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Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer
Alright, here it is, the reason why I ever began writing this. I would like to dedicate it to Thanwen, for the inspiration her stories are for me. If you haven't discovered her wonderful Rohan-stories yet, you should definitely do so!
Still hoping to hear from you, even if it is only a single line of feedback, I'm leaving you to the highlight of the Midsummer Festival now. Cheers!
Chapter 8: The Great Race – Part 1
The line of riders snaked through the deserted camp; proud captains and the representatives of their éoreds who would fight for their honour in the Great Race in just a moment. The noise of the crowd increased steadily as they drew nearer to the stands, and while the son of Éomund had succeeded in keeping anxiety at bay for as long as he had been busy with his preparations, it now claimed him whole. Éomer's hands, clenched around the reins to the point where his knuckles turned white, felt clammy, and a similar cold feeling settled in the pit of his stomach as his gaze glided past the riders before him to where the noise was originating. He drew a sharp breath, causing his captain to turn his head.
A compassionate smile curled Elfhelm's lips as he regarded his nervous recruit.
"There is no reason to fear this experience, Éomer," he said with conviction. "Enjoy it. This is your day. You are ready for it. You are an extraordinary rider, and you come prepared. I have every confidence in you."
Éomer swallowed. His mouth felt so dry all of a sudden…
"It is only…" He shook his head, unable to express his feelings, but Elfhelm understood him without words.
"I know. And I agree, it is a big occasion… but you are up to it. You already proved it." Elfhelm reached out and grasped the young rider's hand, giving it a brief squeeze. "Trust in yourself, Éomer. Take heart. You have been waiting for this day for so long, and at last, it has arrived. Now make it yours."
Éomer nodded wordlessly and inhaled when the salute of the horns announced the participants of the race to the crowd. From the corner of his eyes, he saw a rider on a black horse race in the direction of the Royal Stands, a shorter figure in the saddle before him. He smiled and briefly touched the banner around his arm. Tolgor was bringing Éowyn back just in time to witness the whole event in all its splendor. Oh well… he better saw to it that he gave her something to remember, then.
Righting himself in the saddle, Éomer brought his prancing mare to a stop.
"Shhh, Precious," he made, clapping her muscular neck as she fought against the bit. "Be patient. We will only have to wait a little longer. Conserve your strength."
He looked around and saw that his rivals were mainly fighting a similar fight to his; most of their horses were already dark with sweat, some even lathered in foam and unable to stand still. To his left, a mighty dark-grey stallion trotted around in tight circles, his rider swearing as he fought with his mount. It was Thunderclap, Éomer noticed. During their walkthrough, Godric had introduced him to the other participants, every now and then adding some valuable information about the pair. He considered Thunderclap and his rider his strongest rivals, he had said, not only for the fact that the colt of the great Thunderbolt had been the runner-up for the past two years.
Éomer could see why, and yet he could also follow Godric's evaluation of the couple: the stallion was strong and lightning-quick, but he had always lost the race on the last quarter-league against the lighter-built Flame and his lighter rider. Bréolaf was tall and muscular, no doubt an intimidating opponent for every foe he faced, but in a race over two leagues, his weight was a hindrance… which was about to become his own fate in the near future, if Théodred was to be believed. Éomer snorted. He would prove to his cousin that one could be tall and strong and win this race!
Tearing his eyes away from the two, he sought Godric and Flame in the bustle, and found them calmly moving about among their rivals, waiting to be announced. As if the scout was feeling his undivided attention, he looked up and met Éomer's gaze. A faint smile played around the corners of his mouth while his eyes sent out a silent question. Éomer understood. He nodded. Aye, with Béma's help, he would try to stay close enough to avoid the pitfalls of the racetrack. The problem was only that he would probably not be the only one trying this tactic.
From the arena, the announcer's voice now pierced the expectant silence.
"And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, Lords and fellow riders… the time has come for the last competition and the highlight of our beloved Midsummer Festival! Let us greet them together, the best twenty riders of Riddermark and their noble steeds, out for glory on this beautiful summer day! Let's give them a hand!"
Thunderous applause rose from the stands, and for a moment, Éomer saw his sister in front of his inner eye, jumping to her feet and clapping her hands as she cheered him, and despite his anxiety, the thought brought a smile to his serious face.
"You all know the first contender, for it is the fourth time in a row that he qualified for the Great Race: it is, of course, Adelher, son of Áldwyn, and his stallion Fealca, representing Captain Fingal's éored of Firien Forest."
More applause, as Adelher directed his mount into the arena.
"Next comes a first-time participant from Snowbourn…"
"Èomer?" Elfhelm claimed his attention. "You will be called in next. I wish you the best of luck, and I know you have the skill to make your dream reality. Know that there is not one among your fellow riders who hasn't asked Béma to be on your side today." He clapped his recruit's shoulder, pride in his eyes. "Show them what you're made of, son of Éomund!"
"I will do my best."
And with a deep breath, Éomer directed his mare through the throng of his rivals and into the arena.
"Another first-time participant and at the same time, the youngest contestant in the field comes to us from Captain Elfhelm's éored of Aldburg: he is Éomer, Éomund's son, and he is riding Stormwing, the only mare in the field. Let us bid them a hearty welcome!"
The applause was deafening as they paraded in front of the stands, and Éomer felt distinctly how his mare was soaking up the energy, her ears flickering back and forth as she proudly lifted her head high and regarded the cheering crowd.
"Aye, Precious, that is for us," he murmured with another little clap on her neck. "And with a little luck, it might be for us, too, when we return, and it will be even louder." He followed her gaze over to the Royal Stands and saw Théodred and Éowyn standing side by side, enthusiastically clapping their hands. Théoden-King sat behind them, likewise applauding… unlike the darkly clad counsellor next to him. A grim smile spread over Éomer's lips. If he could ruin Gríma's day by winning, he'd give it an extra effort. On impulse, he touched Éowyn's banner, knowing that she would see the little gesture and be glad.
When the announcer concerned himself with the next rider, he pulled gently on the reins, easing Stormwing from a swift trot to a walk as he slowly directed her towards the start line. The ground looked dry enough here even after the morning's downpour, but Éomer remembered Godric's advice, which he had shared during the walkthrough: most accidents happened during the river crossings or in the forest, especially after rain. The hilly passage likewise was not to be trusted as the rock became slippery and kept pools of water long after the rain had ended, and yet the scout had only marked a steep slope which only the most daring riders ever used as dangerous terrain. Éomer planned to steer well clear of it.
Briefly meeting Adelher's gaze as he rode toward him, Éomer granted his opponent a short nod and directed Stormwing away to resume their calm circling while the space before the Royal Stands slowly filled up with the rest of the contenders. Paralleling the start line, he stared down the race track they would soon thunder along, squinting into the sun. In order to grant the audience as much overview as possible, the first quarter league would also be the last, a level expanse of short grass that was kept in good order and free from rabbit holes and other deadly traps all year round by dedicated volunteers. There was nothing to be gained by good riding and whatever tricks on this part of the course; all that counted here was speed. He would have to see to it, though, that they were not boxed in and remained able to gallop freely the closer they came to the river. Falls happened almost every year at the Snowbourn's shores, and to be in the throng of riders when the horse before you went down could easily prove disastrous.
Forcefully suppressing the picture of a writhing heap of mud-covered, screaming bodies in his mind, Éomer chose to look up just in time to see Thunderclap enter the arena in a smooth, energetic trot, still fighting his rider's iron control. Their éored burst into cheers, but quickly, the din was replaced by an expectant silence. The last to be announced as befitting their status as five-times champions, only Godric and Flame were left, and the audience was getting ready to celebrate the pair as befitted them.
"And now…" the announcer began, clearly enjoying his task mightily although he already sounded as if he would soon lose his voice, "…the moment you all have been waiting for has at last arrived, Ladies and Gentlemen. Here they are, the pair who won this hardest of races an unprecedented five times in a row. I give you… the reigning champions of the Midsummer Race: Godric, Wulfhart's son, and his stallion Flame, representing Marshal Théodred's éored of Edoras!"
The cheer that greeted them was deafening, and Éomer grinned when his mare flattened her ears against her head with a vehement snort.
"You do not like it when they cheer for someone else, Precious, do you?" he laughed, and observed as the pair approached the waiting riders in an effortless canter. Once again, he could not help feeling awed by Godric's beautiful chestnut. Béma, what a horse that was! Could they truly hope to best those two?
With a deep sigh, Éomer sat back in the saddle and allowed himself a last moment to relax before the mighty effort, which lay ahead of him as he slowly directed Stormwing over to the start line. He opened and closed his hands, which had clenched around the reins ever since Elfhelm had collected them from the corral, surprised to find that his former anxiety had subsided and, now that the start of the race was imminent, had been replaced with an expectant tenseness. No great deeds were ever achieved without a certain level of anxiety, he knew, further calmed by the thought. The warriors called it 'battle-readiness', and he could feel it now in his blood, flooding his muscles and clearing his head for what lay ahead.
"Gentlemen?" a voice called out behind him, and as he turned his head, he saw to his surprise Éothain's father Céorl ride up with the Mark's ancient banner in his hand, clad in armour from head to toe. Every year, the task of starting the Great Race was awarded to a man of renown, a man whose outstanding deeds over the past year had had an impact on the fate of the Mark and its people. He remembered now how his friend had told him of the many battles his father had waged and won on the central plains and in Westfold, while their own éored has guarded the eastern territory. Whenever a letter had arrived for him, Éothain had been afraid to open it for fear that it contained the news no one ever wanted to receive about their kin, but instead, it had always contained tidings of his father's victories.
"Gentlemen, please take your positions now. The race will be started as soon as you're ready." Céorl overtook them and directed his powerful white mount to a marked point in the middle of the track, twenty paces behind the start line.
Thinking about what Godric had told him, Éomer directed Stormwing over to the left side, yet found that he was apparently not the only one who wanted to avoid the dangers of a position in the midst of the field. It took some serious pushing, shouting and shoving until Éomund's son at last found himself in an acceptable position only one horse away from the left fringe of the field, and to his right, only one horse separated him from Godric and Flame. Excitement rose as the last riders struggled to find their place, while in front of them, Céorl lifted the banner. The crowd became quiet.
Éomer took a deep breath, his eyes focused on the Edoras Captain. He saw everything, felt everything. Time seemed to slow down. There was the quivering of Stormwing's muscles between his legs, ready to unleash their energy. The scattered, muttered swearing of riders complaining to each other or scolding their fidgeting mounts. The heat of the afternoon sun on his face. A breathless moment passed… and the banner fell.
Stormwing's jump almost unseated Éomer as the mare catapulted them forth. Almost in phalanx, the twenty riders and their mounts darted away from the starting line, and for a moment, Céorl's unmoving form was like a rock in the rapids as they flooded past him to the left and right, accelerating in their first furious bid for the lead.
The crowd's outcry was lost to Éomer as he quickly rearranged himself in the saddle and crouched behind his horse's neck. There was only the roar of the wind in his ears and the thunder of hoof beats all around him. Half a length ahead of them, the horse to their left was already being steered into their path in an attempt to steal their position, and Éomer yelled at its rider even as he kicked his heels into Stormwing's side, encouraging her to run even faster. She complied willingly, closing the gap with just a few mighty leaps and made it impossible for their rival to set himself before them.
With an appreciative clap on her neck, Éomer thanked her, and looked to the right where Flame's red-brown neck and shoulder were already emerging from their formation as the stallion accelerated seemingly effortlessly. His long mane whipped his rider's face, but Godric smiled, and Éomer could not help share it. This was what it meant to be alive, to feel the pulse of the earth! This was the essence of the Mark: horse and rider becoming one in whatever challenge was thrown in their way.
He clicked his tongue, ordering Stormwing to follow the chestnut, and now crossed himself into the path of the horse between them. The bay's rider shouted angrily at him as their hoofs came dangerously close to touching, but it was to no avail. Éomer's maneuver had been quick and aggressive, leaving his rival in the dust. A grim, satisfied grin spread on the younger rider's lips. First mission accomplished.
"Well done, lass," he muttered under his breath, and noticed just the slightest movement over to his right. Godric had turned his head, and when he beheld Stormwing's grey head on a level with his own steed's hindquarters, he granted them an acknowledging nod… or at least Éomer thought he did. Side by side, they raced down the track, eating up the distance to the riverbank, and where at first, the riders had fought for their positions with an explosion of speed, the field now stretched from a parallel formation to a line, led by… Thunderclap, Éomer was surprised to see.
The grey stallion had been on the far right side at the start, and barely seemed to touch the ground with his hooves. His rider sat deeply hunched in the saddle, and his shoulders moved with the rhythm of his mount's leaps as they accelerated further. Éomer furrowed his brow. Bréolaf's tactic to seek refuge in flight came as a surprise to him, and he hoped that Godric had the appropriate reply, as the scout had rather expected his main rival to make for a slower race in hopes to conserve Thunderclap's energy for a strong finish this time. So far, Théodred's kinsman did not seem concerned over their growing advantage, and Éomer decided to trust in his judgement for the time being. The race had barely begun yet, so much could still happen. The only thing of importance to him right now was to get into a good position for the river crossing.
Behind them on the stands, Éowyn found herself far too excited to sit as the field made for the Snowbourn at breakneck speed. She had jumped up at the start signal, shouting for her brother without a care what the other nobles around them would think of her and secretly wished to be with them on this wild chase across the plains. A wistful sigh escaped her as she imagined herself on Windfola's back, the wind roaring in her ears and all worries far behind them as she rode to glory. The world was so unfair…
"What is it, Éowyn?" a deep voice asked her lowly, and suddenly, a strong arm was laid around her shoulders and pulled her close. She did not resist. "You would like to ride with them, is that it?"
She nodded, her eyes not leaving the horses once.
"Aye, Cousin. Why are there no races for women? I cannot be the only one wanting to participate."
"But there are!" Théodred objected, and gently squeezed her in comfort. "Just not at this festival, as it is only for the Armed Forces. There are no women in our éoreds…" He lifted an eyebrow and smiled, but Éowyn's frown only became more pronounced.
"Aye. And you know how I feel about that."
"All know it, Cousin, and yet you also know that there is nothing I can do to change that… nor would I want to, for all the reasons we have discussed many times." He was not surprised when Éowyn freed herself forcefully from his embrace, and made no effort to follow her when she climbed up the stands to the highest point to distance herself from him. She would not want him to follow, nor was there anything he could say that would make her feel better.
Although… perhaps there was something he could do for her, if only temporarily. With a short glance at her proud, but forlorn shape against the sky, Théodred began to plot…
Another noise reached Éomer's ears through the wind's roar and the thundering hooves, and tension flooded his veins anew. It was the river's voice, and even if he had not heard it, the increased activity in the field told him that they were getting close. Another furlong mayhap to the water's edge and one of the most precarious parts of the track. The rules allowed the riders to cross it anywhere they liked, and yet the only reasonable place for that was a rather narrow corridor of not even eight yards where the Snowbourn bent around a small rock outcropping and became shallow enough to be forded with the bidden care. Several other approaches had been tried over the years and ended with disaster, so every rider in the field was prepared to secure the best possible position for the crossing by any means necessary.
The horse to their left suddenly bumped into them, his rider fighting to make it into the narrow corridor in time. It was Adelher, Éomer noticed angrily.
"Hey, watch it!"
"Out of my way!"
Relentlessly the pair pressed against them, forcing their way in and pushing them against Flame. Stormwing flattened her ears and bared her teeth at Fealca, but suddenly, the path before them cleared when Flame accelerated. A brief glance back at the clamour had revealed Éomer's dangerous position to Godric, and with a quick command, he created the room for Éomund's son to evade, yet soon saw himself confronted with similar problems when the horses to his right battled for position.
Two lengths ahead of the field, Thunderclap alone galloped undisturbed towards the glittering water, and Bréolaf's quick look back revealed to Éomer how relieved he was not to be trapped in the dangerous knot of bodies. His tactic made sense to him now and he wished Godric had followed closer in his rival's tracks. Now they were caught up amidst their pushing and shoving opponents where one false move could easily lead to disaster, with the Snowbourn looming before them… and its shores were still wet and deep and swampy from the morning's rain!
A horrible premonition seized Éomer. They had to get out here! Right now! Not wasting any time on thought when every moment counted, he tossed his weight to the left, pulling hard on the rains and all but threw Stormwing through an almost non-existent gap into open space. Another quick glance to the right to check on the situation revealed a dark thing flying toward him, and suddenly he could no longer see. The next moment, hell broke loose.
Godric had seen it coming at the same time as Éomer, but he was too close to the source to evade it when the battling opponents to their right hit the deep mud and slipped, straight into his path. A horrible squeal pierced the air as horses and riders hit the ground in a whirl of hooves immediately before him. There was only time to react, not to think: Flame's hooves left the ground, and with a mighty jump, they sailed over their fallen rivals and landed with a splash in the water behind them, miraculously unscathed even as the following horses rode straight into the twisting bodies on the ground.
For a few seemingly endless heartbeats, Éomer fought against the mud in his eyes, desperately holding on to Stormwings' neck with one hand and yet unable to control her as she charged ahead, the sloshing sounds telling him that they were in the river. Furiously he wiped over his face and blinked, and at last, his watering eyes cleared enough to let him see the opposite riverbank immediately before them. Three leaps brought them out of the immediate danger zone, where he pulled sharply on the reins and brought his mare to a stop against her will.
His glance back showed him a terrible scene: at least five horses were involved in the accident, but he could not tell who under all the mud. Even as he frantically sought for Théodred's scout, the rest of the field who had somehow managed to bypass the fallen horses and riders, climbed up the riverbank before him and resumed the race under Thunderclap's leadership, knowing that the guards and healers stationed at this point of the track would take it from there. From the corner of his eyes, Éomer already saw them heading their way, and at last, he also found Godric and Flame, thankfully unscathed… but with an additional rider in the saddle as they headed towards the shore.
He blinked. The man Godric cradled in his arms had a bleeding head wound and seemed unconscious, and surely he would have drowned had his fellow rider not wrestled him free from his fallen horse and onto Flame's back. Their eyes met.
"Go!" Godric mouthed, knowing full well that this year's race marked the end of his remarkable series. "Get going, or your dream ends here!"
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