The River Isen, spring of 2969
"…I have been in this land before, more than once, and ridden with the host of the Rohirrim, though under other name and other guise. You I have not seen before, for you are young, but I have spoken with Éomund your father…."
"The Riders of Rohan," The Two Towers.
Damn! Thorongil leaned back on his haunches, balancing where he stooped in the mud. A crude iron helm, swilled over with silt, floated haphazardly in the shallows nearby. Uruk prints marred the west bank of the Isen a league north of where the river flowed past Dol Baran and out of the Wizard's Vale.
The tracks ended here in a confused mess of mud and trampled weeds leading down the sloping bank. And no matter how many times he reopened his eyes and tested the freshness of the prints with his fingers, he simply could not believe the iron-shod orcs were witless enough to cross here.
But the truth lay before him, visible to his eyes on the east bank where the slope bore similar scars leading away from the river. Thengel King had sent him, Thorongil, captain of his scouts, to search for signs of orc movement in the Westfold after an increase of attacks, and here they were again.
He rose and carefully maneuvered through the sticky rain-saturated soil, his thoughts still on the orcs. True, the river narrowed as it passed between the foothills of the Vale, but its danger increased. The bed ran deep this far north of the fords, and springs and streams high in the verdant slopes of Methedras flowed into it. Snowmelt mixed with heavy rain swelled the river and fed the current at this time of year. The Fords of Isen lay ten leagues or so south of the road from Dol Baran, and were by far the safest passage for traveling companies. Northward, a mile from Isengard lay a bridge which provided the only other safe crossing. Both were held by the vigilance of the riders of the Mark and the cunning of the wizard Saruman. Still, the tracks were many and braving the river seemed more foolhardy, to his mind, than crossing spears with the Rohirrim downriver.
Thorongil left the slope and returned to where his mount waited by the west road. Over Waelfag's back he could see the purple ring of heather growing underneath the brown summit of Dol Baran, and the looming, ever-white peaks of the Misty Mountains as they stretched north like a spine. He expected Brorda to ride around the shoulder of the hill soon since the appointed hour neared. Behind the low-hanging clouds, he guessed that the sun lay in its western track toward the sea. Three or four hours of dingy daylight remained of their long tour of the river valley.
The wind picked up, carrying the scent of wet grass and heather as it pushed the rainclouds along into the plains. More orcs from the mountains, with large numbers determined to enter the Westfold at peril…but avoiding the eoreds. What does it mean?
Brorda appeared while he watered Waelfag downstream where the banks were less steep. "Anything?"
"Someone ought to warn the wizard that he's got an orc infestation on his hands," the Rohirric scout groused.
Thorongil rubbed his mount's rose-grey withers. "I found their crossing upstream a little ways."
"Do they crave death?" Brorda's eyes narrowed on the river and Thorongil exchanged a grim frown with him. Dismounting with a grunt, the Rohir led his gelding to the water.
"Not a prime location," Thorongil murmured eventually, still puzzled by it. "Between the current and their armor…"
"Lucky us, I guess," Brorda replied through clenched teeth. "I don't fancy meeting up with those brutes without a horde of spears at my back." His fist rested around the smooth wood of his bow where it hung from the saddle. They both would need to restring their weapons before starting after the uruks.
He nodded. "If we ride now, we'll make it to the Fords before daybreak…assuming the weather holds. We can gather spears there and reinforce the king's riders." Together they led their mounts back up the bank and toward the road. Thorongil followed the grey thread south until it faded from view. "The uruks have quite a lead. It's a good job the Second Marshal asked for extra protection for the northernmost villages."
"Aye, but he also thought the attacks would fall at the Fords, and that's where most of the riders are stationed. A lot of help they'll be if we don't drag their lazy Westfold underbæcs with us."
Thorongil grinned. Even when faced with a common enemy, the competition between east and west occurred amongst the Rohirrim. "Oh, they'll be put to good use, Brorda. These uruks don't seem interested in soldiers and they think they're headed straight for the farms and villages, but whether they like it or not, Thengel King is waiting for them."
The river formed a misty band to the west and the hills of the Wizard's Vale looked like small black arms embracing a basin of shadows against the grey morning sky. In the east, the young sun brooded behind low clouds. The colors of the land around them appeared bolder in color in the morning gloom, white and cobalt mountains in the south, grey woods and green grasslands to the north.
Calenardhon. Thorongil never tired of looking at it.
"All right?" someone asked.
"Hmm?" Thorongil drew his gaze closer to home and found that Brorda had ridden up beside him.
The Rohir shrugged. "You were looking around awful hard. I thought maybe something was up."
"I must be growing absent-minded," Thorongil mumbled as he scratched around the stubble on his jaw.
"Well wake up, we're almost there."
Thorongil and Brorda had set out from the Fords four hours ago, before the dawn, to march into the northernmost point of the Westfold with a company of riders. Brorda pointed northeast to a spot on the plain that he'd missed completely in his daydreaming.
On the border of the emnet and the fold, the skirmish between the Rohirrim and the uruks looked like a berserk circle dance of green and black figures. At least two riders lay in the trampled grass among a heap of black and grey orc carcasses. Around the plain, the sound of orcs shrieking hung in the damp air. Thorongil clutched his fists tighter around the reins as the sound grated his ears. Their caterwauling indicated neither victory nor defeat, he knew, as the brutes made that racket no matter what. Still, he hated the sound.
Thorongil checked his mount from following Brorda as the Rohirric scout led the contingent of Westfold men onward. Spear angled toward the foe, Brorda cast a curious look over his shoulder but continued on toward the fighting.
Over the clamor of steel and rough voices, Thorongil's eyes swept from shield to shield in search of Thengel's golden one. The king rode in the thick of it, a stroke of green and gold surrounded by black. Thorongil desired to reach Thengel for he swore to protect the king years six years ago when he stood in the withered grass of the downs, a stranger in need of a horse.
Beneath him, Waelfag strained to follow the other horses, excited by the racket. His sword at the ready, he took a deep breath before lunging to the attack and penetrating the ring of riders and uruks. A great black orc immediately assailed him and blocked his path to the king. Waelfag wavered left, skidding on the wet grass. Somehow, the orc had painted the tough skin of its bare thighs with red streaks from the blood of a slain opponent. The heavy, sour smell of it singed Thorongil's nostrils, causing them to flare in disgust. Rage for the fate of the rider filled his stomach, fueling his muscles with the strength to wield his sword. He blocked the orc's notched steel blade and dispatched the creature with as much economy as possible from his high vantage. The orc slumped to an anticlimactic heap on the muddy ground as its head rolled away.
Pivoting Waelfag around, Thorongil urged the gelding forward as two uruks attempted to unseat Thengel even while his mount trampled another uruk to death under its hooves. One of the king's guards lay still in the grass nearby and the rest were locked in combat.
Another orc replaced its comrade, managing to push Thorongil back through the skirmish, snarling and striking at Waelfag. The young gelding rolled his eyes and reared, as he was forced backward. Thorongil tightened his grip on the reins with his left hand and spoke Rohirric commands in a firm voice, but the difficultly of parrying the uruk's sword and calming a horse more used to scouting than combat proved too great. The uruk still managed to separate him from the aid of the other riders, and blocked his path toward Thengel.
Avoiding a blow, Thorongil skirted around the uruk and caught a glimpse of the king. His helmet had disappeared, exposing faded golden hair that clung to his damp, high forehead. Even so, the king remained seated on Lightfoot, and others of his guard were rallying to his defense. But Thorongil had looked too long, and the creature nearly took his scalp off again. Slipping in the saddle, he drew his sword up and caught the orc blade by the tip which averted the hideous weapon, but also unbalanced him.
Crashing to the ground, Thorongil landed on his stomach and nearly sliced himself with his own sword. He scrambled to avoid the next assault dealt by his opponent while he gasped for air. Waelfag skittered away before he could grab the reins.
The orc moved to strike again, but the sword was intercepted before it could nick his skin.
Also on foot, the shieldmaiden had blocked the blow with her axe. She punched the orc hard in the chest with the butt of the weapon, forcing him backward before the blade bit into the creature's grizzled forehead.
She pulled her axe free and brushed tendrils of golden hair out of her face while Thorongil jumped to his feet. A wish for more cleansing rain chased through his thoughts, as the uruk's inky blood stained the ground and increased the stink on the plain.
"Up," Saexburga barked, waving him on.
A group of the evil creatures retreated away from the skirmish, running westward at a swift pace. A rider, who Thorongil did not recognize, either by his horse or armor, broke off from where he fought on the fringe of battle to chase the deserters on his own.
The ugly brutes caught wind of their pursuer, and Thorongil nearly swallowed his tongue as the creatures turned on the horse and rider. Ahead, Saexburga sprinted on with a growl and Thorongil followed the shieldmaiden, quelling his desire to join Thengel.
An uruk crumpled to the ground as the warhorse reared in attack. Some scattered away from the hard, flashing hoofs, but one lunged to strike at the horse's vulnerable belly. The rider delivered a death blow with his spear, protecting the horse, but the shaft looked too heavy for him as he struggled to remain balanced. An uruk snatched the end of the spear just below the head, pulling the man down. The leather helm flew off and Thorongil's heart plummeted in his chest as it dawned on him that this rider—this boy, this beardless, pink-cheeked child who'd lost his helm—was no warrior! Thorongil could easily see that the Rohir was too young, too scrawny…he had barely begun to fill out under the leather armor which probably belonged to an older brother, or worse, his father.
Thorongil ran with renewed vigor for the boy's presence here was a mistake. Saexburga already grappled with one of the uruks, but the brutes surrounded the rider with open-mouthed glee.
"Ai!" he cried. Forget the boy! Look at me. All thought of the main battle slipped away from him as he raised his sword in defense of the rider.
An orc twisted round as Thorongil cut across the grass and answered his challenge with a snarl. The ringing and hissing of steel sliding against steel filled his ears as he checked every swipe and thrust. Gulled by a feint, the uruk yowled and conceded ground. Thorongil caught the orc on the outer thigh, throwing it into a frothing rage. It beat at him relentlessly until, fed up with having to stare at the ugly brute, Thorongil met its strokes with equal strength. The uruk seemed to shrink before him, and a sneer cut through the sweat and dirt smudged together on the scout's face.
Until his blade shattered.
Thorongil backed off quickly. Dammit! He didn't need more broken blades! Just one good sword, for the love of Eru, just one!
The uruk swung again, but slowed by its wound, Thorongil saw it coming and pivoted out of reach. Now standing to the beast's right, he hooked his foot around its ankle and used its own momentum against it to thrust the remaining jagged fragment of his blade into the creature's throat as it faltered.
Blood sprayed his breast plate and hauberk, and he spat as some landed on his face and neck. The renewed reek of sour meat filled his nose as he wiped his beard with the back of his dirty hand.
Leaving the carcass, he saw Saexburga brawling near the boy, and the great orcs either howled or dropped in their tracks under her axe. She played off two uruks now, using their primal aggression against them. The boy still stood, to Thorongil's surprise, and battered away at a piebald-colored orc with carbuncles and pustules all over its flesh.
Choosing between the two riders, Thorongil decided to help even the odds for Saexburga, if she'd let him. Seeming to sense his approach, the shieldmaiden's lips curled contemptuously but she gave him a subtle nod of assent.
One of the two orcs who fought with her twisted around to meet him, taking advantage of Thorongil's shattered weapon. Thorongil pulled out his knife from his belt—to cut the uruk's throat or his own, he hadn't decided. The creature's face split into an open-mouthed grin and Thorongil had the uncomfortable feeling that his innards were about to loosen up a bit.
Suddenly an arrow shattered through the uruk's windpipe before the filth had a chance to slit his belly. No orcs stepped up after that. He turned to see where the arrow had come from. Brorda raised his bow in salute from across the field and Thorongil waved his hand in thanks.
"There's more work to be done yet," Saexburga cried grimly as she made her way back toward the fray. A chorus of yawps and howls arose as a particularly large uruk fell beneath Thengel's blade.
The boy came up beside him. "Sword?" he yelled over the din. The youth, he could see, was somewhat older than he'd first thought. He was fair of face, but there was no mistaking the taut, angular features of a young man who'd sprouted up overnight.
Thorongil shook his head.
"Here!" He pressed the hilt of his sword into Thorongil's hands.
Right, he thought. Before he could give it back, the lad ran ahead with the spear and engaged the nearest orc by wielding his spear like a quarterstaff, striking blows to disarm the orc of its weapon. Then he thrust the spearhead into a vulnerable spot in the armor.
Thorongil shook himself and followed.
All about, the riders busied themselves separating their dead from among the orcs, before dragging the vile carcasses across the muddy field to the burn pile. Thorongil helped Brorda lift a heavy uruk by its crude hauberk. By the time a smoky fire had kindled, his hands were covered in bloody grit. Rain threatened to fall again and a few preliminary drops sizzled in the bonfire.
While the Westfold men busied themselves with preparations to return to the Fords, Thorongil sought out the young man who'd given him the sword. He found the rider sitting on the ground, binding his hand and wrist with a strip of linen. The battered spear, leather gauntlets, vambraces, and the retrieved helm lay by the Rohir's side collecting small beads of moisture from overhead.
Thorongil drew out the newly-cleaned sword from his scabbard. The steel reflected the deep grey of the sky. "This is a good sword, though heavy for one of your stature." The Rohir looked up. "I thank you."
The boy shrugged and turned his attention back to wrapping his hand. "I'll grow into it."
Thorongil rested the tip of the blade on the earth before him and leaned gently on the hilt. "Your name?"
The Rohir glanced up after a moment and his sharp blue eyes locked with Thorongil's. "Éomund Éorlic's son, of Eastfold, at your service," the rider answered with a cocky grin.
Thorongil frowned. "Marshal's son. I should have known." The sons of leaders tended to share a similar streak of audacity and harebrained foolishness.
"And you're the scout from nobody-knows-where, called Thorongil." A hint of admiration threaded through the haughtiness in Éomund's voice. "You know, you're a hero in the Eastmark after saving the king's herds from orcs last summer. Where have you been since then?"
"Here and there." Thorongil folded his arms over his chest as the display of overconfidence brought him back to the matter at hand. "It was a mistake for you to leave the group earlier on," he told the lad as he offered him a hand up. "The uruks cornered you too easily, Éomund."
Refusing the scout's hand, Éomund pushed himself off the ground with his spear. "I'm not afraid of a few dirty orcs," he growled, with a white-knuckled grip on his weapon.
"A little fear is healthy for a warrior." Thorongil held up his palm. "It keeps the heroics at bay."
Éomund looked genuinely shocked. "Heroics? They were getting away!"
"Let them." Thorongil had to bite back a burst of mirth as the Rohir blanched, disbelief distorting his face. "You were severely outnumbered."
Éomund squared his shoulders and jabbed his thumb toward his chest. "My job is to make sure those beasts never touch foot in the Mark again," he spat. "I will do whatever it takes."
"How will you do that if you are dead?" Thorongil replied solemnly. Éomund lowered his eyes but took the sword by the hilt as Thorongil gave it over. "Who does this blade really belong to?"
"It belonged to my older brother," Éomund replied as he handled it thoughtfully.
"Was it your brother who should have been here fighting rather than you?"
A shadow passed over Éomund's face and his straight back faltered. "Orcs slew him near the East Wall three summers past."
A bad job, Thorongil thought. The first of three raids on the herds occurred three years ago by orcs coming from the Emyn Muil. He'd spent the spring teaching the king's son combat and lore, but after the recurring attacks, Thengel granted him permission to scout the borders with one or two other men. "I'm sorry."
Éomund shrugged, but the flush creeping up his neck into his cheeks belied his indifference. "I'm a rider. I can fight." He said gruffly while squaring his shoulders again.
Thorongil knew that stance. "Look, no one will doubt your courage because you follow the rules and keep yourself safe."
"I don't care about danger, master scout," Éorlic's son snapped. "I'm not just some farm lad who woke up one day and decided to play the warrior. I trained for this long before I reached the age to enlist."
There was a time for argument and a time for silence. Judging the latter to be the case, Thorongil inclined his head and took his leave of Éomund of Eastfold.
Thengel was still scrubbing the runes etched on his blade dry of blood when Thorongil approached. The king used a fine linen handkerchief and his thumbnail – a habit for those accustomed to luxury, the scout thought.
"Ah, Thorongil. I wondered if you'd turn up," the king quipped, his expression wry. "We found some orcs for you."
Thorongil stopped a few paces away and tried to think of a reply, knowing that he should have found the orcs before they had a chance to attack. Instead, he just bowed his head.
Thengel laughed as he sheathed his sword and thoughtlessly stuffed the filthy linen into a vambrace. "So they found us first. It's of little matter. Here I was starting to think you were invincible, and that sort of thing makes a king nervous. With all this damn rain it's amazing that you'd find anything."
"Brorda and I picked up their tracks on the west bank of the Isen." Closing the distance between them, the two men clasped each other's wrists. Thorongil smirked. "We would have come sooner, but some of them drowned in the crossing, and I figured you'd have the rest well in hand."
Thengel laughed at the jest, and waved his hand toward the bonfire. "As you can see, we made short work of those who survived the river."
"The filth nearly made short work out of young lackbeard there." He pointed toward Éomund. "Saexburga saved his life."
Thengel grunted. "Never leave a shieldmaiden at home. That lad is a piece of work, and he knows better than to ride with us before his training is complete. I learned that he came disguised in another rider's armor."
"I see." Thengel folded his arms across his chest. "My captains didn't notice until after we'd left the Hornburg. By then it was too late to send him back alone, and we couldn't afford losing men to provide an escort." He shrugged and let his arms fall back to his sides. "Best to let the boy have his fight, I suppose."
As they spoke, one of Thengel's senior riders approached Éomund, leading Lightfoot, the King's mount. By the looks of it, Cenhelm proceeded to give the youth an earful.
Enlightened, Thorongil replied, "So, Éomund of Eastfold truly is a new recruit? He seems a bit young, to my mind."
"Aye, he joined the Muster of Edoras two weeks ago. Just sixteen last fall," Thengel said with an exasperated sigh. "Éomund Éorlic's son is as headstrong a wight as ever tasted blood."
"Why doesn't the boy serve under his father?"
"Éomund started in his father's eored, but the lad is a spitfire and overconfident due, no doubt, to his father's status. I've taken him on as a favor to Éorlic. The boy is choleric by nature, anyway, and he does like to jump onto the horse before it's saddled, as the saying goes. The senior riders found him a bit tiresome." The king grinned. "Another hotspur, you might say."
Thorongil grinned back. "You will keep him in his place after this?"
"He has a good grooming arm, I've found."
Sure enough, Cenhelm had left Lightfoot with Éomund, who busied himself with rubbing down the horse's foam-flecked coat.
Thorongil had to admit that he admired the young man's tenacity, no matter how ill-advised his actions might have been. Conversation ceased between the king and the scout, as he gazed west toward the Misty Mountains. With uruks from the west and orcs from the Emyn Muil, the Riddermark certainly had need of riders like Éomund of Eastfold.
Thank you, Deandra, for beta! I really made you work on this one. :0/
And special thanks to Vilwarin for sharing her knowledge of OE with me. Eorlic is most grateful.
AN: Hotspur refers to the epithet given to Thengel during his rather explosive youth in an unpublished story of mine. Also, Thengel is considered to be the First Marshal (a role held by the kings until Theoden fell ill), and the Westfold is under the surveillance of the Second Marshal. Due to rising attacks on the Westfold, the Second Marshal's men were guarding the Fords, where they believed the uruks would logically choose to enter the Mark. The King's muster out of Edoras arrived to reinforce the Westfold eoreds and defend the northwestern most settlements.