9. A Crimson Stain in the Hallowed Wood
A horse galloped through the murky shade of the morning, its sides and neck lathered and its breathing hard. The man, teeth gritted tightly against the pain in his shoulder, swayed slightly as he leaned forward in his saddle, urging his horse to greater speed. Up ahead he could see a faint glow through the shadows; a campfire dying into embers. A scout, descrying the Rider's green surcoat from afar, waved him forward when he approached and soon the Rider drew his heaving horse to a halt.
"Ho, Ricbert! You are wounded!"
"Aye," Ricbert's voice grated out, "but that may wait for now. I have urgent news and must speak with the captain."
Two men rushed over and helped him dismount from his horse and assisted him over to the campfire where Captain Swidhelm stood talking with some others of his éored. "Sir," Ricbert said, swaying on his feet, the blood blossoming a crimson flower on the green of his surcoat, "we were worsted when they came across the stream. We lost a number of men and the rest of us were driven away, but those who were not slain are fast behind me." He tried to turn his shoulder back the way he had come, but the motion made him dizzy and he fell slightly against one of his comrades beside him.
Captain Swidhelm, alarmed at the news, spoke rapidly, "What other tidings, lad?"
"I know no more," said Ricbert as his knees gave under his weight and he began to sag towardsthe ground before his fellows caught him.
"Tend to him," the Captain's deep voice said. "Poor lad!"
"Mount up, Eorlingas!" Swidhelm's voice rang in the gloom. Swords, spears and shields were retrieved from their resting places, bridles were buckled about the heads of horses, and blankets and saddles were slung over the backs of the steeds. Leather creaked as the men swung into their saddles, their horses tense beneath them. Scarcely were reins needed to guide the horses, for they were as eager as the men to be off and away on the chase.
They had ridden only a few miles when another scout hailed them and the Riders slowed their mounts to a walk and then halted. "What news, Brandwine?" Captain Swidhelm asked.
"Bad news, sir," the scout, a tall, slender Eorling with long braids of flaxen hair escaping from his helm, said nervously, his throat gulping and constricting. "The village of Grenefeld and others were torched last night and little is left of them save ruins. Scarcely a living thing is to be found except here and there a pig or a chicken, some maidens whose feet are swift and an elderly man who hid himself in a well, thus avoiding the invaders. We heard his calls and when we looked down into the well, we saw him there below, dangling, holding onto the rope, his feet standing on the bucket. 'Twas fortunate indeed for him that he had had the sense to shorten the well rope ere he made his descent, or he would have met his death in the water."
Looks of disbelief and terror crossed the faces of the men gathered around the captain; many had kin and family in that area. The captain's face showed grim in the pale light of the morning. "Curse these blighting clouds!" he said angrily. "They must have gone back the way they came with their spoils and even now head for the rest of their foul army! Let us ride forth and find them! They will leave a path easy to follow. There is little time to spare! Forth Eorlingas!"
All his men waited for was his command, for their minds were already riding swift galloping horses on the trail to avenge the slain. Grim resolve filled their eyes and turned them as steely as their blades. At the command from the captain, the éored touched their heels to the horses' sides and roared away.
Somewhere far ahead of the Riders the orc companies hurried on eastward. "Hiisaz! Hiisaz!" screamed the orc captain, trying to make his voice heard above the wails of the frightened women and children. "Swing their screaming imps on your shoulders, lads, if it comes down to that!"
"I'd rather sink my teeth into one of their fat little legs!" hissed an orc to his fellow as he swung a sobbing small girl to his shoulders.
"Ho la! She'd be tasty, fat mixed with blood and flesh!"
"Stop your jabbering and move your lazy arses!" the orc captain screamed as he lunged, threatening the closest orc with his sword.
The captives, surrounded on all sides by orcs, were prodded into a shambling run. "Run, you strawhead wenches!" roared a guard running behind Elfhild and Elffled, lending speed to their flight with swift, full lashes to the exposed parts of their legs. Though the maidens' tall leather cross-gartered shoes dulled the blow, still they gasped at the painful impact. They forced their weary legs to go faster, their hearts pounding wildly in their chests. Terrified children screamed from the shoulders of the orcs who held them as they looked down the backs of the running brutes and saw the ground rush by at a blurred pace.
To the rear of the running mass of orcs and Rohirrim came the orcs who were charged with herding the animals. The panicked bawling of the cattle added to the pandemonium and the orcs struggled to keep control of the beasts. A brindle-colored cow, her eyes wild in fear, broke away from her captor's grasp and plowed a path through the orcs around her, the force of the impact sending one orc screaming to the ground under her hooves. The cow bawled in her panic and ran, milk sack swinging to and fro, back the way that they had come as the orcs turned and threw spears at her. Missing their mark, they shook their fists in the air and cursed their rapidly escaping prey.
"Damn you all! Can't you run any faster, you maggots?" the snarling hiss of the orc captain cut through the ears of the lumbering, panting orcs and their captives alike. "Speed them up! The horse-boys will be upon us," his angry voice thundered.
Elfhild's thoughts were frantic as she struggled to breathe, to give speed to legs which longed to collapse beneath her. The looming forms of the trees to the right flew by like blurred phantoms in a dark dream. The captives were flying from their only salvation, from their own people who had come to their rescue. Hope had become fear and dread, for the orcs would kill the women and children if the murdering fiends thought they were in danger of losing their precious booty to the Riders.
A woman carrying a small babe stumbled to her knees, a gasp tearing from her throat as she almost dropped the infant in her fall. One of her tormentors stopped and screamed at her. "Get on your feet, you wretched whore, or I'll tear the head off your reeking little pup!" The woman screamed and struggled to her feet and ran, clutching her child to her bosom as the orc paced his speed to hers.
Other captives collapsed from weariness but the orcs either intimidated them into rising again or dragged them to their feet and prodded them forward at the point of spear or sword. Elffled and several other captives had to be thrown over shoulders and carried by angry, cursing orcs. The feet of the invading force drummed a staccato on the parched ground, the yellow grasses crushed into the earth. "Faster, you scum, or I'll have your damned heads cut off and throw them to welcome your horse-boys when they ride in sight!" the captain screamed at the prisoners.
Sweat streaming from their faces, the orcs held the merciless pace, ever forcing their terrified captives to greater speeds before them. Escape became a beating, driving force, and like machines, their legs pumped up and down as their iron-shod feet bore down upon the earth. Uneasy, some hazarded a backwards glance, and they smelled the reek and fear of their fellows beside them.
Like a gathering summer thunderstorm, the Rohirrim raced across the scorched earth. "They cannot be much further ahead!" the captain cried. Anger flashed in his eyes like lightning as his horse conquered the miles between them and the orcs. Like the thunder of Nahar, the hooves of the great horses shook the ground.
And so on the éored rode, their horses' hooves getting nearer as the powerful muscles of the steeds stretched out at a full run, their manes and tails streaming backward in their rush. The powerful animals plowed on into the dim morning, their hooves throwing up trails of dust behind them.
The orcs lumbered on, some slowed by the weight of women and children slung over their backs, others driving their captives onward. Grunting and cursing, their captain urged them to move faster, always faster. Then their keen noses caught a new scent upon the air driven by the light western breeze - horses! Then came the trembling of the ground beneath their pounding feet and they knew that their pursuers were drawing nigh.
Slowing his gait, the captain ordered a halt and soon his lads stood near him, breathing hard, their sweat and reek penetrating the air with a foul pungency. Their eyes darted about, expecting at any moment to find the strawheads at their backs. "You," the captain pointed to one of the smaller orcs, "go ahead at the double quick! Give word that we are coming and to send us aid if they want to keep their precious booty alive!"
With a hasty word of affirmation and a salute, the orc left the party, grateful that he was not staying behind. Long arms moving at his sides, he loped off to tell the advancing elements of the army that help was needed. "Garn!" he exclaimed under his breath. "I'll be damned if I want to stay behind and be sauce for those bastards!"
To a sergeant the captain growled, "I put you in charge of the prisoners. Take three troops and move the chattel on ahead. The rest of us will stay behind and give those filthy horses' arses a surprise! Turn and face them, you louts! Let them taste our swords! We can see them far better than they can see us!"
The horses snorted and the captain ordered the Riders to slow to a trot and then to a walk. The horses stood there, coats lathered and foam dripping from their mouths, nostrils twitching, ears alert and listening for sounds. The men muttered to themselves. "Silence!" the captain ordered. "Our horses can sense them and smell their foul stench. They are nearby!"
There was silence, save for the soft breathing of the men and the heaving chests of the horses, and all listened, waiting. A horse pawed with his foreleg, impatient to move forward for his battle excitement was up, hating the smell of the enemy and the restraining force of the bit in his mouth.
"Advance at a walk," the captain ordered, his voice almost a whisper. The faint jangling of bridles and bits in the horses' mouths and the sound of their hooves as they met the earth were the only noises breaking the stillness of the morning. The éored advanced forward. Up ahead of them, they could see a darker mass against the gloom - the orcs!
Before the captain could give the order to charge, a hale of arrows rent the sky. Struck by suddenness of the missiles, there was little time to hoist shields over heads to thwart the bitter rain. Horses and men screamed. The captain, the words, "Forth Eorlingas!" caught in his throat, was hit by an arrow in the left cheek, the tip plunging downward into his mouth and out through his neck. Blood spewed as he slid from his saddle. The horse screamed in agony as an arrow drove through his haunches. Another man slumped dead in his saddle, struck down by an arrow through the heart, and others gritted their teeth as they felt the barbs strike home.
The second-in-command, a Rider by the name of Garmund, screamed the order, "Forth Eorlingas!" and men leaned low over their pommels, their spear points extended forward.
"Free their kine! Drive them into the path of the strawheads!" the captain screamed out the order. Hauling on the lead ropes of the cattle, the orcs turned them to face the approaching Rohirrim. "Ukh! Ukh!" the orcs chanted as they prodded the rumps of the terrified beasts with their spears, urging them forward. Their eyeballs rolling, showing the whites, the cattle bellowed out their terror and plunged away, eager to be gone from the foul smell of their drovers.
The orcs held behind a wall of shields and pikes at the ready. The cruel halberds waited like the wicked, curving fangs of hungry beasts. "Forward! Forward!" came the cry as the powerful muscles of the horses gathered. Their galloping strides shortened the distance between the mass of orcs and the Eorlingas. The panic-stricken cattle came charging towards them, a great horned mass gathering momentum. Yet skillful hands on the reins guided the horses aside and between the cattle, thus avoiding treacherous collisions, and the kine ran harmlessly through the charging mounts.
The orcs stood their ground until the Riders were almost upon them and then the line swiftly divided and let the Riders charge through. Then quickly turning, they hurled their spears into the backs of the Riders. Two men topped from their horses and lay upon the ground groaning, bloody foam at their mouths, as their fingernails tore up clumps of grass in their agonized struggles.
Behind the Riders the first line of orcs drove on, slaying the wounded where they found them, severing their heads with swift strokes. Garmund stood in his stirrups and urged his men onward. "We have broken the second line! Onward! Onward to the women and children!" he cried and his great gray horse lengthened his strides and plunged ahead.
Before the Riders, barely seen, was another line of orcs, and these did not part. Then the Riders plunged into the line, ramming their spears through the orcs' mail and into their bodies. Horses reared into the air and the animals neighed wildly as both Rider and horse were downed by the biting points of the enemies' spears. Other brutes wielded the cruel hooked halberds and dragged Riders down, hewing their bodies as they fell. Over thrashing, twisting bodies of orcs, the Riders rode past the line. Then wheeling around, they turned to face their enemies, swords drawn and ready.
By this time, the first line of orcs had caught up with the second. When they saw the Riders' blood-stained swords held high in the air, their faces masked in fury as they came at them screaming songs of death, all courage went out of the orcs and they turned and fled. The Riders pounded after them, slashing heads and limbs from bodies, black blood spewing as sword connected with flesh. Caught in a battle blood lust, the Riders showed no mercy, glorying in the carnage they wreaked on the eaves of the hallowed woods.
Far ahead of them, the guards surrounding the women and children were frantic. "Go on! Run fast, horse dung!" they cried as their flails lashed across the legs of the women and children. One child, a small boy, being carried across the shoulders of an orc, fell plunging to the ground as his keeper stumbled. Rising to his feet, the orc smashed a foot down in the boy's face, breaking teeth and smearing blood across the boy's mouth and chin. "If I hadn't had to carry you, you stinking little worm, I'd be far ahead by now!" he growled as he kicked the boy in the stomach and then ran on.
"Faster Eorlingas!" yelled the commander of the Rohirrim. "We are gaining on them!" and a surge of exhalation, excitement and joy coursed through the hearts and minds of the Riders. "Onward! Onward! For the women! For the children!" they screamed as their horses raced after the retreating orcs and their prisoners.
Up ahead, Brandwine could hear a snarling noise like a wolf growl, dark, low and menacing, and the young Rider felt chills prickle the hairs along the back of his neck. "Wolves!" the men cried. "Wolves!" And then they saw them, black shadows raging out of the dark illusions of the murk.
Spears all used, the men held their swords tightly, shields at the ready. Yet shields and swords would not always protect from great bounding strides and cruel, wicked teeth seeking to taste blood and death. The gleaming yellow eyes of the gray and white wolves and the matching yellow eyes of their riders soon were upon them. Bounding leaps brought several horses down. Teeth caught tender flesh in screaming, searing pain, and swift swords tore at necks and throats. "There are not many of them!" encouraged Brandwine just before a wolf drove into the side of his horse, fangs rending flesh before its fierce teeth. The horse was knocked over and the animal kicked and struggled on its side, neighing wildly.
The beast, growling, bounded over the fallen horse, then turned and came at the Rider, yellow fangs dripping with saliva. Momentarily stunned, Brandwine shook his head and rose to his feet, shield and sword welcoming both orc and wolf. As the beast lunged, the Rider darted to his side, swinging at the wolf's neck as he plowed by him. An angry yelp rewarded his efforts.
Undaunted, the orc turned his mount and urged his beast into another leap. Brandwine laughed as he easily sidestepped the snarling creature. Enraged, the orc reined his animal to the right and then drove back at the man with spear extended. The Rider waited for the orc and as he neared, the Rider's sword plunged into the breast of the beast as he grabbed the orc's spear with his shield arm and dragged him from the saddle.
The wolf howled in pain and thrashed upon the ground, blood streaming from its chest. The orc cursed the Rider and lunged at him with a wicked jagged blade. The blade met Brandwine's shield as he parried, and then the Rider's bloodied sword arced over and slashed at the orc's neck, but the orc moved aside with a snarl.
"Think you're smart, don't you?" the orc hissed. "But not so smart as that!" he said as his blade flashed again and slashed out at the Rider's neck, kicking at the Rider's shins with his boots.
"Smarter than you, you bastard!" Brandwine groaned from the kick as he held up his shield and deflected the other's blow. He slashed down with his sword and sliced through the orc's leather vambrace, hewing off his arm. "You are slow on your feet, and clumsy too!" As the orc reeled aside in agony, the Rider drew his arm back and plunged his sword through the orc's throat as blood erupted, smearing his surcoat with black gore.
All around the tall, thin young man, savage cries and fierce growls cut through the air as red and black blood flowed upon the ground. Soon the ferocity of the wolf attack dissipated. The wolf riders turned their hideous beasts back and urged them back towards the advancing elements of the Mordor army. But the valor of the Riders of Rohan had been for naught. The attack had been only a ruse to slow the Riders down and even now the main body of orcs and captives were far ahead of them, running towards the welcoming arms of the black horde. The trap had been sprung with the golden-haired ones the victims.
Elfhild cast a last look back as she scrambled up the eastern shore of the Mering Stream. The bridge had been destroyed months before when the tidings had come that the White City had fallen, but the drought over the spring had made the water low and the stream easily fordable. Then, feeling the cruel blow of a whip across her legs, she turned her head and continued running. The tall trees of Firien stood on either side of the road now, silence and sorrow mingling with the shade beneath their lofty boughs; the forest now more a place of anguish and torment rather than a hallowed one invoking deep reverence and awe.
Around the Riders lay the wreckage of the skirmish, and they heard the piteous moaning of the wounded and the death agonies of the dying. Horses ran riderless, lost in confusion, until soft, gentle voices steadied them and called them back. Compassionate hands helped wounded comrades into saddles now empty, while others tied the bodies of the slain to the backs of riderless horses.
Brandwine's horse had whimpered and shuddered one last time before it had died, and Brandwine stood horseless in the midst of the dead. Then he espied another Rider approaching him, leading a horse behind. "Are you hurt?"
"No," Brandwine assured him, "but my horse was slain."
"Take Frealaf's mount," the man said. "He will not be needing him anymore."
"I thank you," Brandwine replied as he put his left foot in the stirrup and swung himself into the bloodied saddle.
Their dismal task completed, the Riders mounted their own steeds and began the solemn, mournful ride back. Many of their heads were down and and dark shadows of defeat were written across the faces of all.
A small lump lay moaning just ahead. "What is it!" a Rider cried.
"A small boy, by the looks of him," Brandwine replied and dismounted his horse.
"No!" came a garbled voice. "Keep your hands off me!"
"Lad, we are friends," Brandwine said in Rohirric.
"Take me to Mother!" the boy mumbled through his tears.
"You are hurt!" Brandwine gasped as he bent down and then picked up the boy.
Sobs met his words. "Help me."
"We are going home." Brandwine's words were kind and gentle. Holding the lad close to his chest, he swung back into the saddle as the red blood mingled with the black on his surcoat.
Somewhere far above them in the gloomy morning, they heard a shrieking wail, loud and shrill, laughing at them, mocking them - a scout coming from the East, a herald of the war to come.
"By Béma!" hissed Brandwine as he looked to the sky.
"What is it?" another gasped.
"A spectre of death!" exclaimed Brandwine, his face ashen. The lad clutched at his neck and wailed.
With another mocking shriek, the Fell Rider wheeled his flying beast and rode laughing away into the shadows of the morning.
"Hiisaz! Hiisaz!" - "Faster! Faster!"
"Ukh! Ukh!" - "Go! Go!"
The ordering of Mordor's armies is always taken from the Land of Shadows Black Speech orc army ranks. This ranking system will b e used throughout the course of this story.
Rank......Equivalent......Command.......Number of Men
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.