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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!"
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