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Adventures of an Éored: Midsummer
Over and done! I'm very happy to present you with the last chapter of a story I started eight (!) years ago. I'm quite surprised my muse decided to re-emerge after such a long time to make me a millionaire on ff net dot com – for now, indeed, with this last chapter, I have crossed that magical limit of over one million archived words. Many thanks go to Thanwen and Carawyn for faithfully reviewing each and every chapter; I hope others enjoyed my little tale of the Rohirrim, as well.
Chapter 11: Endings and Purpose
"No! No…" Éowyn's hands were on her mouth, dismay written in her blue eyes. "Oh no…"
Théodred swallowed. He had been present when his cousin had demanded of Godric that he should do everything in his power to win. Éomer had been adamant about winning the race fair and square, against the best his rival had to give. But this… this was cruel. To almost have the trophy in his hands, only to have it ripped from his grasp at the very last moment!
"Oh Éomer…" he sighed, and watched on.
At the riders' stands, the members of the Aldburg éored stood silent for a moment, their arms that had already been lifted in triumph now loosely hanging by their sides.
"Well… shit!" Bard shook his head. Next to him, Éothain still stood stunned and speechless. He had been so eager to cheer his friend's certain victory, and now… what was he to do now?
"It was still an unbelievable ride," Elfhelm let himself be heard from behind. "There has never been a champion like Flame before; I hope Éomer will see what an achievement it was to come so close to victory against such an opponent."
"That will not comfort him," Éothain replied sadly, his eyes still on his friend as he slowed down behind the finishing line. He did not have to see Éomer's face to know how the son of Éomund felt at this moment; his bearing gave it away all too clearly. "It was always his dream to win this race. A second place is nothing he would ever be proud of..."
Éomer knew at once they had lost. Not even for a moment did he dare to believe that Flame's final burst of speed had left them behind only after the finishing line. And he did not have to pull on the reins to stop his mount. Stormwing was as aware of what had happened as her rider and slowed to a walk of her own accord, fully spent, and from the way she hung her head, it was clear to him that she understood that the cheering was not meant for them. They had given their all, in speed, in endurance and in cunning, and still they had been bested.
A huge wave of disappointment washed over Éomer, and suddenly, his view of Godric, who was parading the stands with his fist triumphantly raised against the sky, blurred. Embarrassed, he turned Stormwing away, not wanting anyone to witness his fight against the tears. For a moment, his words with which he had extracted the promise from Théodred's scout echoed in his mind, and he cursed them even against his better knowledge that he would act exactly the same if the situation were ever repeated.
Aye, it was very likely that he would indeed have won the race had he not waited for Godric at the riverbank. But how would that have felt? To hold the trophy in his hands only because a better contender sacrificed his chances by saving a fellow rider… that kind of victory would have been hollow, and the spectators would have rightfully cheered Godric and not him. No, waiting had been the right decision… and still, this defeat stung like a pike through the stomach.
"Great ride, lad!" Thunderclap's rider shouted in his direction as the big grey passed them. In Bréolaf's face, the same disappointment was written that Éomer felt himself, but in true Rohrric fashion, the older man was also quick to acknowledge that he had been beaten fair and square.
"You, too, Bréolaf!" the son of Éomund replied. "Your endeavor was much better than the years before."
Bréolaf shrugged and lifted an eyebrow.
"Apparently, still not good enough. But if I lose even more weight for next year's attempt, I doubt that I will continue to be an efficient warrior." He shrugged. "I suppose I will have to make my peace with the fact that we're fast, but not the fastest. You, on the other hand… you've got places to go, young man, if both of you stay healthy. Although, now that I look at you… what happened to your face?"
"The thing that is to be expected when you ride through a forest and do not use the proper path." Éomer grimaced and gingerly fingered the welts. "Sacrifices need to be made in exchange for a shot at winning against a living legend."
"Like they say: pain is temporary, but glory is forever! Well done, Éomer! I'll see you at the ceremony." He clicked his tongue and directed his stallion over to congratulate the winner of the race.
"Thank you, Bréolaf." For a moment, Éomer followed his path with his gaze. He took a deep breath.
"Oh Precious," he sighed and leaned forth in the saddle to clap Stormwing's shoulder exhaustively. The mare flickered an ear in his direction while her labored breathing slowly returned to normal. "We did what we could, didn't we? There was nothing we could have done differently – with any honour – to emerge victorious. I know you gave it your all, and I thank you for it. I love you, Stormwing."
When he looked up again, he found to his surprise Godric on the way over to them, the expression on the scout's face a mixture of triumph and honest apology.
"Éomer!" the older rider shouted over the din of the audience. "Cheer up, son of Éomund! The applause is as much yours as it is mine! Come, let us parade before the stands together with Bréolaf! This was a race to remember, and all three of us made it happen." He furrowed his brow as he came closer. "Who whipped you?"
"I did that myself," Éomer answered. "In exchange for a chance against you."
"I see – your mysterious path through the forest!" Godric grinned. "Oh well, to each their own, I say." He seized the younger rider's hand and lifted it over their heads to the obvious delight of the spectators. "You see and hear, my lord, that our brothers-in-arms appreciate your daring approach to this year's race just as much as they do my last-moment victory. So my advice would be to drop that frown and start enjoying yourself."
When Éomer still regarded him with obvious doubt, the scout shook his head.
"Never before have I seen a rider of your age doing the things you've done! I would even say that your horsemanship bests most of the older riders! And the trust and will of your mare were incredible to behold. Instead of making a face as if your best breeding stallion was eaten by wargs, you should be very, very proud of yourself… It would be foolish not to revel in this well-deserved applause, for that is something you will not hear often in your life."
He lifted a brow.
"So, what say you, son of Éomund? Will you do me the honour to ride the parade together with Bréolaf and me? Come on, let's give our brothers something to talk about! It is what they expect."
At last, the faintest hint of a grin began to tug at the corners of Éomer's mouth.
"Well," he said. "If that is what our brothers expect from us, we cannot very well deny it. Can we?"
Together, the three best riders and their mounts passed the stands on their way to the awarding ceremony: Godric and Flame in the middle as befitting the unprecedented six-time champions, flanked by Éomer and Stormwing to the right and Bréolaf on Thunderclap to the left. Slowly but surely, the crowd's ongoing cheering comforted Éomer to the point where he felt no longer at odds over the outcome of this year's race, but already made his plans for the next.
He beckoned to his éored as he beheld their well-known faces at the railing, and their enthusiastic response brought another boost of his spirits as they turned to the right and made for the Royal Stands, where Éowyn, Théodred and his uncle were already awaiting them.
As he rode beside them, Godric every now and then chanced a short side-glance and seemed satisfied with his rival's improving mood. At last, he brought Flame alongside Éomer's mare and looked the younger man in the eyes.
"I am glad to see you're heeding my advice, son of Éomund. It would have been a shame had you not been able to enjoy this. Believe me, this is a strange situation for me, as well. Of course, I am dizzy with triumph, but at the same time, I realize that it must be hard for you to lose something that you already felt sure of at the last possible moment. Yet you made me promise to give it my best. You even made me repeat it before the race." He lifted a meaningful eyebrow.
"I know," Éomer said with a sigh, and found that he was slowly starting to make his peace with the thought. "That I did. And I meant it. You are not to blame, Godric. The outcome of this race would never even have been in question had you not sought to further your glory by rescuing one of your rivals in the river. We were simply not fast enough to beat you in the end. It was an honour to challenge you. Please accept my sincere congratulations." He noticed how his mare flattened her ears against her head, less than overwhelmed with the red stallion's closeness.
"Peace, Stormwing," he said with a little smile, amused over the grey's antics. She was truly his steed in every way. "No one likes a sore loser. We are second in a race that people are going to talk about for many years. We are almost champions, so behave!"
"She sure is a feisty one," Godric grinned as he followed his own mount's attempts to flirt with the reluctant mare. "Flame seems quite intrigued with her."
"Well, he got the title. He cannot have Stormwing, too… especially after just having defeated her! What is he thinking?" Éomer quipped, and then swore when the mare bared her teeth at the chestnut. "Ho, Precious! Don't be such a shrew!" He pulled at the reins and forced his mount into a tight circle when she threatened to kick the red stallion.
And so they reached the Royal Stands, where the ceremony was about to be held. Horns sounded to announce their arrival. Before the barrier now, Éomer detected his uncle, his cousin and his sister as well as the announcer, and he was glad to find that the members of his family regarded him with unmistakable pride. They came to a halt and dismounted, and at last, upon the announcer's sign, the deafening din of the spectators died down.
"Lords and Ladies," the man began. "Gentlemen and fellow Riders… I am sure we all agree that this year's Midsummer Race was an event that will live on in the minds of all those who were lucky enough to witness it for many years to come! Do you not agree?" Ear-bursting applause told him that the crowd did. He smiled, and turned toward the three riders who were about to be awarded.
"I know you're all hungry and looking forward to the festivities, so we will proceed with the ceremony without delay. This year's ribbons go to… a rider and his horse who were leading for most of the race, and were abreast of the later winner for much of the final approach, as well… A first-time participant and the youngest rider among this year's contenders, and the only mare in the field, who stole our breath with their daring ride… And to an unprecedented six-times champion, who, despite securing victory again in a last-moment effort, proved to us that winning is not, in fact, everything, when he seemingly discarded his chances to rescue a rival in need!"
The cheer rose in volume until it almost split Éomer's ears and Stormwing snorted, displeased with all the noise. The announcer raised his arm, and once again, the crowd fell silent as they beheld their king on the way towards the winners. Éowyn followed him, glowing with pride, since – upon Théodred's instigation, she had been determined to hold the velvet cushion on which the three trophies lay. Proud and regal in her bearing, she strode toward the three waiting riders, and when her gaze met her brother's, Éomer beheld a vivid sparkle in the blue eyes he had not seen there for quite a while. Oh yes, his little sister was certainly enjoying herself!
His uncle was better at keeping his composure, but when their eyes met, Éomer was glad to find approval there, as well. Noticing that the presentation of their trophies was imminent, the son of Éomund straightened to his full height.
"Now, Ladies and Gentlemen… you all know the winner of the yellow ribbon for third place! He is already in possession of two red ribbons, which he won in the past years, so I am certain that he will appreciate the change in colour, even if it is perhaps not the shade he was dreaming of. Yet his effort was valiant, and I am sure not many could have predicted the outcome of the race until the last few yards. This year's third place goes to… Bréolaf, son of Burkhardt, and his stallion Thunderclap, representing Captain Delwyn's éored of Eastemnet!"
Under the cheering of the crowd, Théoden-King and his niece stepped forward, and with a smile, the ruler of Riddermark picked the exquisitely embroidered yellow ribbon from the cushion and pinned it to the rider's jerkin, shook his hand and offered his sincere congratulations.
"The second place… goes to a young man and his mare not many of us would have named among the favourites," the announcer continued. "As a first-time contender and under the daunting prospects that in all the long years in the history of this race, no mare could ever win the two leagues against the stallions, this young rider demonstrated remarkable resolve, courage and cunning in the use of the course's alternate tracks. I am very certain that we will hear more from him in the future. The red ribbon is hereby awarded to… Éomer, son of Éomund, and his mare Stormwing, representing Captain Elfhelm's éored of Aldburg!"
Even louder than for Bréolaf the applause seemed to Éomer, and he felt heat flush his face as he gazed into his uncle's glowing face. Aye, it could not be missed that the king was proud of his nephew when he took the trophy from the velvet cushion, but before he could pin it to Éomer's jerkin, a great grey head suddenly filled out his vision, and the ribbon was forcefully ripped from his hands.
"Stormwing!" Éomer exclaimed, deeply embarrassed, while everyone around them burst into laughter. "This is not for you to eat!" He reached for it, but his mare simply lifted her head high into the air and shook the piece of fabric like a dog that caught its prey.
"She earned it as much as you did, Sister-son," Théoden-King remarked with a smirk.
"And I will pin it to her halter, as soon as she lets me have it!" Éomer grumbled, and pulled down the reins. At last, Stormwing seemed willing to give up her prize when she found that its taste was not what she had expected, and she allowed her rider to pull the thoroughly soaked ribbon out of her mouth.
"Yech!" Éomer frowned and lifted the drenched trophy up. "Now see what you have done, Precious! This is disgusting. You can have it now; I no longer want it." He pinned it to her halter and wiped his hands upon his trousers, grimacing. "I apologize for my steed's conduct, Sire. While I am not yet sure of how to make her even faster next year, I already know that I will have to work on her behavior in the presence of royalty."
"Even if I hadn't know this particular steed of yours, Éomer son of Éomund, I would not have dared to criticize her. The way I see it, after such an impressive try, a horse has earned the right to be a little… uhm… rambunctious." Théoden winked.
"I thank you, Sire."
Astonished by his uncle's good spirits, Éomer smiled. The lined face before him was kind and amused, and he could not remember when he had last seen the king like that. It was almost as in old times. And there was something else in Théoden's eyes, too, something Éomer could not readily name. With a quick glance and a wink at Éowyn, he inclined his head.
"Your bid for the title was most impressive, Sister-son," Théoden continued as he shook his nephew's hand. "I am still not sure that I agree with everything that you did in this race, but I also have to acknowledge that you seemed to be in control the whole time."
"That I was, my lord," Éomer confirmed, which earned him a warm smile and a clap on the shoulder. "I would not have dared these paths otherwise. You know what this mare means to me."
"I certainly do." Théoden-King nodded. "I only wish your parents could have seen you today. They would have been proud to see what has become of their son."
"I am convinced that they are seeing me, sire." Éomer inhaled deeply. "It is one of the reasons I give it my all whenever I decide to partake in any enterprise, be it match, race or battle."
"A good ideal to live by." The old man nodded, and then gave his approval to the waiting announcer to continue.
"Now, Ladies and Gentlemen… I am certain that there were not many among us who did not believe that Godric, son of Wulfhart, and his stallion Flame would defend their title in this year's challenge. And yet several incidents will ensure that more than any of his other triumphs, this one will remain in our heads whenever the Great Race will be mentioned in the future! It was the closest finish in many years; victory was theirs against the strongest contenders who used the track with all the possibilities it provides…and their unprecedented sixth consecutive title was won this time coming from behind, from an almost hopeless position after the accident at the Snowbourn's banks. This rider who stands before you, he was willing to sacrifice his title for a fallen rival. It was a noble move and makes this year's triumph even more valuable than the five before combined. So please, celebrate with me… the greatest winner the Great Race has ever seen… Godric, son of Wulfhart, and Flame, of Marshal Théodred's éored of Edoras!"
The applause and cheering that followed were deafening, and as Éomer turned clapping toward his victorious rival, the last traces of his disappointment over the narrow loss evaporated completely and he felt glad for the honourable and likable scout. There were only smiling faces around him as Théoden-King pinned the blue ribbon to the rider's jerkin and congratulated him on his historic win.
One last time, the announcer raised his by now hoarse voice over the general din.
"And now, Lords and Ladies, my fellow Éorlingas… now that the last competition of this year's Midsummer Festival has finished, there is only one thing left to say for me: be well, Riders of the Mark, and ride to good fortune in the coming months so that we will all meet again in merriment and good health next year! I have been told that the food and drinks at the eating tents are ready, and so are the musicians. Enjoy yourselves and let's all make this a night to remember!"
It was two hours later when Éomer returned to the Aldburg camp, refreshed and energized after a lengthy bath in the Snowbourn's waters together with his horse and the other riders. In true Rohirric fashion, he had first seen to it that his courageous mare had been rewarded for her performance with something more valuable to a horse than a piece of velvet, however exquisite.
Coming straight from the ceremony, he had only briefly stopped by their camp to fetch his spare clothes, before he had ridden Stormwing directly into the shallow pools by the river as it bent around a little rock outcropping. There he had taken all tack from her and turned her loose, and watched with amusement as his mare frolicked around through the water with the other horses while their riders washed off the dust and sweat of the day from their bodies in the orange light of the setting sun.
His first Midsummer Festival as a member of the Riders was almost at an end, and while his dream had not yet become reality, it had brought him many things both expected and unexpected, invaluable impressions and emotions that would stay with him for the rest of his life. The reassurance of the love for and of his family, the friendship and camaraderie between the riders… but most of all, the three days on the plains before Edoras had left him with a deep, fulfilling sense of belonging.
He had claimed his rightful place now, was part of the five hundred years of history of Riddermark since his ancestor Éorl the Young had led their people south; a part of something far greater than he had the power to put into words. Awareness and emotion had filled him whole as he sat in the river, his eyes lovingly wandering over the rolling grasslands of his home.
Clean and refreshed, he had then brought Stormwing back to the mares' corral in the growing twilight and spoiled her rotten with a lengthy rubdown and some assorted delicacies, until at last, the insistent grumbling of his own stomach could no longer be ignored. Before him at the common area, the festivities had already begun and Éomer could already see the glow of the campfires and hear the sound of the fiddles and his comrades singing. Quickening his pace in anticipation, he made his way through their part of the camp to return the racing saddle to Elfhelm's tent and hung his washed clothes on the supplied line near his bedroll to dry.
Finally done with his chores, the son of Éomund then turned around to make for the food tents, and an expectant grin spread over his face. Allowed to eat and drink to his heart's content, to sing and dance with his kin and friends and staying up till dawn with no care for the requirements of the next day, there was no reason why this should not become the best night of the year.
And tomorrow, they would make for Aldburg again, but not with his éored. Coming up to congratulate him immediately after the ceremony, Théodred had informed him that he had thought of a surprise for his cousins, for which he had already made the necessary arrangements: he would personally escort Éomer to Aldburg along with only a few chosen men of his and Elfhelm's éoreds. They would take their time to enjoy each other's company and the open plains as the sunny weather was supposed to stay for a while longer… and Éowyn would accompany them.
Life could still be good. It was something to take with him once duty called him again, something to remember whenever the days turned dark again and hope seemed but a distant memory. This was what they were fighting to protect: their loved ones, their friends, their freedom, their way of life. The Éorlingas would endure, as they always had. And he would do whatever he could to ensure it.
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