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Another Man's Son: 2. prequel chapter II: action
"We expect that they will follow us out this far," the other captain spoke up to say. Eomer turned his eyes to him: Faramir, Captain of Ithilien. A somber young man, slighter than boromir and quieter, though Eomer recollected that they were brothers. Alike enough in appearance, and formidable commanders both, Eomer deemed. "We have engaged them similarly in the past on several occasions, and they always respond thus."
"Extensive reconnaissance has indicated there will be about seven units of them in the area," Boromir said, putting seven black-marked tokens onto the map. Eomer squinted at them. They were painted with black scimitars. "We believe they are massing for a raid on Rohan. They have sore need of horses. That is why we sent to you for help."
Eomer nodded, frowning at the tokens. He reached out and picked one up, but there were no numbers on it. He was quite sure they had never explained the numbers at all, and he didn't know how much a unit was. He glanced at the green and white tokens, tallying them, but he had to give up when he realized he didn't know how many men Boromir had in his company. He put the token back. "Ah," he said a little hesitantly, nudging the token back into its previous position. "How much force does each of these represent?" He controlled his embarrassment ruthlessly. It was a perfectly reasonable question and the Gondorians certainly could not consider him ignorant for it. He hoped. He was acutely aware that he was nearly ten years younger than either of these captains, and he had noticed Boromir's skeptical expression on first sight of him.
"A single unit," Boromir said, regarding him with a blank look Eomer understood to be incredulity. He gritted his teeth and refused to be intimidated.
"In my experience a unit is not a constant measure," he said, and was pleased by his eminently reasonable tone. "And an enemy unit varies in size from three wolves to a hundred Dunlendings." He met Boromir's eyes unwaveringly. "I have seen long service in my country's West, where it might be said we have not the same monotony of malice you face here. Our enemies come in many sizes and we fight them in units sized to match. You have not said how large you consider a unit." He raised his eyebrows at Boromir with patient forbearance.
"Of course," Faramir said quietly. "In our reckoning a unit is approximately seventy men or fifty riders. The enemy's forces tend to be divided in groups of between fifty and one hundred, and in that area they are around seventy-five."
Eomer nodded. "Thank you." Fifty riders. Were the Gondorians insulted that he had come with only forty? He paused to be silently grateful that he had not come with a thirty-horse Westfold company instead. Perhaps that was why Haleth had changed the size of his companies, to conform more closely to Gondor's standard.
Walda's mouth was at his ear. "What do the wooden things mean?" the lieutenant asked. Eomer turned, and Walda regarded him with uncertainty and chagrin. "I didn't understand. Did they explain?" Eomer glanced at the Gondorian captains, and satisfied himself from their blank grey gazes that they did not speak Rohirric.
"The little wooden tokens represent the soldiers," Eomer said. "Each one of those is seventy men. The green ones are Rangers, and the white ones belong to the other captain." He avoided either man's name. "They are showing where everyone will be on the map. Do you understand?"
Boromir had leaned over and was whispering with Faramir. "Ahh," Walda said. "I understand." He leaned back and explained it to the other two lieutenants, who had both been as confused. Eomer realized that Boromir was speaking Sindarin to Faramir. Annoyance flared; of course Eomer's Sindarin was flawless. All of Thengel's descendants spoke excellent Sindarin; Morwen Steelsheen was a Gondorian noble of high descent and would not have raised heathen children. But these fine nobles surely never entertained the thought that someone as Rohirric-looking as Eomer would know Elvish.
"--ridiculous," Boromir was whispering. "He is an infant and his men have no understanding of what we are doing."
"Peace, brother," Faramir answered tersely in the same language. "I imagine their style of warfare is very different. Give them a chance. I imagine that captain is older than he looks. His king is no fool and would not send us a babe in arms."
"Perhaps you have too much faith in the sense of others," Boromir said darkly. Eomer turned back to them and smiled politely, crushing his annoyance: this was neither the time nor the place for it.
"I apologize," Eomer said. "We do things very differently in the Riddermark. I for one have never had the luxury of a good map and a sturdy table for such planning." He smiled. "With cavalry you have not so much to show disposition as indicate direction, which requires no chess pieces. Come, show me where you would have me station my men."
Faramir's look was quietly amused, Boromir's faintly disgusted unless Eomer imagined it. Faramir picked up a wooden token and placed it on the board. It bore a crude horse silhouette in green. "Horses will do the most good on the Road," he said. His smile was warmer than polite as he looked at Eomer, and Eomer returned it.
Boromir recovered himself enough to adjust the placement of the horse token. "Forty horses," he said. "Wait in groups of ten along the road until the enemy has passed along into our trap. Once the battle is under way, and they believe they can easily overwhelm us, you charge from behind and crush them."
"It seems simple enough," Eomer said. "But I worry about charging into a tightly-packed press of fighters that have my allies among them."
"Can your men not differentiate between friend and foe?" Boromir asked, his eyebrows drawing together.
"My horses," Eomer said. "They know the difference between Man and Orc, certainly. But..." he hesitated, and turned to Walda. "Have your horses fought Men?"
Walda looked surprised. "No," he said. "No, we face only Orcs."
Eomer nodded. "All right," he said. "That is well. A Westfold horse would kill indiscriminately; out there we fight as many Dunlendings as Uruks." He sighed. "I still think it a risk."
"Your horses would kill Men?" Boromir asked.
Eomer nodded. "Some of them are more vicious than others," he said. "They have not fought like this before. And we have not the time to train them. Perhaps it would serve best if the charge were to come before the trap is sprung, or as the trap is sprung, allowing us to charge through them without worry for our allies. Then you can close in once we have broken their ranks, and you can fight them that way. Let them think they are merely pursuing Rangers, as they have done before, up until we charge."
"They'll tear you apart," Boromir said with a frown. "You will take heavy losses. There are not enough of you to challenge them if they have not already been broken up by our assault."
Eomer looked at the map contemplatively. He picked up the horse token. "Have you smaller ones of these?"
"You can't mean to divide your forces," Boromir said.
Eomer tapped each of the seven black pieces, strung along the road like beads on a necklace, and set the single horse token at the end of the road facing them. "They are strung out in this direction. Taking my forty horses through them this way, lengthwise, I will be overwhelmed by their numbers." He pushed the horse token to the first black token and stopped it there. He removed the horse token, and put four fingers down on the map. "Taking my forty horses through them in this direction, spread this way..." He pushed his fingers across the road and swept four of the black tokens away. "We can carve through them in this direction and destroy their center before they know what we are. They have not seen us before, not in Ithilien. They won't know what we are. Once we have swept through their middle you can descend upon the ends and cut through them while they are confused. We can then fight outward from the center in smaller groups without risk of overrunning our allies with our momentum."
Faramir and Boromir looked at one another, then at the map. Eomer still had his fingers on the map. He looked from one of the brothers to the other: Faramir was nodding slightly, and Boromir had narrowed his eyes.
Boromir turned to Faramir and spoke quietly to him in Sindarin. "It's possible he knows more about cavalry tactics than I," Boromir said, "but I am not confident he knows anything at all. What do you think?"
Eomer looked hard at Faramir, and Faramir met his eyes as he responded. "I have faith in him," Faramir answered in the same tongue. There was a glint in Faramir's eyes that suggested he knew Eomer understood. "Have you fought an action like this?" he asked in the Common Tongue, still looking at Eomer.
Eomer looked at the map. "Not against five hundreds," he said. "Not with Ithilien Rangers. I have fought with thirty against three hundred, unsupported. But the terrain was more open, and they had no bows. We could ride them down at our leisure and could escape them as needed." His teeth caught his lower lip for a moment as he withdrew his fingers from the map and rubbed his short beard. "I have not fought in a forest," he said. "Little of our territory is forested. I have hunted in one, but for beasts, not Orcs."
"Some of the enemies may be Men," Faramir said. "Easterlings."
Eomer flicked his eyes up to him. "More confusion," he said. "I am most unenthusiastic about charging into mixed friends and foes. Under trees, in close quarters, with mixed races. I cannot ask that of my horses. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Faramir said. "I think your plan could work. The problem is stationing your smaller groups so that they will not be discovered." Boromir's lips were a thin line, but he nodded.
"Very well," he said. "We will begin the ambush with a cavalry charge after the Rangers have drawn the enemy out."
Eomer studied the map again, and put the horse token beside the road. "Do you understand?" he asked Walda. Walda nodded.
"We wait by the road," Walda said in Rohirric. "Orcs and bad men come along the road, we cross the road and knock them off it, then the men from Mundburg sweep up."
"Pretty much," Eomer said with a quiet laugh at Walda's succinctness. He noticed Boromir's expression from the corner of his eye. The Captain-General was still unconvinced.
"Captain Faramir." Faramir turned; he had been about to go catch up his brother. but it was Eomer, and Faramir knew what the young Rider would want. "A word, if you can spare a moment."
Faramir looked after Boromir, and turned to Eomer. "Of course," he said. Eomer jerked his head and Faramir followed him as he stepped into a side-corridor. Eomer regarded Faramir a moment, and the blue eyes were disconcertingly clear in the broad Rohirric face. He can't be twenty yet, Faramir thought, but he looks like he could eat Boromir for breakfast. The corner of the youth's mouth twitched, and he blinked as though he had decided something.
"Your brother thinks I am a child," he said. "Before he takes offense he would do well to remember that it was difficult for us to send anyone at all. You can assure him that I am not as green as I look. He need not doubt me. I was chosen because I have a greater understanding of Gondor than most, and would not take offense where it was not warranted. Perhaps he should be reminded that he cannot afford for it to be warranted."
Faramir nodded. "Boromir is quick to judge," he said. "This serves him well in combat. It serves him less well in diplomacy."
"I have chosen to speak to you because I think you can speak to him more effectively than I," Eomer went on. "If he is going to doubt me he had better come up with a new plan. I cannot commit my men to a plan if he is not going to commit his."
"You need not worry about that," Faramir said. "He has agreed to your plan, and he will be bound by that. Never doubt him in that respect."
"Good," Eomer said. "I also am quick to judge. I have judged you trustworthy, Captain."
"You have judged well," Faramir said, but there was a hard glint in his eye. "The sons of the Steward are both trustworthy men."
"Good," Eomer said again, and with that he turned and left.
They stationed the horses in a single-file line, a distance back from the road, with several Rangers in the trees in front of them to observe and signal. Eomer could hear their whistles, birdlike but distinct. His horse's ears flicked at each one, unerringly finding their direction, and Eomer smiled at this compass signaling Ranger activity around them.
The horses were obdient and silent, but Eomer guessed from the Rangers' nervousness that Gondorian horses were never so obedient. He and his men had their green cloaks wrapped about them to keep the light from glinting off their mail. He eyed the trees in front of him a little skeptically. There was just enough space to scrape through them, but they wouldn't be able to get any speed before they reached the brush at the road's shoulder. He had discussed it with the lieutenants when they had first come to the terrain, and on the way they had practiced galloping through forest. But the trees were close here. He wondered if he'd have any men unhorsed by branches. It would be embarrassing. It would also be embarrassing to have horses injured from running into trees. He hoped they had a bit more sense than that, but he knew he'd little enough experience dealing with this kind of terrain. He could see the merit now in Boromir's plan. But he remained convinced this was the better plan. His men and horses were nervous in this half-dark place under the leaves, and he could not stomach the thought of running down his own allies in confusion.
He could hear Orcs, and the horses were uneasy, smelling them. A bowstring twanged, and he knew the enemies were taking bow-shot. One of the Rangers ahead of them whistled, and the next one whistled in a moment, and he heard the whistle going down to the other two positions. It would be soon. He drew his sword quietly, and his men followed suit.
In a moment the signal went up; the Gondorian regulars roared as if about to charge, the sound seeming to come from the woods behind and before the companies of Orcs. Eomer dug his heels into his horse's flanks, and his men followed, winding through the trees, passing under the watching Rangers, and exploding into speed through the undergrowth at the edge of the road. Now he could see his enemies. Here in the middle they were Uruks. He shouted a great Rohirric war-cry and heard it taken up down the line, and in a tumult of sound and fury they had collided with the bewildered enemy lines and were sweeping across the road.
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