9. Blood in the Water
Blood in the Water
The mark of the true warrior is to know when to act and to do so swiftly and decisively, throwing his enemies into disarray. He will know how to grasp that moment between recognition and action and turn it to his advantage.
(Hyarmendacil: The Art of War)
A warg! And not just any warg, but one of the largest Éomer had ever seen crouched in the water, ready to jump. The fur on its back silvered with age, eyes alight with malice, it surveyed the party gathered in the forest glade. Éomer cursed when he saw that the man who had guarded the opposite side of the stream now lay motionless on the ground. The animal must have crept round the edge of the clearing whilst their attention had been fixed on the two young noblemen.
Beside him, Elphir unsheathed his sword in one smooth motion, but hesitated to move, lest the warg be startled into deadly action. Amrothos cursed steadily under his breath, his eyes locked on his sister.
On the beach, Princess Lothíriel turned to her nephew, a bewildered expression on her face. Please don't say anything! he thought. Too late.
"Alphros, what's the matter?"
The warg turned its large head towards them. Éomer saw the little boy shaking with fright.
"Alphros?" the princess asked again, her clear voice carrying across the suddenly silent clearing. One of the women whimpered softly.
If the warg had been able to smile, it would have. Éomer knew that they were far more than just clever animals. No, they possessed an evil intelligence and a lust to inflict as much pain as possible. This one looked like a survivor from the Ring War and the fact that it had chosen to approach from the river, attacking them on their weakest side, showed its cunning. Why hadn't they brought any archers!
"Keep still," Éomer commanded in the voice that had carried across the battlefield of the Pelennor, and she froze where she stood, grasping that something must be very wrong indeed. Alphros clutched the edge of her tunic and whispered a few words to her and he saw the blood draining slowly from her face.
Still clutching her boots in one hand and her thin wooden cane in the other, the princess slowly edged forward, and Éomer realized at once that she wanted to put herself between the boy and the beast. A brave thing to do, but probably futile. He had seen wargs tear out a grown man's throat and then move on to their next victim in less time than it took to draw a sword.
Up in the trees, a magpie scolded loudly at the unwonted disturbance, the only sound to break the tense silence. Éomer had experienced this particular feeling before, being balanced for one breathless moment at the edge of a cliff, before plunging into a whirlpool of violence and bloodshed. His chance to act - if he could take it.
"Firefoot! Here!" he called.
The big grey reacted instantly. He pulled away from Oswyn's slack grip and in a couple of long strides reached his master. Éomer made a grab for the cantle of the saddle as the stallion ran by. He leapt up, and catching his foot in the near stirrup, used the momentum to swing up. They had practiced this manoeuvre a hundred times, but never before in such deadly earnest. His heart beating furiously, he gripped his legs tightly around the stallion's sides and reached for his sword.
All the time, Éomer knew that he would be too late. He had to cross the clearing; the warg only had to pounce. As he saw it, his only chance lay in startling the beast so much that it decided to turn tail and run.
He yelled as he drew his sword. Ahead of him, the warg lifted its head, mouth hanging half open as if in a grin, to show a formidable array of sharp teeth. It had not pounced yet, almost as if it wanted to wait until the very last moment to extend the agony of the prey. Or the anguish of the rescuer? No easily startled youngster this, but a veteran fighter and not in the least intimidated. For a heartbeat, the glittering black eyes met Éomer's, a malignant awareness in them.
At that moment, the princess stepped forward and brought her thin wooden cane down on the warg's head with so much force that the stick broke in two.
"Alphros, run!" she shouted.
By some lucky chance her cane had smacked on the beast's sensitive nose. Waving the remaining end, she thrust its jagged edge forward just as the warg swung his head towards her. Stabbed near its eye, the warg yelped with pain and drew back. The beast paused at this unexpected fierceness and Alphros took off at a stumbling run. Éomer shouted again as the warg snarled with renewed rage and turned to savage its chosen victim.
But she had bought Éomer almost enough time. Just a couple of Firefoot's large strides lay between.
"Lothíriel, drop!" he bellowed.
And the princess, bless her, did exactly as told and threw herself down.
Firefoot's ironclad hooves struck the ground a fingerbreadth away from her head and then he flew across the prone figure in one mighty jump, meeting the warg's attack in midair. Éomer swung his sword at the beast's head, but by incredible reflex, the warg managed to twist aside and avoid the blade.
With a splash Firefoot landed in the shallow water, slipping on the gravel of the streambed, as he attempted to turn around to face his foe. Éomer threw his weight to the left to help the big grey to balance himself, nearly falling off in the process. The stallion found his footing again and charged the warg, who now crouched in the water.
Éomer cursed himself for not having brought his lance with him. Though made for fighting from horseback, his sword had nowhere near the reach of a lance. And it was a bad idea to get too close to a warg whilst fighting. They could rip out a horse's unprotected belly in a single bite.
But they had battled wargs before and by this time Firefoot shared his master's fury. He did not make the mistake of rearing up, but instead bore down on the animal with a loud neigh of rage. Threatened by those deadly hooves, the warg lost its nerve and jumped aside, snarling up at the stallion. The wrong move. Now he presented a clear target to Éomer.
Leaning over as far as he could without losing his seat, Éomer put all his strength into one mighty stroke of his sword. Gúthwinë bit so deep into the warg's throat, that when the beast collapsed, the sword was nearly pulled from his grasp. With a last gurgling snarl the big animal sank into the shallow water, which instantly turned a deep red as its lifeblood washed away.
Getting his excited stallion under control, Éomer interposed himself between the dying warg and the princess behind him, just in case the beast tried one last lunge. A heartbeat later the great carcass lay still.
He looked up to see his men running towards him. They were only halfway across the clearing; the whole fight had taken so little time. One of the young Gondorian noblemen still stood where he had fought his way out from the bushes, looking about him in confusion. Éomer slowly felt the tension draining out of him and brushed his hair from his face. As usual after a battle, sweat soaked him to the skin.
Slowly he dismounted and turned round to see to the princess. On her feet again and with her face drained white, she held the poor splintered cane before her as if ready to ward off further attacks. Éomer took a step towards her.
Then Amrothos reached her and pulled her into his arms. "Lothíriel!" he exclaimed. "Are you all right?"
With a sob, she buried her face against his chest and clung to him. "Is it over?"
Amrothos hugged her tightly. "The beast is dead."
Behind Éomer, Firefoot snorted softly and he turned to look to his steed. The princess deserved some privacy to recover. He quickly checked over the grey's legs, but to his relief all was well.
He patted Firefoot's neck, now stained dark with sweat. "Thank you, old friend," he whispered. The stallion lowered his head and softly blew in his hair. He knew he had done well.
Oswyn came running up to lead the horse away and rub him down. A moment later, his captain, Éothain, came to report. To Éomer's relief the man guarding the other side of the stream had not been killed as he had at first thought. Apparently the warg had not bothered to finish him off altogether when it had spied more desirable prey. However, the rider had a wound to his head, bleeding copiously, and deep lacerations to one arm. Once bandages had been applied, they needed to get him to a healer as quickly as possible.
He turned to see how the princess fared. She sat on a big boulder, Amrothos beside her with his arm around her shoulders. He went to join them and the prince nodded at him.
"What was it, anyway?" Princess Lothíriel asked her brother.
Éomer tried to imagine what it would have been like, to have a fight going on around her without knowing just what went on. Surely it would be utterly confusing and terrifying.
"A warg," he said.
She looked up at him. Her eyes were enormous in her chalk white face and he could still see some of the terror lingering in them. Traces of tears streaked her cheeks.
"So it's true what Alphros said," she whispered. "I had thought he might be wrong and it was only a wolf."
"Only a wolf!" Amrothos exclaimed. "One of the biggest wargs I have ever seen! And what were you thinking of, to hit it over the head? That truly angered it."
"I'm sorry," the princess apologized. "But I couldn't just stand there and do nothing to defend poor Alphros. He was shaking with fright."
She was still clutching the remains of her cane. "A warg! I attacked a warg..." she whispered as if to herself. What little colour she had regained left her face again.
"You did exactly right," Éomer interrupted with more force than he had intended. Now why did Amrothos look surprised at that, he wondered, couldn't the man see what a gallant sister he had?
"I would not have reached you in time if you hadn't distracted the beast for that crucial moment," Éomer said firmly. "I thought it a very brave thing to do."
Quite obviously the warg had not expected its diminutive prey to fight back, not knowing that with the Princess of Dol Amroth, size had nothing at all to do with fierceness.
Some of the colour came back into her face, but she shook her head. "Not at all."
"How did you know where to hit it with your cane?" Éomer asked. He had been wondering if that had just been sheer luck.
She gave a shaky smile. "Oh, that was easy. I could tell from its breathing where to aim and besides, it smelt."
Éomer shook his head. Easy?
Elphir now joined them, cradling his son in his arms. The little boy sobbed quietly.
"Is that Alphros crying?" the princess asked and got up at once. "Where is Annarima?"
Elphir motioned with his head to where the women clustered around his wife. "She fainted."
Éomer saw that his sister and Hereswyth, Elfhelm's wife, tended to Lady Annarima, who was awake now and seemed to be suffering from a bout of hysterics. He decided to leave the matter to them. The Marshall's wife, an eminently sensible woman, always remained calm. Even when surrounded by her numerous and extremely boisterous offspring, he'd noticed. She would be well able to deal with this.
The princess reached out a hand to hesitantly stroke her nephew's hair. "Please don't be afraid, Alphros. You know your father would never let anything bad happen to you."
"I want to go home," the little boy demanded tearfully.
"We'll leave here as soon as we can," Éomer promised.
The princess seemed to be struck by a sudden thought. "King Éomer thinks you were very brave," she said, taking a leaf out of his book.
The sobs changed into hiccups and Alphros lifted his head. "Really?"
Éomer knew a cue when he heard one. "Yes, very brave," he answered at once.
"I told you the men would protect us, didn't I," the princess said. "And they did."
Her voice rang with confidence, but Éomer could see that her hands were still shaking. The sudden urge to go and cut the warg up into small pieces rushed through him. Very small pieces. That beast had died far too quickly, he thought. The depth of his rage surprised him.
However, a better target existed. He motioned to one of his riders. "Those two Gondorian fools, bring them here."
The man did not need to ask whom he meant and a short while later brought the two young noblemen to face his king. Éomer remembered now that they were the sons of some minor lord from Lebennin. It gave him some satisfaction when he noticed their scratched and bloody faces and torn clothing.
"My Lord King, you wanted to speak to us?" the elder of them stammered, obviously not liking the look on Éomer's face.
"What were you thinking of, to lead a warg right to a party containing women and children?" he asked without preamble.
The man took a step back. "Truly, I'm sorry. But it came after us! We didn't know what to do."
"So you ran," Éomer stated dryly. He did not raise his voice. He didn't need to. All around them, his men had fallen silent and some watched openly.
"I'm sorry." The man swallowed convulsively.
His younger brother had taken refuge behind him, but he could not hide from Éomer's gaze there. They were young and obviously unused to responsibility of any sort, but in Éomer's eyes that did not excuse their thoughtless behaviour. At their age he had already led his own éored. Knowing that his decisions could mean life or death for the men under his command had been a sobering experience.
By now, the only sound to be heard was muffled sobbing from Lady Annarima's direction. He enjoyed letting the silence stretch almost to breaking point.
"The next time, you will either use your heads or your swords," he finally said, his voice so low that they had to bend forward to hear him, "but you will never again - I repeat: never again - endanger anybody who is riding under my protection. Is that clear?"
He put the lash of the whip into those last words, making them jump.
"Yes, King Éomer," they both nodded.
He had not finished with them yet, though. "Good. You can stay here after we've left and flay the carcass. I want the pelt."
He didn't really, but he thought it might teach them a lesson. They looked suitably alarmed.
"But what if there's more of them?" one of them asked.
"Climb a tree," Éomer advised him.
Éowyn and Hereswyth had calmed Lady Annarima sufficiently that they could think of making their way back to their camp. Another brief delay ensued when Alphros refused to sit behind his mother, insisting that he was not a baby and could ride his own pony. Elphir solved the matter by simply telling his wife that the boy would be better off riding on his own. Lady Annarima pressed her lips together, but kept her peace.
He had half expected Princess Lothíriel to want to ride behind her eldest brother, but she gamely mounted Winterbreath again and actually seemed to take comfort in the company of the mare. She even managed to smile at Oswyn when he led the horse up for her.
With everybody mounted so they could finally leave, Éomer cast a last look back. The two young noblemen stood by the dead warg, clutching their swords and watching it nervously. Almost as if they expected the animal to come alive again at any moment. Good, he thought.
As they filed out of the clearing he happened to find himself riding next to Lady Wilwarin.
"What a dreadful thing to occur," she said softly. "I nearly fainted away at the sight of that beast."
Éomer felt glad she hadn't. One fainting woman quite sufficed, but he didn't deem it tactful to tell her so.
"I'm sorry you were frightened," he said instead.
She cast him a look from under her eyelashes. "Well, I knew I was safe under your protection."
Painfully aware just how false that statement had nearly turned out to be, Éomer couldn't bring himself to give the expected gallant answer.
Lady Wilwarin went on regardless. "You were so brave, attacking that horrible creature. My heart nearly stopped with fright, watching you."
Éomer found he had no taste for conversation. "You are mistaken," he replied curtly. "It wasn't I who was brave today."
With a nod, he excused himself and urged Firefoot forward, wishing to check on how his injured rider fared.
Back in the clearing only the trampled ground and the big mound of the warg's carcass in the river bore witness to what had happened. The two noblemen had tried to drag it to higher ground, but it had been too heavy. Now they stood in the water, their feet wet and cold, and did their best to skin the beast with their hunting knives.
Up on the other side of the riverbank, Muzgâsh watched them from between the heavy undergrowth. Once the Rohirrim had left, he and his men had climbed down from the trees from where they had observed the fight. One of his two guards lifted the bow he carried and cast a questioning look at his master. Briefly tempted to have the Gondorians killed, Muzgâsh decided against it. Their disappearance might put the King of Rohan on his guard and that was the last thing he wanted.
He shook his head and soundlessly led the way back into the forest, to where they had tethered their horses. He had plenty of food for thought. It seemed the reports of the King of Rohan's prowess as a warrior were not exaggerated after all. The man had moved with a speed that belied his size and a ruthlessness worthy of Muzgâsh himself. Also, it would be no easy thing to get near him. His guards had been alert and well positioned, even though they had been taken by surprise by the warg - just as much as his own men had been, in fact. And his horse seemed to be a force to be reckoned with on its own.
It would take cunning and patience to find a way to get near the man. Fortunately Muzgâsh possessed both. He would study the King of Rohan and find the chink in his armour. The Men of the West were weak. Just look at the way he had risked his life for a mere woman.
Muzgâsh rubbed his cheek thoughtfully. It would not be all that difficult to get within bow range and one of his men had suggested simply shooting the king of the Rohirrim. But the rules were clear on that. If Muzgâsh wanted to prove his worth, he had to kill the other man in a hand-to-hand fight. Besides, he wanted the King of Rohan to recognize his slayer, wanted to see the realization of why he was being killed in the dying man's eyes.
He had promised the shade of his father: a king for a king.
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