6. Of Camraderie And High Water
Boromir feigned being too busy guarding Smokechaser's step amid the stones to meet Eomer's curious gaze. "It was just a story," he mumbled aside. "And even if it is true, I wager I'm more orc from all the black blood I've had to scrub away over the years. You know how it soaks in."
"True." Eomer dropped the subject and let his attention wander away to idly scrutinize their new companion's mare. Haldir had been as good as his word. A thorough wash in the river had left both men feeling damp and cold but decidedly more human...and, rather than seizing his opportunity to vanish like smoke, the elf had waited patiently on the bank until they were ready to leave. He'd set a hard pace once they were back in the saddle, true, but the two road-hardened Rohirrim horses were up to the challenge.
Eomer reached a decision. He tightened his heels and Firefoot quickened his pace, trotting a few paces to draw level with Haldir. "I must know. Is she elven-bred?" the Rider asked, indicating the silvery mare with an admiring nod. She was beautiful, but she was not fragile; there was a width to her build and a springy strength in her stride that fascinated him. It was...familiar.
Haldir actually chuckled. Again memories shifted behind his dark gaze, but this time they seemed to be fond ones. "I was wondering how long it would take you to ask."
"Oh ho? If I am so predictable," Eomer joked back, "then what is your answer to my next question?"
The elf did not hesitate for even a heartbeat. "Yes."
"Hah! But is it 'yes, she has mearas blood,' or 'yes, let us discuss her bloodline to pass the time'...?"
Haldir shrugged gracefully. "As they are both essentially the same question: yes."
Behind them, Boromir laughed hard enough to make Smokechaser shake her bridle with annoyance. "He is correct, horselord. You can be somewhat...single-minded."
"I see little other way to while away the hours," Eomer retorted, and perhaps he was right. The day was cold but clear, blue-skied and bright. They were following the Bruinen into the uplands, toward the place of its birth; the river grew ever younger as they moved steadily higher, rushing merrily through ever-deeper clefts. So far, the bank was wide and solid enough for the horses to move at a comfortable clip, though a ravine ahead looked mildly challenging. Insects whirred and birds chittered lazily in the brushy hills above.
To be honest, after the oft-times desperate passage of the last few weeks, this peaceful sunny quiet was almost dull.
"Ah, but there you are wrong. I can see many matters of interest to discuss," Boromir observed, "though most of them concern our new friend, and perhaps he is unwilling to speak candidly of elven mysteries."
Haldir looked puzzled at that, and reined back to allow the Gondorian to catch up. That is, the mare acted as if she'd been reined back; her rider's hands never actually moved, so it was hard to say how she knew what he wanted. "Mysteries...? I think not. There are secrets, and then there is merely the unknown. And for that there are two remedies: speaking, and listening.
"Perhaps you and I would feel more akin were I to confide that I, too, have long been plagued by younger siblings. Brothers -- two of them," he added with a rueful roll of his eyes before either man could ask. "So tell me, man of Gondor: you speak at great length of your affection for your Faramir...but surely you have other tales of him to share...?
"Your brash friend is right, for once; talk will pass the time very well indeed. I will gladly match you story for story -- and more besides, for I suffered two small brothers where you only had one. Perhaps, after you hear the terrible tale of 'Rumil Versus Our Mother's Inkwell,' our peoples will not seem so different after all!"
"Little brothers, eh? And here I thought new elves sprang full-grown from beneath toadstools!" Eomer began broadly, but he fell silent when Smokechaser snorted and shied for no apparent reason. Boromir tried to soothe her, but she was shivering; Firefoot danced an uneasy sidestep or two, and rumbled deep in his chest. Even more startling, Haldir's mare pinned her ears back and stopped dead, refusing to budge another step.
"They've never been wrong before." Boromir set his hand on the hilt of his sword and stared about, his grey eyes as hard as steel, but nothing seemed amiss. Birds still sang in the hills above, and the river drifted serenely past.
Haldir was speaking softly to his agitated mare, but so far his coaxing had no effect -- not even in his own tongue. "Dammathenin, bain pen, sîdh. Alagor achas, iell o beleg rokko...
"She has never acted like this," he explained worriedly. "It is neither wargs nor yrch, for she fears neither. This...there is something in the air, on the wind...something that does not belong."
Eomer drew his sword with a frustrated growl, masking a wince as the movement awoke bruises from the previous day's battle. "And of course this new danger waits between us and our destina--"
The ground beneath their horses' hooves groaned, low and deep. Stones clattered, bushes rattled, and a great rumbling roar grew and grew from the winding ravine ahead...
"The river! Up!" Haldir shouted, and suddenly the approaching tumult made sense to the ear if not to the mind. The horses needed no urging -- they plunged upslope in great driving bounds, and just in time. As the roar reached a rock-shaking peak, a white churning wall of water erupted from the narrow channel a bare dozen yards upstream. Both banks of the Bruinen vanished under a cold muddy torrent that surely would have smashed their steeds' footing and whirled them away on the swollen tide.
The three riders stared from their safe vantage point, clinging to a hillside not ten feet above. The flood was already subsiding, draining back into the channel with the same unnatural swiftness. No clouds in the sky allowed for a rain burst -- could a dam have broken? But who would have built a dam so far upriver, in the wilderness? It was a mystery indeed, whatever Haldir might say of such matters...
Boromir shaded his eyes and leaned forward abruptly. There was flotsam and jetsam in the murky waters, mainly branches and clumps of leaves. Except... "Do you see...? That. There." He gestured at a dark mass bobbing and rolling in the choppy surf. It sank even as he pointed, and was gone. But then there was another. And another...
Eomer exclaimed and urged Firefoot down the hillside, skidding on fresh mud and slick grass. The bank was foot-deep in frothing run-off; when the stallion's hooves struck the treacherously smooth rocks beneath, he finally balked and refused to take another step. No matter. Eomer had no intention of plunging into the water himself. This was as close as he wished to approach -- if the river rose once, it could do so again -- and he was now close enough to identify the drifting corpses.
Horses. And only horses. Despite glimpses of saddle and harness, there were no human bodies to be seen.
Eomer had his people's innate fondness for the animals, of course, but despite his friends' jibes he also had the practical soul of a herdsman and a warrior both. Horses died, be it of colic or arrows, lockjaw or blade. The bodies sweeping past on the current saddened him, yes, but more importantly they confused him. How had they been caught so easily in the deluge in the first place? Sunlight glittered on a stirrup here, a bit-piece there. Where were their riders?
One of the bodies drifted to bump against a rocky curve in the bank, not twenty feet hence. As the other two travelers cautiously edged down from their hillside refuge, Eomer dismounted and squelched through the mud for a closer look. The sodden mound had either been black or very dark brown -- it was hard to tell -- and he scowled at what remained of the tack. Crude workmanship, ill-fitting, carelessly repaired and lashed on with no regard for the comfort of man nor beast.
Not that the poor beast had lived in comfort of any kind, it seemed. He sadly ran one hand over the dark flank, tracing the jut of protruding bone under untended hide...
He paused. And looked closer.
Boromir was now cautiously investigating upstream, so it was Haldir who heard Eomer's strangled gasp. He looked over to watch the Rider rapidly check the corpse from hock to teeth, then blinked at the ensuing torrent of creative invectives. When the man rose and turned, Haldir could almost feel the radiating heat of his fury.
"This is one of ours," Eomer snarled. "I found the marks, I know the breeding. This horse is one of those stolen from the Eastmark herds. So this is how our lost steeds are treated...as if the loss itself was not bad enough! I would very much like to hasten upriver that I may demonstrate how a man of the Mark deals with horse-thieves, and I care not if they serve Mordor itself!"
Boromir heard that. He rode back, glancing from friend to corpse then back again. Another body was slowly running aground beyond the first; the shore was becoming a rather gruesome sight. "So the rumor was untrue, then? I had not thought of it since we met, but..."
"Rumor? What rumor?!"
"That..." The Gondorian trailed off, taken aback by the barely controlled rage in his friend's manner. It was not directed at himself, no, but such tension was like a looming thundercloud: all it needed was a spark and a target. Perhaps now was not the time to mention how, once upon a time, he had believed that the horselords willingly sold their prized steeds to Sauron's minions... "It was nothing. I misspoke."
"No, you did not. If there is indeed some ugly false tale rattling about in your skull, I would hear it--"
Something snorted wetly behind him. Eomer whipped around, cursing the fact that his sword was currently lashed to Firefoot. Then he merely stared agape as the second washed-up body...moved.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.