|About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search|
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!"
|<< Back||Next >>|
|Home Search Chapter List|