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A RED SUN RISES
It's been a while since I posted the last chapter. Mea culpa! I didn't mean to interrupt the story for so long, but a nasty spell of RL prevented me from letting Éomer and his men slay those bloody orcs! I hope I will be able to finish with this before the next wave of frenzy hits, and as always, look forward to hearing from you! I dedicate this chapter to Thanwen, who has been waiting for far too long for her carnage…
Chapter 4: The Enemy
"Will these bastards ever slow down?" Aedwulf growled, his eyes glued to the broad track in the grass as he sat on his hard-breathing stallion. They were back to walking again, a necessary measure to ensure that their horses did not collapse beneath them after countless hours of hard pursuit. "They cannot keep on running like this forever!"
"It *is* unnatural," Anlaf conceded, shaking his head in disbelief. "We should long since have overtaken them. Which makes me wonder…"
Éomer, who had silently been riding beside them for the last half an hour, lifted an eyebrow, wordlessly urging his scout on to elaborate. The older man took a deep breath, and his brow creased with further worry as he stared into the distance before them.
"These orcs demonstrate unusual stamina. What if their powers are otherwise increased to an unnatural level, as well? Provided we ever overtake them… a nasty surprise could be waiting for us when we face them in battle."
Éomer inhaled sharply. Of course! It was only prudent to conclude that their enemies' unusual performance did not end with their increased endurance. He felt Aedwulf's alarmed look upon himself, but addressed his scout.
"Good thinking, Anlaf. I suppose that is indeed very possible." He took a deep breath and at last, met his Captain's concerned look. "We will only find out once we've engaged them. But until then…"
On impulse, he tugged at Firefoot's reins and held up his arm. Quickly, his vanguard closed around him, listening.
"Anlaf here has just made a valid point, something we will need to concern ourselves with once we have found those bloody orcs!" he said. "I assume you all have noticed by now their unusual endurance. By all rights, we should long have overtaken them by now, but something lends them strength." Éomer's gaze travelled over his Riders' expectant faces. "We do not know how far their unusual strength goes. Whether it's only their increased endurance… or increased power and ferociousness, as well."
He saw rising concern in the men's eyes and held up his hand.
"So, once we've found them, I want you to use range weapons only. At least at first. Shoot them with your bows, or throw your spears, but do not get too close. We cannot be sure yet what we are dealing with here. Whether these are a new breed of orc, or whether they have taken a strengthening potion, or…"
Éomer shrugged and quickly swallowed his words about the Necromancer's magic possibly being responsible for their enemies' performance. There was no use in further troubling his Riders by uttering such extreme possibilities. They were all in strung-out shape and would need the rest of their resolve and concentration to remain focussed on their task.
Speaking of which… He narrowed his eyes. Someone was approaching them at breakneck speed, from the direction they were riding at. Seeing his reaction, the others turned around, hands closing around their sword hilts and several bows rising.
"It's Garulf!" Anlaf cried, having recognized the man's unusually coloured mount first. He climbed into the saddle, and a quick heel to his horse's side made the stallion jump into a tired gallop to meet the other scout. A moment later, the man who had first raised the alarm was among them.
"Lord Éomer! Marshal!" Entirely out of breath, it seemed to cost the rider enormous effort just to fill his lungs. "So glad to see you! Are these all the riders you brought?" He frowned with obvious worry.
Éomer shook his head.
"Our full éored is coming. This is only the vanguard. The rest is not far behind us, under Èothain's command."
Relief spread over Garulf's features.
"That is well, for there are well over two hundred orcs ahead of us. You would not have stood a chance with only forty riders." He turned his horse around, aware of how pressed they were for time. "We need to make haste. The enemy has already made it more than halfway to the Entwood. If they reach it before us…"
"Aye. That's why we are here." Éomer gave his men the signal to proceed. Upon his sign, the éored picked up speed again. A quick glance at the sky revealed to him that afternoon was well on its way, and nightfall little more than three hours distant. "How close are we?"
"Half an hour behind them, perhaps?" The older man followed his Marshal's gaze. "Certainly no further. The land flattens a bit from here on until it begins to rise again to the Entwood, so you should soon be able to see them."
"And they will see us." Éomer's mien darkened.
"Oh, they already know you are coming, Marshal." Garulf met his gaze full-on. "They've been running all day as if a wildfire were raging behind them. They know you are on their heels." He shook his head, apparently angry with himself. "I must ask you to forgive me, though, my Lord, as I fear that I will need a brief respite now. I cannot keep up with you. I will rejoin you with the rest of your éored, if you will permit it."
"Of course I permit it, Garulf." Èomer quickly laid a hand on the scout's shoulder. "You've been following them the whole time, you must be on your last legs." He looked the man full in the face. "The Mark thanks you for raising the alarm. You are the reason we are out here."
"I'm doing… nothing but my duty," the older man panted, and then tugged at the reins. His horse was only too happy to comply, and a moment later, the scout was left in the dust of the accelerating éored.
"Half an hour?" Aedwulf directed his stallion alongside Firefoot, and his expression was vaguely hopeful. "So we have been catching up on them."
Éomer nodded grimly as he felt his stallion grumble deep in his chest over his silent plea to run faster. And yet the great grey accelerated once more.
"Aye, Captain. We will catch them before the sun goes down. Mark my words. We will soon be upon them."
Éowyn reined in Windfola and turned her around to face the lonely hill on which Meduseld sat, its thatched roof shimmering golden in the afternoon sun. The cold March gusts played with her tresses and she enjoyed the caress of the clear, cold air upon her face. How she wished to stay here, out on the plains, instead of the stuffy, dark hall! Far away from that sickly pale human monster that had seized control of her home and turned her days into an unending nightmare.
After her memorable scene in her uncle's chambers, she had made straight for her room to don a riding habit and head out, unwilling to tolerate the Worm's presence even a moment longer that morning. She could only guess whether Théoden King would tell him about her threat when they proceeded to discussing Éomer's fate. Of course Gríma would sniff foul play if the King did not agree to his plans, and she did not doubt that one way or the other, he would be able to pry the reason for the older man's reluctance from his mind. How would he react? She would find out very soon.
With a deep breath and a brief quiver in her stomach, Éomund's daughter looked back over her shoulder at her guards and wondered at the same time how wonderful it would feel to be out here by herself. Uncontrolled and free to do whatever she wanted. It was not like they made Éomer take guards with him whenever he felt like going for a ride. She sighed at the injustice. It was also not as if she did not know how to wield a sword, herself. She was fully able to defend herself.
A frown crept onto Éowyn's face as she stared north. Somewhere far beyond her range of vision, there was her brother, just now making his way to the Entwood with his éored to battle those accursed orcs… and, provided he survived that battle, he would be greeted as a traitor upon his return. He would be incarcerated, banished or killed for risking his life to protect those who could not protect themselves. What was the injustice of not being able to roam freely wherever she wished compared to what Éomer was facing? What right had she to complain?
Éowyn swallowed, her temporarily good mood rapidly deteriorating at the thought of having to head back into the snake pit.
"My Lady?" Alfríc, the younger one of her two guards, rode into her range of view, his expression worried. "Is ought wrong? Is there anything we can do for you?"
She looked at him, at the same time appreciating his concern and loathing his intrusion. How young he still was. Younger than Éomer, and already a member of the esteemed Royal Guard. Yet in his eyes she read open concern, for which she was grateful.
"It's nothing, Alfríc," she said with an effort to smile at him. "I was just lost in thought for a moment."
"The sun will soon go down," Wulfhart, the other guard, said as he approached. "We should head back, my Lady."
She nodded, and her heart sank even lower. She knew who would be expecting her at the Golden Hall's doors and she had no way of escaping him. Her stomach tightened at the thought. Never before had the hall's silhouette looked so threatening to her.
With a brief command, Éomund's daughter directed her mare back towards the ascending path. The whole way back, her stomach sent clammy shivers through her body, to the point where Eowyn felt no longer certain she would be able to keep its contents down.
She took extraordinarily long to free Windfola of her tack and rub her down afterwards, although the stablehands offered to relieve her of this task. But at long last, the inevitable could no longer be delayed.
It was already dark when she emerged from the stables, her gaze instantaneously drawn to the brightly illuminated hall. Her legs felt like wooden sticks as she ascended the stairs; her hands involuntarily balled into fists. There were the door wards, curiously looking at her and, inclining their heads in greeting, opened the massive wooden door.
Éowyn stepped in, barely daring to breathe. As always, the fire in the hearth did not reach all of Meduseld's niches, but more than her eyes, it were her instincts which told Éomund's daughter that a miracle had happened: Gríma was not there.
Vaguely wondering what he was up to and already knowing that it could be nothing good, the White Lady of Rohan quickly disappeared into her chambers, almost ashamed to feel momentarily relieved.
Another endless slope. Not too steep, but long, and further draining their horses' power. An endless sea of grass waves rolling beneath them and obscuring their sight. All that Éomer could tell was that they had by now passed the flat expense of Eastemnet, and that the land had begun to rise again towards the Entwood and the Misty Mountains behind it.
The sun hung lowly in the sky and cast its orange rays over the hills and dales, thereby turning the landscape into a confusing pattern of light and shadow. And yet suddenly, Éomer straightened in the saddle, a flash of adrenaline shooting through him even before his mind had consciously discerned the reason for his reaction. Something was moving in the shadows before them. An even darker shadow, spread into a thin, long shape that consisted of many separate bodies. At last!
Cries erupted from his riders, and suddenly, tension filled the air.
"There they are!"
"Faster! We must ride faster! They have almost reached the forest!"
Unhooking his horn, Aedwulf cast a brief glance over to his marshal, who gave him a brief nod.
"Let it sound, Aedwulf. They've already seen us. Now, let's put terror into them!" Éomer freed his own horn from his belt, and, upon a short look that showed him that the rest of his vanguard was waiting for his signal, he blew into it.
A sharp, many-voiced alarm rang out over the upwards sloping land under the orange light of the setting sun; an aggressive sound that promised violence and death to the enemy. Even from a distance, the Riders could make out how most of the orcs turned their heads, stumbling as momentum carried them further. No sound could yet be heard of them over the thunder of the éored's hooves, but suddenly, a great group burst from the main body of the orc army, making for the forest with every ounce of strength they had left.
Aedwulf laughed grimly, all exhaustion forgotten at the sight of the enemy.
"Ha, they run like hares! But it will not avail them."
Through Firefoot's laboured breathing, Éomer felt the deep grunt he already knew so well. It was his stallion's way of letting him know that he was ready for whatever his rider would ask of him. That he, too, wanted the death of their common enemy. Thankful, Éomer laid a hand against the wet, grey neck, clapping it. Telling Firefoot that he understood and appreciated his cooperation. Somewhere, after all these hours of hard pursuit, the war-horse found the strength to accelerate.
A brief glance into the orange sun revealed to Éomer that it was the last possible moment for their attack; darkness could be no more than thirty minutes distant. Their shadows lengthened behind them in the red light, while those who cast them had almost reached the deformed blackness trailing the big orc group before them. Soon, they would be upon them, and although the son of Éomund felt strung out after the long ride, he also felt the familiar tensing of his muscles, and the hot stream of battle readiness flooding his body. A grim smile appeared upon his face.
His men reacted at once, grey and blue eyes focussing on the running orcs like a hawk's upon a mouse.
"Fan out! Encircle them before they reach the trees! I need ten riders to follow me! We will overtake and block them!" He looked at Aedwulf. "The rest of the éored is yours, Captain. Bring them up behind and alongside that foul brood. Feel free to inflict maximum damage upon them whilst doing that, just remember: don't get too close yet. Good hunting!"
"And to you, Marshal!" The older man inclined his head in greeting. The next moment, he was gone. Left behind by a powerful burst of speed as Firefoot stretched beneath his rider, hooves hammering the ground in a mad rhythm. It was met by a grim laugh from Éomer.
"Forth, Éorlingas! Let's get them!"
He ducked as the stallion's dark mane whipped his face, enjoying the obvious dismay amongst their enemies as several orcs again burst from the main body of their group, panicking. 'Run all you like, you cannot escape, filth!' he thought, pleased with how quickly they were closing the gap now. Apparently, their foes' unusual endurance was coming to an end. Éomer felt very tempted to send his arrows into the dark mass of wildly fleeing orcs, but fought the instinct down. Once they had overtaken this group, then their exchange of deadly pleasantries would begin, and not a moment sooner… although, he saw, their enemy saw this differently, as several bows were being pointed in his riders' direction.
"Arrows! Watch it!"
A dark, deadly rain rushed at them, shot on the run and most projectiles wildly astray, burying their deadly heads harmlessly in the grass.
Behind him, Éomer heard his men laugh with ridicule, and relaxed slightly. So, those orcs still had the same, weak bows as before. That was good news. There was probably the odd crossbow to be feared, but it was nearly impossible to shoot it with any precision on the run, let alone reload it. Things were beginning to look better.
They were flanking the group now, herding them, in fact. Even as he looked, several of the great orcs stumbled and fell, already being targeted by his vanguard's rear. Before them, dark and forbidding in the growing twilight, the Entwood rose from the ground, a natural barrier for horse and rider, but not for orcs.
They would make it, though. They were just in time! Reaching over his back, he unslung his bow. Now for the hairy part: stopping this dark, fanged mass of stinking beasts from entering the forest. He fitted his first arrow to the string.
"Éorlingas, follow me!" he cried, and swerved right, directly into the path of their enemy.
For a moment, the orcs proceeded, and in the orange light, their gaping mouths with their sets of horrifying fangs were all Éomer could see as they stormed toward him… and then the first row fell, slaughtered by a hail of arrows released by his fellow riders. The beasts immediately behind the felled orcs stumbled over their brethren and mayhem ensued.
They fired a second volley into the orcs, again dropping many of them, but already, Éomer could see the ones behind them raise their bows and crossbows at them.
"Spread out!" he cried, and threw Firefoot around. With a deadly whisper, the arrows raced towards them, and Éomer felt the impact of two of them against his shin guard and chest armour.
Then a great roar rose from the back of the orc group, where Aedwulf and his men had entered the fray, and the Uruks in front of them whirled around. And yet even while they did, Éomer noticed the bright white hand upon their helmets. He cursed. For many months he had suspected the Necromancer to be the source of their troubles in Westfold, and here at long last, was the proof he had been seeking for all this time! His evil grin deepened at the thought what Grima would say once he confronted him with his knowledge.
Mentally making a note to himself to take one of these helmets with him to Edoras when they returned, Éomer released another arrow into the orcs. A quick glance around confirmed to him that his men had succeeded in encircling their foes, and now, even over the din of their melee, the sound of horns rose and announced the arrival of the rest of their éored.
'Thank you, Béma!'
Panic broke out among the orcs now, and again, a group stormed toward him in blind fear, their crude swords raised to hack to pieces everything in their path.
"Back! Come back, you fools!" a loud, guttural voice rose over the din. "Come back or die!"
A sharp swishing sound could be heard, and most of the group fell with arrows sticking out of their necks and heads. The few survivors quickly turned around and ran towards a hulking great shape further back on a little hillock.
Éomer narrowed his eyes as he brought Firefoot to a stop. So, that seemed to be their commander, and it looked as if the great orc had already succeeded in gathering the remainder of his troops and distributing them in a tight circle around himself, bows and crossbows raised and ready to fire at anything within range. A deadly blockade that would claim many lives if they continued with their attack in this way, still over two hundred strong, if he were to risk a guess.
Reluctantly, he unhooked his horn and blew into it, telling his men to stop. The first part of battle was over. It had been clear to him from the first sighting of this group that they could not possibly hope to finish them off in one go, no matter how pressed for time they were. Perhaps a few years earlier, Éomer would have dared it nonetheless, but the shrewd strategist he had become in the meantime knew that a different approach had to be employed now if he did not want to risk his riders' lives.
The signal was quickly picked up and passed on, until, at last, neither orc nor rider on the battlefield were moving. In the last, red light of the sinking sun, men and beasts stared at each other, and all understood that it would be a long night and that not all would live to see the next morning…
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