2. The Valley of Death
The sun had already set behind the mountains when, on the third day of their travel, they arrived in the gorge that had for ages been the sheltered winter retreat of the herds. Here, they were protected from the icy gusts that otherwise ravaged the plains and challenged every man and beast that dared to live in the wild during the dark season of the year. It was a peaceful, protected place, where even the grass was still green and neither burnt by the merciless summer-sun, nor faded to a lifeless green-brown by the first frosts, and yet an oppressive silence hung over it like the shadow of a dark cloud. There were no voices to be heard, no rustling of leaves, not even the singing of birds. It was as if they had entered a forsaken place.
They approached the ring of tents at the end of the gorge, set there shortly before the mountain walls retreated to form a long, sheltered valley at the north-end, in a long line, single-file. No one was to be seen. They rode in silence, paying tribute to the oppressive atmosphere and the prominent stench of death and decay, which became stronger with each step and planted a cold dread into their hearts... and the hearts of their steeds.
Éomer found it difficult to force Firefoot on. The great grey who had fearlessly carried him into battle at Helm's Deep, against the onslaught of the Mumakil on the Pelennor Fields and an army of all the fell creatures this earth held, now shuddered between his thighs, and from the animal's flared nostrils came a hard breath that could not be the result of their long ride. They had proceeded slowly over the last few leagues, not wanting to exhaust their steeds yet when unknown peril lay before them. No doubt the grey both smelled and sensed the massacre that awaited them further down the valley. Firefoot came to a sudden halt, both front legs rammed into the ground, and neighed. He would not go further.
Éomer gestured his éored to stop and as he looked back, he found that his men were experiencing similar difficulties with their mounts. Placing a hand on Firefoot's neck, he felt the shudders even more clearly, and it troubled him deeply. Never before had he felt such terror in his animal ally. Upon the sound of steps coming up to him from behind, he heard Éothain's voice.
"The horses are not willing to go further, my lord. We could force them, but I'd rather not. They are clearly terrified."
"It is the smell." Éomer had detected the small group of people next to the tents looking their way, but did not move closer. "The smell of their dead. Surely they already know much better what happened in this valley than we do. I do not blame them for not wanting to see this, but we need to know." He ran his hand over his mount's neck and whispered a few soothing words into the twitching ears, before he urged him silently on with the pressure of his thighs.
"I will ride ahead and let my people know of their great guest." Elana nodded at him and forced her mare into a gallop for the last, short distance.
Éomer tried again. At last, the grey took a hesitant step. Another one. The shuddering worsened, but finally Firefoot followed his rider's gentle urging. Slowly, they approached the waiting people. It was a short line of people, consisting mostly of children between five and fifteen summers old, who were now joined by an old man exiting a tent after their young guide's excited shouts. More faces appeared, skeptically and mistrustfully peeping from the other tents at the approaching riders, hardened and weathered by the elements and life in the wild, their long, flaxen hair either flowing behind them in the mild breeze or tied into braids. They were dressed in stained woolen rags, their faces dirty, but their pale blue eyes were directed at Éomer in fierce inquisitiveness as they craned their necks back to look up to him and his men. Their king had come, but would he be able to help them against the evil that had befallen them?
The old man the riders had seen first stepped forward. His back was slightly bowed from age, his face tired and dreary-looking, as he sank to his knees; a gesture which was instantly imitated by the children, who even then continued to gape at the éored's regal outfit. Never had they seen such impressive guests.
"Westu Éomer hál! My name is Fréod, son of Farudwýne. The people of the Great Herd greet you and thank you for your coming." Slowly coming to his feet, he cast Elana a quick glance which told Éomer that he was probably related to the girl and thankful for her return, even if the place she had returned to was not a safe place to be. The king nodded his appreciation and, giving a sign to his éored, slipped out of his saddle.
"Thank Elana for her endurance and courage. The way to Edoras is long and, as it seems, still dangerous. We came as fast as we could. What news do you have for us?"
"Alas, very ill news. There was another attack just last night." The soldiers' lips became grim lines. "We lost yet more horses... and our two guards."
"What? Who was it?" The girl's face paled as she dismounted and came to a stop in front of Fréod, pleadingly taking up his hand: "Grandfather, please, you must tell me!"
"Elana, sweet child-" He tried to embrace her, but she kept him at arm length, pressing his hand in distress.
"Tell me, Grandfather!"
"Galwyne and Bèorling." He did not dare look into her eyes, but pulled her close as she buried her face on his shoulder in desperation, just when silent sobs beginning to shake her thin frame. The young men had been like brothers to her."I am sorry, child."
It was an awkward moment. Éomer was at a loss for words. He had believed that war and sorrow were over for his people, but maybe there would never be a moment when all evil would truly be defeated and the land safe. Granting the girl and the old man a moment longer to grieve, he kept his head bowed in respect to the dead, the only sounds the breathing of the horses, the creaking and low clanging of their bridles and saddles, and the sobbing of the mourning people in front of him and further back in the tents. A sideways glance to the entrance of the valley showed him that it was already filling with shadow, and that daylight would soon desert them, so he finally cleared his throat and spoke up with a grave voice.
"I am sorry for your loss, Fréod, son of Farudwýne. If it is in our power, we shall put an end to it this very night. Can you tell us what we are up against?"
The old man shook his head.
"I wish that I could, but yet again, we did not see them. We only heard the death-cries of our horses at the far end of the valley in the middle of the night. After what had happened six nights ago, we dared not to go there to find out,and in the morning, we found the two men we had left as guards dead and horribly slashed. There is no one and nothing left to tell us who our foe is."
"Men or beasts? This at least you should be able to tell."
"I am afraid I cannot. I have never seen anything like this in my life, even though I spent all my years in the wild and know how to read tracks. The grass has been trampled and the ground beneath it is too firm; you cannot find a single clear trace. As for the carcasses..." He inhaled deeply, and his eyes widened as he recalled what he had seen that morning. "Go and look for yourselves. The horses have been mauled and slashed, and it would appear that wild beasts, wolves or wargs, perhaps, did it, yet I have never seen a pack of wolves cause so much damage to so many horses. And you know the courage of our horses, my king: they have Meara-blood in their veins. They would have stood against a pack of wolves. Maybe they would have lost a few among them, but over three-hundred... no." He shook his head and followed Éomer's grim look towards the valley of death.
"Look for yourself, my lord. Maybe you will be able to read something from the bodies that we have been unable to see. Yet make sure you return ere the daylight is gone, because they always come at night. And you must be weary and hungry from your long ride, too. We do not have much here, and I am certain you have much better at Edoras, but we would feel honoured to share our food with you. I will go immediately and tell the lads to roast a pig."
"We came to help, not to rob you of your scarce winter supplies, Fréod," Éomer rejected, raising his hand. "Your offer is generous, yet we cannot accept it. We know how little food there is available these days in the Mark. We brought our own supplies with us. Let us share a cup of wine when we return, if you will, but you will need that pig to feed your people ere the spring sets in." He turned to face his men. "I want five men to accompany me when I go in. The others stay here, tend to our horses and see if we can help these people in any other fashion. If we are watched, I do not want them to know yet how many we are." On second thought, he opened his cuirass and shed it along with the chain mail he wore. He also took off his helmet with the white horsetail and removed the artfully crafted saddle and the royal blanket from Firefoot's back, laying everything on the ground. "I also do not want them to know who has come to avenge their deeds. Éothain, Berond, Folca, Hámas and Léod, you come with me."
The named followed his example and shed their armour, stripping themselves of all telltale items, so that they would enter the valley looking like commoners. Satisfied, Éomer turned to the herdsman once more.
"I know it will be hard for you to see the wake of this bloodbath once again, but in order to put an end to it, a guide would be most helpful to us."
"I will come with you." Elana freed herself of her grandfather's arms. Dreading the task she was taking, she had nonetheless decided that she would not falter. She wanted this nightmare to end, so it had to be done. "Even if my heart freezes at the thought, I will endure it for the sake of those which are left. Yet I cannot force my mare to carry me there. It would be asking too much of her. She is still young, and not battle-hardened like your own steeds. She has never smelled blood or heard the death cries of her kind before until six days ago, when she only barely escaped the massacre herself."
"Then ride with me." The king had already remounted his great grey and offered the girl a hand. She accepted it and slid into place behind him, feeling comfortable on the horse's bare back. Éomer turned the stallion in the direction of the valley entrance. He still sensed Firefoot's reluctance, but knew he would carry him there nevertheless. "We will be back soon for that cup of wine you offered us, Fréod. Until then, I ask you to take good care of our horses. Most of them were raised here, too." He pressed his heels into Firefoot's flanks and forced him into a slow gallop.
The shadows had already swallowed the entire valley when they entered, but yet it was still light enough to show the riders the full extent of the slaughter they had so far only heard about. Yet, as the king reined in his steed to slow him to a walk and, finally, to a halt, Éomer found no words to describe what lay before them. He had seen plenty of carnage on Rohan's soil and in the Battle of Gondor, had experienced the stench of blood and decay many times before and walked over battlefields among thousands of dead, yet this was a sight which was somehow worse in a way he could hardly define.
It was unexpected; not the scene of a great battle where one came prepared and would not allow the feelings to affect one. Yet what they were seeing was nothing less than the slaughter of innocent creatures at a number too great for his mind to comprehend, even if his eyes showed him the carcasses strewn on the meadow for as far as he could see. Grey, white, bay and dark silhouettes lying unmoving on the ground, some great, some small, stallions, mares and foals alike, reduced to dead flesh. Many forms were twisted into positions that were too terrible to look at, their still forms slashed and laid open, dark stains marring their hides and drenching the grass on which they lay. Among them and on top of them, scavenging birds picked at the open wounds, ravens with blood-encrusted heads hopping around on the once proud creatures, fighting for the best pieces, and yet even more circling the sky above them waiting to be let in on the feast. Their greedy cries and the flapping of their wings with the buzzing of myriads of flies were the only sounds to be heard in the otherwise leaden silence, and over all hung the pungent stench of death.
The enormity of what had happened in this valley turned Éomer to stone. At his back, he felt the silent sobbing of their young guide, but it seemed to come to him from a great distance, just like the anguished snort of his steed as he tossed his head in protest. Instinctively, Éomer lowered his hand to the quivering grey's neck. Only dimly was he aware of his men coming to a stop beside him, none of them able to utter a word, their own steeds neighing and attempting to back away from the scene against their riders' will. The moment stretched and lingered, holding them captives in its terrible prison, until the girl's cry woke them out of their stupor.
"Aéras! Oh no!" She slipped from the grey's back and ran over to the still form of a once white horse that lay in the middle of the meadow.
Éomer turned his head to meet Éothain's gaze and see how his men were taking it. His marshal's frozen face was a mirror of his own feelings. For a long time, there did not seem to be enough air for them to draw a breath and form words.
"Whoever this was, they will pay dearly," a deep voice came from behind him, shaking with both terror and fury. Éomer recognised it as Léod's and turned around. The young, grave scout's keen eyes were already fixed on the surrounding mountains, searching for their foes.
"First, we need to find them." Éothain followed his gaze up to the circling ravens. "But I have to agree with that old man's words: this does not look like the work of wild beasts. Wolves, and even wargs, only kill as much as they can eat. They do not slaughter entire herds out of sheer bloodlust. Yet most of these horses are, except for the wounds that brought their death, untouched. Look!" He pointed at the carcass of a strong-boned bay next to them. A big bite had been taken out of his throat, but apart from that, the horse was unmarred. One bite had killed him, and then he had been left to rot on the ground.
"Let us see what else we can detect ere the daylight is entirely gone." Éomer's gaze glided from the dead animal up to the circling ravens, and then further up to the surrounding mountains. His voice sounded hollow as despair and cold fury battled for reign over his emotions. His hands longed for the touch of his sword, and an enemy thrown in front of him to take his rage out on, right now. Yet none presented themselves to claim responsibility for the slaughter, and reluctantly, Éomer pressed his heels into Firefoot's flanks to proceed further into the valley of death. "Elana?" He motioned the girl to come back and held a hand out to help her up.
"I am sorry, Éomer. That mare was the mother of my own horse. She was one of the few survivors of the first attack. They must have killed her last night." She swallowed and was unable to go on. Unable to look at the carnage any longer, she closed her eyes and breathed shallowly through her mouth, but the smell of blood would not abate.
They rode on in silence, carefully choosing their path through the dead horses, halting here and there to take - against their instincts - a more thorough look in hopes of finding answers to the riddle. The further they rode, however, the clearer it became to them that the old man had been right: this had been killing for the sake of killing. Apart from three carcasses that had been stripped of all meat, none of the other horses had been eaten from.
Twilight had already settled when they came to the distant wall of the valley, where the last of the once mighty herd had assembled, warily eyeing their approach. Éomer came to a halt and gestured his men to follow his example. He did not want to trouble the few surviving horses further, as it was clear to him even from a distance that they were wild with fear. Next to him, a broadly built grey stallion lay in front of the canyon wall, his front hooves dark with blood - and tufts of brown fur. Narrowing his eyes, Éomer dismounted and walked the few steps over to squat next to the dead animal, carefully running a finger over the congealed crust and peeling off a piece of sturdy black skin with wiry, brown hair on it. Furrowing his brow, he examined it more closely by rubbing the piece between his fingers and holding it up in front of his eyes.
"Léod?" The next moment, the scout stood at his side to see what his king had found. He did not need to take a second look to know what it was.
"Warg skin. So it is true." He looked around. "It is hard to believe. This does not look like a place wargs would like. They prefer open spaces for their hunts. And they are not suited for a life in the mountains. They are too great of stature to be comfortable with steep and narrow paths. They cannot climb well."
"Elana?" Éomer turned around. "Are there any other ways into this valley besides the one we took?"
She nodded. "Aye, there are two more, but they are just like the ones your kinsman described: mountain paths, hardly wide enough to allow a man to walk on them, and very steep. Neither wargs nor horses could not use them. The only animals that could walk on them, I dare say, would be goats. One of them lies behind that tree over there." She pointed ahead. The Rohirrim followed her gaze and saw immediately what she meant. As little as they could see of the path in the deepening twilight, it was clear that nothing as massive as a warg could have come that way.
"What about the other one?" Éothain turned around in his saddle to give the other side of the valley a more scrutinising survey, but the shadows were deepening fast now, and with the approaching darkness, the gloomy atmosphere in the valley changed to a sinister threat. The feeling of being watched from somewhere above was strong, yet not so strong that he could make out the direction it was coming from.
"It lies further back the way we came, on the other side, but it is no different." The girl's eyes were wide, and the trembling in her voice could not be missed. "We should head back now. Darkness will soon be upon us, and I do not want to be trapped in this tomb when they return."
"And we will go back." Éomer still stared down on the fallen grey. It had been a strong horse, presumably the leader, but even he had not been able to fight back hard enough to save himself. At least he had offered them a clue of what had happened to him, even if the sum of what they had seen did not add up. Ripping himself out of his brooding thoughts, Éomer turned to face his men but spoke to the girl. "We will eat and drink with your people and relax for a few more hours, and under cover of the night, we shall return in our full strength and wait for them. Whatever the solution to this riddle may be, should they decide to haunt this place yet again, they shall be taught the meaning of fury."
Taking Firefoot's reins back from the girl, he swung a leg over the grey's back and turned him around, throwing the great horse into a fast gallop. This time, his steed followed his will readily.
The moon was already on the rise when the line of twenty heavily armed riders approached the entrance of the valley, but since it was not even half full, the light it shed was scarce. Perfect cover.
On their way back to the herdsmen's tents, Éomer had noticed a long cornice on the other side of the meadow, deep and large enough to provide them with a hiding place for their night watch, which was where they were headed now. Silence hung over the blood-drenched meadow like a death blanket, lending an eerie atmosphere to the night which reminded the king of ancient ghost-stories the elders sometimes told to their eagerly listening children in the long, dark winter months. All too well, he remembered how he sat in the Golden Hall on a one particularly cold and stormy winter night, twelve or thirteen years old, listening to his uncle's deep, carrying voice tell the story of Fram slaying Scatha, the great dragon of Ered Mithrin. It had been a grim, violent story, not meant to be told to young children, which had Éowyn furious with him when he returned to their chambers afterwards, gloating and teasing his little sister when she demanded that he share the story with her.
Éowyn... for a few heartbeats, his thoughts left the valley of death and went out to the only one left of his kin. He hoped she was happy in Ithilien: happy with Faramir. She deserved to be happy. In all the long years after their parents' death he had rarely seen his sister laugh, and less so in the months and years of darkness that had followed Gríma Wormtongue's arrival. As occupied as war had kept him over the years, he had noticed how she had first found new hope at the sight of Aragorn, now King Elessar of Gondor, only to be rejected. Devastated, she had then sought death on the battlefield, where instead she found honour – and witnessed the passing of their father-like uncle.
The sight of her lying death-like among their slaughtered kinsmen next to the crushed body of Théoden had caused the sharpest pain Éomer had ever felt. It had been a moment when he had wished that madness would claim him. It had been a moment to wish death for himself. Yet, somehow, they had both survived. Even Théoden's death they had been able to put behind them. The king had been granted the honourable end he had always wanted. That was something Éomer could make his peace with. And Éowyn... she, too, had found reason to smile again. Somehow, between his departure for the Black Gate of Mordor, expecting never to return, and his unlikely survival and mankind's victory over Sauron, a miracle had happened for his sister's wounded heart, too. Love and peace of mind, it had seemed to him upon his return to the White City, had finally found her, and he was thankful for the man who had gifted her with them. Yes, he hoped his brave little sister was happy.
Somewhere up ahead, the cry of an owl pierced the leaden silence and woke the king from his musings. The cornice now lay directly ahead. They were almost upon it. Éomer turned his head, his eyes gliding over a starry sky, dark rock, a few leafless trees, the meadow, gleaming silvery under the moonlight... and the dark, lifeless forms lying on it. His lips became a thin, grim line. Whoever they were, whatever they were, he hoped the murderers would return tonight. Gúthwine was hungry for their blood, and he felt its weight on his left side, eager to be drawn.
Someone rode into his line of vision on the right. Éothain, his marshal and long-time friend, looked ready for vengeance as well. There was no trepidation over the nature or number of their enemy, no second thoughts, no uneasiness. They were ready for battle, dressed in full mail and cuirasses, armed with spears, bows and swords, an éored of twenty seasoned warriors. They had nothing to fear. Anyone but the few surviving horses of their herdsmen who trod on the grass of this valley, would die.
With this thought, they reached the cornice and dismounted, silently, secretively. It was hard to make no sound when one was clad in mail, but they largely succeeded in keeping the noise down. Their horses likewise seemed to know what was going on, for they,too, hardly gave a sound. Éomer laid a hand against Firefoot's nostrils and felt the stallion's warm breath on his skin, while his own breath trailed off as white vapour into the air. It was chilly, but there would be no fires tonight. 'Soon,' he thought, 'soon I shall need your courage and great heart again. Help me to avenge your kin.'
Éomer's eyes went to the other side of the mountain wall as his men settled into the cornice according to the orders he had given out while they ate and drank in the tents of the herdsmen. Blankets were unbuckled from saddles and unrolled; together with the hot broth with which Elana's tribe had filled their leathern bottles; the only means for a little warmth. This night would be long, and a three-days-ride lay behind them. There was no need for all of them to stay awake at the same time. Five at a time would do, he had decided, and set himself up for the first watch. There was no way he would be able to sleep right now anyway, too much was going through his head.
Nodding over to Léod, who shared this watch with him, Éomer rammed his spear into the ground and leaned on it until it stood firm enough to tie his steed to it. It would have seemed like an awkward solution to anyone who wasn't Rohirric, as all Firefoot needed to free himself was one powerful headshake, but Éomer knew he could count on the great grey. He had felt it on their way into the valley. The stallion was tense and ready to carry him into battle once more, all quivering and shaking gone: he would not run and ruin their cover. Neither would the others.
The owl cried again, and Éomer shifted his view to see whether he would be able to make out the bird in the darkness.
"Over there." Léod pointed towards the little grove in the middle of the valley. "The second tree to the right."
Narrowing his eyes, the king could make out a fleeting movement in the branches, then a small, dark shadow rising into the air. A grim smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Nothing escaped his men's attention. Whatever entered this valley tonight, it would not enter unnoticed.
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.