Several people have complained that, I have only posted one chapter stories. Well, this is for all of you who wanted something longer. However, be warned, I tend to write dark stories when I write a longer length.
"I will have to speak to my sister," Eomer said wearily. "Explain the situation to her. I'm sure she'll understand."
"I'm sure she will, my Lord King." Elfhelm chuckled softly. "But promise you'll take a bodyguard of at least ten of our best men with you. Just to be on the safe side."
Eomer groaned. "What choice do I have? Either we postpone her wedding or we face the mockery of Gondor's nobles."
"Come, my Lord. I am sure they will understand. Even in Gondor, fresh meat is not readily available. It will take at least two breeding seasons to replenish the herds. As for your lady sister, I think perhaps she is more interested in what will be between the sheets of her bed on her wedding night rather than what is on her plate at the wedding breakfast."
Eomer shook his head. "No, you are right. Eowyn's eagerness to be wed cannot be denied. I fear I would need an entire eorod to protect me if I were to attempt to keep her from Faramir any longer." He scowled at the scrolls listing Rohan's supplies one more time. When he looked up he found Ceorl, the youngest and newest of his riders, watching him expectantly.
The young man moistened his lips nervously. "My Lord King, if I may be so bold, perhaps there is another solution to your dilemma."
"Speak," he said impatiently, still unused to people waiting for his permission to offer an opinion.
"May I suggest a hunt?" Ceorl inclined his head as though fearing his suggestion would incur the king's wrath.
"A hunt?" Eomer's mood immediately lightened at the prospect of escaping Meduseld. The walls of the golden hall had begun to feel like a prison over recent days, and he longed to feel the wind on his face as he galloped Firefoot across the plains.
Ceorl met his gaze. "I have heard rumours that there is a herd of deer roaming in the woods to the north. A hunt would give your riders some much needed exercise as well as provide an opportunity to provision a feast for your sister's wedding."
"An excellent idea," Eomer declared, shoving the scrolls to one side. "We'll leave in the morning."
"Eomer, is this wise?" Elfhelm asked him for the third time at dinner. He knew he was fretting like an old woman, but there was an unease in his heart that refused to move no matter how he tried to reassure himself. "Rohan cannot afford to lose her king to the tusks of a wild boar any more than we could afford to lose you to a pack of filthy orcs."
"Theoden regularly rode with the hunt," Eomer replied, stabbing at a piece of cheese. "And besides, it is deer that we are after, although I admit a wild boar would make an excellent centre piece for the bridal table. Sadly I fear such beasts may no longer be found in Rohan."
Elfhelm emptied his tankard and beckoned for it to be refilled. "Promise me you'll be careful."
Eomer snorted. "The war is over, my friend. We do not need to fear for our lives every time we set foot beyond the Great Hall."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that, sire. Not all cheered when the great eye fell. And I fear many of Sauron's minions would still seek to bring harm to both Rohan and Gondor."
Amusement tugged at the king's lips. "And you would count deer amongst these evil enemies of Rohan?"
Elfhelm accepted the teasing with grace, but his gaze moved to Ceorl. "Tell me something, how does he know there deer to the north?"
Eomer shrugged. "He said it was but a rumour."
"One he may have started himself." He looked down at his plate, suddenly preferring that the king should not read his emotions. Eomer knew him too well though.
"You don't like him, do you?"
"I don't trust strangers, Eomer. Especially one who seems to have bewitched you with his fine words."
"Bewitched me!" That made Eomer laugh raucously.
"Aye, bewitched," Elfhelm said, no longer finding humour in the situation. "We know naught of him or his family, and yet you invite him into the Golden Hall and treat him as kin."
"Would you have me do otherwise? You know as well as I do the lad was found badly injured and now has no memory of where he came from."
"Do you not think it odd that he claims no memory of kin or friends, yet has intelligence enough to work his way into the confidence of the king."
"If I didn't know you better, Elfhelm, I would think you were jealous of young Ceorl. Now enough with your doomsaying. Tomorrow we will hunt deer and perhaps boar. And when the Gondorian nobles come to Rohan we will give them such a feast they will wish that all their men were able to wed our women."
"Very well, my Lord King." Elfhelm reached for his tankard and tilted it in toast. "To your sister's happiness." He drank deeply, wishing the ale would dull the unease that gnawed relentlessly at his guts. But knowing that it would not.
The ride across the plains had been fast and boisterous. It wasn't just the riders that needed to let off steam. The horses too seemed eager to stretch their muscles and the moment they were given their heads they broke into an exuberant gallop. Eomer had been unable to contain a less than kingly whoop of delight as he felt Firefoot's power beneath him. It had been a long time since he'd ridden without armour or helmet and with sword and bow secured to his saddle instead of his body. The freedom of it was intoxicating, and for the first time in weeks, the pressures of kingship lifted from this shoulders.
Now, though, the woods offered excitement of a different kind. Stealth was required here. Eomer urged Firefoot forward with a gentle nudge of his leg. Obediently the horse lifted its feet over a fallen tree, taking him deeper amongst the trees. Unlike Fangorn, this was a young wood. Birds filled the air with song and the sun reached through the canopy of branches and leaves to dapple the floor with puddles of light. The riders began to fan out as the close proximity of one tree to the next forced each of them to choose a different path. Eomer drifted to the left of the group, his senses alert for a flash of deer hide.
The trees were even thicker in this direction, and as agreed earlier, the company began to split into small groups of two and three. Eomer caught a glimpse of Elfhelm to his right. The older man looked unhappy, clearly ill at ease in an environment that denied him a clear line of sight to his king. Eomer refused to let that bother him. In fact he welcomed it. Elfhelm's insistence on playing bodyguard had been growing increasing claustrophobic. Recently, it would not have surprised him to wake in the morning and find the man sleeping at the foot of his bed. A few moments away from his ever-watchful eye was something Eomer had began to long for.
To Eomer's left, Ceorl gestured urgently, pointing through the trees. Eomer squinted into the distance, and then shook his head. He'd seen nothing. Ceorl gestured again, this time beckoning Eomer to follow him. What could it hurt to humour the young man? With a smile, Eomer nudged Firefoot on. With a backward glance and another gesture, this time a finger to his lips as though the king needed reminding of the importance of stealth, Ceorl pressed deeper into the forest. Eomer followed, his bow now held loosely in his hand and the prospect of being the first to bring down game filling him with quiet excitement. He hated to admit it, but he missed the adrenalin rush of battle. There was something incredibly intoxicating about battling for one's life and knowing that single mistake with sword or shield would have terrible repercussions. It was what he had been born to do. What he had trained all his life for. And now, as Firefoot stepped silently forward, he welcomed the pale echo of that feeling, even though his quarry was meat for his sister's wedding rather than freedom from rampaging orcs for Rohan.
It suddenly occurred to him that he had now lost sight of everyone except Ceorl. Used to riding the open plains, he'd forgotten how easy it was to get lost and disorientated in woodland. He gestured for Ceorl to stop and nudged Firefoot forward intending to tell the young man that it would be wiser to turn back, if only to save himself a tongue lashing from Elfhelm, but then he saw a sudden flash of brown.
Deer! Ceorl turned towards him, his thin face breaking into a triumphant smile. Eomer felt his own spirits surge upwards. He reached for an arrow, but then hesitated as he saw that the flash of animal hide was not a deer at all, but a man clad in dark brown leather. The hesitation cost him dearly as the man stepped out of the undergrowth and revealed himself to be an archer with a nocked arrow aimed straight at Ceorl's heart.
"Cry out and your rider dies!"
Eomer's stomach lurched and his hand dropped to his sword. He swore as he clutched at thin air. The weapon wasn't at his hip. It was still lashed to Firefoot's saddle. Before he could react further, two more archers stepped from behind a thick oak tree, both with arrows aimed at Eomer's own chest. "Off the horse, my Lord King," the nearest one said. "Quietly now."
His gaze swept the surrounding woodland desperately, but there was no sign of Elfhelm or any of his other men. Cursing his own foolishness, he knew he had little choice but to do as the men commanded. It was either that or watch Ceorl die. Reluctantly he swung himself out of the saddle.
"What do you want?" he demanded. "I carry nothing of value with me."
A fourth man stepped into Eomer's line of sight. He smiled coldly as he walked over and took the useless bow from Eomer's hand. "What we want is you. And we care not whether we take you dead or alive, so think carefully before you attempt to thwart us."
"You cannot hope to get away with this," Eomer hissed, as his hands were bound tightly behind his back. "My men..."
"You men will die if they try to rescue you," the man said from behind him as though there was no doubt about the matter.
Eomer twisted his head to one side as a thick strip of coarse woollen material was pulled across his mouth. "I will not be gagged. You have my word I will not call to my riders."
"Your word means nothing. Either you will be gagged or we will put an arrow into that young rider over there. The choice is yours."
Fury pooled in his stomach. The insult to his honour was bad enough. But being powerless to act was a far worse injury. That his own foolishness had bought him to this point was salt in the wound.
"Well?" the man demanded. Reluctantly Eomer opened his mouth and allowed his captor to pull the material between his jaws before tying it behind his head. "That's better. See, it is not so difficult to learn to obey orders instead of giving them." The man turned from Eomer to Ceorl. "Are you ready?"
Eomer's stomach did a sickening lurch as Ceorl nodded and then swung down off his horse. This couldn't be. Surely his eyes deceived him. Ceorl knew these men? Was somehow in league with them? A dozen questions demanded a reply, but the gag kept him silent.
Ceorl's face paled as one of the men stepped forward, removing the arrow from his bow. "Wait! There is something I wish to do first." He walked across to Eomer. Standing face to face with him, he gave a contemptuous smile. "Impetuous. Foolish. Arrogant. Those are words I have often heard used to describe you, Eomer, Son of Edmund."
Stunned, Eomer stared back, unable to comprehend the situation. It was clear now that Ceorl loathed him with an intensity that would have frightened a lesser man. But why? What had he done to the young man to deserve such payment? And what was it about his tone that seemed so sickeningly familiar?
Ceorl continued. "When my mother first told me of her plan to destroy you, I did not believe it would work. It seemed so simple. Surely a king would not fall so easily into such a trap? And yet here we are. You, bound and helpless. While I – "He drew in a deep, satisfied breath. "I will take everything that is now yours. And more." Eomer's eyes widened as Ceorl leaned close and whispered in his ear. "Not only will I take Rohan, I shall take your sister too."
The meaning of the young man's words was only too plain. Outraged Eomer started forward, fury driving his desperate need to strike out, despite the futility of his action. Ceorl stepped backwards, momentarily startled, then a twisted smile turned his face from handsome to grotesque as he realised a bound man could do nothing to harm him. Stepping forward again, he planted his fist in Eomer's stomach. With a sharp intake of breath, the king dropped to his knees, eyes watering with pain. Ceorl grabbed a fistful of his hair, and yanked his head up. "That was for my uncle," he hissed into his face.
"Enough!" The man with the arrow stepped forward. "We do not have time for your petty games of revenge."
Ceorl's eyes blazed as he turned towards him, but then he nodded. "Very well. Do what you must."
The man nodded, and then traced his fingers along Ceorl's collar bone before pressing into the depression between shoulder and torso. "I will put it here," he said. "The damage will be as little as possible."
"Just do it!" Ceorl said, his voice tense.
The man didn't speak again. Instead, in one swift move, he jerked his arm back and then plunged the arrow into Ceorl's body. The young rider cried out and then dropped to his knees, the arrow protruding from his flesh where moments before the man's fingers had pressed.
Horrified, Eomer met Ceorl's gaze. And despite himself, he shivered as he saw the look of triumph in the young man's eyes.