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Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer
Chapter 10: The Great Race – Part 3
"The riders have made it safely down the hillside! They are approaching the forest and caught up with the rest of the field!" the announcer cried. "I repeat, the riders are safe!"
'Thank you, Béma! Thank you!' Éowyn shut her eyes for a brief moment, her relief too great to put into words. Théodred squeezed her.
"See, Little One, you underestimated your brother. Even at seventeen, he is already a master on horseback. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he really wins this." The King's son turned his head to share a brief look with his father, but Théoden's attention was still held by his counsellor, who just now whispered into his ears again. Théodred narrowed his eyes, doubting that Gríma was likewise praising Éomer's riding skills. With a deep breath, he turned back.
Back on the main track at last, and only three lengths behind Thunderclap and his three fiercest pursuers! Éomer grinned, very pleased with himself, and noticed Bréolaf's slighty nervous glance over his shoulder when the man realized that his main rival, whom he had believed already beaten, was breathing down his neck again.
Éomer held himself in Flame's wake, still controlling Stormwing's pace against her growing impatience. It was good to feel that his hands were still full and that the first two thirds of the track had not overly exhausted the mare if she was still eager to run faster. Contrary to the hill path, the forest was terrain they had endlessly trained in, and Éomer knew that his mount's smaller statue would rather be an advantage among the trees. It was here where they would make their bid for victory. They needed to emerge onto the open terrain first and with a considerable lead if they were to stand a chance against Flame's incredible finishing speed on the last quarter league. And there was also the lingering question about Thunderclap's stamina…
With that, they reached the forest. For a moment, Éomer could not see, as they had ridden against the sun the whole time after they had come down from the hill, and his eyes had to adjust to the sudden deep shadows. Still he remembered his plan and steered Stormwing to the left toward the stream that crossed between the densely standing trees. It was here where Éomund's son had spent the most time of the walkthrough, as the path through the forest was – for the most part – not predetermined by the racing rules, except for the exit point. A rider's decisions in this terrain could make or break him.
"Now, Precious! Show them what you're made of!" He directed her towards the water and accelerated while the others thundered along the main path. Soon, they were out of earshot, all noise muffled by the dense vegetation as they splashed along the narrow stream. Éomer had paid its bed close attention the day before and noticed that it was, for the most part, even and shallow and sandy, and it cut a much more direct path through the trees than the longer main track. The problem was that, at one point, it branched off in the wrong direction and they would have to leave it and make their way through the undergrowth. Whether that way was actually faster would remain to be seen, but Éomer knew he had to take that gamble if he ever wanted a shot at winning.
They were approaching the part where the trees grew on the very edge of the water, and although he had already removed several dry branches that had reached over the stream the day before, Éomer suddenly felt unsure whether he had caught them all. Losing an eye in exchange for victory was not what he had in mind, so he ducked behind Stormwing's neck, urging her to run even faster. Every yard they made good here could count in the end. Again, the mare responded.
Left and right, birds burst into flight before them, clamouring over the unexpected disturbance of their peace, but neither horse nor rider wasted even a second of their attention on them. All concentration was focused on the narrow brook before them; Stormwing's ears pointed as she examined their surroundings with large eyes. Aye, they were fast, Éomer thought. Certainly too fast for the terrain. But were they fast enough? What would the others do now? Would they just use the main path, or likewise take risks? What if someone had a better strategy?
He tensed instinctively, and his mount reacted with another burst of speed, to Éomer's growing unease. He had only had two hours the past day to make himself acquainted with the forest's demands, not a whole lot of time to memorize every single bend or trick. A forgotten obstacle could easily prove disastrous at this pace… and they had to be almost upon the fallen tree. An easy jump, Éomer had calculated, nothing out of the ordinary. But when they rounded the bend that lead towards the obstacle, he suddenly saw to his dismay a wooden wall in their way! A second tree had been felled by the morning's thunderstorm and lay now in a diagonal line above the first trunk, too high to jump and leaving only a narrow triangle open to the left. And they were moving too fast to evade!
Even before Éomer could pull the reins and throw his horse around, Stormwing tensed beneath him – and jumped through the tight space between the trees. Instinctively, he ducked – and felt the bark of the upper tree ripping through his shirt. Otherwise unscathed, they landed on the other side. For a moment unable to catch his breath, Éomer risked a quick look back while his mount charged ahead without delay. How close they had been to disaster! If Stormwing had balked at the obstacle, they would have crashed into the trees at full speed.
With great effort, Éomund's son suppressed the image in his mind. He needed all concentration for the path before them, because they were still moving far too fast for the terrain. His horse was ready for the challenge and more than willing to do its share, that was what counted.
"Thank you, Precious," he muttered, and laid a hand on her sweat-darkened neck. "You saved us both. I know that what I'm asking of you is unreasonable…" Hesitantly, he tightened the reins, which resulted in a defiant head-shaking. Losing her balance, Stormwing careened to the left and into the undergrowth on that side. White-hot pain assaulted Éomer as his face and naked arms were whipped by branches, and his horse neighed in dismay, equally tortured.
'Béma, everything's falling apart!'
Instinctively, Éomer urged the mare back towards the middle of the stream, and with a grunt deep in her chest, Stormwing picked up speed again. And yet this time, her rider did not allow her to gallop as fast as before. The place where the brook bent away from their path had to be close by and they could easily miss the markings he had made, rendering his oh-so-cleverly devised strategy a complete and utter failure.
'It already *is* a failure!' Èomer fretted, his eyes scanning the trees to their right for the signs. His face burned. 'We should have stayed on the main path. There is no way for us to be faster in this covert! What an idiot I was!'
There was the bright notch he had made in the bark of an old pine! Resolutely steering his mount toward it and out of the water, Éomer decided that there was nothing he could do now but make the best of their situation. It was too late to change his plans. They either brought them out of the forest first, or not. He would find out very soon.
There, the next marking! They stormed toward it, oblivious by now to the torment of the branches. Thankfully, the undergrowth wasn't very thick among the trees; the ground was mainly covered in moss which did not allow for many plants to grow and made for an easily negotiable surface beneath Stormwing's hooves, the main reason Éomer had chosen that path. He dared a quick glance in the direction of the main track, yet could not detect signs of any nearby rivals. Listening for them was vain over the ruckus they made themselves, so Éomund's son turned his attention quickly back to the trees before them.
The next notch… and the next after that. They were proceeding fast now, despite his sudden doubt. Hope stirred again in his chest, although he barely allowed himself to acknowledge the feeling. And right he was, for suddenly, his mare snorted in dismay, and her ears flattened against her head as she rammed her hooves into the ground Unprepared, Éomer almost fell from her back.
"What is it, Precious?" he whispered, righting himself in the saddle while at the same time, he tried to pierce the twilight for signs of what was worrying Stormwing. Something dark loomed before them to their left… something long and large. And something – no, someone - moved before it. A man. A guard! Éomer blinked. Could it really be? Was this already the man-made tunnel, the last test of a steed's trust before the forest ended and gave way to the plains again?
'Béma, it is! We're already there!'
He urged his still reluctant mount on… and now he could also hear the noise of fast approaching hoof beats from the right. Aye, they were first at the tunnel, but their rivals were close!
"Come on, Precious, trust me one last time," Éomer said, now pushing his horse ahead with legs and arms. "It's only the tunnel! It will not harm you. There's only darkness inside, nothing else. You've braved far worse things on this course! Come on!" His forceful insistence paid off. Apparently, Stormwing trusted him still, even if her ears were still flickering nervously back and forth and she drank the air through widened nostrils for signs of danger… but she accelerated again towards the dark shape. Out of the corner of his eye, Éomer caught a streak of red-brown between the trees, and he kicked his heels into the mare's flanks. It had the desired effect: from one leap to the next, Stormwing changed from a fast canter into a full- on hunting gallop as the tunnel swallowed them.
"Run, lad!" the guard shouted behind them. "The others are close!"
Darkness. Loud puffing, Stormwing's breaths. No longer effortless after more than three quarters of the race. The thunder of her hoof beats. Up ahead, the light of the exit. Five furlongs to the finish line from there. No more tricks, only the grass beneath them. From here on, all that counted was endurance, speed and will. Did they have what this last part of the race took?
They burst into the light, temporarily blinded. The plain opened before them.
"Now, Precious! Give it your all!" And with that, Éomer gave the mare her head.
"It's Éomer!" Éowyn could not yet make out distinctly the solitary shape that had just emerged from the forest, and yet in her heart she knew that it was her brother. "Théodred, look! It's Éomer!" Anxiously, she looked over to the approaching signals, and it was indeed the Aldburg banner which was waved before the stands. "See?"
Before her cousin could react, three other horses appeared on the plain, among them unmistakably the reigning champion… but they were at least four lengths behind Éomer and Stormwing.
"I'll be damned!" Théodred muttered, then turned around to the king. "Father! Éomer's in the lead!" All around him, the people on the stands stood up in expectation of a finish they had not seen in a long time. "Come on, Éomer!" he shouted, his hands balled into fists. "Come on, you can do it!"
They were still in the lead, and Éomer could already hear the faint yelling of the distant crowd. They were almost back at the Snowbourn again, only this time, they would use the bridge to cross it. No more dangers before them, only the race track!
A quick glance back. Three lengths behind them, full-on battle was raging between Thunderclap and Flame. Both stallions raced side by side, flat and stretched they flew over the turf, their hooves barely touching the ground in their mad two-beat rhythm… and they were gaining.
Éomer turned back. Perhaps three and a half furlongs were left to the line; still a long distance. By now, he could all too well feel Stormwing's growing exhaustion and the toll the race had taken on the mare. He felt it in her deepened breathing and in the way her ribs extended against his legs. He felt it in her gait, which was no longer smooth and energetic. Every time her hooves touched the ground, the impact shook Éomer thoroughly. Her ears were flattened against her head, no longer listening to what was going on around them.
His courageous mare gave everything she had, but there could be no mistaking that she was rapidly nearing the end of her strength.
"Not much longer, Precious," Éomer encouraged her, and steered her onto the bridge. "You can do this! I know you can! And I will help you!" With a subtle shift, he transferred part of his weight onto her shoulders, standing in the stirrups now to take the burden from her back as much as he could. Another look back. Two and a half lengths of their lead were left, and behind the two stallions, he now beheld a third horse.
They thundered over the bridge. From here on, they were back at the start of the track. Three furlongs of straight, smooth turf all the way up to the finish line. The roar of the crowd increased, and Stormwing reacted to it. She took the bit with iron determination, and Éomer could feel her tense beneath him. From somewhere out of the depths of the mare's heart, she squeezed out another burst of speed.
"Gods, look at that! How that lad can ride!"
"Run, Éomer! Run! You can do it!
"You're almost there!"
The riders from Aldburg did not care what anyone thought of them as they pushed to the front of the stands. Éothain could barely breathe in the tight gap between Elfhelm and Bard, but he couldn't have cared less. His friend was about to make history!
"Éomer!" he yelled, a fist lifted into the air. "Come on!"
"Stormwing is tired," Elfhelm muttered, to no one in particular. "But what heart that mare has!"
"Their lead's shrinking!"
"It will be enough." Éothain took another deep breath, and then screamed at the top of his voice. "Come on, Éomer! Run!"
Before them, on the opposite site of the track, the nobles jumped from their seats on the Royal Stands, and many of them were yelling and cheering, as well, just like the simple riders. A finish like this had not been seen for many years.
The roar of the wind and the crowd in his ears, deafening. Stormwing's deep, raspy breaths. The thunder of hoof beats. His eyes watering, so everything he saw was blurred. His thighs burning with exhaustion, and still he stood in the stirrups. Two more furlongs to go. Another look back. The two stallions, right behind them, head-to-head. Still gaining.
"Come on, Precious! I know you're tired. I'm tired, too. Soon we can rest. Soon… but not yet. Show them what you're made of! Fight!" Éomer all but threw the mare forward, his shoulders, his whole body moving with her rhythm. Movement to his left. Flame's red head reached Stormwing's hindquarters, Thunderclap half a head behind him. ' No no no no…'
Once more, a deep, irritated grunt came from his mount. An ear flickered towards the sound of their rivals. Stormwing knew the stallions were close, she felt them. And although she was on her last legs, she was determined not to let them pass. She kept her pace, faster than she had ever run in her life.
"Run, Éomer! Run!" Théodred shouted at the top of his lungs, his eyes glued to the most incredible finish he had ever witnessed. He did not care what people thought of him, cheering for the wrong rider, but then it seemed that no one was paying him much attention anyway. They were all yelling and cheering themselves, for Flame, for Thunderclap and for Éomer. Béma, his cousin was about to make history, and deservedly so! What the youth had shown in determination and skill was nothing short of incredible. If only his steed sustained her killing pace for a short while longer…
"Listen, Precious! Do you hear them? That' for us! They're cheering for us! Hold on but a little longer!"
Another look. Éomer didn't even have to turn his head this time to find Flame and Thunderclap to their right, their noses on a level with his stirrups.
'We won't make it…'
Another subtle shift of weight in a vain attempt to lighten the burden for his mount, the last measure he could think of, although his tired leg muscles were screaming at him. And once again, Stormwing reacted! One last time, the mare braced, and all her muscles tightened and hardened as she catapulted them towards the finish line, her long leaps eating up the distance. Even flatter she became, and longer, stretched to her utmost extend as her hooves hammered the ground.
For a moment, the stallions disappeared. Then a lout shout erupted from the stands, the reason impossible for Éomer to discern. A quick look back. There was only the red head left now. Thunderclap had given up. 'Yes! Yes!'
Up ahead, the white posts, perhaps two hundred yards away! But now Flame made a last, desperate attempt, and again his head reached Éomer's stirrups. They approached the stands, and the crowd's roar greeted them. Yet Éomund's son barely heard it, as his horse and their rival occupied his full attention. Godric spared them no look as he sat in the saddle, perfectly balanced and riding his red stallion with everything he had. And their attack was fierce, each of Flame's leaps longer than the one before as he gained inch for inch under the deafening din of the spectators. His mane danced on the wind, a steppe fire in the shape of a horse. Coming abreast now.
Stormwing snorted, and for a moment, it seemed to Éomer that his mare tried to tear herself in two in order to defy her rival's onslaught. For another moment, she held her ground as before them, the finishing posts appeared… the next, an incredible leap sent Flame ahead by a short head, and another catapulted the red stallion over the line first.
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