14. A Decision
The snow was falling in frightening masses from the starless sky. Thor furrowed his brow as he looked back the way they had come earlier, his fingers subconsciously working the collar of his heavy fur-lined cloak to tighten it around his neck. It was cold, and the wind was further picking up. It was no storm yet, but it would soon become one. No weather to make for the narrow mountain path to Helm's Deep, least of all by night. It was a little-known shortcut that – if they managed to get through – would put them almost a day ahead of their enemy as opposed to taking the much longer way on the Great East-West road across the plains. It was treacherous though, and now that the snow was accumulating on the slopes, they would not only have to worry about their enemy coming from behind, but also about avalanches.
The scout's keen, watchful eyes cut back to the distant glow on the horizon, back the way they had come. He had sent a messenger to the healer's hut a short while ago with the news that the first fire had been lit. The enemy was indeed still approaching, even under these horrendous conditions. Wormtongue had to be desperate to come for them in the middle of the night. But of course he was. If his valuable prisoner was lost to him and the secret of Rohan's uninvited guest spilled across the Mark, the late King Théoden's false counsellor would be hunted for the rest of his lowly, miserable life wherever the slightest rumour of his appearance surfaced. No, his only chance was to follow them and – if possible – kill them all, every single man of Marshal Elfhelm's éored. Although… a man as cunning as Gálmód's son also had to know that there would have been messengers deployed already, which had to be halfway on the way to Edoras with the tidings of his survival. Or was he assuming that Elfhelm would keep his men together, hoping that those one or two additional men would make the difference in battle if he would not send them away? Who knew what went on inside that human demon's twisted mind? He and his army were marching towards them, that – in Thor's opinion – was all he needed to know for now.
His preoccupation was broken when he heard the crunching of snow under heavy boots from below and then someone ascending the wooden ladder to his watchtower. A broad, darkly-clad figure entered the platform, breathing heavily as he stepped up to the waiting scout who acknowledged his superior's presence with a curt nod. There was one big question on his weathered, tanned face as he faced the marshal, scanning the man's gloomy expression. He did not like it… not at all.
"How is Éomer?"
The larger man took the last step that separated them and placed his gloved hands on the wooden rail to gaze broodingly at the distant fire, his thoughts clearly still back in the hut. A thick, sharp scent of herbs emitted from him into the chilly late-autumn air.
"He is resting now…" Elfhelm inhaled deeply and fought to keep the images he had witnessed over the course of the last hour from consuming his concentration. He could not afford to lose focus now. The situation was still desperate. His kinsman had learned long ago to read his superior's moods and knew what the older man's unusual quietness meant. Carefully, he inquired further, his eyes following the marshal's gaze even if there was nothing new to see, his voice lowered in concern.
"Where they able to pull it out?"
"Aye…" Elfhelm bit his lower lip and then turned to Thor with a deep sigh. The tired and worried expression in his dark grey eyes spoke louder than words. "But it was hard for Éomer. The shaft was splintered into several pieces inside his shoulder when it punched through the bone." His opposite grimaced. "The healer is certain that she found all the pieces, but… he is very weak now. The procedure was very painful, and he lost a lot of blood." The marshal's gaze went back to the faint flickering on the horizon as he shook his head helplessly. "I truly do not know what to do, Thor. I am at a loss. I have always been able to improvise even under the worst conditions, but... I cannot for the life in me imagine him on a horse in an hour… if we have an hour left, that is." A silent question stood in his eyes. The scout pursed his lips pensively and took his time to consider his answer while he watched the snowflakes melt on the older man's eyebrows. Finally he spoke.
"The fire was lit a good while ago. We should not wait much longer, especially under these conditions." He nodded at the thickly falling snow. "The Uruk-hai will have a better grip in this terrain than our horses. I do not know how exhausted they are, but I think it is safe to assume that they are still advancing faster than we want them to... and I am not certain at all whether we should attempt to cross this mountain path… the rocks will be covered with ice, and there is of course the danger of avalanches to consider. In my opinion, we would stand a better chance at staying ahead of them on the plains... without risking as much."
"The storm will be devastating on the plains," Elfhelm objected firmly. He knew those late autumn bouts all too well. "And our horses are exhausted. We are exhausted! And I just told you about Éomer. The healer is not even certain yet that he will survive, and if we expose him to these conditions any longer than we absolutely have to…" He did not end the sentence, but it was not necessary, for his kinsmen understood him quite clearly. The dark eyes widened in dismay.
"She is not even certain of that?"
Again the distant echo of Éomer's anguished cries rang in his ears, muffled by the piece of leather he was biting almost through in agony. The veins on his temples and the neck-muscles standing out from the effort, his whole body rigid to the breaking point from fighting against the pain, face contorted and eyes squeezed shut. Crimson rivulets running down his bare, sweat-beaded chest and ending in a red delta on the blanket he was lying on, soaking it. His desperate attempts to wrench his bad arm from his friend's hold while the healer buried her instruments in his shoulder. Fighting so hard in fact that they had to call another man to help hold him down in spite of the fastened restraints, astonishing, given Éomer's weakened condition. And he had fought like that for an eternity, or at least it had seemed like one to Elfhelm. So long had the younger man refused to pass out that at one point Elfhelm even considered knocking his friend unconscious to lessen his suffering, and it was only just before he decided to act on his idea that Éomer's body finally slackened under him, much to the relief of the people tending to him.
The rest had been easier, but still distressing, even though the marshal had seen his share of the carnage of battle over the years. He was not a man who was easily shaken… but the young king was a close, personal friend, one of the closest that he had, if he thought about it. He was the son of his former captain, the great Marshal Éomund's son, and he had known the passionate, sincere young man since he had been barely able to walk. Even though Elfhelm had made it a point in his military life to keep his distance from most of his men, he had always felt like an older brother or even a parent to Éomer. In one way or another, there was no denying that the king was like family to the lone, seasoned warrior… which made it all the more difficult to experience what had happened in the hut.
There had been a lot of blood, the bad smell of the infection, and the healer's muttered remark as she washed the wound that it 'would be easier to take off that arm and make the king pull through than keeping it attached to his body and do the same'. Elfhelm had looked at her in horror, not wanting to believe how serious the situation still was. How frail his friend had become, and that his life was hanging by a thread. They had rescued him, hadn't they? How could he still be in danger when he was among friends? He had not wanted to believe what she told him next, either: that even if Éomer survived, his fighting days would be over, for his arm would forever stay weak. Elfhelm had looked down onto the young man's sweat-drenched face, the jaw still tightly closed around the leather restraint despite the fact that he was unconscious, and was unable to digest the healer's verdict.
He still denied the possibility to himself as he fought to surface from his sinister thoughts and deal with the situation at hand. Time was running through his hands. He had to keep a clear head. Turning away from the faint glow on the horizon, the marshal looked down on the few huts of the settlements, his lips a tightly drawn line. As a result of his second-in-command's orders, the farmers had left their homes a short while ago, headed north towards the great plains on a narrow mountain path the enemy would not be able to navigate. They had also done as they had been told and freed their stock, but the animals could not be convinced to head out in the chilly night while they had perfectly sheltered stables instead. Every time the farmers had tried to force them out, they had headed back, even when they had closed the doors. The animals were still running around in the village in their search for shelter in the beginning snowstorm. They would be lost; there was nothing Elfhelm or anyone could do about it.
"Thor?" The younger man's expression was telling him that his orders were eagerly anticipated.
"Aye, Marshal? What do you want me to do?"
Good man. He probably already knew what Elfhelm was going to ask of him.
"You pointed out that narrow part of the gorge to me shortly before we arrived. You said that it would be an ideal place to stage an ambush on an advancing army. Do you remember?" His scout narrowed his eyes.
"You want me to go?" He did not question the plan, although it had to be clear to him that he would place his life in extreme danger if he did.
"Not to fight them, and not you, anyway. I will need you on that mountain path, as I have never travelled it myself. Find three good men and tell them to make for that place, and fast. When there, I want them to climb up--" The scout grimaced at that, and he knew how ridiculous his order sounded, but what could he do? – "and send an avalanche down there, or a rockslide. The slope looked quite unstable to me; it should be possible to send a devastating hail of rocks down easily enough. But we need to block that path. We need more time."
Thor nodded thoughtfully.
"Then I would suggest they do that just as the enemy is passing. We may be able to diminish their forces considerably." There was no need to mention that those men would put greatly jeopardise their lives this way. It would be a mission from which they would presumably not return. But of course Elfhelm knew that. The weary expression in his dark eyes spoke volumes as he gazed at his scout, deep in thought.
"Aye… it would help us very much indeed… but I will not give such an order. Let the men decide how they want to proceed. I cannot order them to walk to their deaths. If they block the way and delay Gríma, it will be equally valuable to us… just summon them fast." He forced himself into motion again, headed for the stairs. Time to get moving. "Abandon your post, Thor. We know they are coming. You are more valuable to me on the ground now. Find Findárras and order everybody to ready themselves for departure as fast as possible. I will go and get Éomer, and when we exit that hut, we will leave."
"Aye, marshal." The scout looked relieved that the waiting was finally over. "We shall be ready."
It was the crackling of fire he heard first when he surfaced from the abyss. That, and a tapestry of muffled voices in the distance. He listened to them for a while, but could not understand. Then the pain hit, and listening, or any activity other than lying flat on his back and trying to concentrate on breathing against the searing agony in his right side was out of the question.
Was his arm still there?
For a moment, an unspeakable dread filled Éomer and he did not want to open his eyes and find out. What if it was gone? What if… he was crippled now, forever doomed to encounter pitying looks from his kinsmen? Forever doomed to hide in the Golden Hall while his men went into battle like some weak, senile monarch shortly before his end, because he was unable to wield a sword or shoot a bow? Short of having people he loved killed or suffering, that had always been his worst fear. He had never been able to look at kinsmen who had lost a limb without feeling a sharp sting himself and wondering how he would go on living if he would have to share their fate one day. What if he lost a leg and would never be able to ride again? What if a grave injury condemned him to spend the rest of his days in forced apathy, never again to leave the Golden Hall? The answer had been simple – he would sooner die than surrender to such a fate. It would be like cutting the legs off a horse, the wings off a bird. He would accept neither pity nor a cage, no matter what fate had in store for him… and what if he would forever be remembered by the name of 'Éomer the One-Armed' by the people of the Mark? Would he be able to live with it? The thought was frightening enough to lend him the energy to open his eyes.
It was still there.
They had bandaged his shoulder and bound his arm to his torso and then laid him on his side as to not disturb the exit wound on his back. Éomer also noticed that he was dressed in a warm, though slightly scratchy green woollen tunic and new breeches. A thick, fur-lined blanket was wrapped around him. Éomer's blurred gaze found back to his shoulder. Even the gentlest turn of his neck punched the breath out of his lungs, but he just wanted to look at his arm again and take comfort in the fact that it was still attached to his body. He did not recall too much from the moment on that the healer had begun her work on him, other than the sour taste of leather in his mouth and the white-hot bolts of agony that had ravaged his mind like a ravenous, starved predator, digging into the essence of his being with long, sharp claws, ripping and tearing, shredding his conscious to pieces. Elfhelm's and the healer's helpers' soothing, but fruitless efforts of calming him down. Sarabande shouting orders over his anguished grunts to the men holding him, issued in a cold, relentless voice devoid of compassion he had hated at that time. He had not had the energy to get angry at her then, and now that the procedure lay behind him, Éomer understood that her detachment had been a simple necessity to keep a calm mind in the midst of her gruesome work. Emotions like compassion would only be a hindrance when one had to dig into the wounds of fully conscious patients. She had succeeded in removing the remainders of the arrow from his body, and for that he was thankful, as his eyes went to the nearby table at the head-end of his bed. The splintered wooden pieces lay still there, and Éomer shuddered as he recalled the grinding sensation of wood and metal scrubbing against bone inside his body, and the creaking of his jaw muscles as his teeth ground down on the piece of leather in his mouth. His own muffled grunts and cries over the buzzing in his ears shortly before blackness thankfully claimed him.
Speaking of which – he was entirely spent. He wanted nothing more than go to sleep again, but the pain and a premonitory feeling that he would not be allowed to rest for much longer kept him awake and uneasy. Gríma's army was still tracking them, wasn't it? He was certain that he had missed most of what had been going on due to his deranged state, but if he knew one thing about his foe, it was that Wormtongue would not give up so easily while he still appeared to have the upper hand. His Uruk-hai were fearsome, and there were a lot of them, certainly more than Elfhelm had with him. If they could not avoid open battle, they would be annihilated. That was a simple and unshakeable truth. Stretching his legs under the blanket, Éomer shifted his position just the tiniest bit to take pressure from his hurting hip.
He had just closed his eyes again and begun to sink back to sleep when the voices in the back of the hut increased in volume. There were a variety of them now, all speaking simultaneously. Something was happening over there, and from their anxious tone, he king concluded that it had to be something bad. He blinked wearily… but there seemed to be something wrong with his eyes, for the entire room was suddenly bathed in an obscure mist. But 'mist' was the wrong word, for while his view was not obstructed, it looked to Éomer as if the consistency of the air had changed… liquefied, somehow. As if the interior of the hut were filled with water. And then he saw it - a faint pale hue pouring down from the ceiling to the floor of the hut; a thin, white mist that obstructed Éomer's view as it grew increasingly brighter ... to solidify in the shape of a great, white horse. The neck proudly arched, it tossed its head as it descended, and the long mane whipped the air and cascaded down over thick muscle like froth on the shore. The sharply-cut head, its silhouette keen and bold, was raised as it drank the air with flared nostrils, and when it turned around to look at him, the sight of large, empty black eyes bereft of life froze Éomer's innards and knocked the breath out of his lungs as a violent black current seized him.
Sleipnir had come for him at last. All the time, every single minute of the past one and a half days that lay behind him, the king had waited for the messenger of the dead to come and claim him, had pleaded in fact to be taken along, away from his misery, and now that his time had finally come... Éomer suddenly found that he was not ready to go. If Elfhelm was right with everything he had told him to offset Wormtongue's words... then he was not finished here. His people would not cheer when they heard about his death. His passing would weaken Rohan... and it would mean that, even if he had escaped from his foes clutches, Gríma Wormtongue would ultimately be victorious. He could not let that happen. His pride forbade it.
The current was moving faster now, churning ever stronger towards the bottomless blackness inside as the great Stallion of the Beyond stepped up to him, its massive and yet ethereal frame looking far too big for the confinements of this place. The searing brightness it emitted bathed the inside of the hut in an unreal light as the vapour it had travelled on oozed lazily over the stone floor, transferring the simple wooden structure into a mystic place. Slowly it walked, and silently, with a awe-inspiring, majestic grace that and a dreamlike quality, as if it were wading through water rather than air. Its presence was as cold as ice and froze Éomer's breath as he laid on his side and stared, unable to move, a faint trail of vapour coming from his mouth as all warmth fled his battered body. His dazed mind raced as the ghost horse's terrible gaze found him again. The black current seized him with black fingers, slowly pulling him into the void. A single short word came to him, instinctively. A word he thought rather than said, felt than heard; a word that was filled with sudden conviction through every fibre of his being...
The horrible black eyes passed him again, and even if the sockets seemed to be empty, Éomer had the distinct sensation that there was something moving beyond them. Sleipnir was rolling his eyes at him. Threatening him. Coming closer, the chill of his presence was enough to freeze the heart of the mightiest king. There was a question he was being asked, Éomer felt, and it would be asked for the last time. He was certain.
The black sockets lingered on his feeble body for another endless moment, during which the pull diminished… and finally abated as the ghost horse turned away from him. Following transfixed as the unreal shape made its way further to the back of the hut – through the beds and tables and through the people - Éomer finally understood. There was someone else the horse had come for. He had been given the choice. He could have gone if he had wanted to. Poor Bergon further back was denied that choice. Sleipnir would take him, whether he wanted or not. Nobody noticed the radiant white shape as it approached them, its mane frothing around the thick neck even though there was no wind inside these walls to brush through it, the long tail swishing from one side to the other. The king knew he had by some means unknown to him passed into a half-world in order to see the messenger of the Valar. As he looked on, a bright, at first shapeless sphere, too brilliant to look at, rose from the circle of people standing around the fatally wounded soldier's bed. It flowed over the ghost horse's back and when Sleipnir turned around and thrust his ethereal body into the air to ascend to the realm he was king of himself, Éomer caught a glimpse of a man-like shape, the shortest look of a young, relieved face, released from his suffering. Bergon's spirit was looking his way, and for the briefest moment, their eyes met… and Éomer found that the deep thankfulness he was feeling towards the young kinsman who had given his life to free his king was understood. Ghostly pale lips formed a warm smile as the man's steed took a mighty leap into mid-air… and then everything flowed apart, and the King of Rohan was looking at his marshal's face.
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.