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Rohan Ghost Story, A: 11. To the Rescue
"I do not believe it," Findárras, Elhelm's second-in-command, muttered into the grass as he peered down from the steep hill they were lying on. "I thought they were all dead. That there were none left after the battle at the Hornburg. And yet there they are!" There was very limited activity in the camp below them, but there were enough of the hulking dark shapes moving around in the pale moonlight to give them unmistakably away.: Uruk-hai, the most fearsome breed of orc ever to disgrace the face of Middle Earth. Somehow, he had hoped the girl was mistaken.
"They must have come from outside the Mark, although what would lead them here is completely beyond me. Or should I rather say 'who'? I do not believe for a moment that Uruks, as advanced as they may be from common orcs, would act like that – set up an elaborate trap to lure Éomer out of Edoras, and then capture, but not kill him? Uruks are no strategists. There has to be a human foe behind this scheme, mark my words," Elfhelm growled while he stared in equal disbelief at the large host of Uruk-hai below. These foul things had killed Éothain, who had been a good friend of his. From what the girl had told him, they had killed Éomer's entire personal éored, most of which had been experienced long-time warriors Elfhelm had known for at least a decade. A deep, churning rage started to build in the pit of his stomach. And where was the king himself?
"There's the warg!" Thor mumbled next to him, pointing a finger at the right end of the upwards-turned U-shape in which the army had built their camp. "Still patrolling. But he cannot pick up our scent where we lie." The wind was blowing into their faces.
"But he will pick it up long before we actually reach them up if we attack them from that side, and as far as I can see, these Uruks have range weapons. These are no club-wielding, primitive creatures like trolls – I am certain they know how to use a bow or crossbow. If we attack from this side, they will inflict heavy damage on us... and we cannot come from here, either." Findárras scratched his beard pensively. "With this wall in his back, the enemy is untouchable."
"Whoever commands that army is no fool," Elfhelm admitted. "Which confirms that it can't be a Uruk. Thor, can you see-"
"I see the king!" the scout suddenly hissed in excitement, barely able to restrain his voice. "There! Almost in a direct line below us, in the middle of the 'u'. I cannot make out his face, but it has to be him!"
Elfhelm concentrated on the dark shape Thor was pointing out to them and narrowed his eyes. It was hard to say. There were no campfires, and the moonlight was not bright enough to illuminate details such as faces. The man was lying on the ground and did not move. He was not wearing any armour, and while he appeared to have long hair, it looked darker than Éomer's. But then again, it had been raining for hours. The marshal had known the king almost all his life, but even he was unable to recognise him. He would have to trust his scout.
"And you are certain?"
"I am. In addition to his appearance, they are also keeping him well behind their line of defence. If someone would try to rescue the king, he would first have to plough through their entire army to get him – and get out that way again. Impossible… at least for a force as small as ours. We are at least three times outnumbered, and they have the advantage of the place. A direct attack would result in disaster."
"Indeed." Elfhelm bit his lower lip, his brow furrowed in deep thought. "The warg-rider patrols in front of them, and they have this cliff to protect their backs. Nothing can come at them this way… or at least they think so." He peered down at the steep, rocky slope… looked at the prone silhouette again… and again at the steep wall beneath them. Then at his two companions. The grim smile on their marshal's face told them all they needed to know…
"At last, it looks as if your destiny has found you, brother." The slim, ethereal figure had somehow made it unnoticed through the lines of Uruk-hai, and as Éowyn stood before him, Éomer saw a hard, unforgiving glare in her – for a Rohir - uncharacteristically dark eyes. It was a trait they both shared, yet in this moment, it seemed to be the only thing they shared as she came to a halt at his feet without making the slightest move to free him. "Now that you've tasted it, how do you like it?"
"I am sorry, Éowyn," he croaked, shocked by his sister's vengeful appearance. His pitiful state seemed to amuse her. There was a cruel expression on her beautiful face he had never seen before, the delicate lines utterly devoid of compassion as she continued to stare down at him. As 'an early spring morning, still touched by frost,' his men had always described the White Lady, but of course never to his face. He had found out anyhow and always wondered about the expression, for he knew of Éowyn's great capacity for passion and compassion. But as she stood before him now, her long, blonde hair blowing in the slight, chilly night breeze, his sister lived up to her reputation. Her gaze was sheer ice and froze him to the core. "I never intended to… I never wanted-"
"Your words are the words of a coward," she interrupted him brusquely, her voice deep with anger. "Not even in the face of death do you have the courage to openly admit your failure and stand by your mistakes. I spent years withering in the dark shadow of Meduseld, imprisoned by your fears, and now you think you can just plead for forgiveness and everything will be forgotten?" She took a deep breath, and her gaze turned even colder. "You do not even mean your words. You will say anything you think I want to hear, even though you will never understand what you did to me. You are like a dog that desperately wants to please its master. You are pitiful. I am ashamed to call you my brother."
There were no words that seemed fitting as a reply. Her words were sharper, the pain they inflicted more agonising than any sword. They hurt even worse than Wormtongue's, for as masterfully as his captor handled language, it was Éowyn he had loved ever since she had been placed into his arms for the first time as a tiny bundle wrapped in a blanket when he had been but four years old. All through their youth, their adolescence and maturity, she had looked up to him, confided in him and sought his protection and comfort when her days had been almost too dark to bear. And now... she hated him?
Behind her fragile silhouette, Sleipnir thrust his head down and continued his dance on the slope. He was closer now, but still dared not approach him. Éomer hoped he would not wait much longer; he was yearning to get away – from his captor, his bad conscience, even from his sister now. He had barely ended the thought when Éowyn's face melted away… and suddenly his uncle stood before him. Not the King Théoden filled with life he had followed into battle on the Pelennor, but the old, bent, dishonoured prisoner of Saruman's. He leant heavily on a staff, and his eyes regarded his nephew with tragic disillusionment.
"You achieved what you craved more than anything else in the world, sister-son. Hail, Éomer-King! You must have been pleased indeed when the messenger brought the news of Théodred's death. Nobody stood between you and the throne of Rohan anymore."
"Pleased?" Éomer's eyes widened at the horrible accusation. "I was as shattered as you, uncle! Théodred had been like a brother to me! If you remember, it was I who brought him home all the way from the Fords of the Isen. Would I have done so if I had wanted his death?" But he could not get through. Théoden's face was grief-stricken as he glanced down on the fallen king.
"Alas, I had not listened to Gríma's accusations for a long time. I had been hoping that you would still find your way, that you would start to listen to what the people were saying. I had such high hopes for you…" To Éomer's dismay, the old man started to weep. The thin, weak body shook so hard that the staff fell from Théoden's grasp, and he swayed.
"Uncle…" Frantically searching for a way to redeem himself, Éomer stared up, his lips moving, but the words would not come to him… and when he blinked, Théoden was gone and it was his captor he was looking at. The pale blue eyes went straight through his defences all the way down to his ugly, stained soul, and the thin lips curled into a nasty smirk.
"You were talking, my lord? To whom? There is no one here." Éomer remained silent. The gaze was almost hypnotising. He could not avert his eyes... nor could he close them. Gríma moved another step closer, and the malicious smirk deepened. "Are you bidding your kin farewell... or are you asking them for forgiveness? They will not hear you, my liege. They are far away... or dead." The dark counsellor squatted down next to his prisoner and eyes gleaming in delight.
He could not think... or speak. He. Could. Not. Those pale eyes...
"Are you praying to the Valar to let you die? Spare the effort. I will not let you die... not yet. What you witnessed today was barely the beginning. Soon, the entire Mark will experience what the people of Iséndras tasted today. It is only a matter of time before the kingdom of Rohan will be wiped off the face of Middle Earth." He laid a hand on Éomer's hot brow and then held out the water-skin he had brought with him, pressing it against Éomer's tightly shut lips. And shook his head in disapproval. "It is water, my lord. You are running a fever. You need to drink."
"Leave me alone, snake..." Finally, his tongue obeyed him, even if it was hardly a whisper. The next moment, his chin was seized and a cool liquid filled his mouth. He swallowed, too exhausted to fight Gríma off. It was a bad sign that the scrawny counsellor was by now stronger than he, but hardly a wonder. The water tasted strange on its way down, and as Éomer turned his face away, he knew he had once again been given one of his foe's potions. Closing his eyes and sinking back as Gríma came to his feet at his side, he closed his eyes and wondered briefly what it would do to him ... as a sudden shout rang out in the darkness, and all hell broke loose!
The thunder of hooves approaching the opening of the niche they were settled in was not to be overheard – someone had come to his aid, and from the sound of it, it was a big éored, more men than he had taken along on his ill-fated venture into the meara-valley. Elfhelm? Could it be Elfhelm? No. The Lord of the Eastmark had to be home by now, back at Aldburg... or at least at Edoras, waiting for his king to return from his own errand to issue his report. It could not be his teacher and friend of old.
'And he is not my friend anymore. Not after what I have done. He would not risk the lives of his men to rescue his immoral king.' – ' Then who is it?'
Dazed and confused, Éomer tried to turn his head at the sound of the roaring Uruk-hai, but was too weak to even sit up. Wormtongue still stood next to him, but his foe's attention was entirely consumed by the sudden attack, the pale eyes focussed on the darkness beyond as he shook his head in open bewilderment.
"I cannot believe your men are stupid enough to attack us here! They will pay a hefty price for their boldness!" Gríma sneered and rushed away, leaving his captive lying on the ground, a muttered curse trickling from his lips as he left to organise their defence. Pathetically scrambling in the dirt, Éomer somehow managed to push himself into a half-sitting position against the rock he was leaning on just when, with a swishing sound, an arrow passed over his head and embedded itself in the cliff behind him. An arrow of a familiar design. For the duration of a heartbeat, the sight of it forced the vaguest hint of a smile on the king's face… but it died with the next. Did he want to be rescued? What for? His men – more men! - were dying for him in this attack, and not because they loved and honoured him, but out of duty. Because it was impossible for any self-respecting Rohir to let himself be insulted by an enemy in that way. Because it would be a signal of weakness to their other foes, such as the Dunlendings, if they allowed an enemy to capture and kill their king without any kind of retribution. No, an example had to be set; the attackers had to be destroyed – for the sake of the Mark. They did not do it for him, but they were dying nevertheless, loading yet more guilt onto his already burdened mind.
Further back, a horse's awful dying scream could be heard, drowned out by the triumphant roar of a Uruk. Mesmerised, Éomer stared into the darkness, while at the same time he registered from the corner of his eyes that the ghost horse was following his gaze intently. The way the battle raged, its service would be needed someplace else sooner than here.
'No,' he thought, desperate. Sleipnir started down the slope... away from him. 'Don't leave me here! Take me with you!'
Sand trickled on his head. He was too absorbed to notice. The stallion rushed down the hill with bizarre effortlessness. He almost seemed to glide. Soon, he was among the Uruks. They paid him no attention as he charged through their rows to where another desperate cry rang out.
'No, come back!' Éomer's eyes started to burn with agonising despair. Why was everybody deserting him? Now it looked as if not even death welcomed his presence anymore.
More sand. And gravel. A flint hit his head and fell to the ground. Reflexively, he looked up – and squinted as a load of sand rained into his eyes, but just before his sight vanished, the king caught the glimpse of heavy boots. What-
"Éomer!" The voice sounded muffled and strained with effort, but he recognised it nonetheless. Yet it could not be! It had to be a vision, something his dazed mind had come up with to torture him yet again. Still there was more gravel raining down on him…
The next moment, a heavy weight landed at his left side, and he forced his eyes open, blinking heavily to force the sand out. Elfhelm's broad, scarred face filled his vision as he kneeled down next to him, open concern written all over his features.
"Éomer?" A hand grasped his good shoulder and gave it an assuring squeeze as the marshal cast a quick glance in the direction of the battle. Nobody had noticed the unexpected guest yet, but they could not hope for their luck to last much longer. Elfhelm's attention returned to his king as he widened the sling he had wrapped around himself and slid it over Éomer's head and shoulders, careful not to touch the protruding bolt. "This will hurt, but it will only be for a short time. Hold on!" He pulled the sling tight, wrapped one arm around the younger man and gave the rope a quick tug.
They were pulled upwards so fast that Éomer had no time to prepare himself for the pain, and his initial grunt became a yell as the rope slid under his bad shoulder. Elfhelm's hand over his mouth came too late. Not far from them, a dark silhouette spun around on its heels – and shouted, frantically yanking the Uruk-hai next to it around. The Uruk had a readied crossbow in his hands as it closed the distance with huge strides, already aiming.
"Faster, Thor! Faster!" As the cruel weapon was lifted up at them, Elfhelm struggled to both keep the limp form of his friend in the sling and prop his feet against the rock-wall to send them spinning in order to provide a more difficult target. A cry from above – "The rope!" – then a sudden drop. Something passed the marshal's left ear so close by, he felt the slight draft of air, before it embedded itself into the slope behind as they were violently jerked upwards again. The older warrior grunted as the rope cut into his rib cage. More Uruks had abandoned the battle and were headed their way now! "Thor!"
One last tug, a violent upwards heave – and then eager hands helped them over the edge of the cliff. An angered scream reached their ears from below. Frantically, Elfhelm freed himself from the sling and pressed a hand against the king's neck. He found a fast-beating, strong pulse. Good… but why was his skin so hot? It felt as if Éomer was burning up from the inside!
"Éomer? Come on, we need you awake! Thor, give the signal!"
"Marshal, we need to move!" Findárras urged them on from the edge of the cliff, peering down in concern, while the scout blew the horn. Their riders would abandon the attack now, separate into three groups of equal size and head for the first settlement in the direction of Helm's Deep on different paths in order to confuse the enemy. "They're all coming our way! It's like an angry beehive down there!" He ducked a flying arrow and retreated.
"I know," Elfhelm grunted, still shaking the moaning king and shouting into his friend's face. "For Eru's sake, Éomer, wake up!" His efforts were rewarded when the younger man's eyelids fluttered… and then opened to reveal a dazed, confused look. A short, grim smile crossed the marshal's face as he speedily propped Éomer into a sitting position to slide his hands under his shoulders. "Welcome back, my friend. I need you to stay in a saddle. Can you do that?"
"Findárras, help me!" Elfhelm was certain that Éomer had not actually understood his question as he seized his friend's bad arm and pulled him to his feet while his second-in-command supported him from the other side. Another pained yell, but there was no time to do this in a gentler way. "Thor!"
"I've got him. Go ahead!" The scout held Elfhelm's dark-brown steed tightly and watched anxiously as his two brothers-in-arms wrestled the limp king into the saddle while the noise of the approaching Uruk-hai began to rise behind them as they swarmed up the hill. "Ready?"
Elfhelm nodded and - breathing hard, slid into the saddle behind Éomer's slumped form, sweat-drenched from the effort. Mounting his own horse, Thor cast a sceptic glance at the two men.
"I hope he remains in the saddle."
"If he falls, we are dead," Elfhelm muttered and – seeing the first dark shapes of their enemy appear on the top of the hill behind them, kicked his heels into his steed's flanks.
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