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Unto the ending of the world: 39. Need
"I wish I could ride further than Mering." Éowyn tried not to glance longingly at the land beyond the river. "I know I cannot, even if the road is safe well beyond. My Councillors would faint in unison, and besides, Merry would not forgive me if I missed his wedding." She smiled ruefully as she went on. "So you will not need to keep an eye out for an extra Rider in Éothain's éored." No matter how much I want to just keep on riding…
As Elfhelm watched Éowyn and her guardsmen ride back, he could not help smiling himself. Not that Éowyn's jest had been all that worthy of mirth, but it was good to see her truly cheerful, rather than the guarded expression she wore at home. He wished… but before he finished the thought, he shook his head and turned Blackfoot around to signal the éored to ride on.
Three days later, they were encamped near the beacon at Eilenach, the last stop along the road to Mundburg before they turned towards Anduin. The leisurely speed the éored rode at meant there was ample time to send out scouts not just ahead, but also into the lands along the road. So far, they all reported what he expected; no recent signs of their enemies anywhere.
"Empty?" Elfhelm asked the man who had just returned from Drúadan Forest.
The Rider nodded, and Elfhelm ran his hand through his hair in frustration. Only two more men still had to report, and they had gone as far as Amon Din, so would not be back until evening. He had hoped to perhaps enlist the help of the Drúedain in spying out what their enemy was doing near Mundburg, but so far none of the men he had sent had found any trace of Ghân-buri-Ghân's people. The Wild Men were stealthier than any Rider, so either they did not wish to be found, or they had fled their forest.
After he had dismissed the scout, Elfhelm paced as he thought – the men who held the last beacon at Amon Din already kept an eye on Mundburg, and while it was unfortunate that they would not have the help of the Wild Men, they did not need it.
"Treachery, I tell you," Éothain muttered darkly once he and Elfhelm were out of earshot of the scouts who had confirmed that the woods near Amon Din were also empty of Drúedain.
"Unlikely," Elfhelm replied. "The Wild Men took no oath to defend the land for us, but they are no friends of the Orcs, and I think that rather they have sought safety in the mountains. I like it as little as you do, but save your anger for where it belongs: with our enemies."
Éothain, though still glowering, remained silent, and after a brief pause Elfhelm went on. "Also, it changes nothing; in the morning we will leave the Road and head towards Anduin."
That evening as he waited for sleep to come, Elfhelm considered their road from here. The men he rode with would relieve the éored now guarding the stretch of the river near Cair Andros, and he would return with the others, past the marshlands around the mouths of Entwash to inspect the defences there. It would be good for Éothain to have such an important command as Anduin's defences in Anórien. Elfhelm had high expectations of him – Éothain might not agree with him over the Drúedain, but Elfhelm had been pleased that the younger man had kept his temper under control when he would not have only a few months before.
Of course, there had been no real need for him to come out here himself – both Éothain and Rathwine who commanded the other éored, were well able to ride to and from the River without him –, but he needed to do something other than sit in Edoras and bed the Queen. And from Éowyn's mood on the road from Edoras to Aldburg, clearly she felt much the same. He had had to argue hard with the Council, for with Éowyn still not with child, they had been set against him being away from Edoras even for a few weeks. And there might be no need for him to come out here now, with the recent news from Dwimordene that both Dale and the kingdom of the Dwarves had fallen some months before, his need to do more than wait was greater than ever – it could not be long before war came to the Mark.
The next day, peaceful as Anórien's farmlands seemed, Elfhelm felt ill at ease. It would be too easy for Orcs, whether from Mundburg or from across the river, to set an ambush for them among the narrow winding lanes that wound between fields and villages; before, while the year's grain was being harvested, that danger had been constant, and they had lost both Riders and workers to raids.
The last of the grain had been taken west some weeks before, and the farms and villages that dotted the landscape were truly abandoned, even if people had dwelt here recently enough that from a distance houses still looked lived in. There would be no harvest from Anórien next year, no matter how much some of those who had lived closest to Mering had wanted to return home. Even with the help of the Ents, the Riders were strained guarding this much more land, and to protect villages rather than chase down raiders would take more men than Elfhelm was prepared to assign to Anórien, certainly while Anduin's shore north of the East Emnet and Emyn Muil needed defending also.
Even with the scouts finding no sign of recent enemy incursions, Elfhelm could not escape the feeling that the very land was marking their passage. It might be no more than the abandoned houses along with having found Drúadan Forest empty getting to him, or – as he had learned was all too possible – it could be their enemy's Eye on them.
Elfhelm wished he could just shrug off the feeling – he did not wish to look for trouble which was either not there or unavoidable – but Blackfoot was as tense as he was, and whether the horse responded to his mood, or whether there really…
The last farm lay miles behind, and the road had narrowed to little more than a trail that ran between high rocks on either side, descending towards the high reeds and sedge along the banks of the river no more than a mile beyond.
"It is almost the perfect place for an ambush," Éothain observed as he halted his horse next to Elfhelm.
"It is," Elfhelm said, considering the deep shadows from the setting sun behind them. "Yet the scouts report that the road appears safe, and the ones who rode to the river say the reeds are undisturbed for miles both north and south of here. We can go around, and arrive at the garrison half a day later or we risk it, and sleep in comfort tonight." He waited; it should be for Éothain to decide.
"We go around," the other said, immediately raising his hand to signal to the waiting Riders.
Elfhelm had been here a few times before, both as a young errand-rider and as one of the Riders who had helped strengthen Gondor's river defences. As he knew the road well, he allowed his thoughts to run ahead beyond the copses of low trees and dense bushes through which they rode, onwards to the camp ahead and a night's sleep uninterrupted by sentry duty. This road was used but rarely, but as it was wider than the trail along the rocks, the Riders rode three or four wide. Ahead a narrow brook ran towards Anduin, and the road narrowed slightly, causing the éored to bunch up more in the fading light.
As Elfhelm pulled up Blackfoot and started to back him up slightly to stay out of the worst of the melee at the brook's fording, he caught a glimpse of the last sunlight reflecting on metal from the trees on the other side.
"Spread out! Ambush!" he called, but the trap had already been sprung, and arrows, some of them set alight, rained down among the men milling around near the water.
As Elfhelm tried to turn Blackfoot, the horse reared as a fire arrow struck Elfhelm's leg. Frantically batting at the flames, he tore out the arrow and cast it away, not caring what damage a barbed arrowhead might do. It will be worse to let it bu…Ai! His shoulder… Dizzy from the pain, he tried to hang on to Blackfoot's mane. If he could stay mounted, the horse would...
Half-asleep, Éowyn smiled as she turned over in bed, her hand, almost with a will of its own, moving to her still flat belly. She had not been sure yet when she rode to Aldburg with Elfhelm, but today the midwife had confirmed it. She was indeed – at last – with child.
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