The darkness had faded to a pale, grey dawn, a light that promised snow from the thick clouds over their heads when the four men on their three steeds came to a halt. Elfhelm's dark bay was drenched in sweat, vapour rising from its heated body into the cold morning air and it was breathing heavily from the effort of carrying its double burden over many leagues at a frantic pace. To the marshal, it was painfully clear that his horse had almost reached its limit. But if he knew one thing about their pursuers, they needed no rest. Uruks were known for their incredible stamina, and each moment they took to give their horses a much needed break would bring their enemy closer again. There was no question that they were being followed. Whoever had been running their way in the night while Elfhelm had been dangled from the rope, occupied with keeping his friend from slipping out of the sling, would do everything in his power to recapture the king, this much was clear. Maybe their little ploy with the éored splitting up had put the enemy off-track, but Elfhelm knew better than to count on it. Still, the fact remained that their horses were in desperate need of a break, even for a few minutes.
But who was their enemy?
As he pulled the reins, his tired gaze swept the surrounding landscape. Since they had headed north-east on the lesser travelled paths through the White Mountains towards Helm's Deep, the terrain had become increasingly rugged and treacherous, but so far he could not make out any distinctive landmarks that would tell him how much longer they had to ride before they reached their destination. An inner voice told him not to linger here for too long – the king definitely needed to see a healer fast. Éomer had not said anything for the duration of their ride, and his slumped form in Elfhelm's arms had told the marshal that the younger man had been barely conscious enough to stay on the horse, even after they had tied him to the saddle as soon as they had gained a big enough advantage over their pursuers. The heat radiating from Éomer's still form had the marshal horribly worried and prompted him to urge his mount on, though he knew that Éon would hardly be able to go on much further at the sharp pace they had been travelling at.
Turning around in the saddle, Elfhelm only had to look at the faces of the two men accompanying him to know they were just as tired as he, but equally determined to go on. Still, there was something else written all over his scout's uncharacteristically dark-toned face, something he could not lay his finger on or name. He did not ask. The half-Dunlending would tell him as soon as he was ready to share his knowledge. In the two years the since the younger man had been assigned to his éored, Elfhelm had quickly learned to trust and even more - to depend upon the black-haired soldier with the dark, keen eyes. It had not been easy for Thor to become accepted among the traditionally suspicious Rohirrim, but through his calm, yet self-confident attitude and undeniable skills, he had won over the Lord of the Eastmark who had made it a point from early on to give the ragged young man from a devastated village at their western border a fair chance. The seasoned warrior's approval had then done the rest for Thor. None of the warriors he commanded would ever have had the mind to question their marshal's decision, so their unusual kinsman had been unanimously accepted among the warriors of the Riddermark, and by now, two years later, his ancestry was no longer an issue for any of them.
Elfhelm raised a hand as his two companions looked at him in expectation.
"The horses need a rest. Let us halt here and let them drink and graze for a moment… I also need to look at Éomer."
Careful not to knock his friend off-balance, he slid out of the saddle and they untied the king and managed to lay him down on a blanket that Findárras had quickly untied from his own horse and spread on the ground. Leaving their horses to themselves as they knew they would not run, the captain and the scout watched their commander kneel next to the freed captive and helped him lift Éomer's head to offer him water from a canteen. The unconscious man's reaction – an anguished moan, a half-finished curse and sudden jolt to the side – came unexpected. Elfhelm tried once more, but again could not pour a single swig between the firmly shut lips. With deep lines on his forehead, the marshal abandoned his initial idea and chose instead to run his hands over the younger man's body in search for injuries. At last, he pulled his dagger to slit the mud and blood-stained tunic around the shaft of the bolt to have a look at the apparently most serious wound. A tell-tale, sweet stench reached their noses and turned their faces grave.
"Sweet Eru…" Findárras muttered as he saw the angry red of Éomer's skin around the black wood. Together, they gently turned the unconscious man on his side… and saw his bloodied back. "It pierced his shoulder. If we pull it, we will only worsen the damage already done to him."
Elfhelm nodded, his mouth a drawn line. This was even worse than he had thought.
"Aye. We need to drive it through. But it has to come out!" Carefully, he ran a finger over the thick wood shaft. The lines on his weathered forehead deepened. "It really sits in there…" He grasped the bolt and moved in with his dagger to cut off the black feathers … and paused to look at Éomer's face. There was no sign that the young king was anywhere near waking, so this was the right time for his grisly task. He went to work. Behind him, Thor and Findárras took in a deep breath.
"I am not sure whether it is wise to do it out here, marshal" the scout finally spoke, hesitant. "If the arrow comes out, it is likely that the wound will bleed heavily and we are not equipped to handle that. He already looks very frail to me. He needs a skilled healer, no improvised first-aid."
"All I know is that it has to come out fast! It is poisoning him! We all know what orcs to with their arrows…" Elfhelm continued, determined – until, with the last cut, the shaft suddenly fell off under the pressure, the long, splintered end clearing the wound. He cursed and picked up the broken piece to inspect it. The other end was still lodged in his friend's flesh, no longer visible. Swearing, he looked at Éomer's back in hope to be able to pull the remains of the bolt out from behind, but no sooner had he closed his fingertips around the protruding iron tip to pull, when it, too, came loose with absurd ease, also splintered. For a moment, Elfhelm just sat on the ground and stared down at the blood-encrusted tip in his hand. This was bad. On the ground, the king began to moan.
"We cannot pull it out here," his red-haired second-in-command repeated their scout's statement calmly, hoping to reach his marshal. "We need to reach the next settlement first. As far as I remember there is a woman who has a good reputation as a healer among the soldiers. She will know what to do."
Cursing, Elfhelm thrust the remainders of the bolt to the ground. His sinister gaze swept the path they had come. So far, not a sign could be detected of their enemy's presence. He turned his head to look at their horses, which were still standing by the river-bank, drinking, oblivious to their masters' plight.
"It appears that we have no choice then," he mumbled, under his breath. A brief nod in the direction of their steeds. He exhaled. "Let us give them a few more moments. They have run far this past night. And the settlement may yet lie another five or six leagues ahead. It will not help us if they collapse underneath us." The scout was not looking at him, and he did not seem to listen. Elfhelm's eyes narrowed.
"Someone is coming our way…." The dark eyes scanned the horizon in the direction they were headed. The marshal and his second-in-command spun around. "Looks like four riders… and a riderless grey horse."
"Must be Hárrdras. I told him to bring Firefoot, if he could get a hold of him," the red-haired Findárras sighed in relief. "I figured that if we freed the king, the weight of the both of you would become too much for Éon to bear over a long distance." He took a deep breath. "They made it then! Praise Eru!"
"Good thinking," Elfhelm admitted, angered at himself for not thinking of it first. The riders approached, and indeed he recognised their armours, helmets and horses now, if not their faces until they had approached them and brought their steaming steeds to a stop. The oldest of them, a wiry, weathered-looking man with a long, dark-blond beard and a face that looked as exhausted as their own, addressed them.
"My lord Elfhelm, I report that your éored is already halfway on the road to Helm's Gorge. The three groups have reunited at the mouth of the gorge, as ordered, and should arrive at the village by nightfall." His eyes widened as he spotted the unmoving shape behind them. "I see you succeeded, Marshal… but how is our king faring?"
"He is alive, but he needs a healer, and fast." Elfhelm eyed the men in deep concern. They looked wearied, and one of them had blood smeared all over the right side of his face from a nasty cut on his brow. "Did all men make it back?"
Hárrdras' face darkened.
"Alas, no, my lord. The attack cost us the lives of seven men… and five more were wounded, one of them grievously. He might not make it.
"Seven!" Elfhelm paled. "Valar..." He shook his head. "These are bad tidings." A short glance at Éomer. He would spare his friend the details of his rescue if he could. Éomund's son would be devastated to hear the hefty price of his own survival. "Did you kill the warg?" It had been an elemental part of their plan, for as good as the Uruk-hai's sense of smell was, the warg's was superior, and all efforts of throwing their enemy off their track would ultimately be in vain if the orc-wolf picked up their scent through the air from leagues back. But the expression on his rider's face told the marshal that his hope had been in vain.
"I am afraid we did not succeed. We wounded it, but I cannot tell how seriously. It was still fighting when your signal came and brought down two of our men and horses alone. I fear that it may not be too badly wounded after all."
Elfhelm snorted frustration and shook his head.
"So they are very likely still on our track."
"It would be safe to assume that, aye."
His eyes went over to their horses again and Elfhelm had to fight the sudden inner urge to call them back and continue their flight immediately. 'Patience', he told himself. 'Let them rest a little bit longer, and they will be able to go on much swifter and further.' His glance returned to Hárrdras.
"I assume that none of you has spotted our real enemy, the foe behind that army of Uruk-hai? For I do not believe that the Uruks attacked us of their own accord."
"I am afraid we did not, Marshal. We were not close enough to-"
"I did." Eyes turned to Thor, who had been silently following the debriefing from behind and returned their stare with an uncomfortable expression on his face.
Elfhelm furrowed his brow, not wanting to believe what he had just heard, and when he spoke, his voice sounded tense with only barely suppressed anger.
"You saw him? You recognised our enemy?"
An incredulous look.
"So why did you not tell me? It is the one thing I need to know most urgently! Thor?"
The dark eyes turned to him. Yes, this was the expression he had seen on his scout's face just before they had stopped. It was one he had seen there only on very rare occasions. One that made him queasy: uncertainty. What was going on?
"It cannot be." Dumbfounded silence. "I mean... it is impossible. It must have been a trick of the light as he came running towards the cliff. His face was partially in shadow, but –"
"Who was it?" Elfhelm felt like throttling the younger man. Why was he still waiting to deliver this vital piece of information? The scout opened his mouth for a reply, but it was another voice that answered.
"It is Wormtongue."
Éomer had been listening to the discussion for a while already while he had gradually risen from a black, bottomless pit through a stream of fragmented thoughts, images and barely hinted notions to the surface of reality, even though he was by no means certain that it was in fact reality he listened to. It sounded rather like a continuation of his perpetual nightmare – men losing their lives because of him, long-time friends putting themselves in mortal danger even though they despised the man they were doing it for...
He cringed at the prospects of having to address them, of submitting himself to their well-earned disgust by claiming their attention, but if – through his knowledge – he could prevent yet another bloodbath, he would have to do so. So he spoke, and at the same time, forced himself to open his eyes.
His sight was blurred and unfocussed, but even so, it could not be missed how much his unexpected words had startled his men as they jumped and turned around. Under different circumstances, Éomer might have found the sight amusing, but his own shame as well as the open concern in his old friend's eyes killed the impulse immediately as Elfhelm hastily took the few steps separating them and kneeled down at his side.
"Éomer! How-" The question died on his lips. It was quite obvious how the king was faring, so Elfhelm swallowed it and instead laid a hand on his shoulder to give him a reassuring squeeze. The expression on his face was one of disbelief. "Wormtongue?" He shook his head firmly. "Wormtongue was killed in the Shire. We have proof of that."
"What proof?" He was so hot... it was almost impossible to hold his concentration up as Éomer stared into the marshal's grey eyes. "There were only words... rumours... no body."
"Did you not say for yourself that the Halflings would not have lied to us in a matter of this importance? I thought you believed them!"
"And I still do. They did not lie – they did not know better. Gríma set it all up." His throat was dry and hurt when he spoke, and this time he accepted the water his one-time mentor offered him willingly. Exhausted, he sank back. "No, he is very much alive, Elfhelm. And he has a devious plan to avenge himself on the people of the Mark..." He closed his eyes, too weak and too ashamed of himself to keep them open. But he had to finish this, had to keep up his concentration at least long enough to share what knowledge he had. "He is breeding Uruk-hai in the Misty Mountains..." The collective gasp around him could not be overheard. A hand tested his brow, and as Éomer forced his eyes open again, he saw in Elfhelm's face that he was not being believed.
"My friend, you are delirious..." The older man shook his head in denial. "You are burning up. Surely you can no longer distinguish between-"
"I know what I saw! I know what I heard!" Éomer's hot temper flared up from out of nowhere. "For Eru's sake, I was his captive over two days, Elfhelm! I may be feverish, but I still know what I am talking of! You better start believing me – or Thor, for that matter. He saw the same! Did you not, Thor?"
"Aye..." The scout nodded, discomfort over having been caught between his marshal and his king plainly written on his face. His gaze locked on Elfhelm. "In fact, I saw him quite clearly... yet I dared not to say anything for I doubted myself. I knew how unlikely it was."
A leaden break. The seriousness of the situation began to dawn on the men as they stood in a silent circle around their king, contemplating the meaning of what they had just heard. Finally it was Elfhelm's second-in-command who ripped himself out of his stupor first to glance at the horizon the way they had come.
"I believe we should be on our way again, marshal. The horses appear to be ready to leave, and we should not abandon more of our advantage over the enemy lightly. The way still ahead of us will not be easy to travel. Not so in daylight and much less during the night." As he spoke, his eyes followed a white something from his line of vision to the ground, and he sighed inwardly. Snow. It would further complicate their flight and make it harder to wipe their traces. It was with relief when he saw Elfhelm nod.
"Aye. You are right." Still kneeling, the marshal turned to the fallen king. "I am afraid you will have to stay on horseback for a while longer yet, brother..." He seized Éomer's shoulders and was taken aback when his hand was slapped away.
"No. Leave me here."
"What?" He could not have heard that right.
"You're faster without me..." The wounded man did not open his eyes. "And I don't want to come with you."
Elfhelm gaped at his men in utter consternation and found his expression mirrored in their faces. A moment later, he shook his head, pushed aside what he had believed to have heard and gestured Findárras to help him sit the king up.
"I don't know what is going on in your mind, my friend, but if you believe that we attacked those Uruks to get you out of their grasp only to leave you lying here now, you are mistaken! You are coming with us. Findárras?" He renewed his grasp on Éomer's arm and met with resistance as they slowly pulled the king up. Suddenly, dark eyes met his in seething anger, a sight he was not prepared for.
"Friend? You are calling me 'friend'? Stop your lies, Elfhelm! At least you should be honest with me. I have heard enough lies from Wormtongue already." The king turned his arm, yet could not break the men's grasp on him. "Let go of me!"
"This confirms it: You are delirious, my friend – and you are coming with us, no matter what!"
Elfhelm decided he would have none of this. Even though the younger man's erratic behaviour troubled him deeply, they had no time to search for its cause. With a combined effort, the éored's two commanders brought their king up on his knees. And now Thor came to their aid, as well. Together, they put the swearing Éomer on his feet and at the grey stallion's side. Firefoot carried a saddle that was not his own and even though he was not used to having others handle him, it was almost as if he understood the situation and his master's need, for even though Hárrdras' hold on his bridle was loose, he did not stir when the men bumped into his side.
"Let go of me, Elfhelm! That is a direct order!" Éomer's strength was failing him fast, but still he fought against being lifted into the saddle.
"I am not taking orders from delirious men. – Findárras, Thor?" Together the three men wrestled the king onto the grey's back. "Now tie him to it! Make sure he stays up there!" For a moment, the marshal observed the preparations for the continuation of their flight, and when it soon became clear that his friend was in no condition to commence his unexplainable resistance, he turned and gave a sharp whistle in the direction of their horses. A moment later, his trusted Éon was at his side, and he took Firefoot's reins and tied them to the back of his saddle. "Hárrdras, you and your men lead the way. Thor, Findárras – for as long as it is possible, you ride at Éomer's side. Support him if needs be, just make sure he stays in the saddle. We need to make haste. The morning is already half-gone, and my gut tells me that the weather is going to get worse. Let's see that we reach our destination as soon as possible!" With a last glance back at a – thankfully - still empty horizon, Elfhelm urged his steed into motion again...
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.