2. Prophesy Part II
Prophesy Part 11
Near Harad FA5
Éomer calmed his young stallion with soft words; all around the horses were edgy – the smell of the camels unsettling them. Firebrand had not braved the horrors of the Pelennor and nothing had prepared him for this. But the young horse was bold and daring and soon picked up on the excitement, joining with others to snort his challenge to the opposing army.
By his side, another youngster was eager for battle, too keen for Éomer's peace of mind. He spoke harshly to the boy. 'Éomund, keep behind me and watch my back, but most of all defend yourself. I don't want any heroics from you.'
Éomund scowled, but nodded agreement. Éomer hadn't any more time to give his new esquire as the screaming horde closed on them.
The main force of the Southerners' attack centred on Éomer and his guard, and his world shrank to a maelstrom of noise and blood. Amal had instructed them how to deal with the camels, and working as a pair, Éomer and Éothain drove their mounts close to the beasts, so that one could slash at their legs to bring them down and the other dispatch its rider. Any left alive were speared by those coming behind. Firebrand's fear of the camels was quickly replaced by fury, but he responded brilliantly to Éomer's commands – horse and man moulded into a killing force that scythed their way through the enemy ranks, scattering all before them. The Southerners fought with guts and determination, but the Rohirrim had the advantage of skill and numbers. They had trained over and over for this: every Rider was a warrior who wanted to be there. And the camels might be bigger, as fast, and more at home on the terrain than the horses, but as war animals they had three serious flaws – the horses could outmanoeuvre them; they couldn't be taught to give much aid to their riders in a fight, and they were cowards. Their instinct was to get out of the way of anything they didn't like. And they didn't like being slashed and speared.
It ended as so many conflicts had ended – with the Rohirrim victorious, and the battlefield littered with the dead and the dying. Men and animals. Thankfully there were a lot more of the Southerners than his own men sprawled on the ground, and many more camels than horses. Éomer stood over one: it stank, and its hide looked like a moth-eaten old blanket. The camel eyed him malevolently, making a guttural noise in its throat. Horrible things, he thought, but he hated to see any creature suffer. At least they only groaned, not screamed like the horses. That was the worst noise of all.
'Kill the injured ones,' he ordered, 'take the harnesses off the others and let them go.'
'No lord!' The Harad guide blanched under his brown skin. 'They are too valuable. Prince Amal will expect the survivors to be taken back.'
'Perhaps the Prince ought to come and get them,' Éomer muttered under his breath. He didn't relish the thought of herding a load of camels all the miles back to the main camp.
'A few men can take them, lord,' the guide put in quickly, picking up on Éomer's annoyance. 'The tail of one just has to be tied to the harness of the camel behind and they will give no trouble.'
Éomer didn't imagine they would – being tied by the tail. Perhaps they should tie the men by their 'tails', if men they were: a lot looked like half-trolls with black skins, white eyes and red tongues.
Grimacing, Éomund poked a body with the end of a blooded sword. 'Are they as ugly as orcs?'
'Orcs are much worse,' Éomer replied, 'and they stink like nothing you can imagine.'
'I grew up too late, you'd rid the Eastmark of orcs before I'd the chance to get even with them.' Éomund picked up a piece of material that had unravelled from the man's headdress and wiped his sword, slotting it back into its scabbard with a thump. 'Killing these bastards doesn't go anywhere near enough towards it.' He looked Éomer straight in the eye, the grimace quickly changing to a grin. 'But even just watching your back I managed two.'
Éomer said nothing for moment. He could clearly see Edwick's features in the boy's face – and see the big man sitting at the table after supper helping him with his armour and wanting to know how many orcs had been killed. Edwick had hated the creatures with relentless passion, but had had no choice except to rely on others to take vengeance on the filth who had raped his wife. His youth had meant Éomund had missed his chance to avenge his parents' death, and Éomer could only hope that he'd never discover what had happened to his mother before his birth. Hatred ate up a man's soul.
'I told you no heroics.'
The boy shrugged. 'There were none, they were so busy trying to get to you that they ignored me.'
Éomer stared at him for a moment, but decided not to pursue it – it would be easier to stop Éothain from talking than Éomund from fighting. If the lad stayed alive, he would become a formidable warrior. He'd taken Éomund as his esquire because he liked him, and he owed it to Edwick, but he also owed it to Bergit not to let Éomund throw his life away.
'Come on, there's work to be done.' Éomer looked around, deciding where to start – the wounded were already receiving aid, but in this heat the sooner they dealt with the dead the better. Clouds of flies buzzed around every body. The vultures clothed the stunted trees like limp black flags, or flapped inelegantly on the ground, squabbling over the spoils. They reminded him of wizened old crones turning over the goods on market day. The camels they left to them, but occasionally one would make a foray towards a dead warrior, only to be chased away by the living.
A huge task lay ahead: the fallen enemy would have to be left right here, and those alive marched back to the main camp. Éomer supposed they'd be sent back to their own lands in time, but that would be Amal's problem. He wondered how Aragorn was getting on farther east along the border; there would likely be prisoners from that encounter as well. Maybe not from the west. Amroth might show leniency, but he doubted Erchirion would.
Éomer started giving his orders – they'd take their own fallen back to the nearest village. He had no intention of leaving any of his Riders this deep in the desert where their mounds would get lost in the sand. They could at least be buried somewhere where women sang and they could lie out the long sleep in the shade. If the villagers objected, he could give them a few camels to pay for any inconvenience. He didn't really want to leave their horses either, but had no choice other than to set the prisoners to digging holes for those that wouldn't return to frolic on the cool grass of the plains. Then there was the gruesome job of putting those animals too injured to travel out of pain.
'It's horrible.' Éomund had tears in his eyes as he watched a white-faced Rider smoothing his hand rhythmically over his fine mare, whispering comforting words. With her trusting eyes focused on her master, she'd gone into a stupor, not noticing the farrier who approached quietly with the poleaxe. The burly man crouched down to measure out the right spot on the mare's forehead whilst her Rider kept her attention fixed on him.
Éomund turned away before the hammer hit hard iron through bone into flesh and the mare's life-blood leeched out to stain the sand – the youngster might be nearly as big as his father had been, look older than his years and had killed for the first time, but this was the bit that got to them all. After a while her jerking stopped and liquid brown eyes clouded to milky white. Éomer put his hand on Éomund's shoulder.
'It's as quick and painless a death as we can give them.'
The boy nodded and managed a thin smile. Still with his hand on her neck, the mare's Rider openly wept, kneeling on the ground and burying his face into her mane. Éomund wiped his sleeve across his eyes. 'Have you ever lost a horse, lord?'
Éomer shook his head – plenty of friends, but he'd lost no horse to battle. 'Only from old age. Luckily for me Fireball died in his sleep.' He prayed Firefoot would, too.
'We've got our own dead on the horses, and have set the prisoners to deal with theirs. Not that they seem to care much if the vultures tear them to pieces.' Éothain interrupted his thought. 'And we're going to get the first lot of wounded away now, the sooner they're out of this heat the better. Do you want to return with them?'
Éomer eased his collar away from his neck, with the sand and sweat it was rubbing him raw. The thought of cool water and shade nearly made him say yes, but it was not his way to give himself the easy time whilst his men suffered. Not if he wanted their respect and loyalty. 'No. I'll stay till we've finished. But send a message back to Amal telling him the number of prisoners we're bringing. I don't know what his intentions are towards them, but I could just do with some of his hospitality at the moment.'
Éothain grinned. 'You mean the women?'
'No I don't! I was thinking of a jug of their granatus to pour down my throat and a few skins of water to pour over my head.'
'We've only got cold sage tea, no pomegranate juice until we get back to the main camp. But you can have water to cool off.' Éothain started to shout an order but Éomer stopped him.
'Save the water for the wounded and the horses.'
'Oh, don't worry, we've got plenty. Those misshapen hump-backs are much more use as beasts of burden than they are as warhorses. They all carried plenty of full skins.'
'I'll fetch you one, lord.' Éomund hurried away before Éomer could argue any more.
Meeting Éomer's eyes, Éothain stifled a laugh. 'A good case of hero worship, I'd say.'
'He's just doing his job,' Éomer retorted. But he knew he'd have to be careful not to show too much favouritism to the lad.
Still, he was grateful for the luxury of a full skin to douse his head, and smiled his thanks to Éomund when he held it out to him.
'I'll pour it, lord.'
After a slight hesitation Éomer removed his tunic and unbuckled his mail shirt. The steel, even with a covering of linen, was hot enough to fry an egg. His undershirt might as well stay on: ringing wet with sweat, it could get a wash at the same time.
Hell's teeth, it was good. The water trickled slowly over his head; Éomer used his hands to rub it into his hair. He stood up straight, pushing the wet mass back from his face.
'Ahh...' something hit him in the shoulder, something that stung like a rabid bee. Unbelievingly he stared at the red fletching of an arrow that had burrowed into his flesh.
As the main camp came into view, Éomer was surprised, but glad, to see the White Tree upon Black fluttering gently over the biggest tent. The messengers must have already given word of his injury, because as they rode past the guards, Aragorn appeared from inside with a frown of concern on his face. This quickly changed to slight amusement when he saw Éomer upright on his horse.
'I'd have thought you'd learnt your lesson about men playing dead, Éomer. Especially with no Gimli to come to your rescue.'
Éomer acknowledged Aragorn's jibe with a rueful grin as he slid off Firebrand's back. He passed the reins to Éomund, and clasped his friend's arm. 'Even without Gimli my would-be assassin didn't get a second chance.' He laughed. 'Young Éomund wanted to tear the bastard from limb to limb, even after someone had sliced his throat.'
Brows cocked in a silent question, Aragorn was obviously expecting him to elaborate.
Prevaricating, Éomer ran his hand through his hair; he needed a long drink before he could deal with any mockery, however friendly. But Aragorn said nothing more, waiting for him to speak.
'I admit we made a mistake – we should have stripped them all right away, but it seemed more important to look after our wounded. No one expected a man to be able to lie so inert in that heat, and they're so dried up they look dead when they're alive. He must have been laying on his bow, an easy task to conceal it under those ragbags of garments they wear.'
'A lesson learned for us all. But the main thing is that you are all right.' Aragorn inspected the bandage that had been wrapped around his shoulder, the tied ends poking out from his collar. 'Just a simple arrow wound, you say. Shall I take a look?'
'No, there's no need.' Éomer fingered his left shoulder: the wound throbbed a bit, but nothing worse than many times before. He'd been prodded enough without bothering Aragorn. 'Luckily the sod was a fair distance from me, so the arrow didn't penetrate very deeply. Its fine now, all cleaned up and stitched. I'll soon be fighting fit again.'
'Hopefully you won't have to fight for quite a while, my friend.' Aragorn gestured towards his tent. 'Come out of the sun and I'll tell you what's been happening.'
After the heat, and the bright sunshine, the inside of the tent was dark and cool. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Éomer saw that the Gondorians had once again managed to install their king in near luxury. The back of the tent had been curtained off to form secluded sleeping quarters and some poor pack animal must have bent its back to transport the large desk that dominated the rest of the space. Knowing that the absurdities of his courtiers amused Aragorn as much as it did himself, Éomer was able to view the show of pomposity with complaisance. With no more than a twitch of his lips he sank into a three-legged leather chair, hoping it would hold his weight, and gratefully took the large mug of granatus that a servant handed him – he could see the sense of not drinking ale in this heat. In a few minutes he had washed the sand from his throat and heard how most of the enemy had already been pushed back across the border. Prince Amal's troops had pursued them for a great distance into the Southlands, with the Gondorians mopping up any stragglers.
'The enemy campaign is in tatters. Our friends from Dol Amroth are patrolling the western border area where a few odd raiding parties have been reported, but that should be the end of it.' Aragorn had a satisfied smile on his face, but then it was his turn to look a bit embarrassed. 'I have learnt a lesson also. We'd agreed with Amal after the war to collaborate in building a line of border forts to keep the buggers out.' He sighed. 'But instead, we concentrated on rebuilding Minas Tirith, and Amal on constructing his new port at the mouth of the Harnen. If we'd stuck with our original plan, this wouldn't have happened.'
Éomer shrugged; who could blame anyone for wanting to improve life for their people after the years of darkness. 'I don't suppose I would have thought they'd challenge you so soon either. I was expecting a few more years of peace and family life.' He darn well knew how much Lothíriel had hated him coming away, however much she'd tried to hide it.
'There's nothing to stop you getting back to it now, Éomer. Your job is done. Your men would be glad to get going, you have the farthest to travel.'
Éomer started to protest that there was still a task for him, but Aragorn put up his hand. 'You are wounded, my friend. Only slightly perhaps, but enough to compromise your ability to fight. I'd rather you survived to aid me another time instead of putting yourself at risk when it's not necessary.'
'But you are not leaving yet ...' Éomer felt disappointment; he'd certainly like to get his horses back to cooler climates and good green grass, but he'd not spent nearly enough time with Aragorn. He always appreciated their meetings, relying on the older man for friendship and counsel.
Aragorn read his thoughts as he often did. 'I won't be far behind you; I'll just wait for Erchirion and Amroth to report back and then I'll leave a few companies to help Amal clean up. Anyway, I'll be going back to Minas Tirith by ship, which will take less than half the time it'll take you. Besides, I am sure you will want to go by way of Emyn Arnen and stay for a few days with Éowyn; with Faramir in the City, she'll be glad to see you. I estimate that we'll probably arrive back in Minas Tirith around the same time.'
Éomer gave in, and two days later led his Riders along the Harad Road to Gondor. He stopped on a high piece of ground and looked back over the vast shimmering expanse that was now Near Harad. All the land between the Rivers Harnen and Poros, land that had been fought over for years uncountable, had been ceded to their new friends. But if it helped keep the west safe, then new alliances had to be made. Éomer shielded his eyes and focused on where he knew the sprawl of the tented encampment to be – he could see nothing but a purple haze. Normally he would never leave before the end, but Aragorn was right – him staying would make no difference to the outcome, that had been decided. And he did want to spend some time with Éowyn. Moreover, he also knew that Lothíriel would be counting the days until his return. Taking one last look at Harad, he rubbed his shoulder –if he never went there again it would be too soon. Annoyingly, the wound still throbbed; he'd have thought it would be well on the way to healing by now. His own healer could see nothing wrong, so probably he should have let Aragorn look at it before he'd left. But it could be checked again when he reached Emyn Arnen. And at least he could send Riders back to Edoras from there to say he was well and would soon be home.
To be continued.
Original characters appearing in this chapter.
Prince Amal Ruler of Near Harad. Made treaty with King Elessar after the Ring-war
Bergit Daughter of a horse breeder, she was raped by orcs when they
attacked her camp to capture black horses for Mordor. She married
Edwick, a wheelwright, but after he was paralysed in an accident started a relationship with Éomer.
Éomund Son of Bergit and Edwick. He and his sister were adopted by Éomer's
cousin, Edyth, after his parents were killed in by orcs during a raid on
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