15. The Mountain Path
"Éomer? Éomer, what--"The marshal turned around, alarmed by the younger man's mesmerised stare, but the space behind him was empty. "What is it? What do you see?" He hurried to make the few steps over to the resting king, and an shudder raced down his spine. His friend was still looking through him as if he weren't there. Elfhelm had seen that look before… on the faces of warriors who had died in the aftermath of battle. He was horrified to find it now on the younger man's face. "Éomer?"
Éomer blinked. Finally, a first sign of acknowledgement that the king had indeed noticed his presence as his eyes slowly traced back to the marshal's face as if he were waking from a dream. Elfhelm was relieved, but not much.
"His name was Bergon, you said?" The trance-like quality of Éomer's voice would have been enough to freeze Elfhelm's innards if they had not been frozen already, but his words did even more damage. What did Éomer know?
"The man they are treating back in the back of the hut? Aye. His name is Bergon."
"He is dead."
Elfhelm was stunned. For a moment that felt like an eternity, he stared at his friend's face before he felt able to turn around and follow Éomer's gaze – and there he saw the young woman who had introduced herself to him as Árdwyne lay a blanket over the deceased warrior. A sharp twinge of pain shot through him.
"He died for me, Elfhelm…" There was a desperate sadness to Éomer's husky, whispering words as the marshal knelt next to his bed, still looking spooked.
"He died to protect you, son, and I am sure it was a good death for him, all a soldier could ask for. He died performing his duty – and he succeeded in freeing you. If one day I die that way, I shall be content." He swallowed. "We will take him with us when we leave. His body shall not become fodder for Wormtongue's foul army!" Elfhelm noticed that Éomer's attention returned to him. "You frightened me for a moment. I thought…" But did he really want to share his thoughts? But the king's scrutinising stare seemed to go right through his defences and see the inside of his mind. Even though he looked exhausted and pained, there was a sudden, unnatural keenness to his already sharp senses.
"-that I was dying?" Éomer could see that it was so. A ghostly smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, one that had nothing to do with humour… only with the fact that he could hardly believe his own words as he spoke them. He, arguably one of the most rational-minded warriors of the Rohirrim was about to ruin his reputation! "I saw the horse, Elfhelm."
"The horse? Which horse?"
"The White Horse… Sleipnir." The older man stared at him, for once at a loss for words. His face turned ashen as he caught the implications of Éomer's words. It could not be!
"Èomer – you are fevered. It was a dream."
A hard glint sparkled in the dark eyes, one that had nothing to do with the fever.
"I saw him, and it was no dream. He took Bergon's spirit away with him. Bergon was smiling…" He paused. "I heard about that Ghost Horse so often, Elfhelm, and I never believed in it, either. But I do now." The smile deepened, but it was mingled with profound melancholy. His words, meant as comfort, instead troubled the older man even more deeply as he laid his hand again on the king's brow. Lines appeared on his forehead. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could utter a sound, Éomer cut him off, angered. "It is the truth, Elfhelm. When have you ever heard me lie?"
"I am not accusing you of lying. But you are not in the condition to--"
"You have heard these words countless times before, I can read it in your eyes! And yet when you hear them from a good friend, you still choose to ignore the truth behind them."
"I remember we had more than one discussion about this 'Ghost Horse', my friend. And I remember very well that we both agreed that it belonged into the realm of legend. That is was a Rohirric myth."
"Aye… I recall I said that. But I was wrong." The lines on Elfhelm's forehead deepened in a frown, and his expression became so troubled that Éomer felt inclined to calm his friend down by grasping the older man's hand. "Fear not, Elfhelm. Legend says that the ghost horse comes only to the dying… but he let me choose. And I chose life. I will not die… at least not now. I still have a task to fulfil: to rid the Mark of Gríma Wormtongue's ugly face!" He gave the marshal's hand a slight squeeze.
Elfhelm took a deep breath and lastly, forced himself to smile. This was a haunting conversation they were having, one he had not the heart to lead if he had been given the choice, but at least Éomer had ended it on a slightly optimistic note, even though Elfhelm could not tell whether his friend's determination was simple pretence or not. Something Éomer had only said to end his worry… and he could not afford to waste any more time on it, as disturbing as the subject was. Sizing up his wounded friend with another thorough look, he finally forced himself to proceed with what he had come to do. Findárras would be here to assist him, soon.
"Éomer… I know you have been through a lot, but…"
"We have to move on."
"Yes." Silence. They could both hear the wind roar around the hut. Éomer's gaze passed the marshal as he stared at the window to see the darkness and swirling snow behind. The dread on his face was unmistakable. Elfhelm could not blame him. "How is your shoulder? Do you believe you can stay in a saddle?"
"It is not my choice to make…" Éomer swallowed, frightened by the prospects of having to head out into the raging elements. The dark eyes found Elfhelm. Yes, he was frightened. "Is it?"
The older man shook his head.
"I left some of our men at the watchtowers along the way. The first fire was lit a good while ago. Wormtongue's army is coming for us. We must leave."
"Where are we going?"
"Helm's Deep. It is the only place we could possibly defend against an enemy of greater number… although it has not been repaired yet…" Elfhelm went silent, knowing fully well how it sounded. "We can't afford to draw that army to another settlement. You know what would happen."
Éomer looked him straight into the eye and braced himself for the effort lying ahead of him. As his friend offered his hand to help him sit up, he grasped… and hissed at the intense pain as Elfhelm pulled him into a sitting position.
"Aye, I know…" He grunted and fought against a severe fit of nausea. His whole side seemed to be filled with liquid fire. Squeezing his eyes shut and trying to concentrate, Éomer somehow managed to ask between shallow, hasty breaths: "Will we stand alone at the Hornburg or did you send for reinforcements?"
"I sent two messengers to Erkenbrand from Iséndras. They should have reached him by now, but you know how long it will take them to get to Helm's Deep from there, especially in this storm." Elfhelm fought to steady his swaying friend as a voice came from behind, stern and admonishing.
"Marshal Elfhelm, may I ask what you are doing?"
He turned around to face the healer.
"I believe you know, my lady. It is time for us to leave. The enemy is already very close. I told you when we came that they were still on our track."
"And who would the enemy be? Why can we not fight against them here?"
"It is a host of Uruk-hai, at least three times as great as my éored. We would not stand a chance." Elfhelm paused. Saying it out loud made it more believable for himself, too. He was by no means eager to head into the snowstorm himself. "Believe me, Lady Sarabande, I would much prefer to stay here for the night, but we would not live to see the morning if we did. Our only chance of survival at this time, as unlikely as it seems, lies in running from them until reinforcements arrive." He heard his second-in-command enter behind him, and for a moment, got a first taste of the icy gusts of wind that had blown the wiry, red-haired Findárras into the hut.
"Marshal Elfhelm, the men are ready to leave. As you commanded, ten men of the settlement's éored will accompany us. All others have been on the way to the plains since moonrise." His gaze fell on the two healers and their two helpers, the only people left of the village's population. "I trust that you are set to leave, too, my ladies?"
The old healer eyed him for a moment longer and then shrugged as the woman who had introduced herself as Árdwyne stepped up to her with a questioning look on her face.
"There are none left for me to tend to here, except for the king…" Her gaze returned to Éomer, who, from the effort of sitting alone, was already drenched in cold sweat. "And he shall need me before long, I am afraid. Although what I should do for him once we are out there in the night, I do not know." She shook her head. "I am sorry, my lord, but wouldn't it be wiser to head into the mountains and hide until they have passed through, and then return? There are many suitable places we could reach fairly easily – even some huts. Having a roof over our heads alone would help!"
"It will not do," Éomer decided to use what had remained of his authority to end the discussion. They had to keep moving. It took a great effort just to raise his head and look into the old woman's pale blue eyes. His vision of her was blurred and misty before it finally stumbled into place. "They have a warg with them, and the Uruks' sense of smell is too good for us to simply hide in a cave and hope they will pass us by without noticing. They would find us. No, we must go."
She shook her head.
"Sire, your wound has barely stopped bleeding…. you are in no condition to ride…"
"No…" Éomer summoned Elfhelm's second-in-command to his side with a mere look and braced before he let the men pull him to his feet. "But I will have to. Like you. Prepare to leave."
"Firefoot…" The way to the stables had been long and hard, and he had only made it with Elfhelm's and Findárras' combined strength. The vague relief on the other warriors' faces as well as their greetings and words of support had helped him as he had stumbled through the snow. Gríma's words were still all too prominent in his head, but when he had finally dared to look his kinsmen in the eye to determine for himself whether his friend's speech had indeed been founded in truth, Éomer had found only pride and reassurance in their faces... and worry. No disdain. No hate. Despite the fatigue that had claimed his body, he felt better.
He had nodded his thanks and appreciation to them and then concentrated again on staying on his feet against the sudden light-headedness that threatened to overwhelm him just before they reached the stables. His body was folding frighteningly fast, and he was freezing even through the three layers of clothing they had put on him.
Yet still Éomer experienced a brief moment of happiness as he was allowed to greet his beloved grey stallion for the first time since he had been freed from Gríma's grasp. He had his good hand on the horse's brow, the fingers hooked into the bridle as he slowly pulled the big head down to his chest, relishing in the sensation of the warm breath first on his face and then his body as he murmured a traditional Rohirric greeting into the dark grey ears. They twitched, and a slight smirk tugged at Éomer's mouth as Firefoot gently seized a fold of his tunic and started to chew on it. Elfhelm granted them the moment, even if he felt that time was running through their hands. But the king knew all too well himself how pressing their departure was, and he turned to face his marshal with a last pat on the animal's cheek. He nodded – and then his eyes widened as he saw a strange wooden frame on Firefoot's back.
"What in Béma's name is that?"
"Something the people of this village built for the transportation of their wounded," Elfhelm answered proudly. "The healer gave it to us. It will help you stay in the saddle, even if you lose consciousness… but we need to tie you to it." The frown on the king's face was unmistakable, but the marshal was determined not to accept any words of protest and rejection. It was a testimony to Éomer's condition that none came. He simply nodded and swallowed the indignity.
"Help me up."
With combined efforts, they managed to heave him into the saddle, then slung a fur-lined cloak and two heavy, warm blankets around him and tied him to the apparatus. As a finishing touch, Elfhelm tugged the hood of the cloak over his friend's face, trying hard to ignore the pained expression in the young features and instead offer some reassurance that they would best this situation as they had done on numerous other occasions.
"I am sorry we have to dress you like a wraith, but this should at least keep you reasonably comfortable and warm until we get there, son."
"Admit it, Elfhelm: you are actually enjoying this!" Éomer blinked, but the accompanying smile would not come through. "Be assured that my wrath will be horrible once I'm in better condition."
Finally, his efforts at lightening his friend's gloomy mood were rewarded with a very weak smile.
"I shall look forward to it then." He eyed his men, saw that they were all present and waiting for his command, and urged Éon out of the sheltered stable. "Let us move!"
The huts lay deserted in front of them. Nothing moved except for a few animals that fled the procession of nightmare-creatures that spilled into the settlement.
"They're gone", the Uruk-hai captain growled, stating the obvious. His breath rose into the cold air in a white cloud, and the hair around his fanged mouth wore a thick crust of ice. "But the place is still ripe with their smell. Can't be gone long."
Wormtongue nodded thoughtfully, and his eyes narrowed. They were the only part of his face still visible under the heavy hood and the scarf he had wrapped around his neck and lower part of his head.
"They turned their animals loose, too. Shall we kill them?"
"No…no." The counsellor's gaze swept the empty settlement. The tracks on the ground had already almost been erased by the heavily falling snow, and the conditions afflicted the Uruks' sense of smell, too. They would have to hurry, or they would lose their prey. "No. We cannot afford to waste time. Just set fire to the huts, and then we must be on our way again. Make haste!" He paused and looked towards the other end of the village, a slight, knowing smirk playing around the corners of his mouth. "They are close, I can feel it. Soon, we shall be upon them… and you shall have a wonderful feast, my friends! There will be more man-flesh than even all of you can eat!"
"Marshal Elfhelm? Look! Our village is burning!" One man from the settlement's éored pointed behind them in horrified excitement. Visibility was poor in the raging snowstorm, but the ominous orange glow behind the mountain range they had passed could not be misinterpreted. The host of exhausted men and horses came to a crunching halt as all heads turned towards the distant inferno. Eyes widened, and heartfelt curses were muttered.
Elfhelm ground his teeth. Not only were even more of his fellow kinsmen losing their homes and possessions, but the enemy was also much closer than he had anticipated. It could not be much longer than one hour since they had left the settlement. What was the meaning of that discovery? That the men Thor had sent to intercept the worm's army had failed – and been killed? Very likely. Slowly but surely, their number dwindled to the point where Wormtongue's evil forces became truly frightening. Of their éored of fifty, he had sent two men away to alert Erkenbrand's forces. Bergon included, eight men had died in the attack, and five more had been wounded and would not be able to fight fully if they would ever have to engage in a head-on battle. Now, if no miracle had happened, they had lost another three men. Eru be praised they had the village's reinforcements, but all in all, they would not stand a chance if Wormtongue ever caught them. Even if they made it to the Hornburg in this weather… which was something Elfhelm was less sure off by the second.
Letting out a deep, inaudible sigh, the seasoned marshal turned his head to look at the hunched shape of the king under the layers of clothing and blankets, but the hood had fallen into Éomer's face and it was impossible to see the younger man's eyes. His still form indicated that he was unconscious, but there was no way to be certain. A nameless dread gnawed on Elfhelm. Since they had realised their plan and tied the king to the construction that kept him in the saddle, none of them would notice if he died during this horrible night. They had tied Firefoot's reins to the back of Elfhelm's saddle again to prevent the stallion from taking a wrong step on this treacherous terrain as they followed their scout on the narrow path through the mountains, but they were not planning on halting on the way, not even for a short break. They had to get to the Hornburg as fast as humanly possible. Still…
"Éomer?" The marshal narrowed his eyes in a vain attempt to see anything in the blackness under the hood. "Éomer, are you still with us?" No reaction.
"What is it?" Thor, who was riding in front of their single-file line, looked back at him in alarm. "How is the king faring?"
"I cannot say. He won't answer me." Elfhelm came to a decision and dismounted quickly to walk over to Firefoot's side. The path was too narrow for two horses to stand next to each other, and he had to watch his step on the slippery surface. He seized Éomer's thigh and gave it a slight shake. "Brother? In Eorl's name, give me a sign if you hear me!" He squeezed again, aware of the questioning gaze of the healer's helper, whose horse was right behind the king's. Finally, something that could have been a moan, but the sound was almost completely blown away by the wind. The figure stirred slightly under his touch, and the hood turned his way. Snow reflected in dark eyes, but it was impossible to see Éomer's expression.
"Are we there?"
"Not yet, my friend. Not yet." Part of Elfhelm was relieved over the younger man's reaction, but on the other hand, he appeared to be severely disoriented and had lost track of time already. Pushing his worry behind for a moment, he patted Éomer's leg and forced himself to show his friend an encouraging smile. "But we are on the way. Just hold on a bit longer. Can you do that for me?"
Éomer mumbled something that sounded like "...could not fall if I wanted to", but it was too indistinct for Elfhelm to be certain. He repeated his question, eager to proceed. No that he had confirmed that the king was still alive, the urge to continue their flight as fast as possible became overwhelming.
"Cold…" Éomer's voice trailed off, and his head sank onto his chest again.
"I know, son. I know…" Elfhelm exchanged another glance with Árdwyne. "Just stay with us. I promise you that this effort shall not be in vain. We will beat this snake! Don't let him win, Éomer!" He made his way back to Éon and climbed into the saddle to follow his scout, who was waiting for them a few lengths ahead. Even so, his silhouette was barely visible in the thickly falling, white and black chaos of night and snow. One last glance went back to the distant orange glow. Gríma would pay for this, too! "Rohirrim! Proceed!"
Even though the conditions worsened by the minute and it seemed as if all the snow winter had in store for the Mark was going to fall in the course of this one night, the tracks were getting clearer and easier to follow the more they advanced. They were gaining on their fleeing prey, oh yes!
And once they had them, Gríma Wormtongue pondered eager with anticipation, he would make the king watch how the Uruk-hai killed off his kinsmen one by one. He would make them suffer for the little trick they had played on him. He had lost valuable time through their unexpected manoeuvre, and part of his carefully bred Uruk-hai. Replacing them would not be as effortless for him as it had been for the White Wizard. His breeding pits were much less sophisticated, and his overseers not equipped to handle the newly bred half-orcs' training by themselves. He would have to supervise them, and in the meanwhile, a hunt for him would be initiated the likes the people of the Riddermark had never experienced before. Wormtongue was certain that even now there were Rohirric messengers on the way to spread the tidings of his survival across Rohan. He had lost his most valuable advantage, thanks to whom he did not know yet. He would have to be infinitely more careful in the future about entering the domain of the horse-lords, so he would have to make this presumably last chase count. Chances were that he would never again come this close to killing his foe of many years. He had to succeed! And he would!
The counsellor woke from his inner musings as he saw the bulky shape of the warg and its rider approach. Both the orc's and his steed's eyes reflected eerily silver in the weak light.
"My Lord, the enemy is close. I have seen them with my own eyes on the next mountain pass. We should be upon them very soon… and on this path, they will have absolutely no way to evade us. They were stupid to choose this way. Very soon, it shall become their doom!"
Gríma allowed himself a small, satisfied smile under the relative warmth of his hood. "Very well, Âshgnak. Spread the word. It shall bring new strength to your brethren." The orc looked indignant of being named in the same breath with his towering half-brothers, but he nodded nonetheless and urged his mount to turn its massive bulk around on the narrow way. Up ahead, a low but growing thunder shook the mountains…
Thor had been right: It was utter madness to attempt the crossing under these conditions, Elfhelm had to admit as his gaze wandered back from the ice-encrusted men and horses of his éored over the black abyss to their right side, and to the backside of his scout. The storm was raging over the mountain peaks and through the narrow gorges, and while the rock walls sheltered them from the elements at one place, it channelled the wind in others, making it increasingly harder to move on the slippery path without being pushed over the edge. They were advancing even slower than Elfhelm had anticipated, and the marshal found himself looking over his shoulder and scanning the way they had come for the enemy more and more often, but the winding mountain path did not allow for wide, sweeping views. Wormtongue and his Uruks had to be there somewhere, even if he couldn't see them. He sensed them. At one point, he even thought he could hear a distant bellow over the roaring storm behind them, even under the heavy fabric of his hood.
He wondered if Thor had heard it, too, but if he had, the scout gave it away with no sign. No looking back, no acceleration, no hurried attempt to put more distance between them and their pursuers. It would have been impossible anyway. They were proceeding as fast as they could without running an even higher risk of losing men and horses. His dark-bay steed trembled beneath him, and Elfhelm would have given much to take the strain from his exhausted horse. It looked pitiful with its ice-encrusted face and chest, and he could feel the strength it took Éon just for each new step in the almost knee-high snow. Under normal conditions, he would have liked to dismount, since they proceeded slowly enough to walk, but the path was so narrow occasionally that he did not dare. Another look back, but again sheer granite walls blocked his view. All he could see were dark, slumped shapes hunched under heavy cloaks, looking like chimeras as their silhouettes merged with those of their horses. A procession of fantasy creatures…
A shudder ran from the ground up Éon's legs, the vibrations travelling all the way up through Elfhelm's body to his head. At first, he knew not what to make of it – but then there was suddenly a hasty movement of the shape in front of him and a low, but quickly growing growl from the top of the slope they were passing told him that their worst fear had become reality.
"Avalanche!" Even as Elfhelm spotted the crest of a white tidal wave rushing their way, Thor spurred his horse to reach the shelter of a narrow canyon up ahead. "Run! Run!" The scout's voice was drowned out in the rock-shattering thunder as Elfhelm kicked his heels into Éon's flanks. The stallion jumped forward – and slipped! For a moment, he danced precariously alongside the gaping abyss before another jump brought him back on solid ground, racing blindly through the mist of tiny snowflakes preceding the force of nature that was about to devour them. "Run for your lives!"
The mouth of the canyon was close, but now the entire mountain shook beneath their feet. Thunder drowned out everything as the night became a white, furious hell…
The procession of Uruk-hai came to a halt. For a moment, there was a strained silence as the great orcs listened to the sound of the white inferno. From where they were, they could see nothing more then a great bright cloud of loose snow being spat into the darkness up ahead, but they, too, had felt the earth tremble beneath their feet, and more than one head turned towards the mountain peaks that towered over their own position.
"Master?" Amber eyes reflected in the ghostly pale light. "It sounds as if--"
"The mountain is killing them, yes." Gríma Wormtongue's expression could not be made out in the shadow of his clothing, but he sounded disappointed. After all the effort he had put into his plan and now their pursuit, he was loath to be denied the pleasure of killing King Théoden's nephew himself. Éomer could not be dead yet! The orc seemed hesitant. Clearly, he was uncertain whether he should speak the words that were on his mind out loud.
"But… if they are dead already…"
"We will not have to proceed?" Pale blue eyes, as frosty as the chilly night, tore into the creature's face. "You are not telling me that you are afraid to follow them, Gârlâk?" The voice was silky, but the underlying threat clear enough. The orc tried to look indignant at his master's accusation, but he failed.
"Their fate could quickly turn into ours, my lord. I was just--"
"-admitting that you and your brethren are cowards? I would not have believed it, if you hadn't told me. I have never heard that that Uruk-hai are afraid of anything. It has been a common belief for many years, I might say. But it appears to be a falsehood like so many things people say about things they don't understand. A fairytale... or maybe it was my mistake. Maybe I failed to include the one ingredient that turned Saruman's Uruks into such fearless killers. I should have looked over his shoulder more attentively, then I wouldn't be stuck in the middle of a snowstorm with a bunch of cowardly orcs!"
The yellow eyes sparkled with open anger now.
"There is nothing the Uruk-hai were ever afraid of, and there will never be!"
"Fine," Gríma sneered, pointing a gloved finger in the direction they had been riding. "Then proceed."
The silence was complete. The world had turned white and quiet, and for a moment, Elfhelm wondered whether this was indeed the afterlife. Had they all been swept off the mountainside by the masses of snow and rock? He had felt nothing, no falling sensation, no pain. If he was indeed dead, then this had been a good way to go. But even as he continued to wonder about his fate, the outline of the rock walls surrounding him began to shine through the settling whiteness of the snow and the laboured breaths of his exhausted stallion reached his ears – and the cries of the men of his éored could be heard from behind.
"I'm here." The scout's black horse appeared from out of the mist like a ghost. "The king?" Even his unusually sharp eyes had difficulties seeing Éomer's dapple grey stallion in the swirling black and white. Elfhelm looked back and saw his friend's slumped shape still in the saddle. He even saw movement as Éomer turned his head just the slightest bit to follow their gaze back. All in all there were about twenty, twenty-five horses and men crammed into the safety of the canyon along with him… but where was the rest?
"Findárras?" Behind him, he heard Thor call out the names of the men he recognised. His second-in-command was not among them. "Findárras!" He urged Éon to turn around.
The mist had settled enough for Elfhelm to finally see the full scope of the catastrophe that had befallen them, and the sight of it knocked the breath from his lungs: The entire shoulder of the mountain they had passed under was cold, icy rock, there was no snow left on it. Everything had tumbled down on them and fallen into the abyss – and the path was gone. It had broken off on a length greater than the reach of two or three ropes, leaving nothing but a gaping, sheer cliff.
Something moved behind the hole! Apparently, some men of his éored had managed to turn back in time to evade the deadly masses… but now they were cut off, and there was no chance in hell for them to cross the gap, not even if they left their horses behind. Among them, Elfhelm saw the tall brown horse of his second-in-command, and a mix of heated rage and shattering despair seized him. What had they done to deserve such a fate? What had they done to anger the old gods? This was their second consecutive night without sleep; they had been on their feet for longer and putting more leagues behind them than Elfhelm could count, all in faithful service to their king and people, so how could this be? Why had that avalanche not knocked their enemies from the mountain-side? Why them?
"Sarabande! Valar, no!" Árdwyne's high, distressed voice cut through the shouts and muttering. Elfhelm's stomach took another plunge – so the healer was on the other side, too! "Please, Marshal Elfhelm, we must do something!"
"We can't." The head of his scout's steed emerged at his side, and a moment later, the half-Dunlending came to a halt next to him. His voice sounded low… and beat. He had already grasped the terrible meaning of what had happened. "There is nothing we can do to help them. We must leave. Findárras would want us to. He will attempt to take as many of the Uruks with him as he can, and he would want for us to make the most of the time he's buying us. We cannot let his last effort be in vain."
"Maybe, if we throw them a rope-"
"We do not have enough rope," Elfhelm muttered dully without being able to take his eyes off the men on the other side of the gap. He counted nine. Together with the men here in the canyon, it meant that some had died on the foot of the mountain, as well. He hated how hopeless his own voice sounded. They were maybe only three hours away from the relative safety of Helm's Deep, and yet there were only less than half of the people left he had led into this ill-fated rescue mission. Never had he anticipated such losses. "And in this storm, we could never throw it over to them." He hated the sound of his next words. "Thor is right. We must move on."
"But what about Sarabande?" Frozen tears glistened on the young woman's cheeks as she reached out for the marshal. "She saved the king's life! You cannot desert her now!"
"I am sorry--" Elfhelm began, but he was cut off by a husky voice. He turned his head and looked into Éomer's face. The hood had been blown from his head by a gust of wind, and his eyebrows, lashes and beard were full of ice, but at least he appeared to be lucid.
"I am sorry, Árdwyne. I will be forever indebted to--" he hesitated, not knowing the relationship between the two women.
"She was my teacher."
"Your teacher. Aye." He nodded slightly, suppressing a wince. "And I am certain she taught you well. And that she also taught you to recognise a lost cause." His words were bitter, and Árdwyne's tears made it even harder for him, but they had to be said. "She would have told you to move on if she had ever anticipated this situation. To not wait for someone who will not be able to follow. It is one of the first rules you learn in the field - to not throw one life after another senselessly, not even after a friend. Your friend would want for you to go on, not die a senseless death." He had to pause and fight to catch his breath. The few sentences had robbed him of the strength he had possessed for a short time as his eyes swept over the lost men and the woman behind the gap. The lines of pain on his face deepened as he added in a low, finite tone: "We must move on. There is still a good chance that we share their fate ere the night is over… I am sorry, Árdwyne." He turned to his marshal, whose eyes were likewise still fixed on the other end of the gap. For a moment, none of the survivors spoke. Their thoughts went out to their doomed comrades-in-arms, and silent prayers were spoken for them. Then, suddenly, a faint shout could be heard over the storm, and the small group of riders headed back from the brink of the cliff to a formation of rock that would grant them an advantage once they faced the hostile army, however small.
Éomer forced himself to look away. He met his friend's knowing, desperate eyes and braced for the effort of the continuation of their path. A cloud of despair, darker than even the black night, hung over the small group of survivors as they slowly disappeared in the whirling snow…
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.