34. The Clash of Arms Begins
Chapter 34 – The Clash of Arms Begins
It was the hour between day and nightfall when Munteseri returned. Having heeded the Easterling's advice, Éomer had spent the time since his committal resting and going through some light exercises to warm his body to the fight after five days of hard riding. Elfhelm's expression had been grim as he assisted his king in the training fight, attacking him left and right, thrusting and parrying Éomer's attacks.
Every now and then, they had stopped to observe their foes' preparations. They had first stuck a stake into the ground halfway between their camp and the Rohirrims' temporary refuge at the foot of the mountain. Another stake had been fastened to the first with a few lengths of thin rope, and while the riders had looked on, two Easterlings had ploughed the ground with the second stake, leaving a scar of fresh, dark earth in their wake in the form of a perfect circle.
One of the women had then stepped forth to take a handful of the moist soil and crumble it into a tiny vessel of clay, singing and mumbling to herself while she collected the sample and retreated. Further back at the campfire, the warrior who had already shown himself to them sat cross-legged and with closed eyes, apparently in a trance. Upon the woman's return, something else was added to the mixture she held in the clay pot, and the singing picked up when she began to paint the man's bare chest with delicate reddish-brown patterns.
Watching, and not liking the display in the least, Elfhelm shook his head.
"If the fight has to be bare-chested, we have a problem."
"I know how to fend off a polearm, brother," Éomer rebuked, observing the scene. "This is not the first enemy I've encountered who has a preference for that weapon. The sword may be shorter, but it is more powerful. I only need to hit him once to cut him down. It is hard to kill or only incapacitate an enemy quickly with a polearm."
His gaze wandered over to the solitary shape of Aragorn, and he had to fight mightily against his instincts of simply running over to free his friend, scything his way through any Easterling that dared to oppose him. In the course of the past hour, they had been able to detect most of the missing Gondorian men similarly bound amidst the camp. All looked miserable, but were at least alive. Yet there had been still no sign of his abducted Rohirrim kinsmen, and inwardly, Éomer was almost prepared by now to believe them dead.
It was too dark already to silently communicate anything to the prisoners by way of glances now, and so Éomer turned back toward Elfhelm with a frown. Apparently, his former mentor had been waiting impatiently for his attention to return.
"I did not mean that. He will see your scar. He will know your weakness and attack it." The marshal's grey eyes returned to his king, deep worry written in them. Éomer shrugged and changed his position, encouraging his friend to continue their training.
"I will not grant him that opportunity."
"What if those signs are wizardry?"
Éomer snorted. He had his own preparations to finish. What the Easterlings were doing to their fighter was none of his concern. What was wrong with Elfhelm all of a sudden to spread such a gloomy mood before the fight?
"I do not believe in wizardry." He lashed out with the sword and took out his tension on the next bush, severing a few branches in the process, fully aware of the older warrior's sceptical glance. Further back, the men of his éored seemed equally mesmerised by the strange proceedings, even if their faces were filled with confidence. The sight of their trust was soothing. Apparently, it was only the marshal who saw problems in the decision his brother-in-arms had made. Was it only because he would not be allowed to fight himself?
Éomer groaned, unwilling to hear yet more of his friend's pessimistic thoughts.
"Gandalf was an Istari. These Easterlings are common men, like us. They cannot summon secret powers and spirits. What they are doing is utterly for superstition's sake, not to endow their warrior with supernatural powers, believe me, Elfhelm. And where is your defence?" He swung Gúthwine in a circle towards the older man's cuirass and forced a metallic clang that woke the marshal from his reverie. Yet Elfhelm was still not looking at him as he pointed with his chin towards the camp.
Gishvané blessed the circle, then fell into the singing. Signalling to Munteseri she stepped into the middle of the carefully drawn circle while her servant went to the Rohirrim to announce the beginning of the fight.
Harishdane gently touched Asentis' shoulder, proud as she had never been before.
"I will await you," she whispered into his ear, and he gave the slightest nod, unwilling to break his concentration as he waited at the circle. The leader let her gaze wander over her soldiers. Their excitement before the fight was always the same. Knowingly she had ordered that all captives' ankles were bound and connected so that they had to remain on the ground, for none of the Easterlings would cast a glance at them during the scásh. She smiled upon seeing the discouraged faces of the Gondorian soldiers, and the more when her dark brown eyes found their leader. The king had managed to get on his knees, but was forced to watch motionless while his friend approached the circle. Their eyes met. The King of Gondor was worried more than words would have told, while the Rohirrim was trying to reassure him. Harishdane smirked. It would not take long, and King Elessar would grieve for his friend.
In the fading twilight, the shape of the emissary on his way to the Rohirrim encampment could be seen, while his people gathered at the chosen place for the fight. The riders rose as one, turning from whatever they had been doing, the tension rising with them. Lifting his chin, Éomer watched their foe's approach, and a hot sensation flushed his veins and catapulted him into battle-readiness as he forcefully sheathed his sword and undid the straps of his armour.
"If you fall…" Elfhelm mumbled, yet forbidding himself to envision the incident he was speaking of. Éomer ended the sentence for him.
"You free Elessar and his men. It is all that matters. I do not care about their rules. We are not bound by them. Their gods are not our gods." Éomer shed his protective shell and felt absurdly light all of a sudden as he walked over to the place where Thor and his men had intercepted the Easterling delegate. "Have a little more faith in me, friend." He slapped Elfhelm's shoulder and left him standing, then heard the marshal's determined steps following. For good or bad, they were caught up in these strange proceedings now. Upon noticing that their king and commander were approaching, the Rohirrim formed a cordon for the two men to walk through. At its end, Munteseri stood waiting, his expression insultingly expectant. Almost joyful, as if he couldn't wait to see their opponents slain and enslaved. Unwilling to take such insolence, Éomer shot the man a hard glance, telling him that he would be waiting in vain for it to happen. Nonetheless, the emissary bowed and greeted him with flawless politeness.
"Hail Éomer of Rohan. It is time. Do you feel ready to be judged by the goddess?"
"Your goddess is of no concern to me," the Rohirrim king replied curtly, his eyes wandering through the rows. "I answer only to my own gods, and they are ready to prove their superiority."
"Very well. Then be prepared to answer to them." The Easterling extended his arm towards the circle. In the rapidly fading daylight, it was illuminated by the torches of the waiting tribe. The dull sound of polearms clashing against each other and the low humming and singing came together in a throbbing, hypnotising rhythm as Éomer walked toward it, closely followed by the men of his éored. A looming presence among the Easterlings captured his attention: the woman was not physically imposing in any way, nor particularly tall, yet her mere presence radiated an aura of authority and wisdom which commanded respect. The streaks of grey in her black hair gave her away as a woman who had seen many summers and learnt what each of them had brought. Intense, black eyes burnt out of a sharply defined face that was painted with mystic runes, intimidating in their seriousness to any weaker man. Like her servant, she too bore a marking on her forehead, different in shape and yet undeniably related. From her position at the rim of the circle, she seemed to stare right into Éomer, and a feeling of coldness began to seep through the king's battle-readiness, nestling in the pit of his stomach. Irritated and annoyed to be made to feel like this, he stared back, unwilling to yield even in the smallest bit.
The singing and stomping of the Easterling crowd culminated in a throbbing crescendo before it came to a sudden end, leaving the silence in its wake laden with expectation. A last, deep red stripe of red on the western sky was the last remainder of daylight as darkness crept upon the land, an omen of blood and death.
"Wait here," Munteseri uttered under his breath from behind Éomer, while the Rohirrim assembled on their side of the circle. "The circle is only to be entered upon the summons of the high priestess." He indicated the line ahead of them and fell silent as the older woman in the dark red tunic entered the markings, her posture proud and erect. With flowing, catlike grace, she moved to the middle of the markings and lifted her hands, the dark eyes sweeping the lines of anticipatory warriors on both sides. When she spoke, her full, throaty voice carried through the tension-laden evening mood, and in response, the strangers from the east moved in unison and knelt to the ground to lay down their weapons. Demure in their posture, their eyes lowered, and then they rose again, hands hanging loosely by their sides. The woman turned towards the Rohirrim, her black gaze commanding. Faces turned towards Éomer in question as he stepped forth and turned.
"Lay down your weapons." His gaze stayed on Elfhelm as his friend bent down to place his sword onto the ground, deep reluctance written over the man's broad face. Their eyes met, and despite the grimness of the situation, Éomer almost smiled. Experience told him that his marshal never travelled without a hidden knife, and he hadn't seen his friend lay that down, too. For what it was worth, the Lord of Westfold would never allow himself to be trapped in a situation unarmed. He was always prepared and true to that spirit, they had used the hour before the fight to instruct their men for all eventualities. No matter what would happen in the circle or outside of it, their warriors would know what to do. It was a comforting thought for Éomer, in the face of the great unknown he was about to step into. Impatiently shifting his weight from one foot to the other while he listened to the priestess' singing, he turned to Munteseri.
"What is she doing now?"
"Patience, oh, horse-lord, patience! Our rituals need time. Gishvané is calling to the goddess now to look favourably upon the two warriors who will be competing, and asks her to give victory to the better. It can only be in your best interest." He flashed another haughty smile that filled Éomer with the desire to test his shiny reforged sword on the man's neck. They watched in silence until finally the high priestess looked at the King of Rohan, uttering words in her tongue. "She asks you to enter now, but not like this." Munteseri took a step forth and turned toward Éomer. "Remove your boots and tunic first."
"I will not!"
"It is part of the ritual."
"I don't care! They're your gods, not mine."
"The circle's been blessed. You will soil it if you enter it with your boots on. You'll desecrate the ritual, and the punishment for that is death."
Narrowing his eyes in protest, Éomer's gaze went over to the high priestess before he reluctantly bowed to follow her orders, forcefully casting his boots aside. The soil was moist and warm under the soles of his feet, a somewhat unaccustomed and distracting sensation. Barefooted and armourless, Éomer also realised that his balance had significantly changed. He was not used to fighting this way. As Elfhelm had feared, the Easterlings were bending the rules to their fortune, and yet he saw not what he could do against it.
"And the tunic, too," Munteseri reminded him. "The opponents will be fighting bare-chested. Both warriors have to be equal. This rule prevents that the fighters carry a hidden weapon or concealed protection into the fight." He inhaled as he saw the king's protest burning in the dark eyes, and his voice gained a sharp edge. "You have to obey, or the fight ends here, Éomer-King."
Another moment went by, and then Éomer slipped out his tunic and threw it to the ground where his boots already lay, a cold draft of air passing over his naked skin. He clenched his jaw, fully aware of the words Elfhelm had uttered earlier. His weakness was unmistakable now, the scar too prominent to be overlooked among the others he had collected in his warrior-life. His only chance of taking his opponent's attention from it would have to be to convince him that it had always been his weaker side, and thus did not matter. Remembering the training fight with Aragorn, this thought was no source of confidence as he entered the circle upon the high priestess' barely noticeable nod, the sword loosely hanging by his side.
Aware that forty pairs of malevolent black eyes followed his every move, he strode toward the middle of the markings. They were scrutinising, sparkling in the fire. Sizing him up. Judging whether he would be a danger to their fighter. Self-consciously, he answered their silent challenge with a fiery glance of his own, telling his foes that they would be waiting in vain for him to ever yield. As he came to a stand under the cheers of his men, the priestess folded her hands together and granted him a short bow in respect, then, with a brief gesture, bade him to remain where he stood. Waiting for his opponent, Éomer tilted his head as the rising chant from the Easterling crowd captured his undivided attention.
The dark-skinned men and women moved to the side to create a corridor between them, lit by torches left and right. In the flickering light, his skin glistening and covered with intricate dark-red patterns, their warrior stepped forth. It was the man who had shown himself to him earlier, Éomer noticed without surprise, instinctively straightening in his stance and squaring his shoulders as he regarded his opponent. The man looked younger than he, yet only by a few years. Physically less imposing and not as tall, yet the grace of his movements suggested that he possessed other qualities. His proudly raised chin, and the dark sparkle as he noticed he was being scrutinised by his opponent, spoke of great confidence as the Easterling's lips twitched into a derogatory smile. Under the cheering of his people, he entered the circle and bowed his head to receive the blessing of the high priestess.
"Step forth, Éomer of Rohan," Gishvané said in her clear voice, "and meet your opponent in the fight. Úshemor expects you both." And while Éomer approached, she lifted her right arm to the second man. "Asentis of the Jásheni-Rhûvenan." The young man stepped forward and briefly touched the pendant with the serpent, bowing to it, before he set his eyes on the man from Rohan.
It was Asentis' first close look at one of the savage, battle-accustomed horse-lords. The people whose charge had nearly turned the tables in the battle of Minas Tirith despite the fact that they had been heavily outnumbered. He could not deny his curiosity, but what he saw impressed him not. The man he was facing – their king, even, he corrected himself – was taller of stature than he and broadly built. Taller than the men Asentis had fought in his homeland during the rise of his tribe, yet he was not troubled. Length of bone usually came at the price of clumsiness. For a ruler of such a vast land, his opposite also appeared to be quite young, barely more than a few years older than he. It was all he could have asked for. Youth – in any case but his own – meant inexperience, and the open challenge in his rival's eyes told Asentis all he needed to know of his opponent. Long years of living for the scásh had enabled him to read other fighters like the glyphs on his armour.
The peasant deemed himself a good warrior. Yet judging by the way the Rohirrim stared at him, the Easterling assumed he was being evaluated by his appearance alone. The strawhead obviously thought himself in the better position, possessed of the greater strength. Asentis smirked. Little did the Rohirrim bull know. Strength was not alone the result of muscle and weight. And just as little could he know about the meaning of agility if he had not fought against one of the Jashéni before. He would teach the rogue, but he would demand a very high price for the knowledge.
Asentis allowed himself a superior smile as he received Gishvané's blessings, and eyed Éomer closely from head to toe for potential weaknesses. He did not have to look far. The broad, sunken scar between his opponent's shoulder and chest was all he could have asked for. The way it looked, the Rohirrim's right arm had to be almost useless. None with a similar injury would have been allowed to fight for the Jashéni. It would have been denied as utter foolishness. So it must have been anger and pride that had provoked the ruler of Rohan to enter the fight himself, apparently afraid he would appear weak to his people if he didn't. Very well. The lesson he would receive would be one his people would not forget. Their eyes met, and as Asentis rose from laying down his polearm at the high priestess' feet, he flashed his opponent the briefest glimpse of the change, combined with a knowing smirk.
A silvery reflection lit the Easterling's eyes and was gone before Éomer had the chance to get a better look, and his confusion was met by a sparkle of white teeth as his opponent graced him with an arrogant smile. Had it been the fire? A trick of his imagination? The distraction was such that Éomer only noticed the priestess' impatient words the second time she uttered them, and upon waking from his sunken state, the Rohirrim king found himself in the focus of her burning black eyes and the object of ridicule to her surrounding kin.
"You have to touch the pendant, Éomer-King!" Munteseri translated, laughing. "Touch it and say your own prayer."
Éomer shook his head, indicating that he neither needed nor wanted the blessing of a heathen goddess. Gishvané accepted the refusal without a word or change of expression.
When the singing ended abruptly and silence returned to the campsite, Ridasha awoke from the trance. Both fighters had taken position, and Gishvané left the circle, halting at its rim. As in many holy fights before, she would decide whether the rules were being obeyed. On the other side of the Easterling soldiers stood Harishdane, erect and confident. Ridasha had seen that expectant and certain expression before, and was sure that she would also be right this time. She need not worry, and she looked at the Rohirrim soldiers on the other half of the circle. They would be good workers, like the others she had accompanied over the mountains. It would be a cheerful welcome by her kin if they brought so many men with them.
Behind the priestess, Éomer caught a glimpse of Aragorn, kneeling behind the circle, guarded by an Easterling soldier. His friend was bound so tightly he could not move an inch. Éomer set his jaw, fully understanding the meaning of this gesture. His friend was meant to watch his destruction. It was meant to weaken the King of Gondor's resistance. A white-hot bolt of fury raced through him. He would not give them the satisfaction! Upon meeting Aragorn's gaze and seeing his marred face for the first time from up close, he put it all into his eyes: he would avenge his friend!
Éomer woke from the distraction to a moment of expectant silence. Gishvané had finished the ceremony and woke from her trance, lifting her eyes and extending her arms to bid the two warriors to step back until they stood five paces apart while she retreated from the circle. Satisfied, she nodded and raised her hand. Tension seized Éomer's muscles, caused them to vibrate as he waited for the signal, holding Gúthwine in front of his face. Knees slightly bent, he dropped into a light crouch, ready to lunge. A last adjustment of his fingers on the hilt of his sword – and the hand fell!
His opponent's shout was lost in the sudden noise of the crowd, but Éomer did not need to understand the words. Their meaning was made clear by the Easterling's mocking expression, and it only strengthened his determination: he would wipe that insolent grin off the man's face!
Crouched in a fighting stance, the two combatants began to circle each other. Slowly, smoothly, ready to react. Asentis was the first to twitch, and Éomer was there to intercept. Steel met wood in a first, tentative encounter. The fighters pushed back, taking up their restless stalking, just waiting for the opponent to expose himself. Gúthwine raised in front of his face, Éomer stepped to the side, all muscles tensed, ready. Answering another testing charge of the Easterling with two solid blocks. Again their weapons remained locked between them, only this time, none retreated. It was a first test of the other's strength and determination, a silent battle for the better position. Face to face, their eyes on their opponent, they held fast, both determined to stand their ground.
Something was wrong. It was only a notion yet to Éomer, but his instincts cried out even after those first throes of their skirmish. The way Asentis was built, it shouldn't have taken him more than a half-hearted try to push him back and follow his stumbling adversary with a quick lunge to skewer him. Yet it took all of Éomer's considerable strength just to maintain his position as Asentis not only withstood him, but slowly seized the upper hand in what had looked like a serious mismatch. And even more disturbingly, there was no bulge of his arm muscles that gave his effort away, no strain of sinew, but as much as Éomer struggled, he felt his toes and heels gradually slipping backwards on the moist ground. Grinding his teeth, he doubled his efforts… and found his opponent ready to counter. Another ghostly pale spark in the dark eyes, a notion of secret amusement – answered by a violent eruption of strength as Éomer threw his entire weight and accumulated anger behind his thrust and lunged with the tip of the blade aimed for Asentis' midsection.
It was what his adversary had been waiting for. Three fast steps backwards brought Asentis out of reach with the Rohirrim charging after him. Too powerful and fast to halt or evade as – with a flick of his wrists – the Easterling swung the knifed end of his polearm towards Éomer's face.
It was too late to halt the forward motion, and only a quick turn of his head saved Éomer from being impaled through the eye. The blade sliced neatly through his brow, and a red veil cut off his eyesight. Instinctively, he spun away to put distance between himself and the other, but now Asentis was following him, twirling the pole in a menacing action as he followed his wounded opponent with the instincts of a seasoned predator. Ducking a vicious swing, he dived behind Éomer's right side and grazed his unprotected back to emerge on the Rohirrim's left. Cheers branded from his tribe as reward for his daring manoeuvre, and he accepted them with a proud smile. He had drawn first blood, the way it had always been. Laughing in the excitement of the fight, he lowered his weapon and invited his foe to retaliate.
The Easterling was a blurred shape behind the red veil, almost invisible to Éomer. Yet he dared not wipe the blood out of his eye, knowing that his enemy was only waiting for him to commit the deadly mistake. Blinking heavily but to no avail, he suddenly saw the silhouette lunge and brought up Gúthwine in defence. The impact was hard and made the steel reverberate in his hand, almost knocking the hilt from his fingers. A stream of slander he did not understand was spit in his face as he pushed his opponent back and followed him with a vicious swing that missed by the breadth of a hair. The fast moving shape evaded into his blind spot. Éomer spun – and yelled as a knife was plunged deeply into his left thigh. A collective groan rose from the Rohirrim crowd.
Elfhelm felt the blood drain from his face as he saw his king stumble. Éomer was vigorously swinging his sword to keep his attacker away, yet he was already dragging his leg behind as he moved, barely able to walk. The cold hand of fear seized the marshal's heart, and the warm blade of his knife against his waist was begging him to make use of it. Yet he could not. By interfering, he would settle not only Éomer's fate, but the fate of them all. He had – yet – to put his faith in his king.
The Rohirrim bull had fallen for his trick, like all the others before him. Somehow, Asentis felt disappointed. Betrayed, almost. Somewhere, deep inside, he had been hoping for a first, real challenge, and if the king of the savage Rohirrim was not able to provide it for him, who ever would? Returning to the fight, he eyed his bleeding and limping opponent. The two serious wounds he had dealt him had to have taken care of whatever ability his adversary had possessed. With the strawhead's eyesight and agility impaired like this, finishing him off would be child's play. Asentis scowled, trying to see the good in it. This opponent was none who would further his glory. He was no challenge. The best he could do for himself, Asentis mused, already in motion again, would be to make the fight longer than it had to be. To drag it out in order to demonstrate his absolute dominance over the King of Peasants, until he would ultimately dispose of him. This way, all would have plenty of opportunity to be awed by his skill, both his kin as well as their enemies... and especially their previously rebellious captive. Seeing the utter destruction of the man he had put his hope in would be the ultimate measure to shatter the prisoner's will.
His adversary was fast, he knew what he was doing, and he had wounded him badly, Éomer realised, hardly able to catch his breath through the waves of excruciating pain that welled up from his thigh. Furious with himself for letting himself be tricked like an apprentice not once, but twice in a short amount of time, he stumbled backwards to bring some distance between himself and his foe. Well aware of how slow he was. How awkward his movements were with his left leg almost useless. The wound was narrow but deep, and while the flow of blood from it seemed to point towards the fact that nothing vital had been hit, the muscle no longer responded as he needed it to. He was indeed fighting for his life now, it dawned on him as he barely evaded the flying knife-ends again, pushing his attacker back. Half-blinded and half-crippled as he was, the advantage lay with the younger man now, and the triumph in the sparkling eyes told him Asentis was perfectly aware of it. He'd have to concentrate, or he would indeed die!
Another charge, too fast for the eye to follow. Éomer stumbled back and brought up his sword, but could not prevent the steel finding him again, this time grazing his right shoulder. No matter what he did, how fast he moved, the Easterling was faster. Asentis was anticipating his every move, ducking his desperate lunges, diving under his defence and whirling around him in an awesome display of battleskills to cut him again and again. Another swing opened a gash above his navel, and when Éomer moved to retaliate, the elusive shape of his opponent made for his blind side and emerged unscathed on his right, smiling.
The Easterling was toying with him! The realisation stung, but the last wounds he had received left no other conclusion. Had Asentis meant it to, his last strike would have killed. Instead, he had chosen to demonstrate his agility by repeatedly evading his enemy's defence, marking him while he had done so. Insulting him anew with each new cut Éomer was unable to prevent. The Easterling's strategy was clear now to him, but it was too late to change his own. The purpose of the first cuts had been to maim and rob him of his fighting abilities, and thanks to his own foolish rashness, his opponent was now playing with him like a cat with an injured rat. He could still bite, yet with each new cut and painful connection of the hard wood with his unprotected body, Éomer felt his chances of still turning the fight to his favour sink.
As if he had read his mind, the Easterling warrior came to a halt in front of him, rising from his crouched fighting stance, and the mockery in his eyes was hard to bear as he lifted his voice to the cheer of his people, raising the hand with the bloodied polearm. He was inviting him to attack, Éomer realised, hardly able to catch his breath. Yet he could not oblige. With his badly wounded leg, he had to wait for his enemy to come to him... and he came, with the force and power of a warg, hungry for his blood. Blocking his sword and shoving him back towards the markings on the ground in front of his yelling tribe, despite Éomer's greater weight. His feet slipping on the wet ground and his leg hardly responsive, Éomer fought back, but could not prevent being shoved towards the end of the circle.
"The line! The line!"
The Rohirrim yelled, warning him, but he didn't need to hear. He knew the line was close, and even if he couldn't believe that Asentis would want to dispose of him in such a way – not killing himself but have his tribe do it – his attempts of avoiding being shoved out of the circle became desperate. Another quick glance confirmed that his heels were already touching the marking, and he thrust his weight forward, grunting in effort... and stared into Asentis' expression of glee. For a moment, their eyes were locked, and in the black glance Éomer read amusement over having beaten his enemy on his own turf. With this demonstration, the Easterling had left no doubt that not only was he quicker, but also stronger than his opponent. But no, Éomer read also, he had indeed no intention of letting his tribe finish what he had begun. This bloody business was what he lived for, and he would relish its taste to the last possible moment. A brief flicker in the dark eyes, and then a mighty shove sent Éomer reeling sideways, along the line, but not over it, and Asentis followed with swinging polearm. The metal-enforced lower end connected painfully with his opponent's lower rib.
Elfhelm grimaced, a cold hand seizing his stomach as he watched the Easterling chase Éomer through the circle. Punishing him. Playing with him.
It was like in a ritual he had once witnessed, Éomer thought numbly, stumbling backwards through the dirt in a vain attempt to escape the flying knife-ends. In their honour, a newly discovered tribe in the far south-west Mark had slaughtered a great wild boar for the feast. They had hunted the fearsome animal for hours on foot, fast and swift, and encircled it when its waning strength had finally caused it to discontinue its flight and turn against its attackers. Ten men with spears, stabbing at the boar from behind and the sides whenever it turned to wet its tusks with its enemies' blood, evading the mighty weapons with ease. Until at last, the beast had been brought down and a spear to its heart had ended its life.
He was that boar now. No matter how fast he reacted, or how fast he brought up his sword to deflect the blows, the knives found him. Grazing him here and there, on his arms and rump, his cheek and back, never as deep as the first two cuts, yet always deep enough to draw more blood and torment him.
Once more Asentis charged, no more than a dark blur in front of the lit torches, a menacing shadow with a deadly sting aiming for the pit of his throat. A reflex brought Éomer's arms up at the last moment, and with a grunt he severed the long bronze spike from the polearm. A short, wild moment of triumph as the weapon swung away from him – only to be grasped double-handedly in a wide grip and return. Éomer had but a heartbeat to evade the blow, but stumbled as his injured leg gave way underneath his weight. A horrible crunching sensation as the wooden staff met him right between the eyes. A hot gush of blood exploded from his nose as he staggered forth – seeing nothing but stars and blurs, his eyes watering – and then a devastating blow to the jaw that rocked back his head. For a moment, he stood rooted to the spot and his arms fell limply to his sides, all strength gone. Gúthwine slipped from his fingers. Another staggering step, trying to keep his balance – and his knees buckled under the roar of the cheering Easterlings.
Elfhelm's hand was on the hilt of his knife. 'No. No! Stay on your feet!' He had taught Éomer swordplay. How to retreat when one was facing difficulties, how to hold the opponent at bay until one had recovered from a serious hit. Ruthlessly, even though it had hurt himself the most to cause the lad pain, had he lectured young Éomer in the art of subconscious fighting. He had drilled it into his eager apprentice's head until he had stowed it away safely in his mind, ready for use, and he could see the rudimentary knowledge in his friend's feeble attempts to remain on his feet, but ultimately everything proved vain, and the King of Rohan went down.
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