30. The Circle of Death
The Circle of Death
Death Dealer, Life Preserver.
Foe Defeater, Battle Friend.
(Inscription on Guthwinë)
The chain mail lay cold and hard under Lothíriel's fingers, so unlike the warm body beneath it. She let her hands trail over the small, interconnected rings, searching for weaknesses and hoping desperately not to find any. It was Oswyn's job to keep the mail oiled and in good repair and surely Éomer would have checked on his squire's work, too. But how little protection against a sharp blade!
So the Harad Prince had got what he wanted after all, single combat with his enemy. She bit her lip. Oh, King Elessar and Elfhelm had tried to dissuade Éomer, but to no avail. Lothíriel could have told them to spare their breath, for she had heard the steel in his voice when he had ordered his men to clear the courtyard. Anyway, he had given his word. The promise of the King of Rohan to fight to the death exchanged against the life of a humble maid. She could not help trembling, pride and fear filling her in equal measure.
A warm hand enfolded her own, stilling her search. "Don't worry, dear heart." Éomer lowered his voice. "I'm sorry you have to witness the fight, but it's something I have to do."
"I know," she breathed, "but I'm so terribly afraid of losing you when I have only just found you!"
"Have confidence." He pulled her tight against him. "I want to finish this here and now so the man will never again be able to threaten you."
Lothíriel slipped her arms around Éomer's neck and pressed herself against him, not caring that they stood in the courtyard in plain sight of everybody. Propriety had ceased to matter long ago. "I wish I could kill him myself!"
He was surprised into a laugh. "My fierce little love," he whispered, tracing the line of her eyebrows, then slipping his hands round to gently cup her cheeks. "Will you grant me a kiss?"
In answer she stood on tiptoe and lifted up her face to him. Warm lips met her own and she let herself drown in the sensation of his strong body holding her safe, the mingled scent of leather, horse and sweat filling her senses. Loved and cherished. Lacing her fingers in his hair, she forgot the present for a moment and gave a deep sigh of contentment. Éomer. How she needed him. He let his fingers slip down her back, lazily tracing the line of her spine and sudden heat rose within her, bringing a blush to her cheeks and shortening her breath.
"She kisses well, doesn't she!" somebody called.
Éomer's head whipped round, muscles turning hard as stone beneath her hands. "You!"
"Shall we have her as the prize for the winner?" Muzgâsh jeered.
Éomer's hold on her tightened, the tension running through him palpable. "I will make you regret those words!"
"Éomer!" she pleaded. "He is only trying to bait you." How well Muzgâsh had taken his opponent's measure! It frightened her.
"Your temper is legendary by now," Elfhelm agreed next to her. "Don't let him manage to provoke you." Lothíriel jumped a little, for she had not realized the Marshal stood so close.
"Well, he's succeeding," Éomer growled.
"Nothing like a willing woman in your arms, is there!"
Her own temper rose at the taunting note in Muzgâsh's voice. How she ached to take a sword to him herself. "If you are as lousy at fighting as you are at kissing," she called loudly, "you won't last a minute against Éomer." Some of the men laughed.
There came the hiss of indrawn breath. "Just you wait. Ere the night has fallen his blood will drench these cobbles."
"You will be the one killed tonight, for Éomer is ten times the man you are." She raised her voice. "In every respect!" Then she reached up to pull Éomer's head down to her and gave him the best kiss she knew how to manage. She could feel him suppress a chuckle, but he wasn't slow in responding and soon the wild beating of her heart drowned out any answer the Southron might have made.
When they broke off the kiss she leaned her head against his chest. What more could she say? Be careful? The man is dangerous? All she wanted that moment was to be far away from this place of death, getting on with their shared life in peace.
"Just kill him," she whispered at last.
"I intend to." His voice sounded grim but collected again. He sighed. "Lothíriel, it is time."
Letting go of him and taking a step back was one of the hardest things she had ever done in her life. "Where is your helmet?"
"I have it, my lady," Elfhelm said next to her.
She held out her hands and the Marshal handed it over. The white horsetail helmet that she had heard so much about. Heavy and cold. She lifted it up and with Éomer's gentle guidance fitted it over his head. "May this keep you safe and make you prevail against your enemies," she spoke the traditional words.
He picked up her right hand and brushed a fleeting kiss across it. "I will, dear heart." Then he withdrew his fingers and she had to reach out blindly to clutch at something to stop herself from snatching after them. Somebody offered an arm to her and she took it gratefully.
"Elfhelm," he addressed his Marshal standing on her other side. Already his voice sounded different, remote and full of purpose. Cold.
"I'm charging you with looking after the princess. Keep her safe under all circumstances. If anything happens to me..." Without volition, Lothíriel's fingers dug into the arm proffered to her and it took a conscious effort to relax them.
Elfhelm seemed to understand Éomer's meaning without any further words. "He won't leave this place alive."
She heard him step away and it was all she could do to keep herself from running after him.
"Please, my lady, don't worry," a deep voice said and somebody patted her hand reassuringly. "He is one of the greatest warriors of Middle Earth."
King Elessar. Lothíriel hastily loosened her grip. She had not realized it was the King of Gondor's arm she had mangled. "I know."
"Moreover he fights better when enraged. And believe me, he is very angry, although he controls it well."
Lothíriel could only manage a mute nod. A familiar feeling filled her. How often had her father and brothers ridden out to war, leaving her behind. All that remained for her to do now was to hope.
That Éomer was good at killing.
The torches held by his men flickered in the evening breeze, but the sky still reflected enough light from the dying sun that it did not matter. Above them, delicate streamers of cloud turned orange and pink and swallows chased insects across the deepening gloom. The scent of lilac and roses drifted over from the garden behind the house. A beautiful evening.
One of them would not live to see the first stars blossoming in the sky. Éomer had found before that the closeness of death sharpened his senses almost painfully. Now he forced his concentration to narrow to the circle traced out in smudged ash on the cobbles and lined by his men. He allowed himself a last glance over to the side, where Aragorn stood holding Lothíriel's arm, having pulled her back a little. Elfhelm had positioned himself on her other side and her father and brothers clustered behind her protectively. He did not think she was conscious of any of them, though.
Then his opponent stepped forward and Éomer let the awareness of all else slip from his mind. Like himself, the man wore a hauberk of chain mail reaching to mid-thigh and had decided to dispense with a shield. Slowly Éomer unsheathed Guthwinë and the Southron followed suit. Briefly the tips of their swords met in a salute.
"To the death," Éomer said.
"To the death."
He started circling to the right, Muzgâsh doing the same as if they partnered each other in a well rehearsed dance. A dance of death. Narrowing his eyes, he studied the other man's smooth movements: the way he held his scimitar, how he placed his feet. But above all the face behind the twin slits of Muzgâsh's visor, for he had found that the eyes would give him warning of any attack a split second before the body moved.
There! A slash aimed at his left side, easily parried. Éomer followed it up with a couple of strokes, but did not close with his opponent, for this was only the beginning. They were still feeling each other out. He wondered how the gently curved scimitar would compare to his own sword, forged long and straight as was customary in the West. A powerful slashing weapon, he thought, flexible and sharp, but it did not have the long handgrip needed for fighting two-handed like his own Guthwinë. As they started circling each other again he also noted the man's unusual reach, equal to Éomer's own due to his large size, and the heavy muscles. Muzgâsh returned the scrutiny, his black eyes glinting with determination. Surely he knew he would not leave this place alive, no matter the outcome of their fight. A man with nothing left to lose and thus doubly dangerous.
It was time to take the initiative. Éomer shifted his grip on his sword and feinted to the right, then changed direction mid-stroke and aimed a heavy blow at his opponent's head. Blocked effortlessly, but then he had expected as much. The blades grated against each other with an agonizing screech until he freed Guthwinë with a flick of his wrist, twisting it so as to stab at Muzgâsh's neck. Blocked again. Suddenly he had to jump back to avoid the countering blow, targeted low and delivered with shattering power and amazing speed. Catching it on the cross guard of his sword, he turned with the force of it and suddenly found himself face to face with the Southron. For a heartbeat they strained against each other, neither one able to gain the advantage, then they simultaneously took a step back.
Muzgâsh started to circle again. "Not bad, horse king. It looks like we're evenly matched." When Éomer did not answer he grinned. "Perhaps we share more than just our taste in women."
Keep your temper! Éomer told himself when the familiar rage threatened to rise within him, urging him to strike at the Southron no matter the risk. "Save your breath for fighting," he snapped.
Muzgâsh ignored him. "Tell me, do you find that Lothíriel's blindness adds to her appeal?" he whispered. "It makes her so delightfully helpless and vulnerable, don't you think."
He had to leap back at Éomer's two-handed attack, but he laughed as he parried the strikes raining down on him and then suddenly pivoted to the side. Éomer's momentum carried him past, leaving his side open. Fool! He dropped into a roll, barely evading the strike he knew to be coming at his unprotected back, and feeling the draught of Muzgâsh's scimitar across his neck as it sliced through part of the horsetail on his helmet. The men standing around the circle cried out. Coming out of his roll, he only just managed to raise Guthwinë to block the blow that would have ended it all. Oh, but the man was fast! The impact of the stroke travelled down his arm with numbing force.
But when Muzgâsh raised his sword to strike again, Éomer lashed out at his knees in a desperate move, forcing him a step back and giving Éomer the time to scramble back to his feet. Once again they circled each other, both of them breathing hard now. Éomer caught a glimpse of Lothíriel's face, white as chalk, and cursed himself for letting his temper betray him.
Muzgâsh followed his glance. "Such soft skin she has," he purred.
Éomer's hand twitched, but he knew better than to fall for the same trick again. Although... He gave a menacing growl. "You will pay for your words."
Muzgâsh grinned, his black eyes glittering in triumph at getting another rise out of him. "I like her hair loose like that, don't you?"
Holding Guthwinë with both hands Éomer attacked, just as expected. But although he put his full fury into the strikes, his head was clear. This time he would harness his temper to his will instead of letting it lead him astray. Sweat ran down his temples as he drove his opponent before him with a series of shattering blows. Muzgâsh managed to deflect his blade every time, but the effort told and he had to cede precious ground. No more jibes now, Éomer thought grimly.
Then from one moment to the next he changed the rhythm of his blows, striking fast and aiming low instead of high. Muzgâsh's response came just a heartbeat too slow and Guthwinë opened a thin red line across the Southron's left thigh. First blood. Not a disabling wound, but it might slow the man down just that little bit, which could make the difference between living and dying. Mercilessly he aimed his next thrust at the man's left side, forcing him to put his weight on the injured leg, hoping for the gash to open further. Muzgâsh's trousers were slowly starting to turn scarlet.
By now both of them were breathing in big, heaving gasps, but Éomer did not dare let up his attack lest he lose his advantage. Calling up all his reserves, he struck at his opponent's weak side again and again. While the mail and padded tunic underneath it would cushion the force of the impact, a direct blow could still break a bone. In fact a lesser fighter would have long ago crumbled under the sheer force of Éomer's onslaught, but Muzgâsh still held out.
Then from one instant to the next he suddenly dropped out from under one of Éomer's strokes. What? Muzgâsh leaped back, then turned and ran to the edge of the circle. When Éomer followed him, he aimed a wicked underhand slash at him. Caught off balance, Éomer just let it slide off his sword, unable to counter effectively. That moment the Southron pivoted and snatched a burning torch from one of the Rohirrim lining the circle. Turning round he thrust it in Éomer's face.
Fire exploded across his vision. Éomer jumped backward. He could not see! Around him he heard his men's angry shouts and he raised his arm to ward off the blow that he knew was heading his way. Searing pain blossomed along his left arm, but he managed to deflect the Southron's blade. With eyes still streaming and blind, he lashed out desperately and heard Muzgâsh laugh.
"Die, King of Rohan and join my father!"
The voice came from off to his right! Gripping the hilt with both hands, Éomer raised his sword and put all he had into a last strike. There would be no next one the way it left his side wide open to counterattack. Time seemed to stretch as Guthwinë fell.
Then it bit. Bone crunched and the smell of fresh blood filled the air. Muzgâsh cried out with a horrible choked-off sound. Blinking his eyes to clear his vision, Éomer could make out the shape of the man crumbling to the ground, his scimitar falling with a metallic clatter. Somehow Éomer's blade had found the unprotected spot between hauberk and helmet. With a heave, Éomer pulled his sword from the man's shoulder and more blood spurted out, staining the cobbles a deep red.
Éomer took a step back. Alive! When really, he should be dead... His eyes still smarted, spots dancing across his vision. That moment Muzgâsh lifted his head and reached for something at his side.
"It's not over yet," he whispered, red foam bubbling from his mouth.
With a superhuman effort he lurched after Éomer, striking out at his leg. But instinctively Éomer jumped back and the Southron's dagger only cut his trouser leg and then glanced off his boot harmlessly. Broken, the wicked black blade fell to the ground. A moment later Muzgâsh slumped and did not move again. Yet when Éomer looked more closely he saw that the Southron had died with a smile on his face. He frowned in puzzlement.
Never mind. It was over. Éomer removed his helmet and took a deep, heaving breath. Then another. And another. The air tasted as sweet as never before. Above him to the east the first star blinked in the deepening sky. He was alive, Muzgâsh dead. Nothing else mattered.
Belatedly he became aware of his men surrounding him, clapping him on his back, cheering wildly. Oswyn took his helmet and sword from him.
"Lothíriel?" he asked.
Then she was in his arms somehow, crying and laughing at the same time. "Éomer! Are you all right?"
Without thinking he grabbed her, claiming her mouth in a hungry, desperate kiss. Oh, but it was good to be alive! How soft were her lips, how sweet did she taste. Desire ran through him like a tide of liquid fire as he buried one hand in her loose hair, pulling her close against him. He wanted her. Startled, she clutched at him in alarm, but then she threw her arms around his neck with a sob and responded with equal passion. Heat flared between them.
"Éomer! What do you think you're doing!" Imrahil protested behind her.
Recalled to the present, he let go of Lothíriel abruptly. She swayed and reached out for his arm for support. At once, he steadied her. "I'm sorry," he said, flushing with guilt. "Forgive me!" How could he crush her so roughly after what she'd just been through.
Lothíriel blushed violently and ducked her head. But then she suddenly froze. "Éomer!" she exclaimed, lifting one hand. "You are hurt!"
He looked down in surprise, for he had forgotten all about Muzgâsh's last blow. Blood smeared her fingers where she had gripped his left arm. Gingerly he inspected the damage. The long sleeve of his mail shirt had absorbed most of the impact except along the lower arm, which was only protected by a gauntlet made from boiled leather. Here the Southron's scimitar had cut a long shallow groove that was bleeding sluggishly.
"Nothing serious," he decided. "It can wait, the blood is already clotting."
Elfhelm uttered a protest. "Please, Éomer King, let one of the healers have a look at it."
But Lothíriel had already turned to the Marshal. "Is one of them here? Can you fetch him?"
"Yes, my lady. I will get him at once."
The healer, a taciturn elderly man, was already hovering at the edge of the crowd. He took one look at the wound and decided it had to be stitched.
"Stitched?" Éomer exclaimed. "Nonsense, that will heal nicely of its own if let alone." Why, he'd had much worse injuries in his days as Third Marshal and gone on fighting.
The healer gave him a sour look. "My Lord King, you know how to deal wounds, but I know how to heal them."
"Please Éomer," Lothíriel said. "Let him treat you." Blind eyes looked up at him pleadingly.
"Listen to Princess Lothíriel," Elfhelm added his bit.
Why did he get the feeling that would not be the last time he heard those words? He sighed. "Oh, very well."
A radiant smile rewarded him. "I'm sure it won't hurt too much," Lothíriel assured him. "If you want me to, I will hold your hand."
The generous offer left him speechless.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.