7. Changing a Lifeline
The stench of the fire lay over the devastated village of Iséndras like a death-blanket as they entered through the east gate, up to their ankles in mud. The sky was dark, even though the sun had hardly passed its highest position, and a black, ashen rain fell down and covered men and creatures alike as they walked the broad path into the settlement towards a raging inferno. The largest building of Iséndras – the old barn – had become a victim of the fire, along with everything it had once housed. The flames roared and licked angrily into the sky, and the heat they generated was too intense for any of the villagers to get near and try anything as mundane as an attempt to extinguish the fire.
The sight was painful enough as it was, but the near and distant sounds of weeping and sobbing, and the desperate cries of the terrorised locals made it even worse and turned Éomer's gut into a tight knot as he stumbled through the mud. The sight of the first pens did nothing to lessen his anguish as he spotted the unmoving shapes of the settlement's cattle and sheep at the far back. Thick, black arrows and crossbow bolts stuck out from the animals necks and heads, and some had even been laid open and hewn to pieces by the Uruk-hai's crude blades, their blood still oozing lazily into the ground. The stench of the massacre invaded his senses even through his own deteriorated state. Gríma's army had been thorough. As far as Éomer could see, not a single animal had survived.
He dreaded to look further, but could not help it. There was some morbid fascination to all scenes of slaughter that made it impossible to avert ones eyes. Maybe it was that his racing mind was still searching for a way to dismiss the scenes as false, nothing but a fever-induced nightmare; maybe it was that he was still trying to rationalise the extent of death he was witnessing, but whatever it was, he failed. The next pen. Pigs. Everything inside it dead, too. Next to it, the sound of weeping rose into the air. A woman, dressed in stained, wet woollen rags, her face dirty, was cradling her unconscious husband in her arms, who was bleeding from a head-wound. Two small children tugged at their father's clothes in a desperate attempt to force a reaction, their wet, flaxen hair plastered to their tear-streaked, freckled faces. They froze as they spotted the new arrivals, and terror once again filled their innocent faces as they searched for an explanation for what had happened to them – and whether it was over or not.
The king's stomach twitched in memory of his own childhood trauma. This very sight had been what had first stirred the wish in him to become a warrior. This look of utter despair and horror on peoples faces when they came to his father or – later – to Edoras to ask for help. The feeling of helpless fury while he had listened in on their descriptions of what had been done to their villages… and last, but not least, the destiny of his own parents. The sight of his father as they brought him home after that fatal ambush, his body slashed and broken. Éomer had been barely eleven years old at that time. Eighteen years had passed since then, but he had never forgotten that particular day. All that was needed for a perfectly accurate memory was closing his eyes, and he was there again, on that accursed summer-afternoon...
It had been a hot day, and after the traditional sparring session with his friends he had been by the pond fishing and looking after his sister, when that first anguished cry had pierced the moisture-laden air. For a moment, an icy chill as if someone had walked over his grave had mesmerised him and caused the tiny blond hairs on his arms and the back of his neck to rise. Death. If he knew anything of it, than that this was the sound of it. Someone had just died. His head snapped around in search for its source, and that had been when he had seen the procession of horses and men entering Aldburg from the south gate. The trout that had risen to his bait and was now fighting for its life on the other end of the rod he held had been completely forgotten as he let it fall where he stood. Out of the corners of his eyes, he had seen Éowyn frozen to the spot where she had been playing with her little wooden horses, looking in the same direction with an all-too-knowing expression on her face.
"Éomer?" Her eyes had been wide, and until the present day, Éomer still asked himself whether his little sister had recognised their mother's voice before he had, although sub-consciously, he probably already had, too.
"Come!" He had seized her little hand, but had been too fast for her as he made for the marketplace from where the sound had risen as fast as his legs carried him. Somewhere along the way, she had slipped from his grip without him even taking notice. Out of breath and his heart drumming a relentless beat in his chest, he had seen the men of his father's éored – 'But there are so few of them! Where are the others?' – coming to a halt next to the ancient tree, some of them still mounted, while others were gathered in a tight circle on the ground, their heads bowed, looking down on something... or somebody. Some of them were bleeding, and there were quite a few horses with them without riders!
Éomer had not been able to spot his father's distinctive helmet with the flowing white horsetail on the back among them, and somehow, even though he had still been too far away to make out any distinctive facial features, he had known right then that it had to be his father in their midst. The premonition had hit him in the guts like a goblin's club and forced him to slow down to a shaky walk. And then he had heard the slowly rising, wailing sound again and recognised the voice, and he knew his life would change forever.
Catapulted into a trance by this sudden knowledge, he had come to a halt just outside the circle, still unnoticed by the adults around him, and his searching glance through the moving bodies had locked on a sight his young mind was not ready to digest: Théodwyn, his mother, kneeling in the dirt wearing one of her best gowns, her face hidden from Éomer's sight as it was pressed against the one of the person lying unmoving on the ground, with her long, fair hair flowing down like a golden river, arms locked around the body in a fierce embrace, as if she wanted to hinder life from leaving the man in her arms with all of her willpower and strength. He knew those clothes! They were his father's! The sight was unsettling enough, but then Éomer had found his gaze transfixed by two thick, feathered shafts that stuck out in the air over her head, while their other ends were buried in the man's – his father's! - chest. There was very little blood, but it looked... all wrong.
"Éomer?" His sister's breathless, frightened voice as she came up behind him, her little hand tugging at his tunic. A moment of utter silence followed– and then her scream. "Papa!" Unlike him, she was able to move and flung herself at their dead father as Éomer still stood there, frozen to the spot and unable to take his eyes off the horrible sight.
The people's faces – except for his mother's – had turned then to look at him as he shoved his way through the crowd to finally get the first, full view of the mutilated body of his dead father. Thankfully, shock claimed him right there and prevented him from falling apart where he stood. Instead, it had been like walking through a dream, one of his rare nightmares after having once again heard too many vivid descriptions of his father's errands. Somehow, he had made it to the fallen man's side, and still his mother had not acknowledged his presence with any sign, not even as he sank to his knees on the other side of the body. Unable to take his eyes off the thick black lengths of wood, and the pale, lifeless face of his father behind them, partially covered by his mother's and sister's hair. A thin red river had trickled over his cheeks and chin and there was a deep gash from his nose to his left ear, too, but the blood had already congealed and the flow had ended, because there was no more heartbeat in the cold body to drive it out of his wounds.
All the redness on the grey skin was decidedly unreal. There were no natural colours this bright and aggressive. This had to be a dream! And then he had seen more of the red glistening on his father's stomach, where it had saturated the fabric of his tunic and stained the mail he wore, and the boy's mind detached itself from the body it lived in.
'Death,' had been the only thought Éomer had been capable of before a concerned young face – 'Elfhelm. It was Elfhelm.' – had obstructed his vision and asked him something Éomer did not react to. 'So this is what death looks like… this is what it feels like.had been the only thought Éomer had been capable of before a concerned young face – – had obstructed his vision and asked him something Éomer did not react to.
But in truth, he had felt nothing - except numb. And hollow. He had not even wept when they had brought him and his sister home to have their nursemaid look for them while they tended to Théodwyn. All of the afternoon and well into the night, when exhaustion had finally claimed him, he had been sitting in his chamber holding his weeping sister. Not one tear had left his eyes while he had listened for hours to the sounds of her despair, and in hindsight, he had always asked himself how it could have been.
Maybe it had been because the sight of the cold, pale body in front of him had nothing in common with the vibrant, commanding person his father had been in life: a broadly built, strong and intimidating, yet passionate and giving man, greatly beloved by the men he rode with, by the people he served… and by his family. And now, he was dead, like so many before him. Ambushed by creatures Éomer had never thought would be able to harm the Marshal of the Eastfold. To the eleven-year-old boy he had been, his father had seemed invincible... but he had not been, nobody was, and this one summer day - the day that his childhood had ended - he had been taught that bitter lesson once and for all. Hope was dangerous. Nobody was safe – ever! Somehow, it just seemed to belong to life in the Riddermark: There would never be a time for its people when war and tragedy would not lurk to jump at them at them around the next corner. Each second one let down his guard could be one's last. He had kept that lesson in his mind for all these years… until he had abandoned it in time to give Gríma this one chance of taking revenge.
The burial, in a way, had been even worse then the initial shock at the marketplace. The three days between the killing and the ceremony had been long enough for Éomer to make himself come out of his shocked daze and really feel the sharp spike of pain - and to come to an understanding of what the loss of his father actually meant. Despite of the obvious things that would cease to exist and which came with Éomund's position as lord of the Eastfold – knowledge of all the things that went on in the Mark, the respect and love from the men of his éored and the people under his protection, all of which had been nice, but not things Éomer was dependent on… his father's death meant that nobody would be there to take care of their family in times of need. His mother was currently certainly not in any position to do so. There would be no more valuable advice for life and adolescence, on how to grow up in order to be able to walk in the footsteps of a great man … no more gripping bedtime stories of the Mark's heroes told in his father's deep, soothing voice; no embraces, no hair-ruffling, no lectures, no more fighting or hunting and riding lessons which had always been Éomer's favourite pastimes with his father because those had been the rare moments when he had Éomund's undivided attention and affection. All this had taken its time to settle in the young boy's mind, and now that it had, the knowledge was devastating.
What had made the burial an even more excruciating experience were the ancient Rohirric rituals. As a male member of one of the noblest families of the Mark, he had not been allowed to grieve openly like his mother and sister. Eleven years of age was considered old enough to show the regal composure of the lords and kings of his country, and while they had carried his father's kingly-clad, but lifeless body to the place where all lords of the Eastfold were buried, he had stood next to his silently weeping sister and grief-stricken mother at his uncle's and his cousin's side, stone-faced as expected of him, but inwardly crying out in despair and rage over this injustice. Only Théodred's hand on his shoulder, giving him a compassionate squeeze as the procession passed them by, had offered some token of relief on that day, but it had hardly been more than a drop of comfort in an ocean of woe. When they finally handed him his father's helmet with the broken nose-guard in the form of a golden horse, he had made a silent vow to himself: to become a soldier of the Mark as soon as they would let him, and to use his skills to hunt down every orc he'd ever meet, to kill every single one he'd ever come across, and to repay them in blood for the tragedy they had brought upon his family.
That same night, Théodred had sneaked into their room when everybody had been sleeping, except for Éomer, who had motionlessly lain in his bed and crying silent, bitter tears of grief, loss and rage with no one present to comfort him. When his cousin had sat down next to him, the Éomer had at first stubbornly pretended to be asleep, for he had been uncertain about what the king's son expected of him. But Théodred, albeit a young man himself, had not been one to be easily fooled, and upon the low, but persistent call of his name, Éomer had finally turned his face to him, ashamed of his tears and expecting an admonishment for the lack of his restraint. What happened then came as a surprise, as his cousin had opened his arms and embraced him.
"Let it out, little one," Théodred had whispered into Éomer's ears, careful not to wake Éowyn, who had been sleeping nearby. "You were very brave today, but I know just like you what it feels like having to hold back when all you want to do is cry out in rage and despair. Come, let it out." And that one time, in the silent hours of the night after his father's burial, Éomer had allowed himself to succumb to his grief like never again afterwards.Théodred had whispered into Éomer's ears, careful not to wake Éowyn, who had been sleeping nearby. And that one time, in the silent hours of the night after his father's burial, Éomer had allowed himself to succumb to his grief like never again afterwards.
From that day on, his persona had changed from the outgoing and lively boy he had been to one who always made sure to keep his distance and observe. Someone who never let a person get so close to him that their death would hurt him. He kept his composure, he made it a point to keep his feelings guarded – expect for fury and passion against their enemies, for those were considered noble character-traits in the Rohirric culture which could be openly displayed - and he became the one person to steady his sister in her grief, even if he was unable to reach their mother.
He had hardened, determined to never again show any weaknesses to his foes or his friends. The boy had become a man, hell-bent on honouring the memory of his father and protecting his kin… what was left of it. - Where had it all gone wrong?
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.