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Twilight of the Gods: 33. The Shadow of the scásh
Chapter 33 - The Shadow of the scásh
Movement, ahead of them! Noises and voices, orders being shouted. Instinctively, Éomer had pulled hard on the reins and brought his protesting steed to a halt even before he had assessed the situation. Keeping Battleaxe under control as the stallion sat back on his hindquarters and half-reared, one hand flew up to alert his following éored. The thunder of the hoofs of fifty horses and their protesting neighing echoed from the mountains.
"Bows!" Harishdane ordered immediately, the only one alert enough to react. The soldiers quickly raised their bows and aimed arrows at the upcoming host. The riders came to a sudden halt sixty yards away, as surprised as their opponents, but without delay they had their bows ready to shoot. Harishdane bridged the distance to the king with two long strides, crouched behind him, and, drawing her knife, grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled him close in front of her, setting the blade ruthlessly at his throat. "One move, King of Gondor," she hissed in his ear, "and neither you nor your friends survive." Aragorn dared not to swallow, feeling the slightest cut of the knife and the single drop of blood trickling down his skin. His breathing was shallow, and the flicker of hope that Éomer had come at last to free the captives vanished. "Gishvané!"
It was a camp. Éomer could see no horses, but wherever he looked, he saw tents, and the people moving between them abruptly turned as their troop came to a stand. Bows were raised at them in immediate threat. All in all, he counted forty to fifty warriors, too many to take in all at once. All around him, the sound of his own men readying for battle emitted as arrows were pointed toward the unexpected enemy, and the situation would have turned ill right then, when a clear, dark voice rang through the silence of the confrontation. Éomer shifted his attention to the tall figure it belonged to, further back. He froze. The figure was holding a cruel-looking blade to the neck of a slumped shape kneeling on the ground, one hand in his hair. Even before Éomer could see the man's face, he knew that they had found Gondor's king, and a great wave of contradicting emotions – relief, fury and dismay over the obvious bad shape his friend was in – overwhelmed him.
Hilberon almost jumped when the dull thunder of hoofs drew near, but the guard stepped closer at once, the polearm raised to stop any movement.
"Éomer!" the young Gondorian exclaimed, "Éomer has come!" But he saw the enemies raise their bows and Harishdane take Gondor's king in a stranglehold, and his hopes sank. The riders from Rohan would not easily get the captives freed.
The high priestess rose and came up from behind, bending forward to be only a small target. Her expression was afraid and puzzled at the same time.
"Who are these men? And what are your orders, Harishdane?" she said lowly and almost stepped back with a gasp seeing the fierce eyes of her leader, luminous with an intensity that made her heart stutter.
"This is Éomer-king, and he comes to claim the captives back." She held Gishvané in her stare. "Send Munteseri to offer them either bloodshed or the scásh. They cannot win."
Aragorn hissed through clenched teeth, and Gishvané glanced at him, then back to Harishdane.
"But, my leader, this is not possible. They do not understand the ways of our gods! How could we…"
"Go and do as ordered. And he shall talk to the king only."
"It will be as you wish," the high priestess bowed and retreated.
Harishdane kept the pressure on the king's throat, watching Gishvané hurry to her servant. Munteseri rose from of the group of battle-ready soldiers, looking briefly to her, but then listening to the high priestess' orders. He nodded, straightened and left the camp unarmed to meet the King of Rohan.
"It is them! They have Aragorn," Éomer pressed through clenched teeth, fighting to hold Battleaxe who was sensing his master's tension and danced to the side. "Woldro showed us the wrong place! The place he indicated lies almost another day ride further north!" To his right, Elfhelm uttered a heated curse as he followed his gaze.
"They're no Dunlendings!" The marshal had his own battle to fight with his fidgeting horse as his grey eyes wandered over the line of brown-skinned people in utter perplexity. "They're Easterlings, or Eru strike me where I stand!"
Easterlings! Apart from the battle on the Pelennor Fields, where there had been no time to look at who or what he had been hitting apart from friend or foe, Éomer had never fought against their race. Nor had they, in his lifetime, faced problems from the distant land of Rhûn or seen its population from up close. Yet it was easy to see that these tall, slender men with the light brown skin were as far from Dunlendings as Méaras from mules. Or were they men? He squinted, picking up something odd about their stance as several of them stuck their heads together to exchange words that were too low to be heard from his position.
"We're stronger," Elfhelm uttered, under his breath. "We can overtake them. Ánfald is the best man I have ever seen with a bow. He could shoot the man with the knife at Elessar' side and..."
"I will not risk it." Éomer was still staring at the figure next to his Gondorian brother-in-arms, caught in a silent exchange. Even if he could not make out his foe's expression in all detail over the distance, the Easterling's message was conveyed clearly enough by his gaze and stance. He would not hesitate to kill if forced. It was with reluctance that Éomer raised a gauntleted hand as he noticed one of the slender figures who had been in the discussion with the others clearing the camp. As an indication that he – or she, Éomer could not decide – was unarmed, the figure approached them with both hands raised shoulder-high, the palms turned outward. The figure was clothed in a loose-fitting, earth-coloured tunic and trousers of a strangely shimmering fabric.
"I do not believe it," Elfhelm grumbled, following his king's gaze. "They should know they are outmatched. Even if they have Elessar..."
"We will hear what they have to say." Éomer shifted in the saddle to face his men. Their bows were still readied. "No one shoots until I say so, but remain alert, and also watch our backs. There is no telling just what they will do. One trap was more than enough." The knife was still at Aragorn's throat. He would have to be very careful.
Aragorn met eyes with his friend's concerned stare. There was nothing he could do. When Battleaxe got one step closer, Harishdane's grip in his hair tightened, and she intensified the blade's pressure the fraction of an inch. Aragorn wanted to shout that Harishdane would never kill him, but no words passed his lips. Helplessly he watched Munteseri cross the distance to meet Éomer.
Meeting his captain's keen gaze, Éomer knew that nothing would come at them unnoticed, and he turned back satisfied. The solitary person their foe had sent had almost reached them, and yet the Rohirrim king found himself still unable to determine what gender he was dealing with. The emissary was of the same slender built as the people further back, and walked with a lightness and grace that caused Éomer to check the ground to see whether he actually left footprints. A tightly bound braid of raven-black hair fell down to the person's waist, and as the Easterling's gaze went up to find him on his horse, Éomer found himself looking into the darkest eyes he had ever seen.
"My name is Munteseri. The high priestess of the Mushéni-Rhûvenan sends you her greetings, King Éomer of Rohan." The man – his voice made it clear that he was dealing with a man, even if his appearance did not tell for certain – came to a halt a good distance apart from them and indicated a bow. His Westron held an exotic touch, a smooth and flowing accent that glided like a soft breeze and took away the sharpness of the words. "She counsels you to act with the wisdom you are being so righteously praised for, lest the situation should end with bloodshed which none could want."
"What a honey-tongued devil!" Elfhelm snorted in Rohirric. "They know they stand no chance if we attack!" Éomer ignored the remark as he concentrated on the messenger. His voice was cold when he answered.
"I understand that your priestess would not want the bloodshed, because it would be her people who would be slain, not mine, Munteseri. You took our friends as prisoners, and you will release them now, if you do not want what your master spoke of to happen! You are not in a position to make demands!" From his elevated position, Éomer stared at the emissary without showing intentions of dismounting, which would have been an expected sign of courtesy in less strained parleys. His eyes briefly lingered on the painting on the man's forehead. It was an intricate pattern of interweaving, dark red lines, delicately edged into the skin. He had never seen anything like it. And then there was the fact that the messenger was facing their fifty battle-readied riders on his own, yet still appeared calm in the face of danger. Éomer felt a reluctant respect for the man as his gaze went over the Easterling's shoulder. The other of his kin was still threatening the Gondorian King, and the knife had not even moved the merest fraction. Upon returning his attention to the man if front of Battleaxe, Éomer frowned upon seeing a thin, knowing smile on Munteseri's lips.
"But indeed we are, horse-lord, and you know so yourself. Attack us, and the captives will have lost their lives before your arrows leave the strings. And your ride would have been in vain."
"You lie," Éomer's rebuked bluntly, satisfied to see the superior smile vanish from his opposite's face for once. "You did not set up this elaborate trap to capture Elessar alive only to dispose of him now. He is of great worth to your people, even though I cannot say what you intend to do with him, but kill him you will not. Go and tell your priestess that if she wishes to fool me, she would be well counselled to put more effort into it!"
"The words of Gishvané were clear," Muntéseri answered politely, his voice silken. "If you want to find out about the sincerity of our intentions, order your men to attack. But you have been warned." A meaningful pause. "If you want to choose a wiser, more civilised way however, she has a proposal for you."
"Civilised?" Elfhelm wanted to spit. "You use a simple-minded people in need to do your fighting and you calling yourself civilised?" The Easterling did not even grace him with his attention as he continued, solely focussed on the Rohirrim king, who was narrowing his eyes.
"What kind of proposal?"
"Instead of the great bloodshed a battle of our two groups would result in, only our two strongest warriors shall fight. The winner shall determine his prize, and the tribe of the imputed fighter submits itself to the other. It is an ancient ritual, and yes, horse-lord," he shifted his attention to the new Lord of Westfold, "...we call it 'civilised', because it spares many more from being slain when one is enough to determine the outcome."
"You are saying that the fight is to the death, then," Éomer stated, meeting his marshal's gaze. Elfhelm was dismayed to read signs in the young king's expression that he did not outright reject the idea as ridiculous. He could not seriously be considering their foe's proposal!
"Aye, Éomer-King. One warrior dies, but with his death, he will be buying life for the people of his tribe."
"And what will their destiny be?" Éomer leant forward in the saddle, genuinely interested to hear. "Why should we agree to such a fight when we are in the better position and could dispose of you without taking that risk? Only to be slain afterwards because your warrior won by some foul trick? And how could we trust you to stay true to your word if we won? What guarantee could you give me that your men would not attack once we laid down our weapons?"
Indignantly, Munteseri straightened, and a shadow fell on his face upon being the object of the Rohirrim's suspicions.
"The scásh is holy, but I would not expect an unrefined primitive to understand, King of Peasants!" he stated haughtily. "Its rules were ancient when your ancestors still crawled through the dirt, and they are obeyed! They are the law!"
"You did not answer my question, Munteseri." Éomer said coldly, oblivious to the stream of slander from the Easterling's mouth. "What happens to the losing tribe?"
"If we win, we take your men as slaves. We will not kill them, if that is what you want to know. If you win..." He shrugged. "... You will be allowed to do with us whatever pleases you. I must apologise for not having heard of the customs of your people in this regard."
"We do not take slaves." It was intentionally that Éomer left the meaning of his words unclear. He wanted to trouble his haughty opposite. Letting his gaze wander to the side to read Elfhelm's thoughts, Éomer found what he had expected to see: the older man was very much against the proposal, perhaps because he already knew that his ruler was seriously toying with the new idea. Éomer felt strong, and after days of frustrating pursuit he was longing for someone to focus his accumulated anger on. And in this situation being handed a possibility to achieve his goal without endangering the men of his éored sounded almost too good to be true.
"You have no choice if you want to free your friends, Éomer-King," Munteseri insisted, his voice unperturbed. "Choose, but choose wisely if lives and friendship mean something to you."
A seemingly endless moment passed while the two possibilities flashed through Éomer's mind. Munteseri and Elfhelm were staring at him, he sensed, even if his attention was with Aragorn and the menacing shape next to him. As much as he knew that his decision would meet with his mentor's resistance, the Easterling's suggestion made sense. It was the only way. The last daylight reflected off the cruelly carved knife at his friend's throat before the sun plunged below the horizon, and for a moment, their eyes met. The expression of barely concealed pain on Aragorn's marred face was hard to bear, and made the Rohirrim king clench his jaw in helpless fury as he focussed anew on the emissary. He knew what he had to do.
"As a sign that I can trust you, and as a token of your warrior's honour, tell your men to lower their bows, first."
Munteseri stared back for a moment, then turned around to shout something in his own tongue. A voice answered him, and Éomer recognised it as a woman's. In response, the entire line of warriors facing them let their weapons sink to their sides. Black eyes met his in demand.
"Your turn now, horse-lord."
Éomer could almost hear Elfhelm's silent objection as he shifted in the saddle, and the Rohirrims' bows sank together with their king's hand. Another moment of tension went by with both sides just waiting for one to break the unwritten treaty, then Éomer nodded and slid out of the saddle, unsheathing his sword as he approached the waiting Easterling with long strides.
"Whom do I fight?" Even though he could not have heard it from the distance, a solitary shape cleared the line of listening warriors behind Munteseri in response. Slowly, with his polearm in hand, he stepped forward to present himself. Confident in his stance, his bearing was that of a man used to fighting... and revelling in it. His head proudly raised, his defiant gaze met Éomer's in silent challenge, answering the king's question. For an Easterling, he was tall and of wiry build, yet still substantially lighter than an average Rohirrim warrior.
A grim, determined smile tugged at Éomer's mouth as he changed his direction, drawing confidence from Gúthwine's weight in his left hand. Suddenly, the messenger stepped into his path, his hands raised in protest.
"Not like this! The scásh's rules have to be obeyed! It is no fight of two enemies on the spur of the moment. It needs preparation!"
Éomer could well imagine Elfhelm's gaze. What if the Easterling would now uncover – or make up – rules upon rules that would make it ultimately impossible for him to emerge as the winner? With the next heartbeat, he shoved the thought away. He had not yet committed to their proposal. He was still in a position to withdraw. Without taking his eyes from his would-be opponent further back, he made his annoyance with the emissary's new revelations known.
"Preparation? And rules? You spoke none of that before!"
Munteseri's voice settled into a scholarly tone as he lectured his opposite about the fighting ritual.
"First, a circle will be drawn and consecrated. The fight is to take place inside, with the competing tribes on either side. He who leaves the circle, whether in defence or flight, will be slain by the other tribe, and the fight will be counted as lost."
Éomer nodded in confirmation that he had understood. Before him, in shouting distance, the waiting Easterling warrior cast him a cruel, anticipatory smirk as he swirled his polearm skilfully in front of his body once without ever looking at it. As if the weapon possessed a life of its own and was hungry for blood. Apparently, the young man thought himself ready, yet presumably he had never experienced the wrath of an enraged Rohirrim! Éomer was looking forward to giving it all back to his foe – revenge for the six fallen in the raids of the Westfold. Revenge for his twelve missing kinsmen. Revenge even for Galdur, who had been forced into disobedience by what had clearly been uncovered as an Easterling ploy. And – most of all – revenge for what they had done to his Gondorian friends. Laying all that into his gaze and squaring his shoulders, Éomer answered to the foreign warrior's dare.
Having followed the wordless exchange, Munteseri continued, fully knowing that the man in front of him was barely even hearing his explanations.
"Each warrior will be allowed to take one weapon into the circle, the choice of which is free. If the weapon is lost in the fight or leaves the circle, it is forbidden to retrieve it, or for your people to hand it back. None outside the markings are allowed to interfere. An interference with the fight in any way is an unforgivable violation and ends with the death of the disobedient tribe's fighter and their enslavement."
"The fight is only ended by the death of one of the combatants. It is to be fought without armour." Munteseri indicated with a curt nod at Éomer's cuirass and mail shirt.
"Inside the circle... everything is allowed?" The king's eyes stayed on his yet-unknown opponent, who retreated behind the line of their foes now, apparently upon being called back. His attention returned to the emissary.
"You can fight the way that pleases you most. With your weapon, your hands, your teeth... whatever deems you appropriate. The rules only say that you have to fight alone and are not permitted to leave the markings."
"Easy enough, then." Éomer sheathed his sword forcefully "Tell your priestess I accept... and I expect her to stay true to her word!"
Munteseri nodded, keeping his features bare of any reaction to the insinuated insult.
"It is you who will fight for your people then?"
"It is I indeed."
"So be it. I will carry your word to the high priestess and return to tell you when it is time to begin. Be prepared to enter into the scásh before nightfall." He eyed Éomer closely, and could not hide a superior smile. "You might want put the time to good use by resting." With an indicated bow, he turned on his heels and strode back to his waiting tribe with confidence in his posture.
Gishvané expected Munteseri back, sensing the great tension around her and hoping that the situation would be solved with civilised measures after both parties had finally lowered their bows. Her prayers were heard, for Munteseri nodded briefly indicating that the King of Rohan had accepted the scásh.
"High priestess..." He bowed curtly and after the report added for her only to hear, "The captive over there is King Elessar of Gondor." His shining black eyes met with hers. Gishvané kept her surprise under control though for a moment she wanted to turn and accuse her leader for more than insolence. But she knew that her knowledge was valuable, and she would not share it until it was absolutely necessary.
"Very well done, Munteseri," she answered lowly, then straightened with a determined glare. "Will he act according to the rules?"
"I told him about the ritual, yes. And though he wanted to fight at once…" His gaze found Asentis, who had retreated among the soldiers, but still had his polearm ready. "…He will submit to the rules for the sake of his friends. I will let him know when the fight begins."
"Then let us begin with the preparations." She touched the pendant, as did Munteseri, before they ordered two women to help them.
Pushed forward the pressure was suddenly gone, and Aragorn doubled over, hearing Harishdane's voice through the haze of pain as he lay coughing on one side.
"Bind his ankles. Make sure by any means that he can't move."
Aragorn felt a rope tighten around his ankles and a connection to the bonds holding his arms. He would not be able to get up. Across the plain he could vaguely see Éomer and Elfhelm at his side, and the fear for his friend rose again. He had seen Asentis fight and how he had presented himself to collect the praise. He had seen the ruthless and unrelenting force with which the Easterling had punished Hilberon. Harishdane's second-in-command had never been beaten, and the leader's confidence radiated with every step that she took. Aragorn saw her walk over to the high priestess and knew immediately that his brother-in-arms had accepted the ritual fight.
Staring after the emissary, Éomer heard the sound of heavy footsteps approaching from behind, and the next moment, Elfhelm's stallion appeared to his right, snorting.
"I will not believe that you listen to him, Éomer!" the Lord of Westfold growled lowly enough to be unintelligible for the rest of the éored. "We have the upper hand here! Offering us this proposal was their last hope, and you will actually grant them this chance? This is not the time to act mercifully!"
"But it is the time to act carefully." Éomer's gaze sought out the prone shape of Aragorn again after the blade had finally been removed from his throat. Still the Easterling, who had threatened him, stood close by, ready to act. Éomer turned to face his former mentor, and his countenance was bitter.
"Do you trust so little in my abilities that you think me unfit to take down a solitary Easterling?" His eyes glided back to survey the slender figures at the camp, which were now grouping around Munteseri to hear his tidings. They were not a tall, physically imposing people. The advantage in strength had to be his, and even if their warrior was fast, he would find that the King of Rohan had not gone through the fights on the Pelennor and the Morannon unscathed for no reason.
"Éomer..." Elfhelm felt awkward. The younger man's great pride made it hard for him to say what had to be said. Yet obviously the king was still in denial about his diminished fighting skills in the wake of his injury. While the marshal was hunting for the right words, the fierce dark glance suddenly snapped back at him, and anger coloured Éomer's voice in a deep tone as he rebuked crisply:
"You think I cannot fight anymore, Elfhelm? Do you deem me too weak to win a duel against an opponent of substantially less than my weight? I have fought Uruks. What would I have to fear from them?" A short nod towards the camp.
There was no way of getting around saying it now, Elfhelm realised, and still with his back to their waiting men, he finally uttered the words that had to be said; knowing that he would be the only one who could afford to talk to Éomer in that fashion: not from marshal to king, but from friend to friend. From former mentor to apprentice.
"You no longer possess the strength you possessed before that bolt found you, and you know so yourself. This is your pride talking, not reason. And to answer your question: you are still a good warrior, but you have a great weakness now!"
"They will never know about it."
"We cannot allow ourselves to take the chance that they will, Éomer, not in this situation! Let me fight instead." Elfhelm knew it was hopeless. Once Éomund's son was in this mood, words were a waste of time. In that, he took after his father. It was not the only likeness. From out of the corners of his eyes, he noticed the approaching figure of Munteseri again, yet his attention was still with the young king, silently urging him to come to the only reasonable decision.
For an endless moment, the dark eyes stayed fixated on his expression. Then Éomer turned brusquely away from his former teacher.
"No." He straightened and said loudly: "What word from your leader, Munteseri?"
"She asks of you and your men to stay here while we prepare the ritual. We will come to you when it has been completed. Be prepared to fight when dusk turns into night." The black eyes probed his expression. "Be aware, horse-lord, that by agreeing now, you word will bind you to the rules of the fight. You break them, you and your tribe shall be disgraced and your people punished. Submit to them, and the conflict between our tribes will be settled through the ritual. So tell me, Éomer of Rohan, do you surrender yourself to the rules of Úshemor, the goddess that will guide the fighters, and take up those who will deliver themselves as slaves to the victorious tribe?"
"I do." Éomer's gaze went over the man's shoulder, meeting that of his Gondorian brother. He was no longer being threatened with a blade to his neck, but by now had been bound to immobility, and a guard was standing at his side. 'Hold out but a little while longer,' Éomer thought, feeling a fresh bout of fury well up inside him upon the sight of his friend's state. 'Your toil will soon be over, and your captors shall pay dearly for what they did to you!'
"Then be prepared to be judged by the goddess." Munteseri bowed and retreated, his path watched by the two Rohirrim. The king's face remained devoid of emotions, whereas the marshal's expression spoke clearly of his dissatisfaction with the situation. Yet there was nothing left to do for him. The king had granted him his say, and his proposal had been rejected. Now it was time to prepare best for what was to come. Once again their eyes met, before Elfhelm turned around to their waiting men.
Never before had Ridasha met the horse-lords. Their steeds were big and impressive, and the men – quite the opposite to the Dunlendings – tall, fair-haired and clad in shining armour. She had smiled when their leader had dismounted and drawn his sword to face his opponent at once, not knowing anything about the holy scásh. But Munteseri – the always calm and considerate – had stopped him. Now all the riders had retreated and were readying themselves for the fight that would decide about their future. Ridasha did not doubt Asentis to win it; he had demonstrated his abilities often enough so that none of the Easterlings in the camp was worried. Some were joking that Asentis would cut that primitive into pieces before he would ever been able to raise his sword. Some were praying to Úshemor to grant them more slaves to take home for the tribes to share. To Ridasha it seemed that the outcome of the scásh was already being celebrated. She turned to the healer. His hapless form lay bound painfully tight and watched by a guard. His gaze was directed at the riders, but his expression indicated that he too doubted the fair-haired man to win.
Upon Gishvané's call Ridasha joined the high priestess to get her a bowl of water. Singing the old woman mixed some dark red powder into the water and praised Úshemor. When she knelt and nodded to him Asentis approached her. Bare-chested and expressing vigour he sat down with crossed legs, hands resting on his knees to receive the signs, with which the high priestess spoke her prayers for protection. Lowly and with closed eyes he repeated her words to give himself into the hands of the goddess. Around him a circle was drawn, torches were lit in the waning daylight, and slowly, but with rising volume the Easterlings began to sing. Some collided their polearms, setting a rhythm until all sang the same ancient song, rising and falling in its melody, never-ending.
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