9. Racing the Grim Reaper
Elana had been riding hard for hours to make up for the time she had lost, but when she saw the great columns of smoke billow into the air behind the rolling hills she was headed for, she knew she was too late. There had been no warning for the people of Iséndras. The foul flood of nightmare creatures had assaulted them out of the blue, thanks to her. She swallowed and felt her insides burn. How many had died because of her failure? The sound of a galloping horse to her right side didn't even cause her to turn her head. Firefoot had been around the entire morning, running freely alongside her and Áriel, still skittish and terrified from his experiences two nights before, but longing for companionship just the same. She had not dared to tie the great grey to her saddle, instead counting on the fact that the stallion's need for comfort would continue to keep him around She needed him. If destiny chose to present her with an opportunity to come to the king's aid, she would need his steed to carry him. Her young, delicate mare – her already exhausted mare! – would not be able to carry them both to safety against the ferocious speed of the wargs she had seen. That moment though, she had all but forgotten about the stallion when she saw the rising dark monument to her failure on the horizon. Elana barely dared to climb up the next hill to take that dreaded closer look… but she had to. This was not a time to listen to the strong, inner voice of cowardice whispering in her head to ride to another settlement in order to raise the alert and keep out of harm's way. To let their warriors handle this crisis, because she was just a sixteen year old tribeswoman. A girl! Girls were not supposed to fight, were they? If there just hadn't been that feeling of responsibility for this mess…
"Sweet Eru…!" The scene was as bad as she had feared when they reached the high ground and were rewarded with a sweeping view of the Westmark's rugged landscape: Up ahead in the near distance, about half a league away, the devastated village of Iséndras lay under a poisonous-looking dark cloud. Towards the centre, the violet-greyish swirling ash was illuminated by raging fires, and even from where she stood, faint echoes of battle could be heard. She swallowed, her stomach tying itself into a painful knot. This was her fault. She could have prevented this slaughter! Why, oh why had she fallen asleep? That dark man's horrible army was down there slaying her kin, and it was all her fault! She had lured the king into the trap, and she had not alarmed her kinsmen when it had been in her power. Did she ever do anything right?
The young woman felt truly miserable as she allowed her hard-breathing mare to slow down to a trot, uncertain of what she was supposed to do now. Ride down there anyway, to see whether she could be of help in the aftermath of the massacre? Look for help someplace else? But where? The next settlement she knew of consisted of only a few farms and lay about a day east from here. They would not be able to be of help! Elana was not even sure whether they had armed forces there at all! She had never travelled far enough from the herdsmen's territory to know. All she knew about the settlement was what her family had told her, so riding ahead seemed to be out of the question. All the more as she would certainly lose the enemy's tracks in the process, thus leaving the king to his destiny. It would mean breaking the silent oath she had made to do everything in her power to rescue him... if he wasn't already dead. Oh, what to do…! It was a half-hearted decision that finally caused her to urge Áriel along in an strength-preserving, trot… towards the burning settlement.
Fear took her heart with a cold hand the closer she came, for with the dwindling distance, the signs of the still raging battle became even more obvious. It appeared to come from the village's centre. Why, really, should she go there? What could she do, except get herself killed, too?
Again uncertain, she pulled at the reins and came to a halt only a short gallop away from the first huts, when – out of the corner of her eyes – a movement demanded her attention. She shifted her view and froze: a large, frightening shape with powerful shoulders was rounding the village's outer huts with long, powerful leaps, almost headed at her, but not looking her way as far as she could tell. What –
Before she had finished the thought, a brown horse bolted through the narrow way between the two first huts, and the warg crashed right into it and lunged for the base of the animal's neck. The terrible impact sent the horse's rider flying full-force into their attacker and his steed somersaulted with the warg's jaws sunken into it's neck. With a terrible, gurgling scream, it tumbled to the ground.
The gruesome sight forced Elana to gasp and made her gag as the orc-wolf's jaws ripped free from the poor animal's flesh without opening. Blood spurted from the horrible wound as the predator swallowed and buried its ugly head again in its dying prey. The horse was done for – what about it's rider? A bad feeling, a very bad feeling turned her innards to water as she shifted her view to the unmoving figure on the ground.
'No no no no….'
But it was the king. She was sure of it, even if she had not seen the broken shaft of the black arrow still protruding from his shoulder. The fall had looked violent enough for him to break his neck, but then Elana saw another figure scramble to its knees further back, and without thinking, she rammed her heels into her mare's flanks, acting on pure instinct. The impact had not just dismounted Éomer, but the warg's rider as well, and the huge predator was busy feasting on its prey. This was the one chance she had! Áriel jumped into motion, and they raced towards the gruesome scene – 'If he is unconscious, how am I going to pull him into the saddle? – What if he's dead?' – when suddenly another massive shape burst from the alley, Glistening white fangs grinned at her as the warg jumped straight at her without so much as a pause, and she shrieked. Threw her weight onto the mare's other side and turned them both away from the advancing beast in an angle so sharp she could have touched the grass with her right hand –away from Éomer! A sharp clapping sound. The mighty jaws had snapped shut inches away from her horse's rear.
"Run Áriel! Run!" Finally, her turn to defeat death. She ducked behind the mare's neck and stood up in the stirrups to take her weight off her steed's back. The dark-grey mane whipped her face as she virtually thrust the mare forward, giving her head free, and the wind roared in Elana's ears as the half-meara launched into a race with the grim reaper. A brief glance over her shoulder: The warg was falling back in reaction to their fierce explosion of speed, but not so far that the hopelessness of the chase made its rider abandon the attack. Of course he had to know as well as Elana that they would not be able to keep up their speed for long and was already settling into a pace that would ultimately wear their prey out . He could not know that Áriel had already been running hard for hours, and that the moment of exhaustion would presumably come very soon. Even the legendary speed and stamina of the mearas had its limitations. The girl did not know where the warg's limits lay, but had a premonitory feeling that the hunter would triumph in the end. Already, she felt the hard pumping of her horse's lungs, heard her hard, ragged breathing. It was painfully obvious that Áriel would not be able to keep her pace much longer, and still there was nothing in sight that could be of help for them, only the wide, rolling hills.
"I know you are tired," she finally uttered in Rohirric, patting her steed's sweaty neck in a desperate plea "- but you can do this! You are faster than him! Come on, Áriel!" She let her hand rest where it was and looked back again. The same view. The warg was not so close that it represented an immediate threat, but then again it didn't look as if it was going at full speed. It was chasing them and at the same time conserving its strength. Its rider was counting on his steed's superior stamina. He was in no hurry to bring them down. Sooner rather than later, prey would be his. She saw the terrible confidence written all over the ugly face even over the distance and froze: they would die today.
Muttered words. Heavy panting and growling. The percussion of heavy steps all around him. A sickening, foul stench. Warm, foul-smelling air was blown into his face. Something dripped onto his cheek and oozed its way down to his ears. It stank. A deep, menacing snarl, then an outburst of angered yelling. Movement. Something to his right side roared and wandered out in the distance. The smell of blood and guts. His head was being lifted, and his mouth forced open. Éomer knew the procedure by now, and even the vile taste of Gríma's potion did not bother him anymore. The connection between his mind and body was very frail now, very delicate, and his once iron will weakened to the point where he could not even move a finger. Why was he still not dead? The discussion went on over him, but it took more concentration than he had available to make sense of the words.
"Yes, today. The smoke must be visible over many leagues. It will attract the attention of the Westfold's éoreds, and when they arrive here, we must not be here anymore. I know Erkenbrand is at Edoras these days, but that doesn't mean he left his territory unguarded." A question was grunted. "Put him onto a saddle: tie him to it, if you have to, but make haste. We need to leave here at once." Another question. Wormtongue was beginning to sound angered. "I do not care which one you take! Tie him to the warg if you have to, but we have to move quickly now." Incredibly, another objection. Éomer waited for the sound of a sword and a falling head, but in vain. "Yes, he will remain in the saddle. I made the potion strong this time. It should keep him up until nightfall. By then we need to be at least five leagues away from here! Move!"
Silence. Then the familiar sound of hooves nearing. Vague relief. They would not tie him onto the warg, praise Eru! As much as Éomer knew he was finished, there were still certain things that simply shouldn't have to be. Strong hands seized him from both sides and lifted him up as if he were a scarecrow felled by a gust of wind. There was no pain. His flesh had been driven past agony to numbness, following his dazed mind. The discovery renewed his hope that it all would soon be over…
It was impossible to shake their pursuers. The chase had been going on for she didn't know how long, but it felt like an eternity, and the terrain had become increasingly rougher and trickier for the mare's tired legs. Áriel was dark with sweat, her body so hot that steam rose from her hide into the chilly air, and her breath came in hard, ragged bursts. Twice in the last minutes, she had stumbled and barely avoided a fall, and their enemy had both times almost been close enough to make use of the opportunity. The warg-rider was chasing her with all the accumulated experience, cunning and patience of a seasoned hunter. Never hasty, never spoiling an opportunity by acting too rashly, and always near to close in for the kill upon even the smallest mistake of his prey. His method became more frightening by the minute.
The mare stumbled again, and this time, Elana was almost unseated. She shrieked and desperately clawed at the dark grey mane to straighten herself in the saddle. Another look back. The warg was gaining on them now. It's paws had a better grip of this treacherous terrain and it was closing in now to finish them off, the gaping jaws grinning at her and promising her an ugly death, girl or woman or not. Orcs and their steeds had no noble concerns, no higher morale that would lead them to spare the supposedly weaker from being slaughtered. Her gaze travelled over the yellow, murderously sparkling eyes of the huge predator and down to its lolling red tongue. Her blood would be just as red…
"Áriel…" she whimpered, a terrified, pleading sound. It was impossible to turn her eyes away from the approaching predator. Each of its mighty leaps brought it closer now as they ascended another long, steep hill. The mare's rear-muscles were trembling from the strain of the uphill run. She was rapidly nearing breakdown now. One way or the other, this would be the last hill for her.
Behind them, the panting of the orc-wolf was getting so close that Elana did not even dare to turn around for another look for fear that the image of the gaping jaws would freeze her. They were losing this race. The grim reaper would have his harvest, no matter where she turned now. A cold fist pressed her innards together as they finally reached the top of the ascent with one last, mighty effort, the warg now so close on their heels that its foul breath assaulted her nostrils. She braced for the excruciating pain of being torn apart…
A sudden flurry of activity in front of them. Pale sunlight sparkled on metal shields and helmets, blinding her. The notion of a great number of horses, moving all around her, then an alarmed scream from the left.
A rush of activity as swords were drawn and spears readied. The next second, the thunder of hooves drowned out everything else as a vast group of horses and riders swept past her by like a raging river around a rock. What- ? Who-?
The éored passed her at a frenzied pace and rushed down the hill in a deadly wave of glistening, sharp steel. For a moment, Elana thought she heard the furious roar of the great orc-wolf, then it, too, was drowned out by the horses and the sounds of the battle. Fighting to catch her breath and eyes wide in wonder about what had happened, she turned her steed around and allowed her to slow down to a walk. One hand went to the dark, wet neck and patted it gratefully. The lean torso between her legs was pumping like a pair of bellows, but Elana's attention was elsewhere. The warriors were returning. Behind them, the columns of smoke still marred the pale afternoon sky in the distance.
A moment later, the shimmering spears and helmets flooded over the edge of the hill towards her. Pulling the reins, Elana came to a halt as a tall, fierce-looking warrior with a dark horse-tail on the back of his helmet rode up to her. As glad as she was to see him and his men, the piercing scrutiny of his dark grey eyes made her want to shrink and hide, especially when she saw the blood-covered spear in his hand. His éored – about fifty men, Elana assumed – assembled close behind him as he came to a stop in front of her, eyes narrowed.
"What are you doing out here on your own, child?" His deep voice fitted his impressive frame. "The war may be over, yet it should be in every Rohir's blood that the Mark is never a safe place, especially for the lone traveller. You were lucky."
"Aye, my lord," she admitted, intimidated by his superior stance and sudden recognition of his artfully crafted cuirass and helmet. She had seen him before many times, but only from a distance. 'Marshal Elfhelm!' It is Marshal Elhelm!' Her heart jumped in sudden excitement. It could have only been the Valar's will that she had run into the Lord of the Eastmark in the time of her greatest need. But what was he doing here? This was not his territory! "Aye, I know that. And I thank you and your men for saving me. A moment later, and my foe would have killed me."
"It looked that way, yes." Elfhelm looked back, and a grim, satisfied expression wandered over his broad, bearded face. A cruel, twisted scar wound its way down his brow to the corner of his left eye and added to the air of the seasoned warrior his reputation spoke of. It made Elana wonder what had happened to him when he collected it. "But the proximity of his prey made the filth careless. Now he's food for the ravens. Orcs…" He grimaced in disdain. Another scrutinising glance at her. "So… what are you doing out here in the wild, all on your own, child? And who are you?"
"I am Elana of the Great Herd, my lord. My being here is not my own choosing. A few days ago, our herd was attacked and almost wiped out, so I called at Edoras for help… and the king himself answered with his personal éored. What we did not know though was that it was a trap! We were used as bait, my lord, to lure the king into the trap. Someone captured him! I was following the enemy to see where they were headed, and then find help for Éomer-King."
Deadly silence. For a moment, all that could be heard on the top of the hill was the blowing wind and the ringing of metal parts from bridles and armour. The brown eyes in front of her narrowed in disbelief.
"Éomer is out here in the Westfold?"
"Aye, my lord. He was captured by an army of great orcs two nights ago – and he is badly wounded!" Gradually Elana became aware that the entire éored was staring at her with stunned expressions, then – as if sent by Eru himself – a distant neighing sound rose through the air from below them.
"Elfhelm! There!" One of the soldiers pointed the way she had come. A great, grey horse came running their way like an apparition, its head wearing a familiar bridle of brownish-red leather. The men gasped as it became clear even to the last of them that the young woman in front of them was speaking the truth.
"That is Firefoot, or Eru strike me where I stand!" Elfhelm's expression turned from scepticism to open concern. Elana nodded.
"Aye, it is him. He has been following me since yesterday, but I didn't dare tie him to my mare." The marshal's attention returned to her, and the sudden urgency in his gaze told her that he needed to know everything – at once.
Fire. Raging fire. Blistering heat that seared his lungs, and the thick stench of smoke forced him to cough and made it almost impossible to breathe. The fire had spread, and now the village was burning to the ground. Black rain falling down on them, stinking, ashen mud. Screams. Those awful screams of the wounded and dying… The images burnt themselves into Éomer's mind. So much blood. So much death.... because of him.
"You should not have encouraged them, my liege," a reproachful voice trickled into his ears from the left. He was too weak to look, too devastated by the destruction they were riding through. "Now see what you have done. I had no intention to let it come to this."
A woman stumbled across their path, her clothes torn, her face ash-smeared and a look in her eyes that reminded Éomer of a horse wild with terror. She was holding her bleeding, strangely twisted arm and shouting a name again and again, oblivious to their presence. The Uruk-hai shoved her out of their way without so much as slowing down, and she fell to her knees in the mud and cried out.
The marketplace. The scene of a massacre. Bodies lay strewn in the dirt, and the rain on the ground was reddened by their blood. More crying and pained shouts, more misery. Two limping men, their faces hardly recognisable under congealed blood, were dragging another, more heavily wounded soldier to the side before he came under their army's feet.
Death wherever he looked. His kinsmen had sacrificed themselves for him, and he had not even been able to make use of the opportunity they had bought him with their lives.
A sudden flurry of motion at the end of the marketplace, something bright, eerily out-of-place in the sinister surroundings. Too weak to lift his head, the king stared at the source of the disturbance from under his eyebrows. His jaw dropped open. It was a horse. But there was something wrong with it, something he could not name at first. Something was off. Something with its colour... and its feel. It was of a sickly pale white, a colour that seemed to spread its ghostly glow into the darkening twilight as it pranced in front of the houses, up and down, up and down, but without the sound of hooves that belonged to the image. It threw its head and sent its long mane flying, and as it did so, Éomer saw that its eyes were of a dead, hollow black. A blackness that seemed to reach for him, to suck him in. Slowly it dawned on him that he was not looking at a real horse, a creature made of flesh and blood. It was an apparition… a vision that sent a chill down his spine as he finally grasp the meaning of it.
"My lord?" Gríma continued to speak to him, but as far as the king was concerned, the dark counsellor was not even there as he stared mesmerised at the prancing stallion.
It was Sleipnir, the Ghost Horse only those about to die could see. He had heard about it from several men in the aftermath of the battles he had been in, men who had been so severely wounded that they had soon afterwards died. The memory of their wide-eyed stare at a point where nothing except grass had been had spooked him back then, and even more when they had uttered the name. As a long-time member of the valiant riders, Éomer was well-versed in all kinds of Rohirric lore and sagas, but there had always been parts of it he had rejected as fairy-tales. The tale of the Ghost-Horse had been among them, but now the pale, riderless horse was waiting for him to take him away to the realm of death. And - strangely enough - Éomer found that he was not frightened by the prospect. In fact, he welcomed it, but when he opened his mouth to invite the stallion to come closer, it bolted away… to stop at the end of the alley… and wait.
The sight of it brought a sudden smile to his lips.
"What is it, my lord, that you find so amusing? Will you not let me in on the jest?"
But Éomer's smile only deepened, and there was an unexpected joyful glint in his eyes as he saw the Ghost Horse break away again, only to slow down again at the last hut of the village… and wait again.