Song twisted into warcry; weapons flashed from scabbard and quiver. Horses squealed in angry counterpoint, eager to lash out with hooves and teeth. The fast-moving mass of thick hide and patchwork armor was a difficult target, but sometimes one of the smaller orcs strayed a step too far from the pack. Then bows sang and that orc dropped dead.
A few black arrows flew wildly back but all fell far short. Éomer son of Éomund allowed himself a bloodthirsty smile and bent low against Firefoot's whipping mane, one hand curled around his spear's haft. The sun was setting, but these brutes would not escape under cover of darkness...for ahead lay the implacable green barrier of Fangorn.
The king's son was three days slain, and now the Riders of the Mark would have blood for blood.
Two days before:
It was better to ride. Better to ride than to pace the walls of Edoras; better to ride than to sit idle, playing bones and waiting for the final darkness to fall. Better to ride and fight as if news of the heir's death had never arrived...
The heir's death? Éomer scowled, shifting restlessly in his saddle. Say rather the heir's murder. Survivors bore witness: the orcs' raid had not been a raid. The target had been one man: Théoden's son, the next king of the Mark.
"Théoden's son"? "The heir"? Say his name, man. Say it. Say "Théodred." But he could not. His cousin's name tasted bitter with grief, even unspoken. He hadn't been able to speak that name aloud since he'd heard the news of the battle on the Isen's bank. His uncle, the king, Théodred's father...he had not said a single word since. Grima spoke for him now, more than ever.
Thus it was Grima who summoned the eoreds home "to guard the Golden Hall." Never mind that the borders now lay open, the herds undefended, the outward settlements helpless. Never mind that orcs were now free to foul the Mark's green fields as they pleased.
Théodred would not have obeyed. Théodred would have laughed in Grima's face, teeth flashing with merriment, and then cajoled his father into a more sensible decision. Théodred had always been the diplomat, the warrior, the obvious king-to-be. He'd been hope incarnate; the Riders already heeded him as half a ruler already.
And so now, because of that, he was dead.
Insects creaked and grass sighed in the wind. Night had fallen, and the orcs had gone to ground on a brushy knoll at the plains' fringe. Just to the north branches groaned and swayed as much against the wind as with it. Only a desperate man would venture into the ancient perilous depths of Fangorn Wood.
However, these were not yet desperate orcs. They were held at bay by Riders' spears and a ring of blazing watchfires, yes, but they still numbered two hundred strong. Two hundred orcs to a hundred and ten men. Morning might yet bring death to the men of the Mark.
Still, Éomer mused as he restlessly paced from fire to fire, still... The invaders seemed divided and uncertain, and many were of the lesser breed which quailed in daylight. Sunrise would tell.
Théoden did not see the truth of his son's murder, would not see, could not see. If Isengard's malice was now bent against Rohan, then worse was yet to come...but with Grima hovering at his side, the stricken king closed his mind. Trusting his counselor's advice, he dismissed the survivors' accounts and shied away from the truth.
"This is a tragedy," Grima had demurred on the behalf of the silent throne, "but nothing more. Do not give those beasts credit for more intelligence than a dog. Their grievance is with Gondor, not with the children of Eorl. If we avoid them, they will avoid us."
And so the borders now lay open...the borders which had held fast despite the loss of many good horses and no few of the Mark's best men. All for nothing. Darkness was coming, and the Mark had no one to lead its men singing to the charge.
No one, unless the king's sister-son paid heed to a disregarded report from the eastern border, a wild place where his own father had died seventeen years before. The report spoke of orcs out of Emyn Muil. Orcs brazenly bearing the mark of the Red Eye -- towards Isengard.
Firefoot shifted and stamped as the orc camp erupted in chaos. Unwilling to wait for daylight, Éomer was testing a strategy borrowed from one of Théodred's old tales. He ached to creep in with his men, to slay and then flee laughing into the darkness. Instead he waited here, still mounted, watching and listening. Two bowmen waited too, half-hidden by scrubby trees, in case--
Firefoot shrilled a warning, rearing wildly to rake the air with his forehooves. Something moved in the darkness -- a gleam of metal was answered by a Rider's arrow and an inhuman screech. The stallion plunged aside; Éomer's sword leapt to his hand, but a choking death rattle told him that the other bowman's spear had struck home.
Luckily the scuffle had been concealed by a new outbreak of chaos in the orc encampment. Too close! How did it get so close?! Éomer cursed softly and twisted the reins, wheeling Firefoot to return -- and then nearly lost his seat as the stallion bounded forward to clear something underfoot. Something...alive...? But not an orc, no; for the horse hated orcs and would have trampled rather than leaped...
Then a mare screamed and steel rang against iron barely two hundred yards away -- an ambush! more orcs, from the direction of Fangorn?! -- and the brief mystery was banished from Éomer's mind.
Théodred's death was a blow for those who'd looked up to him as a war-leader, but his close kin could barely encompass the loss. The heir had been a grown man when his father-sister's children, orphaned at only eleven and seven summers old, arrived from Eastfold to be raised as his father's wards. Though Éomer had since grown tall and strong, in his heart's eye his cousin forever towered like a stallion over a colt.
Théodred had spared time between circuits to spar with him in the courtyard. Théodred had taken him out to the herds to choose (and be chosen by) his first warhorse. Besieged by his young cousins' pleas, Théodred would patiently recite their favorite sagas by the hearthfire. As children and sometimes even when older, Éomer and his sister Éowyn secretly believed that even the great Eorl could not have been greater than their beloved cousin.
And now he was dead.
Éomer tried to suppress a superstitious shiver, but not well enough; Firefoot shied in mid-flight. The Rider barely noticed, lost deep in morbid thought. He'd racked up more than his share of orc hunts since coming of age, and he'd never felt anything beyond a hunter's careful wariness. Yes -- they could kill him. They lusted to kill him. But they also lusted to slay the men to his left and to his right. Battle was not personal. That was how one survived. By knowing. That it wasn't personal.
It hadn't been so for his cousin.
Had Théodred known? Had his far-seeing eyes widened with the realization that a minor sortie from Isengard concealed an assassin's plot? Had he understood his doom an instant too late as the trap sprang shut...?
And, Éomer wondered, wishing his thoughts would not perpetually loop back to this selfish road, am I next?
The battle began at the first red gleam of sunrise -- a tumult of horns and a rumble of hooves, a merciless wall of charging horses and flashing spears and hatefully howling orcs. Whether they stood to fight or sought to flee, the beasts fought like demons with blade and bow and fang and claw. Several men fell in the first volley of arrowfire alone. The grass was soon slippery with blood and worse.
Amidst the shrieking confusion a large contingent of the enemy broke away towards Fangorn. Éomer had lost his spear and was bleeding from a deep bite in his thigh, but he barely cared for either as he led a thundering rally to intercept the escapees. The sun was riding higher and the tide of battle was turning in favor of the men...
Then one huge orc chieftain broke free of the melee with a wide backhanded slash that ripped the nearest Rider's stomach wide open. Snarling at the sight, Éomer wheeled and leaned onto one stirrup and swung back his sword as his stallion bore down on his quarry. Easy vengeance. One stroke--
The orc, a great terrible brute wearing the White Hand of Saruman, avoided the blow with the speed of a snake. And one broad clawed hand whipped out to hook the Rider's swordbelt. Unable to react in time, Éomer was torn from his saddle and thrown down with a crash that nearly knocked him cold.
Whatever fear was gnawing at his own heart, it would have to wait. Orcs on the plains! What new deviltry was being brewed by the masters of the two towers, it would not go unchallenged. Would Théodred have let Grima leash him to the throne like a retired hunting hound? No!
And so, with only a whispered word to a few trusted companions, Éomer grimly took the bit in his teeth and rose well before the sun to make his way to the stables.
He'd intended a small scouting expedition, perhaps. He did not count on the speed of gossip in the overcrowded barracks...nor on the loyalty of the Riders of the Mark. Before sunrise, almost a hundred and ten riders gathered just beyond the gate to follow him forth.
He'd not expected so many. Not all of his own men were there, but only because some were remaining to disguise their comrades' departure for as long as possible. These missing numbers were made up by men who had ridden under his cousin's banner. Men who'd seen their hope trampled into the muddy bank of the Isen.
Men whom, Éomer had realized as he'd stared agape, were now seeking new hope.
In him? The disfavored sister-son of a mourning ruler of a doomed land? They wasted their faith. He would never be named heir so long as Grima dripped his poisonous "advice" into the king's failing mind...
Éomer gritted his teeth so hard his jaw cramped. Grima son of Galmod, who counseled King Théoden to cower from the darkness rather than raise arms to defy it. Grima, who barely bothered to hide the oily covetous looks he cast at Éomer's sister. Grima, who wove a web of half-truths to turn the king against his nephew because he knew Éomer would cheerfully skewer him, Grima son of Galmod, if given the chance...
The fall punched the wind from his lungs and nearly cracked his skull. Blinded by the helmet shoved askew over his eyes, Éomer instinctively flung himself aside. A grunt and a thud -- the orc's blow had struck turf instead of flesh -- but --
Don't think don't think just MOVE-- He completed the roll, regained his feet, and found that he still held his sword. The blade snapped up just in time to block a wrist-numbing crash of iron.
Pain sloshed through his head in great expanding rings, but he steeled himself and hastily shook his helmet back into place. Now that he could see, he found the orc was even more massive than he'd thought. And uglier. And it wore a look of harsh intelligence that made his blood run cold.
Orcs should not look like that, he realized fleetingly. They should not stand boldly under the sun, they should not be taller than a man, and they should not smile like that.
Was this what Théodred had faced? Was underestimating this what had cost his cousin his life on the banks of the Isen?
But ah, no more time for doubt! He alone stood between the orc captain and the forest, and no other Rider was free to come to his aid. Already it was upon him again, sword slashing down. It was more akin to a bar of iron than a blade -- the blow struck his own raised sword like a hammer. His fingers went numb and his shoulder screamed under the dull impact.
The weight behind the iron blade was astonishing. If he held firm, he would be driven to his knees and crushed! Éomer hastily twisted away from beneath -- metal screamed against metal as the swords parted sidelong. In the same fluid motion he ducked and stabbed low, trying to hamstring the creature--
--and he instead ran chest-first into a broad steel-knuckled fist.
The world jerked wildly and then the Rider found himself sprawled gasping on the grass. His helmet was gone, knocked loose by the teeth-rattling impact; the beast was above him, its too-wide shoulders blocking out the sun, leaning closer, closer, a rancid stench choking him as he struggled for breath. The crudely painted White Hand on its breastplate filled his vision as though reaching...down...for...
He realized, then, in an odd moment of clarity, that Saruman's sigil was the last sight he would ever see.
And. It. Would. Not. Do.
Éomer's grime-streaked face contorted in a snarl of pure fury. He planted his muddy boots in the palm of that pale Hand and kicked out as hard as he could -- buying a scrap of time, buying a scrap of space. And his sword, yes, his sword was still in his hand, and he still had strength in his arm!
Steel flashed in shadow. Black blood splattered hot across his face, but then his blade was caught and pinned fast. He could not free it for a second blow. He could not free it, and the weight across his soles was now intolerably heavy...his sword hilt was forced from his grasp as the breastplate bore down upon him...
Too fast. It was too fast, and too heavy.
A jarring shock of comprehension swept away the battle-haze: his blade was caught in a vise not only of armor but also of bone. The orc was not stooping to slay. That last desperate thrust had scored deep through a joint in its mismatched mail.
The beast was dead.
The watery morning sunlight was suddenly blindingly beautiful. Éomer wanted to laugh with relief, but as the world swam back into focus the din of battle still clanged and roared around him. If he didn't struggle out from beneath the monstrous corpse right away, he'd be pinned and as good as dead himself...
There! At last! However, as the Riders swerved onto the fresh orc-trail, Firefoot faltered and began to champ with frustration. Éomer was clenching the reins too hard as his mind wandered in anger.
Apologetically, he let the war-stallion have his head even as he forced Grima's face and the rising red from behind his eyes. It didn't matter. Today he rode out in contemptuous disregard for such tiny-minded schemes. Schemes disguised as royal edict, of course, and so later a certain disobedient sister-son would pay the price...
Later, he told himself with a sudden lightening of his heart. A weight had lifted for the first time in days. No need to think ahead so far. Today, ahhh, today the orcs will pay for their evil at the Isen fords.
With that thought Éomer shook his pale streaming braids in the wind, tipped back his head with a laugh, and bellowed out the first canto of, not a riding war-song, but his favorite drinking round. Amid a ripple of guffaws and raucous whoops, more than a hundred clear voices picked up the bawdy verse in unison.
For now...just for now, flying across the plains with a full eored of loyal Riders at his back and the promise of a most satisfying slaughter ahead, all was well.
Smoke belched up in oily black billows; orcs' corpses never burned clean. Still, the nauseating reek was a reminder of death well dealt, and thus as welcome as any merry hearthfire.
As long as one remembered to stay upwind.
With the pyre ablaze and a gravemound raised high over fallen comrades, the Riders had retreated from Fangorn's eaves to nurse wounds and repair gear in the open air beyond. Éomer, however, stayed to watch their foes burn. His hazel gaze was unfocused; his gore-smeared sword hung from his hand. His ears were ringing and his chest was badly bruised and his bitten leg throbbed, but he counted himself quite lucky.
This was important. He was alive. By plunging headlong into battle he had also somehow banished the crippling grief which bore Théodred's name. Most important of all, he now knew the Riders' loyalty was in his hands. All he had to do was ask.
But he would not ask yet. He would return to Edoras, he would calmly accept whatever punishment Grima decreed in the name of the king, and he would bide his time. He would only ask one small secret favor of his men: a message borne to the younger son of the Steward of Gondor. So little time and so much to plan, away from the disapproving gazes of Steward and King...
The Oath of Eorl would hold true. Eorl's descendants would ride to Gondor's defense. And if this was fated to be the final battle...heir or not, Éomer son of Éomund would lead the charge.
Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!