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Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer
Chapter 9: The Great Race – Part 2
The first of the guards assigned watch at the Snowbourn's shores reached them and quickly relieved Godric of the injured rider when he came to a stand beside Éomer, dripping wet.
"We will take it from here, Godric," the man said, dismay and pride mingled in his eyes over seeing their champion sacrificing his chance to win in order to help one of his rivals. "I do not believe his injury is serious, but he will have to thank you. Now make haste, or-"
"You think there is still a way for me to win?" Godric snorted, but he threw Flame around nonetheless and began to accelerate again, while Éomer imitated his actions to his right. The field had already far progressed and seemed to have a lead of almost a furlong on them; the riders were already well on their way to the hilly part of the track. Éomer's heart sunk as he regarded the distant figures over Stormwing's pointed ears, and yet he was convinced that he had done the right thing in stopping.
"You threw away your best chance to win this race, Lord Éomer," Godric scolded him from the side. His expression was guarded, non-telling. Whatever his thoughts were about the unfortunate happenings at the crossing, he kept it well hidden from his younger rival. "You were one of the first on the other side. It was foolish to wait for me."
"I don't care." Éomer's gaze remained on the ground before Stormwing's hooves, alert and watching for dangerous spots. He had learned his lesson at the Snowbourn's shores. "This is not how I want to win."
"The others certainly did not share your considerations. Which is all right, as it is the guards' duty to deal with accidents… and yet I do not think they would have arrived at the scene quick enough to keep Waryk from drowning."
"It was a noble thing you did." For a brief moment, Éomer turned his head, and the two riders shared a look of mutual respect while their horses raced over the plain side by side. "However, I believe we can still beat them. The race has only just begun."
Godric gave a mirthless laugh.
"Aye, and there is already a great gap between us and the rest of the field… only not on the side we would have wished for."
"There are many other difficulties on the track. We do not know what the situation is on the hill path, or in the forest. After the Snowbourn, I assume it will not get any easier… for any rider in the field. We still got more than one and a half leagues to close the gap." Éomer inhaled and asked himself whether he truly believed in what he was saying. To his surprise, he found that he did.
By now, the rocky elevation grew threateningly out of the ground before them. Soon, they would be upon it. The path across it was so narrow that they would have to ride single-file. It was not altogether unlikely that the necessary process of merging had considerably held up the other riders before them. A faint smile formed on his lips. What was a challenge for, if not to be braved?
And when Godric answered, it sounded to Éomer's ears as if his cousin's scout had picked up on his mood… and been infected.
"We will have to ride as if the Dark Lord and all the orcs in his service are on our heels though," he said grimly.
"Aye." Éomer cracked a grin. "But aren't we here because we have already proven that we can?"
High up on the stands, Éowyn had followed the proceedings anxiously, and when the accident at the river's edge happened, her breath had left her lungs in a horrified gasp. All around her, the spectators had jumped from their seats, even her uncle further down, and they all waited anxiously to hear who the unlucky pairs were who had not made it past the Snowbourn. Prayers were sent to Béma to keep horses and riders safe and unhurt.
Her eyes narrowed to slits, Éowyn tried to discern the wet horses as they climbed the opposite riverbank, but they were too far away to say with any certainty that Éomer had made it safely out of the water. All she could tell was that the main part of the field had already crossed and was just now resuming their way towards the rocky hill that awaited them next. Two riders were lagging behind, one of them even still in the river, while the guards hastened towards the scene of the accident. She balled her fists as she watched on. The last rider seemed to have another man in the saddle, which he now passed over to the guards. 'No no no no… it cannot be! Please, let this not be him!"
Out of the corners of her eye, she beheld a line of waving banners nearing the stands. The guards along the racetrack each had a set of the participants' banners, and whenever a rider dropped out from the competition, the signal was given to the next man in line, in order to keep the audience informed. She had just recognized the first flag when the announcer stepped up to the stands.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, as you have seen yourself, there has unfortunately been another accident at the crossing this year. I have been informed that that neither riders nor horses have been seriously hurt, but the following pairs do no longer compete: Brytta of Westemnet with Earhfaru, Waryk from the Folde with Cempa, Cenhelm of Snowbourn with Gaersume, Cyneweard of Fenmarch with Wintersong and…" Éowyn balled her fists even tighter, a cold feeling in her stomach, "… and Hereweald of Dunharrow with Scínna."
There were moans and mutters all over the stands in a mix of relief and dismay, and Éowyn closed her eyes and exhaled. The relief was almost painful.
"However, it would seem that two further pairs were severely disadvantaged by the accident, among them Godric and Flame!"
A cry of dismay rose from the crowd.
"The other one was Éomer of Aldburg with Stormwing. Both pairs have resumed racing, but their disadvantage is substantial. They are currently at the end of the field, about half a furlong behind the others."
'No!' Éowyn stared down at the announcer, inwardly begging him to correct himself and say it that it was not her brother whom she could see as a tiny dot on the way to the hill, which all other competitors were already climbing, but she felt that it was the truth. Despondently, she let her gaze travel over the rows of nobles… and met Théodred's regretful look.
'Come down here, Cousin,' he mouthed, and with a deep breath, Éowyn composed herself and descended the stairs to accept Théodred's comforting embrace again.
"This is so unfair!" she spoke into the leather of his jerkin, fighting back tears. "Éomer dreamed of this for so long…"
"The race is far from over yet," her cousin replied and caressed her hair with his free hand. "Don't count your brother out yet. And you certainly should not count out Godric. I am convinced they've still got some tricks up their sleeves."
Halfway up the hill, Éomer and Godric soon detected the rest of the field before them, snaking along the narrow path in a long line. And really, Éomer found to his joy that the gap did not seem as great as he had feared at first. Whether the accident at the river had made the riders extra careful or arranging themselves along the track had taken even longer than he had thought, he could not say; fact was that their advantage was perhaps even less than half of what he had assumed.
"There they are! Look!" he shouted and pointed ahead and soon heard Godric's answer.
"You were right, son of Éomund! All might not be lost yet… though we cannot overtake them on this path. Unless…"
"Unless we try the scarp." Éomer felt his hackles rise at the thought. Although…
"Forget it!" Godric corrected himself quickly. "I never said anything."
They both jumped over a small gap in the path where the morning's torrent had washed away the soil, and rounded the next corner, reaching the top of the hill. The track lay openly before them now, and a stiff breeze pressed against them from the south. The view from up here was incredible, and yet Éomer's entire attention was focused on his mount, who had stopped so suddenly that her rider almost bumped his nose against her neck.
With a low whicker, Stormwing communicated her discontent over their exposed position, her ears flickering back and forth as she sidled about beneath Éomer, unwilling to proceed. Not far above them, a hawk cried, and her gaze went up in alarm. Éomund's son could tell that his mount was quickly becoming agitated, a dangerous situation in their lofty location.
"Shhhh…" he made, distinctly aware of his horse's trembling. He laid a steadying hand upon her neck. "It's only a bird, Precious, nothing to fear for someone as tall as you. Now come on…" Éomer encouraged her silently. "I'm aware that you are not a mountain goat. But you should know by now that you can trust in me to keep you safe. Come on, I know you can do it. You are a courageous girl." He clicked his tongue and gently applied further pressure with his thighs, and at last, convinced Stormwing to take her first hesitant steps upon the hillcrest, which quickly became a cautious trot. With a smile, he stroked her behind the pointed ears. "That's my lass!"
"Is all right?" Godric asked from behind. His own mount battled impatiently against the reins.
"Aye," Éomer confirmed. "It is only that Stormwing is not accustomed to such exposed paths. We Eastfold riders roam the plains, not the mountains."
"Then let me ride ahead. Flame knows this track well, and he is eager to proceed. Stormwing might take courage when she sees that there is nothing to fear. This might, in fact, be the only part of the path where we can safely switch places."
"All right," Éomer agreed, his eyes again straying to their distant rivals. They could not afford to lose more time, if they ever wanted to catch up. "Ride ahead, then. It might be a good idea." He held Stormwing back and turned her aside, while Flame and Godric overtook them, and just when they were at the same level, he felt a deeply resentful grunt rise from the mare's chest, and she accelerated against his control.
"Your mount doesn't seem to think much of it though," Godric laughed. He did not have to do much to let the chestnut fall into a fast, sure-footed trot, and quickly found the younger rider and his steed closely on their heels.
"No. You were right: she'll rather run along this hated hillcrest at breakneck speed than have someone overtake her! Now ride as fast as you dare to; I have an inkling she will follow you regardless."
As it turned out, Éomer was correct in that assumption, and with Flame in the lead, they made good progress upon the long stretch of bare rock, even risking a canter along its broader passages although the ground proved tricky. Stormwing's initial unease stood back behind her desire to keep up with the red stallion, and Éomer was relieved and delighted to find that, once she had gotten the hang of it, his mare was eager to put her newfound skill to good use.
Repeatedly his gaze went ahead to the rest of the field, and it seemed to him that they had further closed the gap, but he also saw that the riders were already descending. Their advantage would grow again once they reached the ground. From there, the track would take them up and down the gentle grassy hills in a long berth towards the forest, where further difficulties would await them. The hills held no tricky obstacles in store, but the constant up and down drained each contender's stamina, something they could ill afford when they already had to ride harder than anybody else in order to catch up. However Éomer weighed the pros and cons in his mind, it seemed to him that there was really only one option left to them if they still wanted to hold on to their chances of winning, and they had almost reached the spot where that decision needed to be made.
Craning his neck, he stared at the path beyond Stormwing's ears, and a cold chill travelled down his spine when he beheld the steep slope to their left. It was a legitimate alternate route, Godric had told him during the walkthrough, thought to reward the daring rider with a much more direct route towards the forest, but it was also immensely dangerous, much more so than even the river crossing. Only few contenders had tried it over the past years, and horrible accidents had happened as horses panicked on the descent and went down head over heels, burying their riders and breaking their bones.
'You promised your uncle to be careful!' a loud voice made itself be heard in his mind. 'You promised it to Éowyn and Théodred, too! What will you say to them if you fall – provided you are still alive when you reach the ground? And what if anything happens to Stormwing? How could you ever justify that?' Éomer inhaled sharply. 'But I know we are up to this! Up to today, Stormwing had no experience on exposed mountain paths, and yet she is following Flame with the nimbleness of a goat. This is our chance, and if we don't take it, we might as well stop racing right now!"
Conviction hit him with sudden clarity. And not a moment too soon.
"Godric!" Éomer cried, and pulled on the reins against his mount's protest. "The slope!"
The scout turned his head and likewise urged his stallion to an abrupt stop.
"No, Éomer! Forget it!"
"It may be our only chance!"
"It may be our only chance to kill ourselves!"
"But we can do it! I know it!"
Godric shook his head.
"No way, Éomer! I promised the Marshal to keep you out of trouble! Come, we need to make haste!"
"Exactly…" Once more, the son of Éomund peered down the steep hillside, his heart in his mouth. Was this madness? Or a chance? Weren't those two sides of the same coin, really? "We can do this, Precious," he mumbled, one hand on Stormwing's neck. Her ears were pointing in his direction. She was listening to him. Waiting for his command. He gave it.
"Éomer, no!" For a brief moment, Stormwing tensed beneath him… and then set her hooves upon the scree.
Immediately they began to slide down the slope with increasing speed. Doing what he could to help his mare balance, Éomer shifted his weight back onto her haunches until his horse was almost sitting.
"You can do this, Precious!" he calmed her, feeling rather than hearing the dismayed grunts rising from her chest as the ground raced toward them. And yet Stormwing's ears indicated that she was still paying attention to her rider. The nervous patter of her hooves ceased. Béma, that mare trusted him with her whole being! She risked everything – for him! Éomer's heart overflowed with love. Enviously, he had been staring at Flame the whole time, marveling at the stallion's beauty and his perfect build, when right beneath him, there was a horse willing to overcome its fears and lay its fate into the hands of its rider. It was a feeling of utmost elation.
It was rare that Godric felt inclined to swearing, and yet he was hard-pressed to think of when he had ever found himself in a worse situation. In blunt disobedience, Éomer had forced his mount onto the scarp, and one did not need an overly vivid imagination to foresee what the Second Marshal of Riddermark would do to the poor sod who had failed at controlling his cousin if anything were to happen to the lad. There was really only one option open to him in order to safe his hide. He pushed his stallion towards the descent.
"There are riders on the slope!" the announcer cried, and everywhere around Éowyn, the crowd gasped sharply. "I repeat: there are riders on the slope! They are using the alternate route!"
"Gods…" She stared into Théodred's eyes and found, for a moment, the same shock written in them that she felt herself, because it was clear that one of those riders had to be Éomer. How desperate her brother had to be to win this race, that he was even willing to risk his health and his horse's life! Her cousin squeezed her comfortingly.
"Éomer knows what he is doing, Éowyn," Théored whispered into her hair, although he felt the same anxiety. "He is an incredible rider, even at his youth. We'll have to give him the benefit of the doubt." Over Éowyn's head, his gaze sought his fathers… and found the same worry written in the pale blue eyes, before Théoden King turned his attention towards his counsellor, who was just now leaning forward to whisper something into his liege's ear.
Théodred could well imagine Gríma's words. Éomer had promised them to be careful. A reckless charge down that steep and notorious hillside stood in sharp contrast to that… all the more as the king's son could easily guess who the other rider was. With his bold maneuver, his cousin had forced Godric to risk his life as well. Théodred knew that he ought to be angry over the young man's act of disobedience, but his fury was drowned out by worry. Sending a quick but heartfelt prayer to Béma, he watched on…
Halfway down. The scree beneath Stormwing's hooves was about to give way to firm soil and grass, which would need a different approach. Right now, they were going far too fast! Their timing would have to be perfect, or they would pay a high price for their daring move.
"Ho! Ho!" Éomer made, and shifted his weight even further back. He already had a plan that would get them out of the precarious situation, but it all depended on his horse. He could distinctly feel Stormwing's growing anxiety and knew they were in trouble. If the mare lost her nerves, they would tumble down the rest of the decline and probably break every single bone in their bodies.
With infinite care, Éomer began to turn her sideways to lessen the gradient of their descent and also take the strain on Stormwing's front legs, then gently but firmly guided her towards the fringe of the scree slope where the layer of gravel was thinner and would give them more purchase. Not far below them to their right, there was a relatively level protrusion that would be ideal to halt their forward movement, but it was narrow and did not allow for any mistakes in his calculation.
"It's the moment of truth, Precious," he whispered, renewing his grip of the reins. Almost upon it now. "Be ready!" The body beneath him tensed, and from the direction of Stormwing's gaze, Éomer concluded that his mount understood what he expected of her. "Now!"
She jumped, propelled forward by the velocity of the slide, too great for a solid landing, so her hooves left the ground right again, moving in a diagonal line towards the ledge with a series of perfectly timed jumps… until they reached their destination. Stormwing rammed her hooves into the ground, and Éomer was catapulted forcefully against her neck, for a moment seeing only stars. For a few nerve-racking heartbeats, he feared that the energy of their descent would carry them over the edge regardless… but finally they stood.
With a sharp breath, Éomer righted himself in the saddle, a hand on his hurting nose. Before them, the slope continued at a slightly lesser gradient, and it was turf, not rock. It still posed a challenge, but on the whole, it looked far less frightening than the steep, loose scree.
"Well done, lass! Well done!" He clapped Stormwing's shoulder and wiped over his watering eyes. "Thank you for your trust, Little One. I knew you could do it." A grinding noise behind and above them prompted him to turn his head, and a broad, relieved grin spread on his face as he beheld his cousin's scout on the same way down. There was only one problem: the ledge was not big enough for them. When Flame reached them and they were still here, he would send them all over the edge.
"All right…" Éomer quickly turned back and his eyes darted over the terrain to their right and found the solution. "The worst is behind us, Precious. We're almost there. Now trust me just a little further!" He urged his mare onto a narrow, declining continuation of the ledge, barely more than a goat track. Eagerly, Stormwing followed his silently given commands, her ears flickering back and forth as she divided her attention between her rider and the demands of the terrain, highly concentrated.
They descended even faster than Éomer had dared to anticipate and reached the broad, slowly levelling lower shoulder of the hill. Here Éomund's son first dared to cast a glance over to the rest of the field on the main track, and found them still in the process of rounding the wide and hilly bend. Excitement flooded him anew as he directed his mount in a zigzag towards the level ground. The longer, more strenuous path would cost their rivals dearly. The risk had paid off!
Not far ahead, Éomer could already make out the guards who had been stationed there for the case that anyone was desperate enough to use the shortcut and came to grief. One of them was already waving his banner, and he understood. Soon, the spectators would know that, after many years, the dangerous hillside had at last been beaten again. With the last leap, they landed on the plain.
"We've done it, Precious! We've done it!" Éomer whooped, and his mare reacted with a boisterous bucking as they passed the two surprised guards and already accelerated again.
"Great riding, lad!" one of them managed to shout, but Éomer barely heard him through the thunder of his heartbeat in his ears. He looked back and saw that Godric and Flame were not far behind them, likewise beyond the hill's dangers. 'Yes!' For a moment, he pulled on the reins, allowing his mount a moment of recovering for the rest of the race and waiting for the pair behind them to catch up. No one, not even the great Flame himself could run the whole distance at top speed. The forest and then the finish would demand everything from horse and rider; it was of the essence to pace themselves wisely in order to have some arrows left in their quiver for the final battle.
Another glance back. The red stallion was now directly behind them, but his rider's expression baffled Éomer. It was a strange mixture of a thundercloud and a grin, as if Godric did not know whether to be angry or ecstatic. The next moment, Flame was galloping alongside Stormwing, and the scout shook his head as he sent a furious look over.
"That was madness, Éomer! Your cousin will have my hide when we return!"
"But it worked, didn't it?" Éomer replied. "We're back in the game with every chance to win!"
"Yes, but…" Again, Godric shook his head, momentarily at a loss for words. "All four of us could have died a useless death on that slope!"
"No. I knew you could pull it off, and I was confident that Stormwing and I could master that hill, as well. I was always in control."
The scout inhaled deeply, and his gaze strayed for a moment over to the rest of the field on the main path. Éomer was right; they were certainly back in the game. Perhaps Thunderclap and the three horses behind him would reach the forest before them, but they would follow close behind, a good distance before the others. And done was done; what good was it to scold the youth now for a very successful maneuver? From what he had seen, Éomer was telling the truth: he had been in control on that descent.
Oh well…" Godric sighed, and at last, his angry expression melted away. "As for that: that was some truly masterful riding, Éomer. I certainly can't remember that I have ever seen better horsemanship by a rider of your age... and only very few of the older riders would have managed. The Marshal was right, you are gifted. And you are riding a horse that would even race through fire for you."
"Aye, she would." Éomer smiled and laid a hand on Stormwing's neck. "I know that, and I am grateful for it." Another quick side-glance showed him that they were almost upon the crossing to the main path, and that they would slip nicely into the gap between the first four horses and the rest of the field. Directly in front of them, the forest with all the difficulties it posed loomed before them. Éomer was sure that a preliminary decision would be made there, and he was determined to ensure that it would go their way. "Will you remember your promise, Godric?"
"My promise?" For a moment, the scout stared at him cluelessly, but then it came back to him. "You mean about leaving you in the dust if Flame should indeed turns out to be the faster horse in the end? Aye. I stand by that."
"Alright. Then let's agree: It's every rider for himself from now on to the end!"
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