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Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer  by Katzilla

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."

Éomer smirked.

"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!"

Éomer snorted.

"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?"

Tolgor chuckled.

"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!"

Éothain snorted.

"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?"

Éomer groaned.

"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!"

Éomer frowned.

"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."

"This is—"

"—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!"

"Gaer-Wolf! Gaer-Wolf!"

"Beat 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!

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