Adventures of an Éored: MIDSUMMER
Note: I dedicate this story to Maddy, who, with her "Healer and the Warrior"-series, set a standard for all Éomer-fanfiction as well as I am concerned. Not only this, but she was a wonderful person and friend, as well. It is a shame we will never know the wonderful stories she still had in her mind, but while she is greatly missed, her legacy remains on this site to be enjoyed by everyone who is into well-written, Rohan-centric fanfiction.
Maddy, this is for you!
Chapter 1: Preparations
Dawn spread over the hills and bathed the landscape into the soft light of early summer morning. As temperatures began to rise, wafts of mist rose lazily from the wet grass into the air and as the haze lifted, the endless meadows were ignited by the gleam of uncountable dew-drops like a hoard of jewels all the way to the horizon. After a short night, nature began to stir as birds greeted the new day with their songs, and for a while, nothing disturbed the peaceful atmosphere as the world was being reborn.
And yet the sun had not climbed up much further above the horizon when that peace was broken by the sound of rapid hoof-beats. Three riders chased each other over the plains at breakneck pace, deeply crouched on the backs of their horses as they urged on their steeds. No enemy was on their heels, neither orc nor warg, and yet as the threesome turned into a curve and headed for the little forest ahead, they accelerated even further.
Éomer hovered over Stormwing's back still like a statue; slightly raised from the saddle to transfer his weight onto the mare's shoulders where it wouldn't hinder her movements as they flew above the ground. His eyes watered, although they were narrowed to slits against the wind's assault, but it roared in his ears and the grey mane whipped his face. Still Eomund's son would not have traded both sensations for anything in the world. He felt alive and one with his horse, his heart singing with joy as it pumped the blood through his veins like a churning mountain stream. Life did not get better than this.
One quick look over his shoulder revealed that Éothain and Scatha were not far behind them, and another length back, Tondhére and Scéadu did all they could to keep up. Up ahead, the trees of the Aldburg forest loomed darkly as they drew closer, and a self-confident smile spread over Éomer's face at the prospect of the new challenge.
"Soon, Little One;" he whispered, and noticed how Stormwing's ears flickered toward him. "Soon, you can show your true mastery. I know you are enjoying this as much as I do." With the gentlest tug at the reins, he steered his mare toward the barely visible path between the trees, and the grey ears turned toward their destination. There could indeed be no question to anyone who watched that Stormwing revelled the race, from the way she held head and tail proudly to her eagerness to follow even her rider's most subtle commands immediately. Already, the mare eyed the narrow path before them closely, looking for the best possible route between the trees while her ears constantly moved to and fro for anything her master would say, and drank the air with widened nostrils in deep breaths. One league behind them, another league to go.
The forest. Diminishing their speed in exchange for better control, Éomer directed his mount onto the path. Twilight greeted them as they thundered through the undergrowth, alarm in the foliage following them in response to the disturbance of the peace. There, the first mark! Ripping off the blue ribbon as they passed the bush, Éomer threw Stormwing into a sharp right turn. Up ahead, the sparkle of water through the trees beaconed him on and he made for it, the route unfolding clearly in his mind. A moment later, they splashed through the shallow river, and he threw another quick glance back just as Éothain made the turn.
Beneath him, Stormwing snorted, as if she meant to remind her rider that his attention was needed for the way before them, and Éomer grinned and gave the grey neck a quick pet.
"Aye, Little One, I know. The tree."
And there it was, a mighty oak that had been felled by one of the last winter storms to provide a wonderful natural obstacle over the river once its side-branches had been removed. With a click of his tongue, Éomer claimed the mare's attention and collected her for the jump. The grey ears twitched, and the great body between his thighs tensed like a spring. A brief moment of flying, and then they were on the other side and immediately performed another sharp turn; this time to the left... and there was the next mark.
Up the steep ravine now. Again Éomer shifted his weight and gave the mare her head as they ascended. Instead of the wind, it was now his horse's deep breathing that filled his ears, and from the way her lungs expanded with each breath, he knew that his mare was into the challenge with her entire heart.
"Not too hard, Little One. This is only exercise; the great race is yet to come." he murmured soothingly, and gently tugged at the reins to his horse's great anger. They climbed out of the depression, Stormwing furiously shaking her head against the restraint, and found another challenge in the form of two parallel lines of trees adorned with ribbons left and right that would force them into a zigzag course for their collection. Éomer grinned as he directed her toward it.
This was it, Stormwing's greatest strength and the one skill that actually gave him hope to beat the five-years-in-a-row champion, Flame, at the weekend's Midsummer Festival. He had worked hard to reach his aim, had trained with his horse every spare minute his duty with the éored left him, and when he had won the competition a month ago and crossed the finish line with the foxtail in his hand, it had been an indescribable feeling of achievement. He would be the youngest competitor in the great race ever, and he would race against the best rider and the best horse that legendary competition had ever seen – Godric and his stallion Flame. It was a dream come true... and now that he would be granted the opportunity, Éomer was determined to seize it and also become the youngest winner of all time. What a thought that was!
A branch he had not seen lashed his face, and surprised, he almost let go of the reins. For a moment, he hung precariously to the side and the ground seemed to move toward him... until he righted himself with great effort, at the cost of almost coming to a stand. Deep in her throat, Stormwing voiced her protest over the unexpected disturbance, and blood shot into Éomer's face as he realised that they had almost missed the first ribbon. Béma, what was wrong with him? If he committed such a colossal mistake at the race, all he would see of Flame was a dust cloud on the horizon!
Flushed with shame, Éomer steered his mare toward the first ribbon just as his pursuers climbed out of the depression. All his precious advantage – he had wasted it on daydreaming, and now there was only half a league still to go. But it did not matter, because victory would still be theirs! Setting his jaw, Éomer kicked his heels into Stormwing's flanks, and the mare responded. With a burst of agility, she leaped forward to the next ribbon, already readying herself for the next abrupt turn. Like a hare she moved through the trees while her master collected the ribbons, quickly leaving their challengers in the dust. Now down a steep slope with another obstacle at its end, and finally, out of the forest and into the last quarter league... and just before they cleared the last trees, a rider on a dark horse burst from the undergrowth before them.
Éomer sensed Stormwing's indignation to see another horse in her way when she had thought to have the lead, and grinned as he felt the mare's exasperated huff and her iron will when she took the bit with new determination. The great grey body tensed beneath him, ready for an explosion of speed, and once again, the son of Eomund stood up in the stirrups.
"Now, Little One! Show them what you're made of!" And he all but thrust her forward. With a challenging whinny, Stormwing stretched, and her hoofs hammered the ground in a frantic two-beat rhythm as she charged after the dark bay. Ears firmly pressed back against her head now, she ate up the distance between them. Up ahead, Éomer saw Tolgor look over his shoulder, the fox-tail dangling luringly from his saddle. As their healer had been appointed the task of boosting the mare's self-confidence, he was not supposed to race as fast as Wildfire, fresh and without already one and a half leagues of hard running in his legs, would have allowed him, but he was not going slowly, either. The distance between them dwindled, but not far behind his competitor, Éomer could already make out the shapes of Findarras and Arnhelm who marked the finish line.
"Run, Stormwing! Run!"
Ever deeper he crouched on his mare's back to diminish wind resistance, and even though his thighs were burning with exhaustion, Éomer held his position above the saddle. He rode Stormwing now with everything he had; rider and horse united in their fierce will to win. A blurred dark shape appeared beyond his horse's head, and as Éomer briefly blinked back the tears, he could see Tolgor and his mount four lengths ahead. Wildfire was stretching himself now, as well, and still they came closer and closer. It was a characteristic of the Mark's horses that they enjoyed challenges and hated to lose, and so the dark bay fought hard against the reins that held him back.
"Let him run, Tolgor!" Éomer yelled, and again, the healer looked back, surprised to see his pursuer so close already. It took him another precious moment to turn back and make his decision, and Stormwing used it to diminish the distance even further. Two lengths, but now Wildfire accelerated as well as he was finally given his head. Still, momentum was with the mare as she came charging down the slope like an avalanche. She had already reached her greatest speed while her competitor still struggled, and as they raced toward the two waiting warriors, Éomer knew already that they would make it. One leap brought Stormwing alongside the bay stallion, and Éomer ripped the fox-tail from Tolgor's saddle...and with the next, they crossed the finish line first.
"Whoohoo!" His fist with the trophy held high above his head, Éomer let out a jubilant yell and then laughed when he was suddenly catapulted off the ground. It was Stormwing's very own celebration of her victory as she rounded her back and kicked at the air with a playful squeal. "Ha ha, well done, Lass! Well done!" Enthusiastically, Éomer clapped the foam-lathered neck and steered his mount in a circle back to his waiting comrades, and he smiled as he noticed her proudly lifted head and tail as they approached the other riders. Ah, Stormwing was truly his steed!
"My, what a feisty thing!" Findarras laughed, highly amused by the mare's quirkiness. "No doubt will she will turn the stallions' heads at the competition!"
"I hope not!" Éomer gently ruffled the white lock between Stormwing's ears. "I hope they will have to look ahead to see her!"
"Ha ha, well said!" Findarras shook his head, and nodded his greetings at the last two riders as they reached the finish line. "I must admit that the two of you were a sight to behold, although it almost went wrong at the last moment. I thought we had agreed that we did not want to send you to the race with a defeat?"
"I knew we had them... and I did not want Tolgor' horse to be cross with him on the ride to Edoras."
The healer laughed as he clapped his stallion's neck.
"My, that was very considerate of you, son of Eomund! I thank you from the bottom of my heart, for you do not know what a beast this wonderful animal can turn into if he feels mistreated. Is that not right, Wildfire?" He was granted an indignant snort which made them laugh even harder.
"Éothain! Tondhére! So glad you could make it, too!" Findarras grinned at the two young riders as they , but Éothain only shrugged.
"Scatha is much older than Stormwing. Of course she is faster. And Tondhére... well, at least he knows how to stay on a horse."
"Watch what you're saying, bean stalk, or I will volunteer you as Bard's next wrestling victim!"
"Bard? I would eat him alive." Éothain's cocky remark earned him mocking glances.
"Bard the Bear would have disassembled you into hundreds of parts before you even got a finger on him, young man!" Findarras shook his head. "There would be an orderly pile of your bones and an orderly pile of your clothes side by side in the grass—"
"I would jump on his back and dig my teeth into his backbone before the start signal, and he would try in vain to get me off. And when he finally needed a break, I would start to eat him."
"We'll tell him that when we get back, Éothain!" Findarras' grin broadened. "I hope you're hungry!"
Unimpressed by his comrades' playful banter, Arnhelm let his eyes travel over Stormwing's trim appearance and stepped closer.
"You've done great work with this mare, Éomer," he said appreciatively, and Éomer turned around, surprised. It was rare that the scout handed out praise, so when he did, his words meant even more.
"Thank you, Sir."
"I mean it. It takes dedication to do this kind of work when you're weary from the day's demands... and one rarely finds this kind of dedication and will in an apprentice of seventeen years."
"Well..." Éomer evaded his gaze, suddenly feeling a bit self-conscious under the older man's stare. He clapped Stormwing's neck. "I wanted to win that race ever since I first witnessed it. It would mean so much to me. Stormwing was my father's gift shortly before I lost him, and he would have been so proud to see that foxtail on my saddle." He fell silent, uncertain whether it had been alright to bring his father into play when he knew about the scout's mixed feeling toward the late Third Marshal of Eastfold.
And yet Arnhelm gave no sign that the mention of Eomund angered him. After their initial problems, the scout had accepted the son of his former commander unconditionally and found an eager and earnest young man at his disposal, to be formed into a warrior. Ten months they had ridden together now, and still his recruit surprised him with his abilities almost on a daily basis. He nodded and clapped the mare's shoulder.
"I understand that. Just don't be too disappointed if you don't get it."
The smile vanished from Éomer's lips and was replaced by the resolute expression Arnhelm was already very familiar with. It usually meant that one had greater chances of talking sense into a rock than into Eomund's son at this very moment.
"I will do whatever is necessary to get that foxtail, Sir."
"And so will every other rider who participates. You will be competing against the best riders and the best horses of the Mark, most of which will have years of experience at this game. Anything can happen in that race."
"Aye. Even that a recruit wins the Mark's most important trophy."
With a dry smirk, Arnhelm turned to his captain, and just as he moved, felt a whiff of hot, wet air as Stormwing snorted into his hair. With a quick step, the warrior moved out of harm's way and shook his head.
"You talk to our eager recruit, Findarras, perhaps he will listen to you. Oh, and tell him to keep that insolent beast of his in check if he wants to avoid problems at the festival!"
The red-haired warrior was still smiling, but the expression in his eyes was serious.
"Perhaps that is the very attitude one needs to have in order to win this race," he reflected aloud. "Why even compete if you don't think you have a chance?" He saw mutual understanding in Éomer's eyes, and turned his horse around. "We will find out. Right now, we should return to Aldburg and get a few hours of rest, or the éored will leave without you this afternoon!"
It was well after noon when Éomer emerged from the house he shared with the other young riders and recruits, but the sun was still relentlessly burning from the cloudless sky, and a few steps down the main road were sufficient to make him break into a sweat again.
"Béma have mercy!" Éothain complained as he followed him, the sack with the few belongings he would take with him on the ride on his shoulders just like his friend. "It's hotter than in the smithy out here! We'll melt before we reach Edoras!"
"It's still two hours till departure. It will be cooler by then."
"Oh?" Éothain snorted, and kicked up a dust cloud. "I doubt that. There is not a single cloud on the horizon that could shield us. The only difference to now will be that the sun will stand a bit further in the west, as far as I see it."
"So go and ask the Captain; perhaps he will let you stay here."
"That is very funny, Éomer!" His eyes narrowed to slits, Éothain squinted down the hazy street. "Am I mistaken or is that Bard over there? Is he still training? If he loses his title, it will be because he is not rested enough."
"I'm certain he knows what he is doing." But Éomer's curiosity was aroused. "Come, let's watch him! Perhaps we can learn something."
"Learn something? From Bard the Bear?" Éothain gave a dry laugh. "Before we can learn something from him, we will need to double our weight. Béma, I surely couldn't have lifted the weights he was working with these past weeks even once! Whoever will have the bad luck of fighting him at the festival will get crushed."
"Not Thorwald." Éomer remembered the times when he had seen the big warrior from Théodred's éored fight at previous midsummer celebrations. He had been the undisputed champion of wrestling for the last six years, but had lost his title the past year because of a muscle rupture within the first moments of the final fight against Bard. There had been bad blood between the two men ever since, as Thorwald had felt cheated of his title and let no opportunity pass to say so whenever their éoreds had met, and it was clear to everyone that this year's wrestling contest would receive at least as much attention as the big race.
The two friends reached the fence and dropped their bags, resting their arms on the crossbeam to watch their fellow rider's training fight just like many other inhabitants. Bard's opponent was Gaerwolf, whom many believed to be the second-strongest man in Aldburg. He, too, would participate in the contest, but it was clear to the observing crowd that it would take a miracle for the warrior from Anfald's éored to defeat his younger training partner in a title fight. Even so, Gaerwolf had won a respectable fifth place the previous year, so he was certainly not to be underestimated.
Right now, he had Bard in a firm hold on the ground, trying to push his shoulders down and thus end the fight, a situation that would probably not have developed had the younger man not insisted to train a specific technique to disentangle himself. Both fighters were covered in dust and sweat and oblivious to the cheers of their audience as they struggled for the better position.
"You can barely tell who is who under all this grime!" Éothain wrinkled his nose in disapproval and looked along the fence, astonished to find that the majority of the observers were female. "And still the womenfolk really seem to enjoy this."
"Well, it's Bard." It was explanation enough, for the mighty warrior was seldom seen without changing female company. Éomer did not know whether he approved of his comrade's loose way of life or not, but the women he had been with didn't seem to mind that they were not the only ladies in their hero's life. He sighed. "What I wouldn't give to have his build...!"
"If you had his muscles and his weight, you wouldn't have won the foxtail, and you would never compete in the great race with any hope to win," his friend stated matter-of-factly, and Éomer knew that Éothain was right. "I mean, just look at his horse! Éoten* may be the tallest and strongest horse in our éored, but he would never win any race. He would surely make a good plough-horse, but-"
"Don't let Bard hear that you think of his noble stallion as plough-horse, or he will grind you into bone powder," the son of Eomund laughed, and then nodded approvingly when the subject of their discussion slipped out of his opponent's hold with a powerful move and threw him onto his shoulders. The fight was over, and the applause his' as he rose to his feet and wiped his hands on his dirty trousers.
"Damnation!" Gaerwolf grumbled remorsefully as he allowed his opponent to help him up. "That was a good trick! I thought that I had you, and then you used my weight as a lever. I can't wait to see whether Thorwald will fall for it, as well."
"Provided he doesn't rupture a muscle again to evade the fight. He's getting old, and he knows it," Bard snorted and picked up his belongings, only noticing now that his entire frame was caked with dirt, much to the delight of the women beyond the fence.
"Come with me and I'll wash you," one of them offered.
"And I'll rub you dry afterwards," the red-head next to her and obviously her sister, giggled, and Bard, having spied their recruits beyond the fence, cast them a big grin.
"What can I say? It's a hard life!"
"Certainly, Sir." Éothain nodded earnestly. "A fight against a horde of orcs would no doubt be much preferable." He didn't see the women's sudden indignant glares, but felt Éomer's elbow painfully against his ribs. "Ow! What? This was a joke!"
With an apologetic expression, Bard turned to the blushing women.
"Eadgyth, Mildburg... I would no doubt greatly enjoy what you're offering, but unfortunately, it seems that today, I am a little short of time, and the river will have to suffice ..." He saw their disappointed faces and added: "For now. I will gladly get back to it upon our return if your offer still stands by then."
"My," the older one said, and coyly inclined her head. "If the double champion of wrestling would still bother with us simple women?"
To which the tall warrior raised his hand in defence.
"I am not double champion yet, and would prefer not to be named that until I have the title, please. It is just something I believe in. And of course I will still enjoy being with you two delightful ladies upon our return."And with those words, he gallantly took his suitors' hands to brush a fleeting kiss on them. "Until then." He turned around to his two stunned recruits. "To the river, boys!"
Two hours later, Aldburg's marketplace was overcrowded with people and horses as half of the city's three éoreds assembled for the ride to Edoras. As war-time demanded, the other half would stay behind in protection, knowing that it would be their turn in the coming year. Only those lucky enough to be in possession of a title would be allowed to defend it the next year, which – aside from natural competitiveness – provided another reason for the men to give their best in the contests.
Although the shadows had lengthened, Éothain had been right to suspect that the temperatures had not much changed in the course of the afternoon, but now that everyone had packed their belongings and saddled their horses for the ride, an exuberant atmosphere was in the air when the city gates opened. All looked forward to the contests and the meeting with old friends among the other éoreds they saw only rarely and usually in grim times.
"Ride safely, and return with a few titles for our proud city!" Findarras, who would be in command of Aldburg in Elfhelm's absence, shouted over the marketplace and was rewarded with wild jeering when the riders thundered past him. The dust cloud they swirled up still hung in the air long after the gates had closed behind the last rider...
*old English for "Giant"