Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lord of the Rings belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and J.R.R. Tolkien.
The reinforcements wasted no time in setting up camp. The captains gathered to confer on losses and equipment, to report and hear the latest news from Edoras, and Theodred ignored them all to go directly to his father's sister-son, Grimbold in tow, to tell him of what had occurred.
Eomer son of Eomund did not believe them.
"Pukel-men," he said flatly, disbelief in every tone and gesture, "riding to the aid of the Mark."
"I myself would not believe it," said Theodred, not at all offended, for he too looked as if he scarcely swallowed his own tale, "if I had not seen it with these eyes."
Wiglaf held the halters of the two horses Eomer had allotted them. They had not yet been fully battle-trained, and were unnerved and skittish at the smell of so much blood and Orc.
"Come with me," urged Theodred. "I am going to look for myself."
Wiglaf was taken along, as the Prince's chief page had been gutted in the fighting and now lay bleeding to death back at the camp. Wiglaf carried Theodred's personal standard, rolled up and affixed to the saddle, and his horn, and rode just behind him.
The place of the battle that had routed the creatures of the Enemy was a field of frost-whitened corpses. Barely an hour old, no carrion birds yet flocked to the plucking and gorging, no animal tore at the meat. The horses picked their ways tentatively, rolling their eyes to show the white all around.
"A killing ground," said Eomer impassively, caustically, "and no bodies."
"The Pukels must have taken their stricken with them," said Gimbold, serious. "It's known well enough that they devour their dead."
Wiglaf and the other three who made up the escort, all men of the lower ranks, exchanged looks. One was nearly as young as Wiglaf himself, and they gave each other glances that were particularly worried.
Theodred walked his horse to an especially large corpse, that of an Uruk-hai arm-flailer. Dismounting, he took to a knee beside the body, shoved the reeking bulk back with a braced arm, and, reaching into the sodden, black-mulched dirt beneath the body, yanked something free with a wet squelch.
"They gathered their arrows," he said thoughtfully, standing again, shaking off the strips of blood and grass that clung to his leathers, "as they left—but missed a few."
He held up a thin, short, black shape.
Wiglaf felt his jaw slacken, heard the other boy's gasp. Grimbold cursed under his breath.
The arrow was stunted and fat, with nothing of the clean lines or wholesome length of good Eorlingian bowyer work. The shaft was thicker than Wiglaf had ever seen, and the fletching was round and black, with tips more like bristles than feathers.
Squat, and ugly—and with a small, piercing stinger of an arrowhead, whetted as sharp as a shaving knife, the point glistening as if coated with slime.
"The fangs of the Drugin," said Theodred. "The poisoned arrows of the Wild Men."
Wiglaf could not quite grasp the Prince's tone. Was he jubilant, or was he dismayed? Grimbold's face could have been carved from wood, and Eomer's was, as was his custom these recent months, a glare.
"Pukel-men," said Grimbold, and now his voice was troubled. "Pukels, riding on the Mark, waging war! What can this mean?"
No one had an answer for him, and Wiglaf bit his tongue to keep from asking if the Wild Men weren't beasts after all? His mother had threatened him into behaving as a baby and as a child with the warning that if he did not, the woses would come to get him, and those childhood terrors now seemed much truer to the youth than they had to the boy.
They spread out, blades bared against the chance of survivors, injured or unconscious or hiding, but they did it without much feeling. The silence was bleak and absolute. They were the only living who walked through these heaps of the dead.
Wiglaf followed Theodred at several paces, assuming it his role to keep a hand to their horses and his eyes wide. Not many yards away from where Theodred had found the arrow, the Prince stooped to examine another carcass, this of a Dunlending. "Eomer!"
The Prince's cousin went to him forthwith, and they bent over the body. Wiglaf could hear little of what they said together, but when they beckoned for Grimbold to join them, he made so bold as to go closer.
"Look here," Theodred was saying. "A straight blade did this, one much like my own. The wounds are too clean to be the work of axes or cudgels, as are most of the others."
It was so. Many of the bodies, most those farther afield, were smashed and crushed and splintered to death, with grotesquely misshapen skulls and shattered faces, bones sticking fractured from the flesh. Here, however, nearer what had obviously been the eye of the battle, the maelstrom of the fighting, the wounds were cleaner, sharper, cut instead of mashed, the bladework true and immaculate, and even Wiglaf's herdsman-turned-bannerman's eyes could see the beauty and mastery inherent in the brutality done.
The Prince stood silent, as did Eomer, and for a few moments no one said anything. Wiglaf felt bewildered by these silent looks they gave each other, by the severity of their expressions, and thought not for the first time that perhaps these matters were far too important and inexplicable for a herdsman's son, and that perhaps he hadn't done well at all to ask to be made a fighting man instead of apprenticing to the blacksmith, as his mother had wanted.
From the other side of the field, one of the other men, an older one, called out and raised his arm. Grimbold shouted in reply and made that way, and Eomer would have followed if Theodred had not hung back and, with a shake of his head, implied that Eomer should stay behind with him.
Wiglaf looked between them, torn between his duty to stand beside the Prince and the understanding that the Prince wanted to speak to his cousin privily. In the end, he settled for moving a few yards off upwind, so that he could stay close by and still make an effort not to hear anything.
Yet he could not help seeing, out of the corners of his eyes, as he tried to busy himself with the horses and keeping watch, the expressions on their faces. He saw Theodred's brows come together, saw the look of confusion and the struggle to remember both come into his eyes, as if he tried to explain a thing he himself was uncertain of. He saw Eomer's own glare relent into something more like worry as he listened to Theodred speak. Wiglaf saw how they leaned their heads closer together as Theodred's speech became firmer, more purposeful, his eyes becoming resolute, and Eomer began staring at him in a manner that was alarmed.
Then the wind changed, and Wiglaf's ears failed him.
"...her," Theodred said. "I saw, Eomer, I saw this woman! Her hair—"
"You were seeing the Sun reflected on a blade," Eomer returned. "You are worn out..."
Their voices faded, and Wiglaf was left with a heart that was pounding without explanation.
"And what?" Eomer said abruptly, angrily, and he spoke so loudly that Wiglaf heard him as clearly as the mustering horn. "You think someone has gathered the Wild Men, has made an army out of them? That hatred of the Wormtongue has—"
Theodred's eyes flashed, his own temper beginning to catch, and perhaps the Prince and his cousin would have had another of their shouts then and there if Grimbold had not just then hailed them, his voice like a clap of thunder from a hundred yards away.
Glaring at each other, Theodred and Eomer stalked off in Grimbold's direction, and Wiglaf hastened to follow.
At the northern end of the field, where the ground was the bloodiest and most of the Orcs, Dunlendings, and Uruk-hai had fallen face-first with their death-wounds in their backs, Grimbold stood over the corpse of a Dunlending chieftain, whose teeth-girdled throat had been slit from ear to ear.
"My lords," said Grimbold uneasily, and Wiglaf saw that his face, like the faces of the three men with him, was white. "My lords, see here..."
He motioned with his open palm at the chieftain's corpse, lying spread-eagled on his back, glazed, milky eyes staring up at the gray, cloud-covered sky. He had obviously been rolled over. Theodred stopped short as he caught sight of what Grimbold showed him, and Eomer, behind him, sucked in a mouthful of cold air.
Wiglaf, coming up behind them, peered through the gap between their two motionless forms, seeing for himself what they stared at when the wind whipped the Prince's cloak back and he had the room to see.
In his mind's eye, he glimpsed, again, the memory of that gleam of gold rising out of a mass of black, unshapely figures.
In the chieftain's right hand, clutched in filthy, crack-nailed fingers, was a fistful of golden hair, the strands glimmering like magic must glimmer in the hands of witches.