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Rohan Ghost Story, A: 10. Ghosts and Legends
"You should not have encouraged them, my liege," a reproachful voice trickled into his ears from the left. He was too weak to look, too devastated by the destruction they were riding through. "Now see what you have done. I had no intention to let it come to this."
A woman stumbled across their path, her clothes torn, her face ash-smeared and a look in her eyes that reminded Éomer of a horse wild with terror. She was holding her bleeding, strangely twisted arm and shouting a name again and again, oblivious to their presence. The Uruk-hai shoved her out of their way without so much as slowing down, and she fell to her knees in the mud and cried out.
The marketplace. The scene of a massacre. Bodies lay strewn in the dirt, and the rain on the ground was reddened by their blood. More crying and pained shouts, more misery. Two limping men, their faces hardly recognisable under congealed blood, were dragging another, more heavily wounded soldier to the side before he came under their army's feet.
Death wherever he looked. His kinsmen had sacrificed themselves for him, and he had not even been able to make use of the opportunity they had bought him with their lives.
A sudden flurry of motion at the end of the marketplace, something bright, eerily out-of-place in the sinister surroundings. Too weak to lift his head, the king stared at the source of the disturbance from under his eyebrows. His jaw dropped open. It was a horse. But there was something wrong with it, something he could not name at first. Something was off. Something with its colour... and its feel. It was of a sickly pale white, a colour that seemed to spread its ghostly glow into the darkening twilight as it pranced in front of the houses, up and down, up and down, but without the sound of hooves that belonged to the image. It threw its head and sent its long mane flying, and as it did so, Éomer saw that its eyes were of a dead, hollow black. A blackness that seemed to reach for him, to suck him in. Slowly it dawned on him that he was not looking at a real horse, a creature made of flesh and blood. It was an apparition… a vision that sent a chill down his spine as he finally grasp the meaning of it.
"My lord?" Gríma continued to speak to him, but as far as the king was concerned, the dark counsellor was not even there as he stared mesmerised at the prancing stallion.
It was Sleipnir, the Ghost Horse only those about to die could see. He had heard about it from several men in the aftermath of the battles he had been in, men who had been so severely wounded that they had soon afterwards died. The memory of their wide-eyed stare at a point where nothing except grass had been had spooked him back then, and even more when they had uttered the name. As a long-time member of the valiant riders, Éomer was well-versed in all kinds of Rohirric lore and sagas, but there had always been parts of it he had rejected as fairy-tales. The tale of the Ghost-Horse had been among them, but now the pale, riderless horse was waiting for him to take him away to the realm of death. And - strangely enough - Éomer found that he was not frightened by the prospect. In fact, he welcomed it, but when he opened his mouth to invite the stallion to come closer, it bolted away… to stop at the end of the alley… and wait.
The sight of it brought a sudden smile to his lips.
"What is it, my lord, that you find so amusing? Will you not let me in on the jest?"
But Éomer's smile only deepened, and there was an unexpected joyful glint in his eyes as he saw the Ghost Horse break away again, only to slow down again at the last hut of the village… and wait again.
"No, please! You cannot leave me here! I need to see-"
"You cannot come with us, Elana," Elfhelm declared with rock-hard determination in his voice. The daylight was fading, and soon it would be impossible to follow the tracks the enemy had left. They would have to make haste. From what he had been able to gather from the reports his second scout had returned with – the first one had insisted on further following the enemy – the situation looked stern for Éomer. They had to come to his aid as fast as they possibly could, even if he was not yet sure about his strategy.
"You will stay here, or return to your people as soon as your mare has sufficiently recovered. We are heading into battle. You will not be of use to us there, and I will not see you needlessly killed. You did much for the king already, and it will not be forgotten once we've freed him. But in this situation, you will be a hindrance to us. Go home, lass!" He turned away from her mask of frustration to face his expectant men. "Fránca, Bernhelm, you ride to Marshal Erkenbrand's stronghold. Tell them to send a fresh rider to Edoras with the tidings we have, and then gather what men they can give you and meet us at Helm's Deep. Once we've freed Éomer, we shall await you there. The Deeping Wall and the gate have not yet been repaired, but even so, it's probably the only place where we can hold off an enemy's army long enough to have half a chance, but you'll have to make haste!"
The two men nodded their affirmation and urged their steeds into a fast-paced canter.
"I will not repeat my words." Elfhelm turned his horse way from the girl. His men looked eager to leave. The image of the smouldering ruins of Iséndras behind them turned his bloodstream into a churning white-hot river. Nobody could do this to the Rohirrim and live to tell about it, not while there was a single breath left in him. "Go and help the villagers, they will need every hand they can get. If you want to make yourself useful, this is the place where you are needed. Not where we are going. Let's go, Rohirrim!" The angry yell of his éored answered him as he kicked his heels into his steed's sides and took off . Thunder followed him.
Elana watched them disappear in the diffused twilight with a sinking feeling in her stomach. While the marshal's words made perfect sense and she certainly did not want to experience his éored's battle with the dark man's army, the bitter feeling of being unjustly left out was unshakeable. She wanted to see Éomer freed. She needed to see him alive and well to feel better.
The sound of hooves neared her from the left and distracted her from her gloomy thoughts, and when she turned around, her aching heart felt a little comfort as she spotted the dark grey silhouette that was coming her way at a swift trot.
"Áriel…" She took a few steps in the mare's direction and her fingers closed around the simple bridle while the other hand caressed the horse's face. "What are we supposed to do now, little one?" She turned around to face the smouldering ruins of the village. The marshal had been right. Her place was there, at least for the night. Tomorrow she would begin the journey home, but tonight... this was where she could help, even if she dreaded to see the full scale of what had happened to the people of Iséndras. Reluctantly, she made for the first huts in the fading daylight…
They had stopped. Éomer did not know how long they had ridden, nor where they were or how late it was. All he knew was that it was dark, and he was weary and tired and wanted nothing more than go to sleep... preferably without having to wake up. The Ghost Horse had been following them all the way from Iséndras and was passing them again on the hill to his left, but Éomer did not even bother to look up anymore. In his life, he had come to know fundamental exhaustion before, had in fact experienced it many a time, but never anything like this. He felt hollow... as if he were on his way to becoming a wraith. This must be what their state felt like. Insubstantial, weightless, as if the wind could carry him away like an old, dried autumn leaf. Would he pass over into that realm, or would Sleipnir be faster and carry him to where his forefathers were looking down on him?
Again he was being seized by powerful hands as a horrible thought occurred to him: he would not be accepted among the great kings! Eorl the Young, Helm Hammerhand... his uncle... he would disgrace them with his presence! They would never tolerate someone in their midst whose soul was stained with the blood of his own people! What great deed had he done to outweigh his sins in their eyes? Leading the Rohirrim to victory on the Pelennor? No. Most of that honour went to Théoden, and if it had not been for Aragorn's arrival with the Army of the Dead, they would still have lost. The glory of that day was not his to have, not his own. The battle at the Morannon? Same again. That time, they had been saved by the courage of two halflings. What had he ever done to deserve a place among his forefathers?
With a thud, he was unceremoniously thrown to the ground and his hands again seized and tied. He hardly minded. The concerns of his body were so far removed from him now, its signals no longer reached him. He was not even cold anymore. The heat from the burning village seemed to have followed them out here, into the deepest, darkest realm of the night-shrouded Westmark. It was strange in fact, for as far as he could see, they had not built any campfires, even though the night was so chilly that he saw white vapour rise from the Uruks' mouths with every breath. But who was he to complain about the state he was in? It had been well-earned. He deserved every bit of what Wormtongue had come up with. Maybe... maybe some higher force had brought the dark counsellor back from the dead to haunt him for his sins. Maybe... this was the Valars' retribution against those who misused their great power.
'With great power comes great responsibility,' his father had always told him when Éomer had still been a boy, and he had listened eagerly, pretending to understand, but he hadn't. And when power had passed to him, what had he done with it? Instead of protecting his kin with it, he had used it to intimidate the people who looked up to him and depended on him, he had corrupted it, tweaked and twisted it to bring about his will, to take whatever he wanted, whatever rank he wanted to achieve, whatever woman he desired to have, and in the process burnt down all of the young boy's ideals of that time when he swore the soldier's oath seemingly a lifetime ago. He had failed his kin on a scale that was impossible to comprehend.
"My lord...?" Hands wandered over his body and probed for broken bones. He did not care to look at Wormtongue, not even when his adversary – and the way it looked to him now, supernatural judge - inspected his shoulder again and a telling whiff of sickening sweetness reached his nostrils. His eyes remained focussed on the shiny white horse on the hill as it turned its proud head and looked at him...
Elfhelm knew not how late it was when he finally saw the black silhouette of Thor, his experienced first scout, looking out for them from the next hill. The moon had already wandered a good part of its way to morning on the starlit sky, and there was not a sound to be heard all around them as his éored slowed down to a walk except for the hard breathing of their horses, jingling of little metal parts on saddles and bridles and muffled steps on grassy ground. Thor's presence could only mean that the enemy was very close. They met halfway up the hill.
"Marshal?" the scout acknowledged his superior with a curt nod. Elfhelm gave it back, eager to hear his report. "It is good to see you. We need to act immediately. The timing would be just right, as half of the enemy's army appears to be asleep." He pointed at the hill with his chin. "They are about a quarter-league away, nestled into a niche below one of the steeper hills. I dared not to move any closer, because they have a warg-patrol on duty, and I suppose they are already suspecting something is ill, because the one we killed did not return."
Elfhelm furrowed his brow as he looked in the direction the half-Dunlending indicated. It was less than a perfect opportunity. They had been riding for four hours straight, and both the men and their steeds needed rest. But could he afford to wait?
"What can you tell me about the enemy? How great is their number?"
"Like I said, Marshal, I dared not to get too close, for they were wary already, and the warg-rider was constantly circling their host. But I think it is safe to assume that we are faced with a host of at least one hundred and fifty Uruk-hai."
"One hundred and fifty! The girl said there were about two hundred!"
Thor shook his head.
"They are definitely less, although I cannot give you their exact number. It was too dark for a better calculation."
"What about the king?" Elfhelm's gut twisted into a knot in expectation of his scout's answer. He and Éomer had been riding together ever since the current king had started his soldier's duty at the age of sixteen, and even before then had he known the lad from his service under Éomund. Elfhelm had been there to comfort the boy on that dreadful day almost two decades back, when he himself had been but a young man of twenty-four years. When Éomer had finally been allowed to join the armed forces, it had been his éored the boy had been assigned to, and Elfhelm had taken him under his wing – not only out of an obligation to the late Lord of the Eastmark, but because he had been moved by the sincere boy's dedication to becoming a great warrior and protecting their people. Elfhelm taught Éomer everything he knew, from battle skills to strategy to survival techniques; the value of honour, and pride, and courage; respect, mercy and compassion. Duty. Whatever there had been to know about, he had taught young Éomer, and even though the boy had been so young then, he had understood quickly... and learned to apply his new knowledge.
Apart from Éothain – 'who is dead now!' – Elfhelm was, as far as he knew - the only one whom Éomer would not permit to address him as "king". They were and always had been friends. He would not let his friend die.
Thor's face was shadowed, but his voice sounded grim enough.
"Again, I could not see much, but… if it is indeed Éomer, we need to move. Even from a distance, he appeared to be rather lifeless. They had tied him to the saddle in order for him to stay on the horse." A leaden pause as silent communication passed between the two men. 'We both know what that means. Éomer is not one to fall from a horse's back unless he is unconscious.' Elfhelm's lips formed a thin line. "And when they stopped, they had to pull him down. I did not see him move on his own." He took a deep breath and looked at his marshal in expectation. Determined, Elfhelm gave his scout a curt nod and then turned around to face his men.
"Rohirrim? You stay here and wait. Make no sound; the enemy is close. Thor and Findárras, you come with me. I need to see for myself... and we will need to discuss our strategy."
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