32. A King Falls… The Battle of the Pelennor
The distant darkness ahead of him was laced with tiny flickering pin-pricks of yellow light. Sweeping lines of many fires dotted the still far-off fields of the Pelennor, but to one side their blazing was thicker, lighting the lowering clouds. It was above where the final ridge of the mountains fell away to the plains of the Anduin, where lay the City of Stone, mighty Minas Tirith. Théodred frowned. The siege was well-underway.
Of a sudden Wind-dream tossed his head, breaking step; the horse sniffed the air and snorted. Now Théo could sense it too… the wind had turned. It came from the south full in their faces; it roiled the heavy clouds and blew them scudding northwards above their heads. There was salt in the wind, the tang of sea-water, even though it was borne up so far overland – it thrilled the senses. Théodred breathed in a great draught, as a thirsty man gulps water; it was heady, intoxicating almost. With all his senses still heightened by the elvish liquor and Lord Celeborn's grace, he felt a sudden sharp pang at the thought of the sea…
Suddenly, a brilliant flash of lightening leapt from earth to sky, the coruscating flame illuminating the distant tiers of the city for the briefest time, then a deep, bone-jangling 'boom' rolled over and through the ground. Wind-dream stuttered and reared; the other prince of horses murmured softly without having to think of the words and stroked his mount's neck. Then, a great horn-blast sounded. It rang through the dawning, a sound that made tears start in the Rohir's eyes – his father's horn called! Immediately, the éoreds' battle-music joined the resonating blast, the tumultuous noise of horns blowing rolled through the air like summer thunder. '…They rode! They rode to war!!'
Théodred's heels kicked into Wind-dream's flanks and they were away, galloping down the hard-packed road towards the Rammas Echor, still some miles away. Wind-dream's mane and tail flowed as banners on the wind. Théodred's scarlet horse-tail plume streamed from his helmet above his flying golden braids. He had donned his heavy leather cuirass and pauldrons, strapped on greaves and vambrace, and fixed the plume again to his helm before he'd parted from the elves and mounted the mearah – he would make of himself a fit Prince to ride a horse of royalty. For war… a hauberk and chausses would not go amiss… but his own skill and battle-cunning must suffice, all he could hope for was to gain their lines with all speed. His heart leapt… '…they sang!' More faintly at first than the horn-cry, he could hear the éored's battle-anthems, proud and fierce. As if in response, Wind-dream's head went down as he lengthened his stride into an even wilder gallop. Prince Théodred, Second Marshall of the Mark, clung to the mearah's back crouching low, thighs gripping, hands tangled in the flowing mane. Teeth-bared, eyes flashing, the Princes of Horses rode to war.
They passed over the Rammas barely slowing, but to avoid the corpses of fallen orcs whose black blood already congealed, staining the earth with dark unwholesome gore under the steadily lightening skies. On they galloped without hinder; Théodred freed his sword, but at the sight of the gleaming white horse and its' rider, the few remaining forces of Mordor cringed back to let him pass, more concerned to save their skins than halt this lone fell warrior with the blazing face. He could see the Host before him, still some distance ahead, spread out into three. He glimpsed green and white fluttering in the rising wind – his father-king's banner was in the centre.
"Take me to him," he whispered in the horse's ear, '…and we are quit. For this battle is mine, not yours."
Nearer, nearer – now he had to swing his sword, but it was difficult without stirrups or a saddle to cradle him on the down-stroke. Reins were of no matter, Wind-dream knew his way, but the momentum of sword-play threatened to unseat Théodred; he was fortunate that the mearah's speed and nimble hooves avoided major conflicts. To the right ahead of him, the Rohirrim charged among the lines of the siege-engines, slashing and burning; he saw a great wooden tower slowly topple, its' sustaining ropes hacked away, to fall with a huge splintering crash among a mass of the besieging army. To the left, another éored put to flight the reserve force massed behind the first wave of attackers. At least, they fled before the Riders or died under their long spears and bright blades, but when no longer under attack, their leaders halted them with whips and harsh commands, and made them stand.
To the fore, the Prince saw a great scarlet banner raised, patched with a black serpent; the drawing of scimitars flashed like sunlight on rain as these troops readied themselves to meet the King's charge. 'Nearly there, nearly…' Théodred swung at the head of a great orc, who raised his barbed axe too late. The Prince's sword cleaved him from shoulder to chest and the heavy body thudded to the ground, but Théodred rode on. He could see a single rider ahead of the main body of the Host; saw him ride brave and fool-hardy, charged with battle-fury, into the centre of the ranks of the Haradrim, aiming at the standard where their chieftain must be standing. The lines erupted with shouts and screams and the clash of metal on metal, as spear met body and sword met scimitar. The standard fell! The great red silk drooped and sprawled to the earth, and many of the scarlet hooded warriors fell with it. He heard the fey laughter of the Éorlingas as they sang paeans to the battle spirits, and his heart joined their joy as a snarl curled his lips into a fell grimace.
To his left rose a pack of grey-skinned spawn of Mordor. One hurled a net that caught at Wind-dream's hoof, making him stumble and slow his pace. From ahead, an archer loosed a black arrow, but could not hit his target. Théodred ducked his head down as more arrows skimmed the air. The howling pack initially left behind, darted forward as the mearah baulked before the archers. Théodred pressed his knee and heel and twisted round to meet the charging orcs. Wind-dream side-stepped to the man's order and whirled to face them prancing and snorting. The stallion rose with flailing front hooves that cracked one skull like a rotten egg while the Prince's sword took another's head from its shoulders. Again, Wind-dream rose and pawed the air. An orc with a spear attempted to jab the horse's exposed belly and paid for it dearly, his body broken and trampled underfoot, but the spear caught, and blood streaked the white pelt. Théodred swung his blade in great arcs, catching and slicing flesh and bone. Wind-dream, pained and furious, barrelled sideways towards the archers who gave ground and fled before the flashing hooves. One was not quick enough to escape the horse's strong teeth that caught a braid of hair and ripped, almost scalping the orc. Théodred's blade across its' exposed throat cut short its' shrill scream.
Unhampered now, the Prince pressed Wind-dream to turn and turn about, '…no foes were near, but where was his father-king?' Ahead a group of knight's milled in confusion. He saw Guthláf fall, the King's Banner sliding from his hand to the ground in a pool of green on the trampled earth There, there – a flash of white, a horse on the ground… and lowering to sit atop it… a horror, a beast out of nightmares. Horses around it fled away, carrying the Riders with them, though some few sons of Eorl remained, their bodies inert, bloody and crumpled. To his horror, he recognised them, Herefana's helm he knew, and Herubrand's dark armour…
Huge black wings of naked skin stroked the air, a long neck snaked down to a hideous head that, abruptly, fell sideways. He could see a slender mailed figure, one he did not recognise, but who wielded a deadly blade – this knight had felled the beast! Théodred urged Wind-dream to struggle forward, his attention on the contesting figures, but here the armies of Mordor were more densely packed and he had to fight his way among them, slashing and hewing the best he could to clear a slow path.
An evil air of seeming darkness surrounded the combatants. A tall figure, huge and threatening, that even at this distance struck a fear in the Prince, rose from the wreck of the stricken beast. Its black robe swirled in tattered ribbons, a glimmering crown of steel topped a space of… nothingness, but two eyes gleamed therein, wicked and cruel with malice. The white horse, Snowmane, rolled away, and there… there was his father, broken and still. The dreadful sight compelled the Prince to stare in frozen anguish.
A barbed axe's mistimed blow, glanced over and off the greave on his shin, but nicked his boot-heel and Wind-dream's flank, drawing another faint line of blood. Frantically Théodred strained to keep his seat, swing at the enemy's attacks and still focus on the conflict ahead. The shrouded figure swung a great black mace at the pale, slender warrior who had cast away his helm and now let his long hair blow free. A venomous cry of hatred matched the blow that shattered the knight's shield and laid him low, but just as the crowned figure leant to strike again… it fell. Collapsed in a flurry of empty fabric, a billow of evil smoke on the wind as a high-pitched wail rose and thinned to vanish in the shuddering air.
Wind-dream pawed to a halt. Théodred leapt away, running to his father's side. A small figure knelt there, a boy, a page it seemed, holding the king's hand, but the face that streamed with tears was no child's. Théo ran to his father's side, flinging himself forward on his knees.
"Théodred…? Théodred… my son, my boy… Oh, you live!"
"Yes, yes my lord, my king – I hastened here as fast as I could…"
"We thought you gone… lost when the folk of the Dwimordene took you…"
"They had me forgo one duty to save another – I would not, would not…"
"Hush… the Lord Aragorn told us of your valour. You saved the Steward's Son… does he yet live? For a black time comes to the Stone Land, and it has need of every sword…"
"Father - He did live, but… now I must hold that on trust only. But you – we must fetch you aid…"
Théoden king raised a hand to grip his son's as he struggled to raise his head. Théo stifled a sob and bent to cradle the old grey head.
"My son… my son… I go to join my fathers… no, there is no aid now in this world for me. But I go with honour… I felled the black serpent… and I leave a son I feared was lost to me to lead my people…"
A clamour grew around them as the Riders, now masters of their horses again, rode to the king's side. Aghast they were to see Prince Théodred slumped there, his arms about his father's head, his scarlet plume mixed with the king's white hair. Here was a spirit they thought stolen by the Wood-dwellers, but here he was alive, weeping bitter tears as he spoke with quiet urgency in his father's ear. To one side sat the little holbytla, his cheeks wet with grief, his arm cradling one in the other. Around them lay the bodies of dead knights, but there also, fell to look upon, lay the great stinking carcass of a monstrous beast.
Éomer, Third Marshall, leaped from his saddle; grief-stricken he stood in silence and dismay looking down at his king and his cousin. A knight bent to gather up the king's banner from the dead hand of Guthláf the standard-bearer. King Théoden raised his eyes to see the white horse of the mearas standing patiently behind his son, its flanks streaked with blood, both red and black, while above and beyond, the green silk of his banner rippled in the wind and the white horse there seemed to want to leap away. He smiled.
"My son… my beloved son… returned to me…" He beckoned Éomer forward. "I had named my sister-son as heir, since we thought you gone beyond our reckoning, but now…"
Éomer knelt and took the king's hand. "I willingly forego that now."
Théoden nodded and smiled, and tried to squeeze his nephew's hand, before letting it go. With an effort he motioned the banner be given to Théodred, and speaking as clearly as he could to those assembled, said.
"Hail, King of the Mark! Ride now to victory. Bid Éowyn farewell."
So died Théoden Ednew, son of Thengel, seventeenth King of the Mark.
The new king cried out loud, one great, keening shout of anguish, embracing his father one last time, as round about them the knights of his guard bent their heads or wept, crying out,
"Théoden King! Théoden King!"
Éomer rose to lay a hand on his cousin's shoulder, but as he cast his eyes around the scene he saw a new grief – and recognised his sister.
"Éowyn, Éowyn!! No! Not you as well!"
He ran to her, flung himself down where she lay still and crumpled, her arm twisted and broken. She was deathly pale, with no signs of life or breath. He wailed his despair: his sister… his king, his father in all but name… this was a tragedy unlooked for, even in a battle so grim.
"What madness is this…?"
As Théodred came to him and caught hold of him, Éomer struggled free, crying out in cold fury, "Death, Death…"
He hugged his sister to him, weeping into the pale gold of her hair, before, forsaking his grief, he gently laid her body on the ground. He stood and stepped back a pace,
"Death take us all!" he shouted.
His king-cousin rose and embraced the stricken warrior, holding him close, his body now taut with icy rage. King Théodred cuffed the tears from his cheeks and spoke aloud.
"Let the knights of his guard bear my father's body from the field and keep him safe from the melee, and my cousin the Lady Éowyn; see no further harm comes to her, nor the others who fell."
Around them the clamour of battle grew nearer and stronger as reinforcements from the Morgul Vale seethed up the road from Osgiliath. Outnumbered, the Riders of Rohan looked about to see the tide of battle seeming to turn again. Éomer did not stay to hear counsel, he turned and leaped for his horse, his face set with cold fury. He blew a blast of his horn and spurred his mount away; his voice carried clearly over the field, and many of the Rohirrim joined him.
"Death!" he screamed, "Ride, ride to ruin and the world's ending!"
The fey mood took Théodred also. If they were to fail against Sauron's might… let them take with them all they could! He looked about him; already his father's knights had taken spear-shafts and cloaks to make a bier to carry him away, setting spears upright around as a fence around the fallen who that could not take with them. Wind-dream tossed his head; the new king went to him.
"Not your battle, but mine now, my friend. I release you with much thanks. Go now and run to fields where you can remain free!"
Wind-dream snorted, dropped his head and pawed the ground three times. Then turning his head, he launched himself away to the north, his mane and tail white banners in the mid morning sun. The new king looked for his father's shield, a spear, and another riderless horse. The nearest stood over the body of Guthláf, his father's standard bearer, faithful to the last. Théodred approached hands out; he caught the gelding and turned its head from its master, stroking its nose and ears.
"Come," he whispered, "You may serve the new king now – and we will avenge the fallen fivefold!"
He signed for a horn to be blown, the king's call, before swinging himself up and settling himself into the unfamiliar saddle. Shield on his arm, the other couching a long spear, he turned to the gathering riders.
"Death!" he shouted, holding aloft his spear.
"Death!" they screamed back. In a tide of flashing blades and long deadly spears they swept southwards to where the foot soldiers of Harad were massed between squadrons of horsemen and a line of huge war-beasts, the mûmakil of the southern lands.
"Death!" they shouted in one voice as they spurred their horses onwards, riding to victory… or the utter ruination of all they knew.