Introduction - Tide of Destiny – A Trilogy
Part I – Choices. Those of you who have been reading my stories from the beginning will recognise that some of the plot of this is based on that of my first ever story, Castle by the Sea. (Withdrawn eons ago)However, this is a completely updated and very much improved version. It also includes a new story written from Éomer's pov that was only alluded to in the first adaptation. This runs alongside Lothíriel's tale, keeping to the same timeline. Destined to meet and marry, Éomer and Lothíriel have very different upbringings but both have to deal with their share of tragedy and anguish.
Warnings 1. For angst and character death.
2. A very long first chapter
Part 2 – Drummer. Also an upgraded version of a story posted a few years ago. The plot will remain the same but it will be extensively re-written and enhanced. Prince Amrothos of Dol Amroth decides he would like to settle down after years of loving and leaving them. But of course, the lady he chooses has issues of her own.
Part 3 – Swansong. Completely newTold by Lothíriel at the end of her life, this story takes the reader through some of the memorable times during her reign as Queen of the Mark. Some good, some bad, the choices made in the past will always have implications for the future.
This will be a lengthy chronicle but a fair amount is written and the rest, even down to the last line, is in my mind. Barring global catastrophe or personal disaster, I will finish it. If you keep reading and reviewing, I will keep writing.
My grateful thanks to Lia for her unstinting help. LBJ
Tide of Destiny. Part 1 – Choices
June 3008 -- Dol Amroth
The forest hummed. The summer buzz of incalculable numbers of insects merged into one continuous drone. In the afternoon heat no bird song rose above the whine, no beat of avian wings broke the still air. Only three things moved: the dog; the pony; the girl.
The girl licked dry lips, and pushed back a few strands of sweat-damp hair behind her ears. She nudged the pony off the track towards a small pool at the base of some jumbled rocks. But the dog reached the water first. Forestalling any chance of being forbidden he straight away waded out, disturbing floating weeds and ousting a striped dragonfly from its chosen leaf. His dislike of getting wet forgotten in the need to cool his taut body, Larca folded lurcher legs and sank gratefully down, only a few languid ripples disturbing the limpid water. From the long grey snout a pink tongue lapped furiously.
The pony reached the pond a head and neck in front of the girl, his clipped grey coat glistening dark sweat along gently heaving flanks. Whinnying softy, he dropped his head and sucked cool water through yellowing teeth.
"Not too much, Mista." The girl slithered off the pony's back, her cotton shift rising to her waist as she reached the ground. Bare legs and feet tanned from the southern sun, her simple dress and loose, uncombed hair spoke the rustic. But at nine years old the fine bone structure and her unusual height belied the claim. Black hair might be common in Dol Amroth, but green eyes set her apart from the general population. So did the pony – with delicate hooves and well shaped head, it belonged to no peasant's child.
Lothíriel held onto the reins and let the pony drink for a while before determinedly pulling him away. "No more," she said, envying the two animals that could so easily slake their thirst in a sluggish forest pool. She would need to wait until they reached the fast running stream that brought fresh water down from the hills. "Come on, Larca, get out of there. You'll stink and I won't have time to bathe you tonight." She needed to keep moving if she wanted to get back to the palace in time to clean up and change for the feast. Right now she only risked a tearful tut-tut from her cousin and a telling off from her maid. But if she delayed any longer and was not scrubbed and primped to meet the guests at the appointed time, she would have to face her father's wrath.
The soft mattress of pine needles felt cool beneath her feet as she hurried along the wide forest path. She would drink before climbing back on Mista's back. "And then we'll follow the stream down to the beach," she told the pony aloud. "We can ride home through the surf. Amrothos says it's good for your legs." No one knew more about horses than her brother, even though he was only fourteen.
The stream tumbled and chattered through a rocky channel edged with ferns, and Lothíriel had to tie the pony to a tree and climb down, lying on a boulder to scoop up crystal water with her hands. Her thirst slaked, and slightly cleaner, she hauled herself onto Mista's back, pulling down her dress as best as she could. "It's a good job we didn't bother with your saddle, Mista," she said. "You'd be even hotter." Kicking the pony into action she called out to her dog, "Come on, Larca, leave that!" The lurcher pulled his nose away from an interesting crevice and loped past the pony, taking up his customary position at the head of the threesome.
Lothíriel slapped her hand hard on her arm, and grimaced as blood oozed. She flicked the body of the squashed horse-fly to the ground with a shudder. The potent mix of cedar and garlic must be wearing off and she needed to reach the beach fast if she wanted to avoid ending up covered in ugly lumps. But it could not be that much farther for they had passed the spot where a side path led to the cave. Soon the stream would turn to the left to run almost parallel to the beach for short while through a ravine, before opening out onto the sand. It would not take her long to get back along the shoreline and she should be in plenty of time to greet her father's guests. Wouldn't he be pleased when she welcomed Prince Umar in his own language? Father had no idea how hard she had been practising, not that she found it that difficult. She might have an awful singing voice and be the despair of her music master, and Cousin Eglaneth had given up trying to make her sit still long enough to produce any decent embroidery, but learning to speak different tongues came easily. Thinking how great it was to be good at something, Lothíriel realised that Larca had stopped. The lurcher stood stock still. His whole lean body quivered, ears pricked forward, eyes focused down the trail.
"What is it?" Lothíriel kept her voice to a whisper for maybe a deer was wallowing in the deeper water under the trees, or perhaps had gone down to drink from where the stream hit the beach. Elphir had explained that for some reason they occasionally liked the slightly salted water. She couldn't imagine why, but her eldest brother was like her father – never wrong. Larca turned his head slightly to acknowledge her words but did not move forward, waiting for the order. "Go on." Lothíriel squeezed her pony's sides and urged him forward too. Whatever it was might smell them, but the lurcher trod the ground lightly and the mixture of sand and pine needles muffled any noise made by Mista's hooves. As the buzz of insects lessened, the gentle roar of the incoming tide took its place and then, above it all, Lothíriel heard the sound of voices. Harsh, unfamiliar voices in a strange language and through the thinning trees a glimpse of something black and red. Tents. Only after a few minutes of listening intently did Lothíriel realise she could recognise many of the words. They were speaking the language of Near Harad –Prince Umar's men? Her father had said something about them preferring their own camp to staying in the palace, but she had never considered where that camp might be.
Moving Mista forward carefully, she observed the camp through the thinning trees. On the sand the other side of the ravine from her, she glimpsed about a dozen tents, mostly black but with designs of stars and moons in red. The black tents surrounded a much larger one, made of a dark red material; each side of the open door had been emblazoned with a design of a striking serpent. The same design of black serpent adorned the scarlet standard that flew from a tall pole. Lothíriel spotted a guard patrolling the bank opposite her and could see a line of horses. Then she saw a group of men sitting on the ground in some kind of conference.
She hesitated, wanting to get to the beach but knowing they would see her. Would that matter though? Surely she could just greet them, explain who she was, and carry on home. Kicking Mista forward she left the shelter of the trees and trotted out into the open.
Almost immediately a shout rang out as the guard spotted her. The other men looked up and jumped straight to their feet. It took Lothíriel no more than an instant to pick out their leader. A black serpent displayed on the front of his tunic, he stood with arms folded, staring at her from the opposite bank. She felt uncomfortable under his scrutiny and hesitated in calling out the greeting she had been practising in her head. In her simple dress and with bare feet, who would believe her to be a princess?
The man she assumed to be Prince Umar continued staring at her for a few moments longer and then with a flash of white teeth, his face broke into a leering grin. He barked out a few words that sounded like an order and then some other sentence in a slightly softer, nasty sort of voice. Lothíriel recognised kiz –that meant girl, but yatacak? Surely that meant bed. Why was he talking about a bed? Something made Lothíriel shiver and then a bolt of terror hit her. Larca felt it too, his hackles were right up but the dog never uttered a sound – lurchers kill swiftly and silently. But these were men not rabbits and fearful he might get himself hurt, Lothíriel stayed the dog with a quiet word. Three of the men started towards her, looking for a way to cross the ravine.
She had never had any reason to fear men, but something told her to fear these and instinctively she wanted to flee. Yanking on the reins, she turned Mista round on the narrow track. Calling to Larca to come, Lothíriel drove the pony back up towards the woods. A shout followed her but she didn't look back, frantically urging Mista on. She knew she would not get away: the pony was tired, the hill steep and the men had long legs. They could cut straight up through the trees. Heart thumping wildly she realised she had to make some decision, not now trusting that she could just introduce herself. Why ever had her father invited such horrible men? What could she do? Fifty yards further on, she reached the place where the path went up to the cave. Her only chance! She would have to hide.
Mista did not want to go in. Why should he want to go into a dark, dank cave? Lothíriel knew better than to try and pull him. She forced herself to stay calm; Amroth always said it was the best way to deal with horses. She pushed back the creepers with one hand and holding his reins with the other, put her lips close to his ear and murmured soothing words. Always speak to them in Sindarin, that's what Amroth had told her. Blessedly, Mista followed Larca inside. With shaking hands, Lothíriel pulled the creepers back over the entrance, desperately thankful that the games she had played with Amroth and his friend Oríon had required the cave to be kept hidden from the outside. But then another thought got her trembling all over - would they track her along the path? It had not rained for weeks but they might be skilled at following trails. She could hear them shouting to one another, looking for her. Cowering as far from the entrance as possible Lothíriel prayed they would get fed up and think she had made her escape through the woods.
Outside the heat still scorched, but inside the palace servants hurried along cool corridors. Long ago, the city of Dol Amroth had been crafted from huge blocks of stone by ancient skills. Rising from a high cliff above a natural harbour, most of the windows of the palace looked seaward, or north along the magnificent stretch of beach to where the pinewoods touched the sand.
From the city walls one could look down on the harbour and south over the vast salt-meadows of Belfalas. Sweet lamb from these coastal grasslands would be served at the feast that night, along with the fresh fish and spiced dishes for which Dol Amroth was famous. Late afternoon and most preparations had been completed. The lavishly decorated hall only awaited its guests before the evening entertainment would begin, but in the family's private quarters not all was calm….
Hisael let out a deep sigh; she might have guessed Lothíriel's cooperative demeanour had concealed mischievous intentions. Now wherever had the girl gone? To the woods probably, or to swim in the cove. "I thought she was with you, my lady. She went off clutching that cushion cover she is working on, so I thought she had gone to the solar to find you. Hasn't Prince Amrothos seen her?"
"No, I have sent Amroth to the stable to see if her pony is missing. He hasn't set eyes on her since noon." Lady Eglaneth twisted her handkerchief into a knot around delicate hands and sniffed, her soft features set into a mask of apprehension. "Imrahil will blame me. But I do my best. I only stopped to give my opinion on the seating plan for tonight and when I got to the solar, Lothíriel had gone." She walked over to the window, craning her neck to look down in the direction of the gates. "I can't understand why the gatekeepers would let her go out on her own."
"Ha!" Hisael, rummaging through the huge wardrobe, pulled out the dress that Lothíriel had worn that morning, holding it up for Lady Eglaneth's inspection. "They probably wouldn't, my lady. But with all the comings and goings and the princess dressed no better than a peasant, I doubt they realised."
Lady Eglaneth's eyes opened wide. "You mean she sneaked back here to change?"
"It looks like it, my lady. But her riding clothes are here. So if she's gone off on Mista she's probably bareback and looking like a hoyden." And if she knew Lothíriel, she'd told the stable master she was just going to the training ring and organised some distraction to get past the guards. It was about time her father arranged for someone else to take charge of the girl. His cousin, Eglaneth, was kind and loving to the motherless princess but Lothíriel needed a stronger hand. "I shouldn't worry, my lady, if Prince Amrothos finds the pony gone, he and Oríon will go off looking for her. They will know where she is likely to be."
"I hope so." The beleaguered woman looked about to burst into tears. "She will come back a mess and there is barely time to bathe and change now. Imrahil will be mad. This visit is extremely important to us."
Imrahil threw the letter back down on his desk and groaned aloud. Important this visit might be, but he certainly wasn't relishing it. Personally, with what he had heard about Prince Umar, he thought Denethor's idea of a treaty a waste of time. The man couldn't stay friends with his own kind. There had been skirmishes between the various Harad tribes for years, so how could they hope for an alliance with any of them. Imrahil had no doubt that Umar would side with whoever could offer him the most, and that was Sauron, not an ailing Gondor. But he would try, as he had always tried his best for his beloved land. The thought of seeing the last stronghold of the men of Númenor overrun by the foul beasts of Barad-dûr made him feel sick to his heart. Sighing despondently, he realised he had better go and change. They would be here soon. Imrahil walked over to the window of his study that looked out on the gates intending to check that the honour guard was in place, and frowned. Blessed Ulmo! What were Amroth and Oríon doing riding out now? And why were a pair of hunting dogs loping along behind them?
Imrahil pushed the window open. "Amrothos!" He could almost hear the curse on his youngest son's lips when the bellow reached him. But watching the lad, Imrahil had to admire the easy way he halted his horse and stilled the dogs before looking up at his father with his charismatic, charming, smile plastered across his face. His black eyes radiated innocence and Imrahil couldn't help thinking that his son was likely to break a few hearts later on.
"Where are you going? They will be here soon. You know I want you lined up to greet them with all the formal salutations they seem to expect." Although why a bunch of desert riff-raff required more pomp than men of ancient linage, he failed to understand. Stifling a smile, Imrahil watched the conflict of emotions raging over his son's face. Thankfully, Amroth never could lie. He hardened his voice. "Amrothos?"
Shoulders sagged in resignation. "It's Lothíriel, Father. She's slipped Cousin Eglaneth's leash and has not been seen since the noon meal. Mista and Larca are missing as well."
A faint shiver of unease passed through Imrahil. Lothíriel might be wild and difficult to control at times, but it was unlike her to be late for such an important occasion. He hesitated for only a moment. "I'll call out the guard."
"No, Father. Let Oríon and me try and find her. We looked from the tower and there's no sight of her along the beach so she's probably on her way back through the woods. The dogs will sniff her out. Let's not make a fuss. Erchi says that Prince Umar's men are only just about to break camp. He sneaked up on them and they seem to have been delayed."
Sneaked up on them! Imrahil gritted his teeth. He could only be thankful that his warlike middle son hadn't challenged them. "Half an hour and then I'll get Sergion to ride out."
Oríon raised a brow at the mention of his father, and grinned up at the Prince. "We'll find her. Don't you worry, lord, she won't be far."
Imrahil nodded. "Amroth, get her home as fast as you can and make sure she tidies up. I will deal with her in the morning."
Poor Lothy! Amrothos grimaced. He hoped for her sake they found her in time to appear properly dressed at the feast. He raised his hand and urged his mount through the gate, neatly avoiding a cart coming in the opposite direction. As soon as they were clear he dug his heels in and cantered down the road, jumped the fence into the home paddock and took the track that led to the woods.
"Where do you think she went?" Oríon called when he caught up with him.
"Well, we know she's not along the beach because Erchi would have spotted her. And anyway, she would have seen the Haradrim encampment. She would have avoided that."
"Are you sure? Didn't you say she was trying to learn some of their speech?"
"Oh, damn!" No, surely even Lothíriel wouldn't be that daft. Amrothos shot a helpless look towards his friend. "You don't really think so, do you?"
Oríon shrugged. "She's your sister."
"And you have known her as long as I have."
"Then yes, I think it's the sort of thing she's very likely to do. She wouldn't see any danger."
No, she wouldn't. Lothíriel had lived the whole nine years of her life surrounded by men sworn to protect her. Of course she wouldn't see any danger. "Then let's hope she went to the woods." Amrothos whistled the dogs away and rode on up into the dark of the trees. Normally he loved it up here, but now he took no notice of the evening birdsong or the shadows shifting across the open glades. He kept his eyes fixed on the dogs looking for some sign that they registered another presence. But nothing. And the light would go soon. They would have to get help.
Amrothos was just about to give up when suddenly the dogs disappeared into the trees on their left. He and Oríon exchanged a glance and simultaneously kicked their horses forward. But before they reached the place, a dog appeared back on the main track. In the gloom it took Amrothos a moment to realise that it was Larca.
The lurcher dropped his head, tail wagging in greeting. Amrothos came to a halt and looked down the narrow path. Coming slowly towards them – a pony and rider escorted by two hounds. His heart started beating again. But he had enough sense not to start questioning his sister until he had transferred her to his horse, Mista being bone weary.
"What do you mean you got lost? You know these woods as well as I do!" Lothíriel shook her head and muttered something, cuddling herself against him. He damn well knew something had happened. She had lost her sparkle. It couldn't just be tiredness, Lothíriel always had boundless energy. But she was also very stubborn and making her do something she did not want to do had always been difficult. She was safe and that was all that mattered for the moment. "Tell me later, then. Right now you have to get dressed up for our Haradrim friends."
Lothíriel shuddered. She had always been able to tell Amroth anything. But the thought of repeating what that evil man had said made her squirm. She'd worked it out when she had been hiding in the cave for all that time. At first she hadn't believed it. But even if she had not understood every word, there was no mistake. He'd told his men to catch her because he'd like her in his bed. In his bed? Lothíriel wasn't completely sure what men and women did in bed, but she did know you didn't do it at nine years old. She'd been frightened when her mother had died, but hiding in that cave had been an entirely different kind of fear. She'd never been on her own like that, with disgusting men trying to find her. Scared out of her wits that the curtain of vines would be pushed aside and great hands would grab her. A shiver ran through her body.
"What's the matter?" Amroth asked.
"What will Father say?" Anything to stop her brother asking questions.
"If you get prettied up quickly, not a lot, I imagine. But, Lothy, you are going to have to apologise to Cousin Eglaneth. She has always been very kind to you and does not deserve to be worried so."
Lothíriel's eyes filled with tears. She had never meant to upset Cousin Eglaneth and she loved her really. She just always felt confined in the palace and forever wanted to be doing things. Things other than embroidery or twanging uselessly on her harp. But being prettied up meant coming face to face with that man, and she didn't know if she could do it.
From the doorway, Imrahil looked around the vast hall. The huge candelabras had been lit and mellow light filtered up to the vaulted ceiling. Later the heat would probably be unbearable. They should have eaten earlier and he wondered why he had pandered to the Haradrim who never ate their evening repast until after dark and would not discuss business until after they had shared a meal. His eyes scanned the long tables: polished silver glinted, the enormous centrepieces of intricately fashioned Swan-ships glowing almost gold the candle light. Somewhat proudly, his gaze raked the twenty-two banners that covered the wall behind the dais. All blue and silver, all depicting the Swan and Ship of Dol Amroth but each one, from Galador to his own, slightly different in design. Imrahil let his eyes linger on his father's, wishing the old man was well enough to deal with all this himself. But he had a nasty feeling that Adrahil, twenty-first Lord of Dol Amroth, would never leave his bed again. Pushing the thought away he followed the ranks of banners that belonged to the second and third sons – they marched down each side-wall to converge on the small display of ancient heraldry at the end. Treasured and preserved, ragged and fragile – the banners of the last kings of Gondor. Given to his illustrious ancestor, the first lord of this land, to keep safe in case those in Minas Tirith were ever lost. Almost imperceptibly, Imrahil bowed his head
A tap on his shoulder alerted him that the Haradrim had passed through the gates. Bracing himself, he went outside and waited at the top of the steps to greet his guests. Looking around, he sighed, his satisfaction at the splendour of his domain marred by the worry of the continued absence of his daughter. He couldn't see his captain, so maybe Sergion had started a search. But then a small disturbance to his right drew his attention, and Amroth filtered into the lines of family and senior officers who formed the welcome party. A nod from his youngest son, followed by a slight grin, brought immediate relief from his anxiety. They must have found Lothíriel. Now, would she be here in time?
"Will you stop dawdling, child. We are in enough trouble with your father already; the least you can do is to make an effort to get there in time."
Lothíriel didn't want to get there in time. She didn't want to get there at all. And if Hisael hadn't scolded her so much – a maid who had been at one's birth, tended not to defer to rank – and Cousin Eglaneth not been so unusually forceful, then she certainly wouldn't be there.
Eglaneth pushed her into the line next to Amroth, just as Prince Umar reached the bottom of the steps. She kept her head down, half hiding herself behind her gangly brother who immediately started whispering under his breath.
"Cheer up, Lothy, it could be worse: I've heard that some of them are jet black and have wriggling, red tongues, but these look pretty normal. They're just a bit darker than us."
Normal! It wasn't normal to chase young girls through the woods. Her father's men were always kind to her. The knights would give her rides on their great, grey chargers and the watchmen had always been happy to lift her up to see over the wall when there was a ship sailing in or raise her on their shoulders to point out the spouts of whales far out to sea. Ever since she had been little they had done that and she had always felt safe with them. Now she didn't think she would ever feel completely safe again.
"My third son, Amrothos." Her father's voice broke into her reverie and started her trembling. Despite legs like jelly, Lothíriel managed a creditable curtsey when she heard her name. She didn't look up though, and saw only polished, pointed boots loaded with wicked spurs before, to her relief, Prince Umar passed on without any comment. Now she just had to get through the meal.
Of course, Amroth noticed something was wrong. Probably because her usual healthy appetite had deserted her and she glumly pushed the food around her plate.
"What's up, Lothy? You know you can tell me."
"Nothing," she replied shaking her head. "I just don't like them very much."
"Well, it's only for this evening. They will be closeted with Father tomorrow and we won't be invited to that."
She made some innocuous comment back and that was when the wrath of Ulmo descended on her. At first she thought she had misheard her father saying how well she had learnt to speak the language of Harad, but when all those around her went quiet, she knew she had not been mistaken.
"Come on, Lothíriel, I know you have been practising." Her father had a smile in his voice. "Wish Prince Umar welcome in his own language."
Her mouth went bone dry, and only after Amroth nudged her could she force herself to look up. Cold, she went completely cold as her hesitant gaze met a knowing leering look. He recognised her now, no doubt about it.
"Lothíriel!" Her father's voice now held impatience but nothing came out of her mouth.
Across the table Prince Umar smiled and leant back in his chair. "She is shy, Imrahil. And that is just as it should be. Do not force your lovely daughter." He put his hands together and brought them up to his nose in thought, surveying her over his fingertips. He had not recognised her at first. The tempting child in the ragged dress and with bare legs seemed far removed from this noble child. What luck: a princess of the blood and probably blessed with intelligence as well as that rare elfin beauty. He would have her. Oh yes, whatever the cost he would have her. His men might have been stupid enough to let her get away, but a dedicated hunter such as himself would stalk his prey to the final conclusion. "You know, Imrahil, we have a lot of negotiations to go through, but to start them off in the right way, make a gesture so to speak, I propose that we form a strong alliance between us from the start. Something that shows our faith in one another."
For some reason Imrahil immediately felt wary, but he deliberately smiled benignly. "What are you suggesting, Umar?"
"A marriage. Between your daughter and me. That would truly seal any bargains that we might make."
Marriage! With a nine year old child! Imrahil couldn't answer for a moment but Umar must have guessed at his thoughts because he followed up quickly.
"Oh no, not quite yet. We do not take girls until they are twelve. But your daughter could come to live in my palace a year or so before, to enable her to learn our customs and our ways."
A low growl travelled around the room, knights and captains shuffled uncomfortably in their seats. Compelling himself to stay calm, Imrahil blanched when Elphir start to rise in his chair, fingers reaching for his sword. It took a thunderous look directed at his eldest son to induce him to regain his seat. The hall relapsed into quiet, someone coughed and Imrahil slowly and nonchalantly reached for the flagon of wine, pouring a good measure into Umar's glass. "I am afraid we Gondorians do not discuss the marriage of our daughters at such an early age, and never do we do so in public." As he looked across to Lothíriel he saw she had turned chalk-white.
June 3008 – East Emnet, The Riddermark.
The horsemen cantered in pairs, taking a track that cut through the tall summer grass and ran parallel to the rocky outcrops of the western edge of the Emyn Muil. Éomer loved this time of the morning. Later the plains would glow gold, but now, with the mists of dawn still lingering, colour came slowly.
Pride stirred him. It might be a routine patrol and they might have seen nothing more dangerous than a mountain lion, but not many got to ride in an éored at so young an age, and he'd earned his place fairly. Determined to prove himself worthy, he remained constantly alert, so even though every now and then, in turns and as if by some unobserved signal, one man would rise in his stirrups and gaze ahead and to either side, it was his young eyes that spotted the Rider first.
"Scout returning." Éomer shouted loud enough for his captain to hear at the front. Visible to all now, the lone horseman closed the distance between himself and the éored at speed. A mumbling of speculation started amongst the patrol as they realised that the man's early return meant that there must be something to report. As the scout sharply pulled his mount to a halt in front of Elfhelm, Éomer nudged Fireball to the front of the group, wanting to know firsthand what was going on. Good-naturedly, the older men made room for him, for he might be the youngest Rider, but he was still the King's nephew.
"Orcs!" Elfhelm's brow furrowed. "How many?"
"A large group: forty to fifty maybe. They must have come down the Wall during the night and made straight for Egbert's herd."
"Damn!" Motioning the scout to his side to continue the report, Elfhelm gave the order to move out and the Rohirrim charged down the track toward the camp they had left only a week before. Then the herd, one of the best on the Emnet, had been peacefully grazing and they had shared a merry meal with Egbert and his family before their routine patrol had taken them northwards.
No one said much. Egbert's herd contained many black horses; he'd been warned that they were coveted by the Lord of Barad-dûr, but with strong sons, the good grazing on the eastern marches had always tempted him.
Riding in the middle of the éored, Éomer pulsed with excitement. At last! He would soon come face to face with his father's killers. He gripped his sword-hilt: his father's sword; his father's horse; his son's revenge.
Half a league from Egbert's encampment, they came across the stallion: dark, dappled flanks streaked with congealed blood from a dozen arrow wounds. The orcs had brought him down and then slit his belly, the few remaining entrails spilling onto the grass. Éomer's stomach leapt into his mouth, the taste of bile making him gag. A noble horse killed and defiled for trying to protect his herd.
"Keep going," Elfhelm shouted, raising his arm pointing East . "We are not far behind them but they'll be driving the herd towards the river, trying to separate the blacks. They won't want to run when the sun gets fully up." As one, the whole group of Riders wheeled left, leaving the mutilated body to the birds.
Seeing the thin plume of rising smoke tempered Éomer's excitement. The camp! In his haste to wreak vengeance on the orcs he had forgotten that the men and women of two families would have stood between the scum of Mordor and their prey.
They could see the destruction from some distance away: every tent had been pulled down and the livestock pens stood open. But it was the dark, still forms that lay about the grass that told of the full horror. Then, when they rode up, the stink - the stench of orc blood mixed with the smell of death and human suffering. Fighting down nausea, Éomer forced himself to look around – a body lay half in the fire, charred down one side. He recognised Egbert's eldest son. One hand still gripped a knife and nearby lay the corpse of an orc, the good grass stained by its stinking, black blood. Looking around he saw the bodies of two more of the vile beasts. But for a few dead orcs how many of his kinsman had died? He could see at least a dozen, most with blood and guts spilling from gaping wounds. A cold clammy sweat broke out over Éomer: he had shared a meal with these people; sung with them; listened to their stories.
"Guflaf, Adwine, check for survivors." Elfhelm picked out two older men experienced in wound care. "Éomer, you stay here and assist them. The rest of us will try and cut the bastards off."
What! At first, Éomer thought Elfhelm was joking, but then the awful truth dawned: they still thought him too young. "No! You can't make me stay; I won my place in your éored." Éomer almost shouted at his captain, his heart beating wildly at the injustice. He would not stay. He had waited nearly six years for this chance, trained every day with sword and spear.
Elfhelm studied him, his eyes narrowing. "And if you want to continue to ride with me, then you will obey my orders without question. Is that understood?"
Chest heaving, hand balled into a fist, Éomer managed to nod, turning his head away to hide a tear of pure rage. Then with a rush of wind and the thunder of hooves the members of the éored swept past him and away across the plain towards the river. Fireball snorted and strained after them; instinctively, Éomer steadied him. The other two men had already dismounted. Adwine straightaway bent over the body of a woman, possibly Egbert's wife, but Guflaf took a moment to speak to him. "Come on, lad, you've plenty of years ahead of you to fight orcs. You'll get your chance."
Not answering, Éomer slipped from his horse, looking around at the scene of carnage. Survivors? They were joking. He swallowed. Fighting a dozen orcs single handed would be easier than this. "What do I do?"
"Check the women first. The filth haven't long gone, must have smelt us coming so there's a chance one may still be alive." Guflaf answered.
"Why the women?"
"Because they kill the men first; they like to take their time with the women, if you know what I mean. And us coming would have disturbed them."
Horrified, Éomer rolled over the nearest female body. He didn't have to look very hard to confirm that she had departed this life — Egbert's old mother had been slit up the middle much like the stallion. Numbly, he checked two young girls although he knew it was no use: their blonde braids were coated with blood. But luckily—perhaps—the orcs must have panicked when they realised the patrol was returning because they had killed quickly, cutting straight across fragile throats. Then new horror hit him –Bergit! Where was Bergit? With her being only a few years older than himself, he had spent some time talking to her when the éored had enjoyed her uncle's hospitality. She had been so excited because she would be getting married at the end of the summer, living in the village and not out on the plains. Éomer looked at the two little girls at his feet and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, Great Béma, what had Sauron's spawn done to Bergit?
He didn't notice her at first, half hidden under a pile of blankets and canvas where the tent had been pulled down around her. She lay on her side, legs drawn up in a ball, an arm covering her face. Éomer stared for a moment: not wanting to touch her; not wanting to intrude. Most of her clothing had been ripped off, her long, yellow plait hacked at the nape of her neck and she had deep scratches down her arms, but it was the small trickle of blood from between her legs that sickened him. Blood! She was still bleeding! Suddenly he shouted, throwing himself on the ground beside her. "Bergit! Bergit! Guflaf, over here, Bergit's still alive."
It took Éomer some few hours' solid work before he had dragged the last body into line, covering it with a piece of torn tent canvas. Trying to put some order into the camp, salvaging what supplies he could to make a meal, had taken a while. Disposing of the reeking bodies of the orcs had taken nearly as long. He'd stared at the foul things for ages; wanting to ram his sword into already still hearts before eventually he'd dragged them into a pile at the edge of the camp. Using some old sacking as fuel and a dousing of spirit that he'd found in an unbroken crock, he'd pulled some brands from the fire and set the grisly heap alight. Now a rancid cloud hung over them. But his dead kinsmen needed all the respect he could give them and in the heat of a June day he would have to start shovelling earth on his own if the patrol didn't return soon: Guflaf still tended to Bergit, and Adwine to the only other survivor – a little boy of about four whom they had found hiding under a pile of saddles, unhurt but rigid from terror. He glanced over to where they had rigged up a shelter to give Bergit some privacy. He had not been near since he had discovered she was alive, covered her with his cloak and handed her over to Guflaf. Partly because he had no real idea what to do and partly because he felt embarrassed and angry with himself, acknowledging that when he had first looked on her, in spite of her injuries, he had taken note of the pale curve of her body against her sun tanned arms and legs.
"They're coming back," Adwine had kept the boy tucked under one arm for the past hour or more, except when occasionally getting up to stir the large pot of stew. During the few moments the boy had been left he never moved but continued to stare blankly out over the plain; Éomer had not yet heard him speak.
As the returning Riders approached, Éomer stared. There were no empty saddles, but as yet he could not tell if any had met their doom. Some were hurt; he could see by the way they held themselves. How would he have fared, he wondered. Now, in cold blood, admitting that he might have spent every possible moment honing his skill with weapons, but he still lacked experience of real combat. And although as tall as the men, he needed to fill out. A couple of the orcs he had burned would have been almost twice his weight.
The men rode in quietly, the usual euphoria at the end of a skirmish replaced by sorrow at the harrowing sight that met them. "Three yearlings taken, over half the orcs killed, the rest escaped across the river." Elfhelm spoke wearily, his eyes hardening as he took in the line of bodies covered with canvas and the boy sitting silently by the fire. Grimacing, he slid off his horse. "Anyone else?"
"Bergit," Éomer indicated the rough shelter they had built. "Guflaf's with her. He says she will live."
Elfhelm raised his eyebrows in question.
"They must have realised we were coming and didn't stop to finish her off. But they…"he shook his head, not up to saying it aloud.
Elfhelm swore fluently for a moment, "Next time I will not bother killing the scum, just burn them alive."
The flap of the makeshift tent opened and Guflaf appeared carrying a bowl of bloodied water. Éomer guessed that Bergit had finally allowed him to wash her.
"Éomer says she will live." Elfhelm greeted him.
Guflaf nodded. "Only one got to her, found her and tried to keep her for himself. As usual with their kind that caused a fight amongst the brutes, which saved her from worse. But she wants to die, wanted me to kill her and when I wouldn't, she tried to take my knife."
Éomer gasped. "Why? Why would she even think that?"
Both men ignored him. "She will have to be watched. Do you think she can travel tomorrow? It will be best we get her to the village as soon as possible." Elfhelm had showed no surprise at Guflaf's announcement and for a moment the two men discussed whether Bergit would be fit enough to sit on a horse and if it would be best if they sent someone ahead to inform the villagers they were bringing in two survivors. Éomer felt he was missing something— however awful a thing that had happened to her, she was alive and would recover.
"Why should she want to kill herself?" he asked again as soon as the two older men had finished their conversation.
Guflaf pursed his lips. "She has lost most of her family. She has been violated in the worst possible way for a woman. She says her betrothed will not want a wife who is not pure, who has been touched by those filthy…"
"But it's not her fault," Éomer exclaimed, interrupting him. "No one will blame her."
Elfhelm put his hand on his shoulder, "Éomer, how would you react? Would you take a wife who had been abused so?"
Éomer pulled away from his captain's hand, his ire rising. "If I had made a promise, I would not break it. If her man loves her he will not hold her responsible."
"Then I suggest you go and tell her that, lad." Guflaf wandered away to empty the bowl and see to the wounded men who needed him.
Éomer opened his mouth and closed it again, his anger leaving him abruptly to be replaced by panic. "Me tell her?"
"It won't do any harm, Éomer. She will need all the help she can get. I have seen this before; she may never recover from such an ordeal." Elfhelm clapped him on his back and went off to organize the burying of the dead.
Éomer stayed where he was, uncertainty rooting him to the spot for a moment. What could he do? True, he had dealt with most of Éowyn's problems since they lost their parents but she was his sister. His sister! A shudder of horror ran through him at the thought of anything similar happening to Éowyn. What would he say to her if it had? It was thinking about his sister that made him realise the full extent of Bergit's suffering – being awoken by the sound of her family being slaughtered and then…. Chastened, but still not having any idea of how he would approach things, he collected a bowl of stew and headed for the tent.
She lay on a pallet, eyes closed, and with a livid purple bruise covering one cheek. In spite of the heat she had huddled a blanket tightly around herself. Éomer hesitated to disturb her but after a moment she opened her eyes and stared at him. Shaken by the despair he saw there, he could only stutter. "I've brought you some food, Bergit."
"Take it away, Éomer. I don't want it."
"You need to eat to recover." Her only answer was to close her eyes again. Damn, skirting around the subject wouldn't get him anywhere. He'd always found it better to be up front with Éowyn. "Guflaf said you tried to take his knife. Why did you do that?"
Her eyes flew open.
"Why Bergit?" he repeated.
"Isn't it obvious? I have no life now."
"Yes, you do. You are alive, and you have to carry on living for your family's sake. You have a grandmother and cousins in the village, haven't you? And there is a man waiting to marry you."
"Are you mad!" She spat at him. "Would you want a woman who had been mauled by those filthy beasts?"
"If I wanted her before then I would still want her afterwards. It's not your fault, Bergit, and if your man truly loves you he will still love you."
"Love me?" Tears filled her eyes and she let them flow unheeded. "Edwick did, I know he did…but now? I don't know if love is that strong."
Éomer put the bowl on the ground and sat down on the edge of the pallet. "I'm too young to have experienced it for myself, but it was strong between my mother and father. So strong, that my mother let her life slide away after my father died, leaving Éowyn and me alone. I don't think she had the right to do that. I don't think you have the right to leave Edwick alone. You are not giving him a chance to show his love for you."
Her brow creased heavily as she digested his words. Éomer could almost see the conflict going on in her head. Finally, she looked him straight in the eye. "Do you really think he will still want me?"
"I'll thrash him if he doesn't."
She sniffed, wiping away the tears; a faint glimmer replaced the dullness in her eyes. "He's twice as big as you."
To be continued.