Scyld spurred Stormshower over the rise. The grey responded reluctantly, topping the crest of the hill and flying down it at close to full speed. Just behind him the other members of the eored rode; Byrhthelm and his Fleetwind raced at Stormshower's flank, the chestnut's nose nearly even with the cantle of Scyld's saddle. From the corner of his eye Scyld could see the dialated nostrils, the sweat rubbed into foam by the leather of Fleetwind's bridle.
And ahead of him, a spear of white in the darkness, rode the old Pilgrim, Gandalf, upon great Shadowfax. Erkenbrand and Wulf kept close pace to Shadowfax's near side. Ahead of them, coming closer all the time, was the dawnlight, a thin and bloody strip against the rolling horizon. Scyld saw that band widen, wondered how much time there was left.
As if in answer, above the din of hooves on turf, though, Scyld heard a deeper, more ominous thunder -- battle, he thought. His pulse beat faster now, faster even than the swift pounding of Stormshower's running. A forest stood hard to their north, a forest he could not remember being there. They would have to dismount; the trees were narrowing swiftly, pressing them closely up against the outcroppings of rock that formed the western edge of the coomb. The dawn played cruelly with the eyes, tricking the horses into stumbling over stones and shadows.
Erkenbrand raised one gauntleted hand, and Scyld obediently brought Stormshower to a halt. Behind him, the rest of the eored slid to a quick stop and dismounted. Quelling a surge of anxiety, Scyld did the same.
"Let them go," Erkenbrand ordered, his voice hoarse with the strain of the wind and the ride. "We'll have to go on foot -- we can't risk broken legs and a pile-up if the lead horses fall."
Scyld absently stroked the flat expanse between Stormshower's eyes, smiling as the horse leaned into the caress. When he had first gotten the horse, a trade from a shifty man near the border of Gondor, it had been head-shy and unwilling, but now so valiant a fighter! An extra pair of eyes -- and two extra pairs of legs: that was the standing joke amongst the eoreds, but in times like this, it was not so much a joke as a much-needed truth. Fighting on two legs was almost foreign to Scyld.
Wordlessly, he gave Stormshower the command to turn and head for home. The horse left obediently along with the rest of his compatriots. All the horses trotted out in loose formation, vanishing back into the dying night, all the horses save Shadowfax, who waited proudly and did not look winded in the least.
And all about them the forest loomed. Scyld drew his sword and pulled his shield closer to his body. He knew infantry tactics, knew and did not like them: there was something terrifying and claustrophobic about being trapped under a shield wall while being pelted by a hail of arrows. Not moving, pinned down with no room to breathe... The forest pressed closer, as though the trees actually moved.
As he peered about, dimly aware of Godwin standing behind him, he saw something.
It was grey and furtive, flitting about the shadows at the edge of the forest. Two great golden eyes, gathering in the scant light, glinted unexpectedly. Scyld followed its movement, swallowed past a dry throat as he registered the lean and hungry frame under the thick brush of grey fur.
A carrion wolf, the worst kind that haunted battlefields, waiting for its turn at the banquet. He could almost smell the blood on the wolf's breath; the imagined sensation spurred a memory of a foal brought down by a pack, a trio of wolves leaving the feast, and a lone scavenger coming up to pick over the bones.
A sharp croak and a shrill scream broke Scyld from the memory. There, almost overhead -- surely the trees were moving -- were an eagle and raven. The raven was almost invisible against the blackness, only his wings and the beady disk of his eye picked out by dawnlight. Next to him the eagle, resplendent in dew, shook moisture from his feathers and screamed again. It seemed to stoop over the waiting company, hovering; the raven's beady eye fixed Scyld with a knowing look.
I will very likely die, he thought. His shield seemed like parchment to him, his sword a stick, a child's toy. There had been a poet, an old man, who had said any man who saw these three animals together would share in death with one of them. A wolf gave death to my friend; the wan raven, the dark eagle, bore another away.
"What do you see?" The faint breath of Godwin's question nearly did Scyld in.
"A... nothing." It was bad enough to see the omen of his death; he was not going to spread it around. Godwin seemed to be looking where he had been -- could he see the wolf? Scyld thought he could see it plainly as day. Overhead the raven and eagle kept their expectant vigil, and the raven cawed dolorously...
... but no other Rider, not Godwin or Erkenbrand or Gandalf, looked
Erkenbrand signaled for the warriors to form up and they did so, joining into a long, narrow column. Scyld found himself on the side closest to the forest and, as they began to march, saw that the wolf was keeping pace with them. Above him two black forms glided, silent and silhouetted against the greying sky.
And in this manner they made their way through the edge of the coomb until they peered over the bowl of Helm's Deep. Scyld swallowed his fear, though the wolf ghosted through the rocks now and the raven perched atop a boulder. He went by them, like a man passing through a gateway, and as the sun rose, making of Gandalf and Shadowfax a pillar of light, Scyld also saw the dark eagle floating on an updraft above the battle.
Incongruously, as the charge began and he lifted up a battle cry to match Erkenbrand's, Scyld thought of Stormshower, flying away back west.
* * *
It's an interesting detail in "Helm's Deep" that when Erkenbrand and Gandalf show up with reinforcements, the troops are not mounted:
'There suddenly upon a ridge appeared a rider, clad in white, shining in the rising sun. Over the low hills the horns were sounding. Behind him, hastening down the long slopes, were a thousand men on foot; their swords were in their hands." (Houghton-Mifflin TPB, 529)
When I discovered this, in re-reading to get my orientation and timeline right, the story suddenly became much longer.
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