10. The Horn of the Kine
When I moved to Illinois, I had some anxious moments when the spring storms hit, since I'd never been anywhere near tornado country before. To date, I have had a near-miss with two tornadoes: the first in 2006, I think it was, when a spray of hail suddenly hit the glass front window of the cafe I was in, and the sky went dark; and last year, when I almost failed to realize that the funny-sounding noise outside was actually the tornado siren going off. The first tornado landed maybe a hundred yards out in Lake Michigan after passing right over the university; the second never made it to Chicago, but I spent a terrified half an hour hiding in the basement, just to be on the safe side, since I had neither a radio nor working internet at the time.
So I've never really experienced a tornado that was a serious threat. I hope never to do so, but I imagine that if I were to, it might feel something like this...
Katzilla, this one's for you.
The patrol had been edgy all day.
Éomer had wakened that morn to the scent of damp grass and found himself and his blankets beaded with dew. He had shaken his blankets out, shaken himself not unlike a dog, and set about getting his gear in order. Torald had handed him breakfast – bread and a strip of jerky and what remained of the nettle stew the man had made last night – and said: "Eat up, lad. There's weather coming on fit to raise the Golden Roof, or I'm no plainsman!"
Torald was an older man, close to forty years, and he had ridden for Gefling company in the Westmark's éored for more than twenty of them. Éomer, who at his uncle's command had come to foster for a season at Helm's Deep, had seen all there was to Gefling a week ago, riding patrol. It was not a town, nor even a village, but a stretch of plainsland in the very heart of Westemnet, some four days' ride northeast of Helm's Deep.
As in so much of Rohan, the Westemnet herders kept to the old ways – there were no masons among them, but folk rode together over the land, men and women both. Driving their horses and sheep, they hunted and trapped, fished from the rivers, traded with the few little towns, and by tradition made light of service in a Marshal's éored.
"Eh, just like home, but the view from behind's not near as good," they would jest, and goad the boys from the city who were good for a day's ride or maybe two, but began to weary on the third. "Practice, lads! Your wives expect it!"
Nor did the fact that the nephew of the King of the Mark was a city-dweller mean aught to them. They'd been as merciless with him as with any other 'soft-seat'. Éomer had endured the heckling, gritting his teeth through the saddle-sore days, and soon enough had been rewarded for his patience. The long hours each day in the saddle had worked their way into his back and legs, and hardened them, shaped them to the labor. His plainsland brethren had noted this, and that he'd a tongue of his own to tease with of late, and this had apparently endeared him to them, made him someone in their eyes.
Torald had been among the first to warm to him, likely because he could, at his age – he'd naught to prove. Not when even the captain of the patrol, Hæthing, would come seeking his counsel. Éomer had, therefore, glanced up at the sky – which seemed clear enough – and asked, "What sort of weather?"
"The worst sort, lad. 'May she coom a-flowing in, a river in the sky,'" he had said, gazing out southwest. He'd sniffed the air, and shaken his head. "Storm season. Just you wait, lad – today or tomorrow or next week, we'll see one," he'd said, the very picture of surety. The dawnlight had gleamed fiendishly in his eyes when he'd glanced back at Éomer, and, grinning a bearsark's manic grin, he'd promised: "Then we'll have some real fun."
Éomer had considered this, and the warning note beneath the disturbing grin, and come to his own conclusions. And since he had learned early in his training that trials were best faced on a full stomach, he'd wisely settled himself on his saddle and set to work on breakfast with a will.
Not an hour later, the patrol of thirty men were on their way, strung out two-by-two in file behind Captain Hæthing and his lieutenant, Falc. Just ere they had departed, the captain had called Torald and another Gefling man to him, and the three of them and Falc had stood some little distance from the men and spoken together. Éomer had not been near enough to overhear, but Hæthing had turned them northeast towards the Entwash.
"There's a camp up this way," said Éomer's partner in the line, Bywulf. A year or two Éomer's senior, he was not a Gefling man, but hailed from another stretch of plainsland pasture much like it. "We came there twice, when I was young."
"Is that why the captain turned us?"
Bywulf shrugged. "Maybe. They're our nearest duty. But the river is a good place to be in May anyway."
The day had drifted by in a lovely, warm haze, and if the air had been a bit heavy, nothing had seemed to come of it. A line of thunderheads piled up to the west, and dropped their rain on the plains there, and as the day lengthened, it kept pace with them, moving north on the same tailwind that blew through their lines. Nevertheless, Torald and the other plainsmen among them were wary, rising often in their stirrups to look back at it.
"Have you seen one?" Éomer asked Bywulf at one point. "One of the kine-horn storms?"
"Everyone has who lives on the grasslands."
"Will one come?"
Bywulf shrugged, and glanced over his shoulder at the storm. "Could happen. Why? You want to see one?"
Éomer just shrugged.
"You don't see them in Edoras, I guess."
"We hear of them," Éomer replied, "but there are no songs of one ever coming to the city. Nor to Aldburg."
"Eh. No Dunlendings, no kine-horners." Bywulf shook his head wistfully. "Must be nice!"
The camp was still some miles away, and the sun had sunk behind the clouds, when suddenly, the winds changed. Instead of blowing from due south, they turned now a quarter east. Murmuring arose, and at the head of the column, a pair of riders broke away – Falc and Torald, turning their horses northwest. They galloped a short distance, then reined in and sat their mounts, staring into the storm that was sweeping towards them, and which seemed, to Éomer's inexpert eyes, to be swelling. Over the plains its shadow crawled with surprising swiftness; Éomer could see the rain curtain beneath it, and little flashes of lightning. In the not so distant distance, he could hear thunder crack.
"That's not good," Bywulf said, sounding worried as he eyed the rising stormwall. His horse snorted, ears twitching nervously, and the gelding minced a bit. Éomer's Kiting, catching the other's fear, nickered and tossed his head, eyes rolling white. Éomer hushed him and stroked his neck soothingly, but only moments later, he went stiff as his horse, as a warning horn-call rang out. Wide-eyed, he glanced up in time to see Falc and Torald dashing back to the line, Falc with his hand held high overhead, signaling the patrol to change course.
Beside him, Bywulf swore. "That's really not good," the lad muttered. Then: "Let's go!"
The river was but a mile away, and they made it ahead of the storm. When they reached the embankment, which sloped briefly but sharply down towards the water, Hæthing signaled everyone to halt and dismount.
"Keep your pack, but leave the tack on," he ordered, walking the line of his Riders. "Then get your horses to south of us. " He pointed to a spot right on the edge of the river. "Do it now!"
"Why there?" Éomer asked, though he hurriedly obeyed.
"South, because you don't want to risk them trampling you if they decide to try to take the ridge down to the water. And you want them to have a chance," Bywulf replied grimly.
"Here, lads." Torald appeared just then, his own horse on one arm and the captain's on the other's. "Give me your lines. Bywulf, take Éomer with you, eh? You know what to do."
"Aye, sir," Bywulf replied, then gave Éomer a clap on the shoulder as he reluctantly gave Kiting into Torald's hands. "Come on."
Bywulf led him down the embankment, then turned north, heading upstream. Eyes fixed on the embankment rising above them, he frowned as he went. Éomer, following his gaze, could see the sky darkening, turning a strange, sickly green, the likes of which he had never seen before...
"Here," Bywulf tugged him to a halt, and then down to sit huddled beside him. "Time comes, try to keep your cloak on, or at least keep the hood cast up about your face," he advised, shouting to be heard over the approaching storm. "And keep your gauntlets on, too." Éomer nodded, but said nothing, watching men settle about him all in a line, with their backs to the embankment, save Torald and the captain. Torald was standing atop the rise still, his cloak and hair streaming out in the howling wind, staring intently west; Éomer could not see where the captain had gone.
To south, he could hear the horses whinnying, and their terror was infectious. His own heart was pounding, and of a sudden, he felt smaller than he had ever felt – like a fly on the face of the world. He swallowed hard, glancing at Bywulf, who had his eyes closed. But for his pallor, might have seemed relaxed, sitting back against the slope, hands dangling slack between upraised knees.
Éomer bit his lip, then turned sharply south once more, to stare at the figure of Torald still standing above them, and he blinked in surprise: for the Rider held his hands raised to heaven like a bard, as if calling on the monster brooding in this storm. Shadow lay upon his face, and rain began to fall down – fat drops and few at first, but swiftly becoming a sheet of rain. Thunder sounded – one long, grinding rumble that, rather than ceasing, seemed but to rise in volume, like some perverse, unending echo. Lightning split the sky, dazzling his eyes, and every hair he had, he felt, was standing on end. When Éomer felt something touch his hand, he jumped.
But it was only Bywulf, who slid onto his belly, and motioned urgently for Éomer to join him. Éomer did, and tucked a hand over his head, as he saw others doing. But Bywulf reached for Éomer's free hand and slid his fingers between Éomer's, locking grips. The young Rider managed a sickly grin when Éomer looked at him; then, wriggling closer so that they lay now cheek to cheek, Bywulf shouted over the storm into Éomer's ear:
"Do you know the storm song?"
Éomer did not bother with words – he simply shook his head, felt Bywulf press his hand in response. But he, too, said nothing.
For the swirling wind was screaming, and Éomer could have sworn there was an army of orcish drummers just over the ridge – orcs, or mayhap a herd of stampeding horses. The sky went utterly dark, save for the numbing flashes of light that made his skin tingle. His ears wanted to stop; he opened his already dry mouth, and struggled against the sense that he couldn't breathe fast enough to pull air into his lungs, that the air actually drew the breath straight out of him. Indeed, as he lay there, he was struck with the curious, gut-wrenching feeling that if he were to put a hand up and touch that current of air streaming over the lip of the rise, he'd be swept away, like a leaf in a flood.
The sound built, and the winds and the terror with it; some part of his mind was convinced that if they lived through this, he and Bywulf would come away with broken fingers, so tightly did they grip. And he could hear Bywulf saying something – shouting-singing, but the wind whistled so, he caught only a few words before they were ripped away and lost. For his part, Éomer shut his eyes, mind emptying of everything but the sheer sound that filled him, got inside his skin and down in his bones and shook him 'til he though he must surely shatter. He tried to swallow, and felt grit all the way down the back of his throat.
It could have lasted hours or a few minutes so far as Éomer's overwhelmed senses were concerned, but at a certain point, he realized the sound had lessened – that the air was a little less violent, the rain less stinging, the thunder more distant.
Cautiously, Éomer cracked his eyes open and lifted his head just a little. A little north of them, and heading rapidly east was a ribbon of twisting cloud – a kine's horn indeed! – dust and rain swirling all about its earthside tip. Dust there was too, and earthy clods, and what looked like bits of bushes and a harvest's worth of long grass lying scattered all about. Éomer pulled straw from his hair, staring at it in some surprise.
Across from him, Bywulf stirred, pushing himself up on an elbow. He, too, glanced about, taking in the storm's leavings. He let out the breath he'd been holding, then winced, coughed, and turned his head to spit dirt indelicately.
A dim shadow fell over them then, and Éomer glanced up to see Torald standing there. The old Rider's hair was all out of its braids, and he had a coating of dust, as well, but he grinned and held out a hand to Éomer, who took it and was pulled to his feet, Bywulf scrambling up hastily as well. Torald eyed the pair of them, then his eyes dropped between them, as he quipped:
"You'd think you were handfasted."
The two young Riders realized then that they still had each other in a death grip. A bit sheepishly, they released each other, Éomer flexing stiff fingers. All about them, other Riders were climbing to their feet, some more steadily than others. Torald grunted, eyes narrowing. "Looks as though we've a few wounded – blasted kine-horns drop more than just dirt and rain!"
"Where's the captain?" Éomer asked.
"Off tracking the horses – he ought to be back soon. We don't train them to return and follow us for naught!" Torald assured him. Then he cocked his head, gazing at the two young men, and he reached and on each of their shoulders laid a firm hand. "You're all right, then, are you lads?"
Bywulf glanced at Éomer, who gazed back at Bywulf, and then nodded. "Aye sir," he replied. "I think we are."
"Good. Because once we have the horses back, and we've got ourselves sorted out, Falc says you'll be riding with him to see how the camp fared. Like as not, they'll need help getting their herds back, and 'twill be quicker for us to start out than it will for them. So look lively – storm season's only just begun!"
With that, Torald departed, leaving them to collect themselves. Bywulf looked after him a long moment, then glanced sideways at Éomer. "So now you've seen one," he said, and there was a question lurking.
Éomer shook his head, and squeezed the other's shoulder. "So I have," said he, and nodded at a pair of Riders, one of whom sat still upon the ground, cradling one arm. "But come – 'twill be a long season of them, it seems, and we have work to do."
Also, to get a sense for what Éomer might have experienced, I listened to this on high volume. It is absolutely eerie and incredible that the tape survived: <a href="http://www.xeniatornado.com/audio.htm">recording of the sound of the approach of the Xenia Tornado of 1974, as caught on a tapedeck, initially.</a>
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.