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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.”
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