismayed grunts rising from her chest as the ground raced toward them. And yet Stormwing's ears indicated that she was still paying attention to her rider. The nervous patter of her hooves ceased. Béma, that mare trusted him with her whole being! She risked everything – for him! Éomer's heart overflowed with love. Enviously, he had been staring at Flame the whole time, marveling at the stallion's beauty and his perfect build, when right beneath him, there was a horse willing to overcome its fears and lay its fate into the hands of its rider. It was a feeling of utmost elation.
It was rare that Godric felt inclined to swearing, and yet he was hard-pressed to think of when he had ever found himself in a worse situation. In blunt disobedience, Éomer had forced his mount onto the scarp, and one did not need an overly vivid imagination to foresee what the Second Marshal of Riddermark would do to the poor sod who had failed at controlling his cousin if anything were to happen to the lad. There was really only one option open to him in order to safe his hide. He pushed his stallion towards the descent.
"There are riders on the slope!" the announcer cried, and everywhere around Éowyn, the crowd gasped sharply. "I repeat: there are riders on the slope! They are using the alternate route!"
"Gods…" She stared into Théodred's eyes and found, for a moment, the same shock written in them that she felt herself, because it was clear that one of those riders had to be Éomer. How desperate her brother had to be to win this race, that he was even willing to risk his health and his horse's life! Her cousin squeezed her comfortingly.
"Éomer knows what he is doing, Éowyn," Théored whispered into her hair, although he felt the same anxiety. "He is an incredible rider, even at his youth. We'll have to give him the benefit of the doubt." Over Éowyn's head, his gaze sought his fathers… and found the same worry written in the pale blue eyes, before Théoden King turned his attention towards his counsellor, who was just now leaning forward to whisper something into his liege's ear.
Théodred could well imagine Gríma's words. Éomer had promised them to be careful. A reckless charge down that steep and notorious hillside stood in sharp contrast to that… all the more as the king's son could easily guess who the other rider was. With his bold maneuver, his cousin had forced Godric to risk his life as well. Théodred knew that he ought to be angry over the young man's act of disobedience, but his fury was drowned out by worry. Sending a quick but heartfelt prayer to Béma, he watched on…
Halfway down. The scree beneath Stormwing's hooves was about to give way to firm soil and grass, which would need a different approach. Right now, they were going far too fast! Their timing would have to be perfect, or they would pay a high price for their daring move.
"Ho! Ho!" Éomer made, and shifted his weight even further back. He already had a plan that would get them out of the precarious situation, but it all depended on his horse. He could distinctly feel Stormwing's growing anxiety and knew they were in trouble. If the mare lost her nerves, they would tumble down the rest of the decline and probably break every single bone in their bodies.
With infinite care, Éomer began to turn her sideways to lessen the gradient of their descent and also take the strain on Stormwing's front legs, then gently but firmly guided her towards the fringe of the scree slope where the layer of gravel was thinner and would give them more purchase. Not far below them to their right, there was a relatively level protrusion that would be ideal to halt their forward movement, but it was narrow and did not allow for any mistakes in his calculation.
"It's the moment of truth, Precious," he whispered, renewing his grip of the reins. Almost upon it now. "Be ready!" The body beneath him tensed, and from the direction of Stormwing's gaze, Éomer concluded that his mount understood what he expected of her. "Now!"
She jumped, propelled forward by the velocity of the slide, too great for a solid landing, so her hooves left the ground right again, moving in a diagonal line towards the ledge with a series of perfectly timed jumps… until they reached their destination. Stormwing rammed her hooves into the ground, and Éomer was catapulted forcefully against her neck, for a moment seeing only stars. For a few nerve-racking heartbeats, he feared that the energy of their descent would carry them over the edge regardless… but finally they stood.
With a sharp breath, Éomer righted himself in the saddle, a hand on his hurting nose. Before them, the slope continued at a slightly lesser gradient, and it was turf, not rock. It still posed a challenge, but on the whole, it looked far less frightening than the steep, loose scree.
"Well done, lass! Well done!" He clapped Stormwing's shoulder and wiped over his watering eyes. "Thank you for your trust, Little One. I knew you could do it." A grinding noise behind and above them prompted him to turn his head, and a broad, relieved grin spread on his face as he beheld his cousin's scout on the same way down. There was only one problem: the ledge was not big enough for them. When Flame reached them and they were still here, he would send them all over the edge.
"All right…" Éomer quickly turned back and his eyes darted over the terrain to their right and found the solution. "The worst is behind us, Precious. We're almost there. Now trust me just a little further!" He urged his mare onto a narrow, declining continuation of the ledge, barely more than a goat track. Eagerly, Stormwing followed his silently given commands, her ears flickering back and forth as she divided her attention between her rider and the demands of the terrain, highly concentrated.
They descended even faster than Éomer had dared to anticipate and reached the broad, slowly levelling lower shoulder of the hill. Here Éomund's son first dared to cast a glance over to the rest of the field on the main track, and found them still in the process of rounding the wide and hilly bend. Excitement flooded him anew as he directed his mount in a zigzag towards the level ground. The longer, more strenuous path would cost their rivals dearly. The risk had paid off!
Not far ahead, Éomer could already make out the guards who had been stationed there for the case that anyone was desperate enough to use the shortcut and came to grief. One of them was already waving his banner, and he understood. Soon, the spectators would know that, after many years, the dangerous hillside had at last been beaten again. With the last leap, they landed on the plain.
"We've done it, Precious! We've done it!" Éomer whooped, and his mare reacted with a boisterous bucking as they passed the two surprised guards and already accelerated again.
"Great riding, lad!" one of them managed to shout, but Éomer barely heard him through the thunder of his heartbeat in his ears. He looked back and saw that Godric and Flame were not far behind them, likewise beyond the hill's dangers. 'Yes!' For a moment, he pulled on the reins, allowing his mount a moment of recovering for the rest of the race and waiting for the pair behind them to catch up. No one, not even the great Flame himself could run the whole distance at top speed. The forest and then the finish would demand everything from horse and rider; it was of the essence to pace themselves wisely in order to have some arrows left in their quiver for the final battle.
Another glance back. The red stallion was now directly behind them, but his rider's expression baffled Éomer. It was a strange mixture of a thundercloud and a grin, as if Godric did not know whether to be angry or ecstatic. The next moment, Flame was galloping alongside Stormwing, and the scout shook his head as he sent a furious look over.
"That was madness, Éomer! Your cousin will have my hide when we return!"
"But it worked, didn't it?" Éomer replied. "We're back in the game with every chance to win!"
"Yes, but…" Again, Godric shook his head, momentarily at a loss for words. "All four of us could have died a useless death on that slope!"
"No. I knew you could pull it off, and I was confident that Stormwing and I could master that hill, as well. I was always in control."
The scout inhaled deeply, and his gaze strayed for a moment over to the rest of the field on the main path. Éomer was right; they were certainly back in the game. Perhaps Thunderclap and the three horses behind him would reach the forest before them, but they would follow close behind, a good distance before the others. And done was done; what good was it to scold the youth now for a very successful maneuver? From what he had seen, Éomer was telling the truth: he had been in control on that descent.
Oh well…" Godric sighed, and at last, his angry expression melted away. "As for that: that was some truly masterful riding, Éomer. I certainly can't remember that I have ever seen better horsemanship by a rider of your age... and only very few of the older riders would have managed. The Marshal was right, you are gifted. And you are riding a horse that would even race through fire for you."
"Aye, she would." Éomer smiled and laid a hand on Stormwing's neck. "I know that, and I am grateful for it." Another quick side-glance showed him that they were almost upon the crossing to the main path, and that they would slip nicely into the gap between the first four horses and the rest of the field. Directly in front of them, the forest with all the difficulties it posed loomed before them. Éomer was sure that a preliminary decision would be made there, and he was determined to ensure that it would go their way. "Will you remember your promise, Godric?"
"My promise?" For a moment, the scout stared at him cluelessly, but then it came back to him. "You mean about leaving you in the dust if Flame should indeed turns out to be the faster horse in the end? Aye. I stand by that."
"Alright. Then let's agree: It's every rider for himself from now on to the end!"
Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer
Chapter 10: The Great Race – Part 3
"The riders have made it safely down the hillside! They are approaching the forest and caught up with the rest of the field!" the announcer cried. "I repeat, the riders are safe!"
'Thank you, Béma! Thank you!' Éowyn shut her eyes for a brief moment, her relief too great to put into words. Théodred squeezed her.
"See, Little One, you underestimated your brother. Even at seventeen, he is already a master on horseback. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he really wins this." The King's son turned his head to share a brief look with his father, but Théoden's attention was still held by his counsellor, who just now whispered into his ears again. Théodred narrowed his eyes, doubting that Gríma was likewise praising Éomer's riding skills. With a deep breath, he turned back.
Back on the main track at last, and only three lengths behind Thunderclap and his three fiercest pursuers! Éomer grinned, very pleased with himself, and noticed Bréolaf's slighty nervous glance over his shoulder when the man realized that his main rival, whom he had believed already beaten, was breathing down his neck again.
Éomer held himself in Flame's wake, still controlling Stormwing's pace against her growing impatience. It was good to feel that his hands were still full and that the first two thirds of the track had not overly exhausted the mare if she was still eager to run faster. Contrary to the hill path, the forest was terrain they had endlessly trained in, and Éomer knew that his mount's smaller statue would rather be an advantage among the trees. It was here where they would make their bid for victory. They needed to emerge onto the open terrain first and with a considerable lead if they were to stand a chance against Flame's incredible finishing speed on the last quarter league. And there was also the lingering question about Thunderclap's stamina…
With that, they reached the forest. For a moment, Éomer could not see, as they had ridden against the sun the whole time after they had come down from the hill, and his eyes had to adjust to the sudden deep shadows. Still he remembered his plan and steered Stormwing to the left toward the stream that crossed between the densely standing trees. It was here where Éomund's son had spent the most time of the walkthrough, as the path through the forest was – for the most part – not predetermined by the racing rules, except for the exit point. A rider's decisions in this terrain could make or break him.
"Now, Precious! Show them what you're made of!" He directed her towards the water and accelerated while the others thundered along the main path. Soon, they were out of earshot, all noise muffled by the dense vegetation as they splashed along the narrow stream. Éomer had paid its bed close attention the day before and noticed that it was, for the most part, even and shallow and sandy, and it cut a much more direct path through the trees than the longer main track. The problem was that, at one point, it branched off in the wrong direction and they would have to leave it and make their way through the undergrowth. Whether that way was actually faster would remain to be seen, but Éomer knew he had to take that gamble if he ever wanted a shot at winning.
They were approaching the part where the trees grew on the very edge of the water, and although he had already removed several dry branches that had reached over the stream the day before, Éomer suddenly felt unsure whether he had caught them all. Losing an eye in exchange for victory was not what he had in mind, so he ducked behind Stormwing's neck, urging her to run even faster. Every yard they made good here could count in the end. Again, the mare responded.
Left and right, birds burst into flight before them, clamouring over the unexpected disturbance of their peace, but neither horse nor rider wasted even a second of their attention on them. All concentration was focused on the narrow brook before them; Stormwing's ears pointed as she examined their surroundings with large eyes. Aye, they were fast, Éomer thought. Certainly too fast for the terrain. But were they fast enough? What would the others do now? Would they just use the main path, or likewise take risks? What if someone had a better strategy?
He tensed instinctively, and his mount reacted with another burst of speed, to Éomer's growing unease. He had only had two hours the past day to make himself acquainted with the forest's demands, not a whole lot of time to memorize every single bend or trick. A forgotten obstacle could easily prove disastrous at this pace… and they had to be almost upon the fallen tree. An easy jump, Éomer had calculated, nothing out of the ordinary. But when they rounded the bend that lead towards the obstacle, he suddenly saw to his dismay a wooden wall in their way! A second tree had been felled by the morning's thunderstorm and lay now in a diagonal line above the first trunk, too high to jump and leaving only a narrow triangle open to the left. And they were moving too fast to evade!
Even before Éomer could pull the reins and throw his horse around, Stormwing tensed beneath him – and jumped through the tight space between the trees. Instinctively, he ducked – and felt the bark of the upper tree ripping through his shirt. Otherwise unscathed, they landed on the other side. For a moment unable to catch his breath, Éomer risked a quick look back while his mount charged ahead without delay. How close they had been to disaster! If Stormwing had balked at the obstacle, they would have crashed into the trees at full speed.
With great effort, Éomund's son suppressed the image in his mind. He needed all concentration for the path before them, because they were still moving far too fast for the terrain. His horse was ready for the challenge and more than willing to do its share, that was what counted.
"Thank you, Precious," he muttered, and laid a hand on her sweat-darkened neck. "You saved us both. I know that what I'm asking of you is unreasonable…" Hesitantly, he tightened the reins, which resulted in a defiant head-shaking. Losing her balance, Stormwing careened to the left and into the undergrowth on that side. White-hot pain assaulted Éomer as his face and naked arms were whipped by branches, and his horse neighed in dismay, equally tortured.
'Béma, everything's falling apart!'
Instinctively, Éomer urged the mare back towards the middle of the stream, and with a grunt deep in her chest, Stormwing picked up speed again. And yet this time, her rider did not allow her to gallop as fast as before. The place where the brook bent away from their path had to be close by and they could easily miss the markings he had made, rendering his oh-so-cleverly devised strategy a complete and utter failure.
'It already *is* a failure!' Èomer fretted, his eyes scanning the trees to their right for the signs. His face burned. 'We should have stayed on the main path. There is no way for us to be faster in this covert! What an idiot I was!'
There was the bright notch he had made in the bark of an old pine! Resolutely steering his mount toward it and out of the water, Éomer decided that there was nothing he could do now but make the best of their situation. It was too late to change his plans. They either brought them out of the forest first, or not. He would find out very soon.
There, the next marking! They stormed toward it, oblivious by now to the torment of the branches. Thankfully, the undergrowth wasn't very thick among the trees; the ground was mainly covered in moss which did not allow for many plants to grow and made for an easily negotiable surface beneath Stormwing's hooves, the main reason Éomer had chosen that path. He dared a quick glance in the direction of the main track, yet could not detect signs of any nearby rivals. Listening for them was vain over the ruckus they made themselves, so Éomund's son turned his attention quickly back to the trees before them.
The next notch… and the next after that. They were proceeding fast now, despite his sudden doubt. Hope stirred again in his chest, although he barely allowed himself to acknowledge the feeling. And right he was, for suddenly, his mare snorted in dismay, and her ears flattened against her head as she rammed her hooves into the ground Unprepared, Éomer almost fell from her back.
"What is it, Precious?" he whispered, righting himself in the saddle while at the same time, he tried to pierce the twilight for signs of what was worrying Stormwing. Something dark loomed before them to their left… something long and large. And something – no, someone - moved before it. A man. A guard! Éomer blinked. Could it really be? Was this already the man-made tunnel, the last test of a steed's trust before the forest ended and gave way to the plains again?
'Béma, it is! We're already there!'
He urged his still reluctant mount on… and now he could also hear the noise of fast approaching hoof beats from the right. Aye, they were first at the tunnel, but their rivals were close!
"Come on, Precious, trust me one last time," Éomer said, now pushing his horse ahead with legs and arms. "It's only the tunnel! It will not harm you. There's only darkness inside, nothing else. You've braved far worse things on this course! Come on!" His forceful insistence paid off. Apparently, Stormwing trusted him still, even if her ears were still flickering nervously back and forth and she drank the air through widened nostrils for signs of danger… but she accelerated again towards the dark shape. Out of the corner of his eye, Éomer caught a streak of red-brown between the trees, and he kicked his heels into the mare's flanks. It had the desired effect: from one leap to the next, Stormwing changed from a fast canter into a full- on hunting gallop as the tunnel swallowed them.
"Run, lad!" the guard shouted behind them. "The others are close!"
Darkness. Loud puffing, Stormwing's breaths. No longer effortless after more than three quarters of the race. The thunder of her hoof beats. Up ahead, the light of the exit. Five furlongs to the finish line from there. No more tricks, only the grass beneath them. From here on, all that counted was endurance, speed and will. Did they have what this last part of the race took?
They burst into the light, temporarily blinded. The plain opened before them.
"Now, Precious! Give it your all!" And with that, Éomer gave the mare her head.
"It's Éomer!" Éowyn could not yet make out distinctly the solitary shape that had just emerged from the forest, and yet in her heart she knew that it was her brother. "Théodred, look! It's Éomer!" Anxiously, she looked over to the approaching signals, and it was indeed the Aldburg banner which was waved before the stands. "See?"
Before her cousin could react, three other horses appeared on the plain, among them unmistakably the reigning champion… but they were at least four lengths behind Éomer and Stormwing.
"I'll be damned!" Théodred muttered, then turned around to the king. "Father! Éomer's in the lead!" All around him, the people on the stands stood up in expectation of a finish they had not seen in a long time. "Come on, Éomer!" he shouted, his hands balled into fists. "Come on, you can do it!"
They were still in the lead, and Éomer could already hear the faint yelling of the distant crowd. They were almost back at the Snowbourn again, only this time, they would use the bridge to cross it. No more dangers before them, only the race track!
A quick glance back. Three lengths behind them, full-on battle was raging between Thunderclap and Flame. Both stallions raced side by side, flat and stretched they flew over the turf, their hooves barely touching the ground in their mad two-beat rhythm… and they were gaining.
Éomer turned back. Perhaps three and a half furlongs were left to the line; still a long distance. By now, he could all too well feel Stormwing's growing exhaustion and the toll the race had taken on the mare. He felt it in her deepened breathing and in the way her ribs extended against his legs. He felt it in her gait, which was no longer smooth and energetic. Every time her hooves touched the ground, the impact shook Éomer thoroughly. Her ears were flattened against her head, no longer listening to what was going on around them.
His courageous mare gave everything she had, but there could be no mistaking that she was rapidly nearing the end of her strength.
"Not much longer, Precious," Éomer encouraged her, and steered her onto the bridge. "You can do this! I know you can! And I will help you!" With a subtle shift, he transferred part of his weight onto her shoulders, standing in the stirrups now to take the burden from her back as much as he could. Another look back. Two and a half lengths of their lead were left, and behind the two stallions, he now beheld a third horse.
They thundered over the bridge. From here on, they were back at the start of the track. Three furlongs of straight, smooth turf all the way up to the finish line. The roar of the crowd increased, and Stormwing reacted to it. She took the bit with iron determination, and Éomer could feel her tense beneath him. From somewhere out of the depths of the mare's heart, she squeezed out another burst of speed.
"Gods, look at that! How that lad can ride!"
"Run, Éomer! Run! You can do it!
"You're almost there!"
The riders from Aldburg did not care what anyone thought of them as they pushed to the front of the stands. Éothain could barely breathe in the tight gap between Elfhelm and Bard, but he couldn't have cared less. His friend was about to make history!
"Éomer!" he yelled, a fist lifted into the air. "Come on!"
"Stormwing is tired," Elfhelm muttered, to no one in particular. "But what heart that mare has!"
"Their lead's shrinking!"
"It will be enough." Éothain took another deep breath, and then screamed at the top of his voice. "Come on, Éomer! Run!"
Before them, on the opposite site of the track, the nobles jumped from their seats on the Royal Stands, and many of them were yelling and cheering, as well, just like the simple riders. A finish like this had not been seen for many years.
The roar of the wind and the crowd in his ears, deafening. Stormwing's deep, raspy breaths. The thunder of hoof beats. His eyes watering, so everything he saw was blurred. His thighs burning with exhaustion, and still he stood in the stirrups. Two more furlongs to go. Another look back. The two stallions, right behind them, head-to-head. Still gaining.
"Come on, Precious! I know you're tired. I'm tired, too. Soon we can rest. Soon… but not yet. Show them what you're made of! Fight!" Éomer all but threw the mare forward, his shoulders, his whole body moving with her rhythm. Movement to his left. Flame's red head reached Stormwing's hindquarters, Thunderclap half a head behind him. ' No no no no…'
Once more, a deep, irritated grunt came from his mount. An ear flickered towards the sound of their rivals. Stormwing knew the stallions were close, she felt them. And although she was on her last legs, she was determined not to let them pass. She kept her pace, faster than she had ever run in her life.
"Run, Éomer! Run!" Théodred shouted at the top of his lungs, his eyes glued to the most incredible finish he had ever witnessed. He did not care what people thought of him, cheering for the wrong rider, but then it seemed that no one was paying him much attention anyway. They were all yelling and cheering themselves, for Flame, for Thunderclap and for Éomer. Béma, his cousin was about to make history, and deservedly so! What the youth had shown in determination and skill was nothing short of incredible. If only his steed sustained her killing pace for a short while longer…
"Listen, Precious! Do you hear them? That' for us! They're cheering for us! Hold on but a little longer!"
Another look. Éomer didn't even have to turn his head this time to find Flame and Thunderclap to their right, their noses on a level with his stirrups.
'We won't make it…'
Another subtle shift of weight in a vain attempt to lighten the burden for his mount, the last measure he could think of, although his tired leg muscles were screaming at him. And once again, Stormwing reacted! One last time, the mare braced, and all her muscles tightened and hardened as she catapulted them towards the finish line, her long leaps eating up the distance. Even flatter she became, and longer, stretched to her utmost extend as her hooves hammered the ground.
For a moment, the stallions disappeared. Then a lout shout erupted from the stands, the reason impossible for Éomer to discern. A quick look back. There was only the red head left now. Thunderclap had given up. 'Yes! Yes!'
Up ahead, the white posts, perhaps two hundred yards away! But now Flame made a last, desperate attempt, and again his head reached Éomer's stirrups. They approached the stands, and the crowd's roar greeted them. Yet Éomund's son barely heard it, as his horse and their rival occupied his full attention. Godric spared them no look as he sat in the saddle, perfectly balanced and riding his red stallion with everything he had. And their attack was fierce, each of Flame's leaps longer than the one before as he gained inch for inch under the deafening din of the spectators. His mane danced on the wind, a steppe fire in the shape of a horse. Coming abreast now.
Stormwing snorted, and for a moment, it seemed to Éomer that his mare tried to tear herself in two in order to defy her rival's onslaught. For another moment, she held her ground as before them, the finishing posts appeared… the next, an incredible leap sent Flame ahead by a short head, and another catapulted the red stallion over the line first.
Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer
Over and done! I'm very happy to present you with the last chapter of a story I started eight (!) years ago. I'm quite surprised my muse decided to re-emerge after such a long time to make me a millionaire on ff net dot com – for now, indeed, with this last chapter, I have crossed that magical limit of over one million archived words. Many thanks go to Thanwen and Carawyn for faithfully reviewing each and every chapter; I hope others enjoyed my little tale of the Rohirrim, as well.
Chapter 11: Endings and Purpose
"No! No…" Éowyn's hands were on her mouth, dismay written in her blue eyes. "Oh no…"
Théodred swallowed. He had been present when his cousin had demanded of Godric that he should do everything in his power to win. Éomer had been adamant about winning the race fair and square, against the best his rival had to give. But this… this was cruel. To almost have the trophy in his hands, only to have it ripped from his grasp at the very last moment!
"Oh Éomer…" he sighed, and watched on.
At the riders' stands, the members of the Aldburg éored stood silent for a moment, their arms that had already been lifted in triumph now loosely hanging by their sides.
"Well… shit!" Bard shook his head. Next to him, Éothain still stood stunned and speechless. He had been so eager to cheer his friend's certain victory, and now… what was he to do now?
"It was still an unbelievable ride," Elfhelm let himself be heard from behind. "There has never been a champion like Flame before; I hope Éomer will see what an achievement it was to come so close to victory against such an opponent."
"That will not comfort him," Éothain replied sadly, his eyes still on his friend as he slowed down behind the finishing line. He did not have to see Éomer's face to know how the son of Éomund felt at this moment; his bearing gave it away all too clearly. "It was always his dream to win this race. A second place is nothing he would ever be proud of..."
Éomer knew at once they had lost. Not even for a moment did he dare to believe that Flame's final burst of speed had left them behind only after the finishing line. And he did not have to pull on the reins to stop his mount. Stormwing was as aware of what had happened as her rider and slowed to a walk of her own accord, fully spent, and from the way she hung her head, it was clear to him that she understood that the cheering was not meant for them. They had given their all, in speed, in endurance and in cunning, and still they had been bested.
A huge wave of disappointment washed over Éomer, and suddenly, his view of Godric, who was parading the stands with his fist triumphantly raised against the sky, blurred. Embarrassed, he turned Stormwing away, not wanting anyone to witness his fight against the tears. For a moment, his words with which he had extracted the promise from Théodred's scout echoed in his mind, and he cursed them even against his better knowledge that he would act exactly the same if the situation were ever repeated.
Aye, it was very likely that he would indeed have won the race had he not waited for Godric at the riverbank. But how would that have felt? To hold the trophy in his hands only because a better contender sacrificed his chances by saving a fellow rider… that kind of victory would have been hollow, and the spectators would have rightfully cheered Godric and not him. No, waiting had been the right decision… and still, this defeat stung like a pike through the stomach.
"Great ride, lad!" Thunderclap's rider shouted in his direction as the big grey passed them. In Bréolaf's face, the same disappointment was written that Éomer felt himself, but in true Rohrric fashion, the older man was also quick to acknowledge that he had been beaten fair and square.
"You, too, Bréolaf!" the son of Éomund replied. "Your endeavor was much better than the years before."
Bréolaf shrugged and lifted an eyebrow.
"Apparently, still not good enough. But if I lose even more weight for next year's attempt, I doubt that I will continue to be an efficient warrior." He shrugged. "I suppose I will have to make my peace with the fact that we're fast, but not the fastest. You, on the other hand… you've got places to go, young man, if both of you stay healthy. Although, now that I look at you… what happened to your face?"
"The thing that is to be expected when you ride through a forest and do not use the proper path." Éomer grimaced and gingerly fingered the welts. "Sacrifices need to be made in exchange for a shot at winning against a living legend."
"Like they say: pain is temporary, but glory is forever! Well done, Éomer! I'll see you at the ceremony." He clicked his tongue and directed his stallion over to congratulate the winner of the race.
"Thank you, Bréolaf." For a moment, Éomer followed his path with his gaze. He took a deep breath.
"Oh Precious," he sighed and leaned forth in the saddle to clap Stormwing's shoulder exhaustively. The mare flickered an ear in his direction while her labored breathing slowly returned to normal. "We did what we could, didn't we? There was nothing we could have done differently – with any honour – to emerge victorious. I know you gave it your all, and I thank you for it. I love you, Stormwing."
When he looked up again, he found to his surprise Godric on the way over to them, the expression on the scout's face a mixture of triumph and honest apology.
"Éomer!" the older rider shouted over the din of the audience. "Cheer up, son of Éomund! The applause is as much yours as it is mine! Come, let us parade before the stands together with Bréolaf! This was a race to remember, and all three of us made it happen." He furrowed his brow as he came closer. "Who whipped you?"
"I did that myself," Éomer answered. "In exchange for a chance against you."
"I see – your mysterious path through the forest!" Godric grinned. "Oh well, to each their own, I say." He seized the younger rider's hand and lifted it over their heads to the obvious delight of the spectators. "You see and hear, my lord, that our brothers-in-arms appreciate your daring approach to this year's race just as much as they do my last-moment victory. So my advice would be to drop that frown and start enjoying yourself."
When Éomer still regarded him with obvious doubt, the scout shook his head.
"Never before have I seen a rider of your age doing the things you've done! I would even say that your horsemanship bests most of the older riders! And the trust and will of your mare were incredible to behold. Instead of making a face as if your best breeding stallion was eaten by wargs, you should be very, very proud of yourself… It would be foolish not to revel in this well-deserved applause, for that is something you will not hear often in your life."
He lifted a brow.
"So, what say you, son of Éomund? Will you do me the honour to ride the parade together with Bréolaf and me? Come on, let's give our brothers something to talk about! It is what they expect."
At last, the faintest hint of a grin began to tug at the corners of Éomer's mouth.
"Well," he said. "If that is what our brothers expect from us, we cannot very well deny it. Can we?"
Together, the three best riders and their mounts passed the stands on their way to the awarding ceremony: Godric and Flame in the middle as befitting the unprecedented six-time champions, flanked by Éomer and Stormwing to the right and Bréolaf on Thunderclap to the left. Slowly but surely, the crowd's ongoing cheering comforted Éomer to the point where he felt no longer at odds over the outcome of this year's race, but already made his plans for the next.
He beckoned to his éored as he beheld their well-known faces at the railing, and their enthusiastic response brought another boost of his spirits as they turned to the right and made for the Royal Stands, where Éowyn, Théodred and his uncle were already awaiting them.
As he rode beside them, Godric every now and then chanced a short side-glance and seemed satisfied with his rival's improving mood. At last, he brought Flame alongside Éomer's mare and looked the younger man in the eyes.
"I am glad to see you're heeding my advice, son of Éomund. It would have been a shame had you not been able to enjoy this. Believe me, this is a strange situation for me, as well. Of course, I am dizzy with triumph, but at the same time, I realize that it must be hard for you to lose something that you already felt sure of at the last possible moment. Yet you made me promise to give it my best. You even made me repeat it before the race." He lifted a meaningful eyebrow.
"I know," Éomer said with a sigh, and found that he was slowly starting to make his peace with the thought. "That I did. And I meant it. You are not to blame, Godric. The outcome of this race would never even have been in question had you not sought to further your glory by rescuing one of your rivals in the river. We were simply not fast enough to beat you in the end. It was an honour to challenge you. Please accept my sincere congratulations." He noticed how his mare flattened her ears against her head, less than overwhelmed with the red stallion's closeness.
"Peace, Stormwing," he said with a little smile, amused over the grey's antics. She was truly his steed in every way. "No one likes a sore loser. We are second in a race that people are going to talk about for many years. We are almost champions, so behave!"
"She sure is a feisty one," Godric grinned as he followed his own mount's attempts to flirt with the reluctant mare. "Flame seems quite intrigued with her."
"Well, he got the title. He cannot have Stormwing, too… especially after just having defeated her! What is he thinking?" Éomer quipped, and then swore when the mare bared her teeth at the chestnut. "Ho, Precious! Don't be such a shrew!" He pulled at the reins and forced his mount into a tight circle when she threatened to kick the red stallion.
And so they reached the Royal Stands, where the ceremony was about to be held. Horns sounded to announce their arrival. Before the barrier now, Éomer detected his uncle, his cousin and his sister as well as the announcer, and he was glad to find that the members of his family regarded him with unmistakable pride. They came to a halt and dismounted, and at last, upon the announcer's sign, the deafening din of the spectators died down.
"Lords and Ladies," the man began. "Gentlemen and fellow Riders… I am sure we all agree that this year's Midsummer Race was an event that will live on in the minds of all those who were lucky enough to witness it for many years to come! Do you not agree?" Ear-bursting applause told him that the crowd did. He smiled, and turned toward the three riders who were about to be awarded.
"I know you're all hungry and looking forward to the festivities, so we will proceed with the ceremony without delay. This year's ribbons go to… a rider and his horse who were leading for most of the race, and were abreast of the later winner for much of the final approach, as well… A first-time participant and the youngest rider among this year's contenders, and the only mare in the field, who stole our breath with their daring ride… And to an unprecedented six-times champion, who, despite securing victory again in a last-moment effort, proved to us that winning is not, in fact, everything, when he seemingly discarded his chances to rescue a rival in need!"
The cheer rose in volume until it almost split Éomer's ears and Stormwing snorted, displeased with all the noise. The announcer raised his arm, and once again, the crowd fell silent as they beheld their king on the way towards the winners. Éowyn followed him, glowing with pride, since – upon Théodred's instigation, she had been determined to hold the velvet cushion on which the three trophies lay. Proud and regal in her bearing, she strode toward the three waiting riders, and when her gaze met her brother's, Éomer beheld a vivid sparkle in the blue eyes he had not seen there for quite a while. Oh yes, his little sister was certainly enjoying herself!
His uncle was better at keeping his composure, but when their eyes met, Éomer was glad to find approval there, as well. Noticing that the presentation of their trophies was imminent, the son of Éomund straightened to his full height.
"Now, Ladies and Gentlemen… you all know the winner of the yellow ribbon for third place! He is already in possession of two red ribbons, which he won in the past years, so I am certain that he will appreciate the change in colour, even if it is perhaps not the shade he was dreaming of. Yet his effort was valiant, and I am sure not many could have predicted the outcome of the race until the last few yards. This year's third place goes to… Bréolaf, son of Burkhardt, and his stallion Thunderclap, representing Captain Delwyn's éored of Eastemnet!"
Under the cheering of the crowd, Théoden-King and his niece stepped forward, and with a smile, the ruler of Riddermark picked the exquisitely embroidered yellow ribbon from the cushion and pinned it to the rider's jerkin, shook his hand and offered his sincere congratulations.
"The second place… goes to a young man and his mare not many of us would have named among the favourites," the announcer continued. "As a first-time contender and under the daunting prospects that in all the long years in the history of this race, no mare could ever win the two leagues against the stallions, this young rider demonstrated remarkable resolve, courage and cunning in the use of the course's alternate tracks. I am very certain that we will hear more from him in the future. The red ribbon is hereby awarded to… Éomer, son of Éomund, and his mare Stormwing, representing Captain Elfhelm's éored of Aldburg!"
Even louder than for Bréolaf the applause seemed to Éomer, and he felt heat flush his face as he gazed into his uncle's glowing face. Aye, it could not be missed that the king was proud of his nephew when he took the trophy from the velvet cushion, but before he could pin it to Éomer's jerkin, a great grey head suddenly filled out his vision, and the ribbon was forcefully ripped from his hands.
"Stormwing!" Éomer exclaimed, deeply embarrassed, while everyone around them burst into laughter. "This is not for you to eat!" He reached for it, but his mare simply lifted her head high into the air and shook the piece of fabric like a dog that caught its prey.
"She earned it as much as you did, Sister-son," Théoden-King remarked with a smirk.
"And I will pin it to her halter, as soon as she lets me have it!" Éomer grumbled, and pulled down the reins. At last, Stormwing seemed willing to give up her prize when she found that its taste was not what she had expected, and she allowed her rider to pull the thoroughly soaked ribbon out of her mouth.
"Yech!" Éomer frowned and lifted the drenched trophy up. "Now see what you have done, Precious! This is disgusting. You can have it now; I no longer want it." He pinned it to her halter and wiped his hands upon his trousers, grimacing. "I apologize for my steed's conduct, Sire. While I am not yet sure of how to make her even faster next year, I already know that I will have to work on her behavior in the presence of royalty."
"Even if I hadn't know this particular steed of yours, Éomer son of Éomund, I would not have dared to criticize her. The way I see it, after such an impressive try, a horse has earned the right to be a little… uhm… rambunctious." Théoden winked.
"I thank you, Sire."
Astonished by his uncle's good spirits, Éomer smiled. The lined face before him was kind and amused, and he could not remember when he had last seen the king like that. It was almost as in old times. And there was something else in Théoden's eyes, too, something Éomer could not readily name. With a quick glance and a wink at Éowyn, he inclined his head.
"Your bid for the title was most impressive, Sister-son," Théoden continued as he shook his nephew's hand. "I am still not sure that I agree with everything that you did in this race, but I also have to acknowledge that you seemed to be in control the whole time."
"That I was, my lord," Éomer confirmed, which earned him a warm smile and a clap on the shoulder. "I would not have dared these paths otherwise. You know what this mare means to me."
"I certainly do." Théoden-King nodded. "I only wish your parents could have seen you today. They would have been proud to see what has become of their son."
"I am convinced that they are seeing me, sire." Éomer inhaled deeply. "It is one of the reasons I give it my all whenever I decide to partake in any enterprise, be it match, race or battle."
"A good ideal to live by." The old man nodded, and then gave his approval to the waiting announcer to continue.
"Now, Ladies and Gentlemen… I am certain that there were not many among us who did not believe that Godric, son of Wulfhart, and his stallion Flame would defend their title in this year's challenge. And yet several incidents will ensure that more than any of his other triumphs, this one will remain in our heads whenever the Great Race will be mentioned in the future! It was the closest finish in many years; victory was theirs against the strongest contenders who used the track with all the possibilities it provides…and their unprecedented sixth consecutive title was won this time coming from behind, from an almost hopeless position after the accident at the Snowbourn's banks. This rider who stands before you, he was willing to sacrifice his title for a fallen rival. It was a noble move and makes this year's triumph even more valuable than the five before combined. So please, celebrate with me… the greatest winner the Great Race has ever seen… Godric, son of Wulfhart, and Flame, of Marshal Théodred's éored of Edoras!"
The applause and cheering that followed were deafening, and as Éomer turned clapping toward his victorious rival, the last traces of his disappointment over the narrow loss evaporated completely and he felt glad for the honourable and likable scout. There were only smiling faces around him as Théoden-King pinned the blue ribbon to the rider's jerkin and congratulated him on his historic win.
One last time, the announcer raised his by now hoarse voice over the general din.
"And now, Lords and Ladies, my fellow Éorlingas… now that the last competition of this year's Midsummer Festival has finished, there is only one thing left to say for me: be well, Riders of the Mark, and ride to good fortune in the coming months so that we will all meet again in merriment and good health next year! I have been told that the food and drinks at the eating tents are ready, and so are the musicians. Enjoy yourselves and let's all make this a night to remember!"
It was two hours later when Éomer returned to the Aldburg camp, refreshed and energized after a lengthy bath in the Snowbourn's waters together with his horse and the other riders. In true Rohirric fashion, he had first seen to it that his courageous mare had been rewarded for her performance with something more valuable to a horse than a piece of velvet, however exquisite.
Coming straight from the ceremony, he had only briefly stopped by their camp to fetch his spare clothes, before he had ridden Stormwing directly into the shallow pools by the river as it bent around a little rock outcropping. There he had taken all tack from her and turned her loose, and watched with amusement as his mare frolicked around through the water with the other horses while their riders washed off the dust and sweat of the day from their bodies in the orange light of the setting sun.
His first Midsummer Festival as a member of the Riders was almost at an end, and while his dream had not yet become reality, it had brought him many things both expected and unexpected, invaluable impressions and emotions that would stay with him for the rest of his life. The reassurance of the love for and of his family, the friendship and camaraderie between the riders… but most of all, the three days on the plains before Edoras had left him with a deep, fulfilling sense of belonging.
He had claimed his rightful place now, was part of the five hundred years of history of Riddermark since his ancestor Éorl the Young had led their people south; a part of something far greater than he had the power to put into words. Awareness and emotion had filled him whole as he sat in the river, his eyes lovingly wandering over the rolling grasslands of his home.
Clean and refreshed, he had then brought Stormwing back to the mares' corral in the growing twilight and spoiled her rotten with a lengthy rubdown and some assorted delicacies, until at last, the insistent grumbling of his own stomach could no longer be ignored. Before him at the common area, the festivities had already begun and Éomer could already see the glow of the campfires and hear the sound of the fiddles and his comrades singing. Quickening his pace in anticipation, he made his way through their part of the camp to return the racing saddle to Elfhelm's tent and hung his washed clothes on the supplied line near his bedroll to dry.
Finally done with his chores, the son of Éomund then turned around to make for the food tents, and an expectant grin spread over his face. Allowed to eat and drink to his heart's content, to sing and dance with his kin and friends and staying up till dawn with no care for the requirements of the next day, there was no reason why this should not become the best night of the year.
And tomorrow, they would make for Aldburg again, but not with his éored. Coming up to congratulate him immediately after the ceremony, Théodred had informed him that he had thought of a surprise for his cousins, for which he had already made the necessary arrangements: he would personally escort Éomer to Aldburg along with only a few chosen men of his and Elfhelm's éoreds. They would take their time to enjoy each other's company and the open plains as the sunny weather was supposed to stay for a while longer… and Éowyn would accompany them.
Life could still be good. It was something to take with him once duty called him again, something to remember whenever the days turned dark again and hope seemed but a distant memory. This was what they were fighting to protect: their loved ones, their friends, their freedom, their way of life. The Éorlingas would endure, as they always had. And he would do whatever he could to ensure it.
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