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Rohan Ghost Story, A: 3. The Heart of Darkness
The Great Hall of Meduseld was empty. No sounds, no smells, no signs of life could be found within the ancient walls as Éomer pushed open the doors with the last of his strength. Blood - his own and his foes' - stained his cloven cuirass and mail shirt, and as he stumbled into the hall to bring his king the tidings of their great victory on the Pelennor, his sword fell from his trembling hand and fell to the ground with a clear sound that echoed thousand fold from the stone walls. No one came to look for the source of that noise. No one asked. Éomer came to a halt. There was no one here!
And suddenly, he smelled it, so thick and poisonous, it was a mystery to him why he had not detected the smell before: smoke! The Great Hall was burning! As he turned to the side to look into the direction of the king's private chambers, he saw an inferno of flames race towards him.
"Théoden-King?" Another step deeper into the hall. The heat was intense, and there was hardly enough air left to breathe. Then, suddenly, another thought came. An agonising one. "Éowyn? Sister? Where are you?" The fire spread over the walls, upwards to the ceiling, devouring the banner of Eorl. Ancient tapestry burst into flames, then the wooden throne of Rohan caught fire. "Éowyn!"
Ripping himself out of his stupor, he made a dash for his sister's quarters, but just before he reached the door, flames shot up in front of him and blocked his way.
"Éowyn, where are you?"
Parts of the roof came down, and he stumbled backwards, shielding his eyes.
"Éomer! Éomer, help me! Help me, please!"
Her voice! Faint, but she was alive! But the sound did not come from her rooms; it sounded as if- he swivelled around just in time to see the heavy doors swing shut behind something that had just left the hall.
"I am coming, Little Bird! Hold on!"
He forced his battered body into a run and burst outside - to see all of Edoras erupt into flames. Hellfire spread over the thatched roofs and turned the buildings into furnaces, and yet nobody ran out of them. There were no screams, no crying, nothing except for the sound of hooves further down, a single horse in full gallop, trying to flee the inferno.
It was a black horse, and there was someone on its back: two figures, one in fitting black, fighting with the other while at the same time riding as if Morgoth himself was after him. Almost beyond the city walls now; the other -
"Éowyn! Éowyn! Nooo-!"
"She's mine now, Éomer! You are too late! You have always been too late!" The voice burst into triumphing laughter, fading in the distance and the roar of the fire.
Éomer woke with a start and saw a face hovering above him, laid his hand on the hilt of his sword in a heartbeat - but it was not Gríma's. Gríma... was dead. Slain in the Shire, so the people told. He would never again trouble the people of Rohan, or haunt his sister's steps.
There was worry in the pale blue eyes and the weathered, slightly lined features above him. Éomer recognised this face as his friend Éothain's.
"Éomer?" The other man narrowed his eyes. "A bad dream?" He placed a hand on his king's shoulder in reassurance. Only now did Éomer notice the thunder of his heart and his ragged breathing. Embarrassed at being caught in a weak moment, he sat up and shook off Éothain's hand.
"Did I say anything?" 'Or scream?' If - through a moment of unawareness - he had thwarted their plan - but the marshal shook his head.
"No. I just saw it in your eyes when you woke." Éothain swallowed and turned his head. "Something is going on. The atmosphere has changed."
His words mesmerised Éomer, yet as the young king came to his feet, his limbs stiff from the cold ground, he felt it, too. The light had gone. The moon had wandered far towards the east, but it was now barely visible behind a thick layer of clouds. There were no stars anymore. It was very, very dark, and a thin layer of fog lay over the ground, further diminishing their vision. The weather, though, was not all that had changed. It was just harder to put into words. The horses were moving restlessly, some lowly neighed and snorted, as if they smelled some fell stench. Behind Éomer, his men came to their feet, wakened by the feeling of an unseen peril slowly rolling towards them like a huge black wave in the night.
Low whispers of "What is it?" and "Ssshh!", then silence again as everybody strained their ears. The wind had changed, and what had been a shelter from the elements before lay now directly in its path - and brought the foul stench of something different than dead, decaying flesh along.
Firefoot's head shot up sudden enough to free himself of his master's grip and he screamed, a terrified noise Éomer had never before heard from his steed before, but before he could contemplate its meaning, he saw it too: the reflection of two hellishly gleaming eyes and a sparkle of a huge set of jaws jumping towards him! Gúthwine was in his hand before he knew it, scything through the air in front of him in a deadly half-circle while he threw himself to the side. Warm liquid sprayed into his face as an angry bellow threatened to burst his ears, cut short by a dozen spears simultaneously piercing the huge form. The creature fell to the ground. A warg.
A moment of stunned silence, then the anguished screaming of the herd further back and the thunder of their panicked approach as something drove them towards the hidden men. They had but a moment to react and press themselves against the wall of the cornice before the horses were upon them, their charge forcing the éoreds' steeds to run with them or be trampled.
"Firefoot!" The grey passed out of Éomer's vision, just when a row of huge, menacing forms bursting out of the fog, grunting and growling in a way he had never expected to hear again: Uruk-hai. Uruks?! A deadly chill wandered down his spine. It could not be true! They were all dead! They had killed them!
Forcing his shock-numbed body into action, Éomer drew his spear from the ground and threw it at the nearest silhouette which was almost upon him.
And the night exploded into violence.
Where for Eorl's sake had they come from? Éomer managed to ask himself as he stormed forth to finish off the speared abomination. A cruel-looking blade swung at him from the other side, and a fast spin and a short move of his sword-arm later he intercepted it, steel crashing against steel, sparks flying. The huge orc grunted and shot out its arm at him, massive jaws gaping, but Éomer ducked and swivelled, and a moment later, the limb fell to the ground. A death-strike into the monster's broad chest, and on to the next. Behind him, men screamed in torment. Horses, they needed their horses!
"Éorlingas! Follow me!"
Something dark jumped at him, and he slashed at it and rolled, came to his feet again and made a break for the middle of the valley, away from the deadly trap they were caught in.
"Firefoot!" The great grey stormed into his direction, an unreal bright shape among the dark, armoured living nightmares blocking Éomer's way. He ducked another swing, before the terrible impact of a Uruk-club on his back made him tumble and fall to his knees. The cuirass splintered, and something in him broke, an explosion of dull pain. With a grunt and a cry of defiance and rage, he swung around nevertheless, thrusting all his weight into a mighty strike that severed the orc's leg, and was rewarded with a pained roar.
No time for the kill, others were blocking his way, ever more surrounding him.
'Too many! They are too many! This is a full-blown assault! A trap!`
Supporting his weight on his sword to come to his feet, Éomer started in the direction of an approaching orc, drawing back his sword-arm for a deadly thrust as a grey shadow rammed into the creature from behind and threw it to the ground. Rearing, then landing on the Uruk with it's full weight behind it's front legs, the shadow let out a cry of fury and hate. It was Firefoot, and his blood-smeared hide made him a fierce sight to behold as he passed through the battle like a ghost, eyes white with terror, yet unyielding in the face of death. To Éomer, it seemed as if he had never seen a more welcome sight as he called out to him in Rohirric, causing the great stallion run right past him without losing momentum. A critical moment passed when Éomer sheathed his sword to free both hands, while the Uruks bore down upon him.
Praying that the saddle belt was still intact, the king thrust out his arm and got a grip on the pommel, pulled himself up and let out a wild cry of triumph. Riding a huge surge of adrenaline, he threw the stallion around to see for the first time the full extent of the trap. Wherever he looked, he beheld nothing but slashing, roaring, growling shapes of Uruk-hai, more than he could count in the moment that was given to him. From the look of the chaos, his éored was at least ten times outnumbered. No chance to win this battle, they'd have to retreat.
Pressing his heels into Firefoot's flanks, the king thrust his steed into a menacing black wall of Uruks that blocked him from his likewise mounted marshal, deflecting the first strikes of their axes and clubs with powerful strikes.
"Do not kill the king!"
It was one voice among many, almost drowned out under the noise of the battle, and yet it sent a cold chill down Éomer's back and diverted his attention long enough to miss the cruelly carved, black blade that swung against his horse's shoulder and would have crippled the animal, had its rider not at the last moment shifted his weight to cover the vulnerable spot with his armoured knee. The blow almost shattered bone through the greaves, but they held. Gritting his teeth, the king lashed out a backhanded strike and hit metal, not killing the Uruk but driving it back long enough to spur his steed and direct the stallion at the gap.
Only a short distance away, his marshal was in severe distress, bleeding from three deep cuts through his shirt of chain mail, his shield arm broken and useless. He was surrounded by orcs.
A spear appeared in his vision, being held up for him as he charged across the meadow to the rescue of his kinsman. The faint impression of a young, bleeding face and wide eyes to his right, cut down by a slashing sound, then he had the spear and once again rammed his heels into Firefoot's flanks, flying towards their enemies with a battle cry.
His onslaught was fast, it was fierce - and it came too late. While Éomer approached, he saw his marshal half-block a mighty thrust and grimace in pain as the black blade cut through his armour into his arm, blood already gushing down the side of his face and his side. For a frozen moment, their eyes met - and then the thick bolt of a Uruk-crossbow smashed into Éothain's unprotected neck and threw him off his horse which went down with him.
"Nooo!" It was too late to turn away, so Éomer accelerated, right arm with the spear drawn back to skewer the Uruk in front of him, which fought frantically to reload its cruel weapon and protect a much smaller figure behind it of which the king could see only part of its dark cloak as he raced towards them, a grey lightning bolt of wrath.
"Don't kill the king!"
The crossbow swung towards his face, and with a cry and his full weight behind it, Éomer thrust the spear - and was catapulted off his horse as something slammed into his right shoulder with the force of a battering ram! The reins were ripped from his left hand, and then the ground raced towards him. He yelled - and suddenly, he was underneath his steed, his right foot caught in the stirrup. The impact of Firefoot's hooves sent explosions through his body as he was dragged face-down over the ground. With a loud clang, his helmet flew from his head, and with a sudden tug, his foot came free - and the weight of the saddle landed on his legs as Éomer came to a stop. Through the loud buzz in his ears, he heard his stallion's scream fading in the distance. Stunned, numbed and unable to catch his breath, it took all of his fierce will to roll onto his back. The thick, feathered shaft of a crossbow bolt protruded from his shoulder into his range of vision, the sight of it too bizarre for his mind to grasp yet, all the more disorienting since there was no pain connected to it.
'Get up, or they will kill you!' his inner voice commanded, but his body did not respond. The two were detached from each other, unable to correspond, the reality of battle far away in another dimension.
A dark form started toward him, blade raised over its head to hew him to pieces. It seemed to move irritatingly slowly, leaving him a lot of time to blindly grope with his left hand - the right arm wouldn't move- for anything to defend himself with. His fingers closed around a hilt.
That voice again, but the king barely heard it through the pounding sound in his ears and the furious roar of the Uruk which filled his blurred vision as the blade descended on him. Knowing he stood no chance of deflecting it, he lashed out with the orc-sword nonetheless, putting the last of his remaining strength into the blow - and felt it cut through tissue and bone with absurd ease. The creature tumbled, its right leg severed, and uttered an enraged cry that was abruptly ended with a sharp slashing sound. Something fell to the ground next to him, a round thing. Staring into the broken eyes of the Uruk-hai's head, Éomer experienced a brief moment of hope - 'Help has come!', before the massive body tumbled down on him and drove the bolt further into his flesh. A fiery white explosion in front of his eyes, then - darkness.
Elana and her clan stood the valley's entrance and listened with terror-filled hearts to the hellish crescendo of screaming horses, the sound of steel crashing against steel and an overall infernal roar that sounded as if Morgoth himself had returned from the First Age with his army of Balrogs. Every now and then, an anguished human cry could be heard through the din, but was quickly drowned out by the other noise. Darkness and a thin layer of fog obscuring the ground prevented them from seeing anything, but then, there was no need for sight. What they heard left no questions: The king's éored was being slaughtered by the same unspeakable horror that had already claimed their horses.
Elana tugged the old fur cloak tighter around her thin frame. The night was chilly, but it was not the temperature that sent shivers down her spine.
'I asked him to help us,' she thought helplessly, staring with widened eyes into the threatening darkness in front of her, all the while seeing Éomer's amused grin over her skill with his horse. 'I am responsible for their death! I did not want for this to happen!'
A heavy hand landed on her shoulder, and she looked up to her grandfather's sad face.
"It is not your fault, Elana."
Her eyes started to burn, and for the longest moment, her voice was caught in her throat. An isolated human scream pierced her ears, and her finger dug deeper into her coat.
"There must be some way of helping them. Somehow-" They had no weapons of any efficiency, only weak bows and wooden lances to take care of the occasional predator that came to their valley. Nothing to fend off a pack of nightmarish monsters which even a heavily armed and highly-trained éored was unable to handle.
"There is." Fárlorn, a grim, middle-aged man with a weathered face and their official leader, turned his head. "You must ride to Edoras again, and this time, tell them to send all of what is left of the Rohirrim! You are the only one whose horse is still alive."
Elana stared at him, frightened by the prospect. Yes, thanks to her foresight of leaving Áriel in a sheltered little cave above the gorge they lived in, her steed was well, but after six days on horseback, Elana could no longer deny that she was exhausted, as was Áriel. They would need more time to reach Edoras again, at least a day more, she figured. Yet, in her heart she understood that it was the only thing she could do. It would not help the king and his men anymore, but it might save her family, because sooner or later, whatever evil it was that haunted the valley would come for them. Dreading the prospects of the task that lay before her, but knowing there was no way around it, she nodded, her eyes seeking the dark shadow of the cave.
"I will go at once. And I shall make haste, but I fear that we will not be as fast as the first time."
Fárlorn gently ruffled her hair, as another blood-curdling cry rang out from the dark. She prayed it wasn't the king. Hopefully, death would come to most of his men quickly.
"Nobody expects it from you. Just be careful. We do not want to lose you, too, Elana."
"And you... you be careful, too. I want to see you again when I return."
"Do not worry. Come dawn, we will leave for the upper feeding grounds. Maybe they will not follow us there. I doubt there will be anything left of our herd to take care of by then."
"Grandfather?" Elana embraced the old man who had raised her like his own daughter after her parents had perished, and exchanged a nod with the others, before she finally turned to fetch a few supplies and climbed up to where Áriel was waiting for her.
Éomer's dream had returned. If anything, it was even more detailed now, the crackling of fire more prominent, the smell of smoke more pungent. And something else had changed, too: there were people around. Their murmured, incoherent whispers clearly indicated their presence. Éomer tried to clear his throat and call out to them, but failed miserably. A moment later, he was glad he had, for the tone of the surrounding noise had changed from a blurred tapestry of sound to a deep, menacing growl. Yet it was not the growl of an animal: there was definitely something to it that gave him the impression of speech, of an actual language. Maybe, if he just paid enough attention, he would be able to understand. Yet before he was even able to summon his will to focus, the noise subsided to a distant hum, and blackness pulled him under again.
"-their tents. It's too -"
A deep, distorted reply.
"-must not kill them. Just gather them up and-"
The two voices were close, very close, and loud enough to cut through the state of dreamy weightlessness he was floating through. Still a dream? He thought that this time, he had woken enough for this to be real.
The deep voice asked a question, something brief. Éomer only understood the word "him" and instinctively knew that he was the subject. He tensed, not knowing what to expect. Was this friend or foe? Would they finish him off or tend to his wounds? Because wounded he was, Éomer dimly remembered, even if he could not feel more than a distant throbbing reverberating through his otherwise numb body. He remembered the sudden, hard impact on his shoulder, then the fall and staring into the eyes of the Uruk's severed head. The rest was blurred. Who had come to his aid? As much as he struggled, it proved impossible to open his eyes.
"Get the cuirass and the mail off him and carry him over. Carefully. I do not want him harmed any further."
The concussion of two heavy steps next to his head, then the creaking of leather as someone knelt down. Two hands seized him less than gently. Inwardly, Éomer braced for the pain which - beyond doubt - would result from any kind of movement and certainly from the removal of the pierced mail shirt, and would probably knock him out again. In this, he was quite correct.
Despite knowing how long the way back would be, Elana rode hard for the first part of the journey. The evil that had claimed the place drove her away from the screams of the dying and the overwhelming sense of doom hovering above the valley she had so far only held joyful memories of. And she wanted to protect her clan. The first trip had been about their horses. It had not for once entered her head that what took them, might just as well come for her people, next. Now, the thought could no longer be left disregarded: they all were in danger.
Knowing how exhausted her mare was after the long way she had run over the last days, the young woman nevertheless pressed her heels into the animal's flanks, urging her - pleading with her, in fact - to speed up. Thus she saw what was lying in her way almost to late when they rounded another curve of the winding gorge. A huge dark shadow blocked their path, Áriel rammed her limbs into the ground, and Elana went flying over her head. Instinctively, she took position to land on her feet and roll, but the velocity of her fall sent her into a solid wall of rock, knocking the air out of her lungs. She fell on her back, stunned. And stared at the huge pile of rocks which blocked the way.
"He slept long enough. Get it into him."
The voice made Éomer's skin crawl. His seriously handicapped mind worked hard at placing it, yet for all the familiarity in it he was unable to put a name on it. His intense pondering was interrupted by the sudden feeling of his chin being seized and huge fingers digging into the side of his jaw, forcing it open. His nose barely had the opportunity to register a vile stench right in front of his face, when a hot, bitter liquid was poured into his mouth.
The huge hand pressed against his chin with a force that almost broke his neck, and the stuff ran down his throat, causing his stomach to heave. A violent retching fit followed with the distinct notion of panic, since his mouth was still held forcefully shut even as the liquid began to rise in his throat.
Virtually at the last moment, the hand disappeared, and a few painful contractions sent the contents of his stomachs out - and the entire rest of his body into the most serious physical pain he had ever encountered. All parts of him seemed to wake simultaneously, and before Éomer was even able to yell, the combined thunder in his head, torso and leg flattened him to a point where the merest thought of catching his breath felt preposterous. His eyes snapped open.
The first thing he saw was the huge, deformed head of a Uruk-Hai captain in front of his face, close enough to bite off his head with the huge gaping jaws these creatures possessed. Its glowing amber eyes seemed to burn right through him as the Half-Orc let out a guttural, menacing chuckle at the sight of its captive's obvious pain. A wave of sickening stench assaulted the king's senses and sent his stomach into new contractions.
"Hail Éomer, King of the Mark," a smooth, carrying voice belonging to someone he could not make out behind the huge form squatting in front of him said mockingly. "The last king of the Mark." A short pause. Recovering from the retching fit, Éomer raised his head and his innards turned into a block of ice. Finally, he had identified the voice. Yet it could not be! "Leave us alone."
The Uruk growled his affirmation and came to his feet, and as he stepped to the side and made for the others further back, the young King of Riddermark stared with widening eyes at the pale face of a ghost. A breathless moment where all evil this man had brought upon Rohan flashed in front of Éomer's eyes, then his face contorted into a grimace of hate and rage, and his breath returned long enough for him to spit out one word:
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