3. The Faithful
A/N: I realised to day that I had posted the wrong chapter as chapter three. I am very sorry: This is the right chapter. The one posted as the thrid was the fouth chapter.
Ten years would pass before the people of Minas Tirith saw their king again. He was taken to the Black Land two days after the coronation and no trustworthy news of him was heard for many years. Rumours said that he defied the Enemy, but no one knew what conditions he was being kept in, save that he was being kept alive as a hostage to ensure the good behaviour of the Steward.
At first those rumours were of little interest outside of Gondor, and even the news of the coronation itself was slow to travel to the lands beyond the Mering Stream. These lands had enough sorrows of their own.
The winters became increasingly harder after the defeat of the Free Peoples. The snow crept further down the mountain slopes each passing year and even the plains and rolling hills of Rohan would be covered in white. It was rarely deep and seldom lay long on the ground, but it made the ground softer. The hooves of the horse-herds churned up more and more of the ground each winter, and it took longer for the grass to grow back each spring.
The ninth winter was worse than any they had known yet. The Faithful, the last of those left to still resist the Shadow, struggled to keep alive. Between the snow, the enemy patrols and the roaming bands of Orcs, food was hard to find and though they were too few, they still had too many mouths to feed.
Fastred lay sleepless. He was cold and the damp chill from the ground did not mend matters. Even the tree-roots gathered around him to prevent his sleep, or so it seemed to him; wherever he turned they would press into his spine, or ribs or some other, uncomfortable place. The sound of sleeping men around did not help. But in the end he must have slept, because he dreamed.
The dream held him through the night. Caught and helpless in its grasp he could not even move. No one noticed his plight until in the morning-twilight – in that grey hour before the dawn – he woke, the echo of a half-remembered scream still on his lips.
He blinked. The dream had not yet faded, and the darkness of his waking was too alike that of his dream. He could sense bodies scattered around him, and the shadows of trees. Then he heard the soft, familiar sounds of horses nearby. He stood up. Making his way across the clearing, he found them huddling together, and began to seek his mare.
She found him.
Her warmth soothed him, and she stood quietly until his breath evened out.
"What did you dream?"
He turned. Someone stood there, a grey shadow among the rest. He could not make out its face.
"Who is there?" he asked.
"Be calm. It is I, Lindir."
And he should have heard the elven lilt in his voice before, but the dream was still too vivid in his mind. "I should have known it would be one of the fair folk," he said. "How did you know?"
"That you dreamed? I have learned more about mortals these past ten years," the Elf laughed. "And my ears are sharp; I heard you when you woke, Man of Rohan."
"Sharp eyes as well." Fastred said. "I could as well have been one of the Dúnedain."
Lindir laughed again. "True. Your woodcraft is better than most of your people's, and I have yet to learn the difference between two Men, but only one of the Rohirrim would check on his horse as the first thing he does upon waking from a dream."
"Our horses have always been our pride. Now it is all we have left."
Lindir nodded. It was still too dark for Fastred to make out his face; he was nothing but a shadow with a voice. "You love them," he said. "That is plain. And they, I think, love you in return after their fashion."
Fastred nodded, and he said no more. Lindir stayed. Waiting.
"Dawn will come soon," he said at length, when it was clear that Fastred would say no more. "And you have not yet told what I came to ask."
"You have yet to ask."
"The dream? You have not forgotten, but if you do not wish to tell me, say so, and I will leave."
"It was a dream, no more," Fastred said. "It has no meaning."
"You would not stand here if it was so."
Fastred swallowed. The Elf was right, curse him. Unlike all he had dreamt before, this had not faded upon his waking. He could see it still, just as vivid as if he still dreamt. The flat, empty field in which he had found himself. It stretched before him, endless, covered with snow. He struggled through it, sinking down to his knees at every step. His body was heavy and slow. Above the sky was grey, and underneath the snow he would, from time to time, step on something that made his stumble.
He looked behind him once, and there a forest rose. Familiar, yet in his dream he could not name it. He could not turn to walk towards it, and so he continued.
In the dream he walked for a long time. He walked until the forest behind him had almost disappeared, and around him all was white. Then, suddenly, he saw in the middle of all the white a tree. It stood on its own, planted in the middle of the field. The Tree was dark against the snow. He could not see what kind of Tree it was.
He hurried towards it, his limbs lighter at the sight, still stumbling in the snow. For each step he took, the snow began to melt away, revealing the ground beneath. It was a battlefield. A great battle had been fought there, long ago, and what he thought had been rocks hidden by the snow to make him stumble, was the rotting corpses of all living things.
But in his dream he hurried past them, over them, as unable, now, to stop as he had been to turn back before. There, before him, the Tree grew, and the snow disappeared as if it had never been. Above the sky grew darker, and the centre of the darkness lay above the Tree.
In his dream he came to stand close to the Tree, and beside it he saw a white horse. Greater, even, than Shadowfax it seemed to him; red nostrils, arched neck and flowing mane. He went no closer to it. He could see the Tree clearly now; a White Tree, with Seven Stars above it. The Stars hung close, close enough, he thought, that he could touch them, yet he could not. It was strange, as if somehow not real.
He was not startled, for that is the manner of such dreams, to see a Man beside the Tree. His face was turned away; Fastred could only see the back of his head with its dark hair. He was looking at one of the corpses on the ground, so intent on the body that he did not look up or stir. His stare drew Fastred in, led his sight to the corpse.
It was no corpse.
"It moved. Broken, beaten, blinded, maimed; it moved. It crawled in the mud; one mangled had lifted to ward off more harm. Or beg help.
'I cannot help,' the Man said. He turned towards me. 'I am already dead.'
"And in his face I see the same decay that marked the corpses in the field. His eyes were gone, and half his face was stripped of skin, on one cheek down to the bone. Worms crawled there, falling from his eyes instead of tears. I stared, until the one lying on the ground opened his mouth and screamed light.
"It poured from his mouth, and when the light fell on the ground, grass began to grow. The pale green of spring-plants spread, shooting up between the bodies and the broken shafts of spears. Before long, the darkness struck back. It fell upon the body of the man, pressing down on him to quell the light, whirling around us.
"I could not move. The man beside me was silent. His hair whipped around him, hardly visible against the dark. It was the only sign that the rage of the darkness affected him. I felt noting of it, but I could not move.
"The horse bowed its head, and at its side now stood another Man. Gold glittered on his head. He stretched out his hand and caught the mangled hand of the man on the ground.
"In that moment I felt fear.
"I could not move, I could not speak, I could not close my eyes against the sight no matter how I fought.
"The light began to grow. Darkness fought, crushing in, and the Man – young he was, and fair – stepped between the darkness and the light. He lifted up the man on the ground, and, as he did, the man grew hale and strong. The youth grew weak.
"I could not move, I could not speak. I tried to scream to him to let him go; not give his life to heal the broken one. It seemed to me that nothing could be worse, not even the quenching of the light and the snow's return, than that this youth should die.
"He did not, could not, heed my words. Unspoken, they could not pass my lips, and so I stood, and looked, until the light had grown so bright it hid them both from my sight. The darkness fell away to hover in the east, waiting for a chance to strike.
"When I could see again, the wounded man was gone and the youth lay on the ground. Blind and broken, mangled, maimed. In his hand he held a green stone, beautiful and rare. He held it up as far as he could reach, and the horse took it and bore it away. Running over ever-greening fields towards the distant forest, and I stood there, watching, and I could not move.
"The dark returned.
"It covered the youth, no longer young, where he lay on the ground. His head no longer golden, but matted dirty-blond like withered straw. He moved one last time before the darkness took him and stilled all movement. I could see his face. It was the same dead face as my dead companion.
"I turned to him and asked him: 'Why?'
"He said: 'You are alive.'
And then my dream began anew."
He did not know when he had begun to speak his memory out loud. He said no more, but stood, unmoving, until dawn slipped colours back into the world.
"I do not know the meaning of your dream," he said. "Though I have learned enough of mortals to differ between apples and pears, dreams have never been my study; perhaps someone of your own people have the gift to tell its meaning. I will not attempt it. But I will tell you this: I sense both great hope and great peril in your dream."
He stood beside the Man, watching the grey darkness giving way to coloured light. Neither spoke, but the birds – what few there were left after the winter cold – began to sing. Their song grew with the light and filled the air around them, drowning the sounds of horses and of sleeping men.
"The sun comes," Lindir said, and his voice was clear amid the birdsong. "Even hiding she is still there." And then he laughed, and mingling his song with the birds' he left, leaving Fastred with the horses.
He stood there. When the birdsong faded to the familiar twitter, he knew the sun had risen behind the grey clouds. A light rain began to fall, hardly heavier than a mist. The camp stirred and woke, and with a sigh he dismissed his mare and joined the waking men.
It was the beginning of spring. Supplies had become so low that Éomer king had decided to leave the relative shelter of Fangorn forest where they hid, and brave the mountain-paths to cross the White Mountains into Gondor. Taking with him ten mounted men and five pack-horses, he hoped to pass unnoticed over the empty plains of the Eastemnet to the Eastfold, cross the mountains over into Lamedon and come to the southern fiefs of Gondor. There was a pass to the east of the Folde where horses could travel, albeit with some difficulty if the snows were still deep. The path lay partly hidden, and it seemed that the enemy had not yet discovered it. The king would take that road, as he knew the land well.
Elfhelm, his Marshal, had not been happy with the king's plans, and had asked him to take more men with him, or to send a smaller group alone, but in the end he had to bow to the will of the King.
Fewer men, Éomer had argued, would not be able to bring enough food back with them to stave off hunger, and there would not be worth the risk unless they had a chance of taking back enough provisions.
"Then take more," Elfhelm had said, but Éomer reasoned that bringing more men would make it difficult to move unseen. They would be spotted, and no matter how many, they would not be able to fight their way through, or even escape, if the Master of Isengard, as the Lieutenant of Barad-dûr now called himself, sent his forces against them. Húrin, a captain of the Northern Dúnedain, had made that point clear. All Elfhelm had left to fight was that Éomer king should not go himself, but rather let some other lead the men.
"No," Éomer said. "I know the land. I grew up by the scattered forests and mountainsides of the Eastfold, and I would hear what news there are from the land of Stone."
"Others know the land and the mountain-pass as well or better," Elfhelm said, "and they can bring tidings with the food; it is needless to risk yourself, Éomer king, just to learn of the newest evil a week early."
"My heart tells me that this year I must."
It was the woman whom they kept safe above all others that, surprisingly, supported the king's heart.
"Foresight is not usually given to the people of the Mark," she said, "but my heart warns the same."
And with that the decision had been made.
They had left from Wellinghall at midmorning at the middle of March. By then the supplies were so low that Éomer would not wait further, though the far-off mountaintops were still white. Most of the Ents were wandering along the Huorns' Guard or keeping to themselves deep among the trees, but Bregalad was willing to go with them. He would see them safely past the Guard, for the trees did not always let any being on two legs pass, unless the Ents where there to watch them. At Elfhelm's insistence, Éomer also brought with him ten men on foot to escort them to the forest's edge. Among them were three of the Elves who had joined them in the second year, escaping south after the fall of Rivendell. The rest were rangers, or such of the Eorlingas who had learned their woodcraft. With Éomer five Riders went, led by Fastred his chief scout, two men of Gondor and three of the Northern Dúnedain, of which the captain Húrin was one.
They did not travel far the first day. The forest was bare, still in its winter-sleep. In many places the earth was wet and muddy, and in the deep shadows of the trees, patches of snow still lingered. They walked their horses on the narrow paths, and between the undergrowth and the narrow growth of trees. In places they would lead their horses because the branches grew too low to let them ride. Still Bregalad would somehow find his way unhindered, as if the trees moved to let him pass. They camped before the light dimmed, within the unmarked border that the Huorns had set.
They set no guards, safe within the Huorn's Guard, and lightly hobbled their horses to let them search grass. One by one, the Men, and then the Elves, stilled and slept.
All but Fastred whose dream disturbed his sleep. And Lindir who saw him.
They left early. The light was dim but though the drizzle did not stop, it was too light to bother them much beneath the canopy of the forest. They could hear the tatter of the small drops around them. Most of the men turned up their hoods, for the droplets that beaded the bare branches ran together into bigger drops that dripped down the necks of the men an hour's walk, Bregalad would go no further; they had reached the last of the Huorn-guards.
"Fare well and safe," he said. "You will be more easily seen once you leave the forest and with the spring on its way and the snow gone, more eyes will be watching. On the plains, eyes see far."
"Yet we have little choice but to cross them," Éomer king replied. "Still, though I do not like getting wet, this rain may help to hide us and dim our enemies' eyes."
"And the Orcs' fear," Fastred muttered under his breath. None answered him; they knew all too well that he was right.
They did not travel any quicker after Bregalad stayed behind, for Orcs patrolled the outskirts of the forest and they would not risk a fight if it could be helped. Their escort scouted ahead and they were often forced to wait until the paths were clear.
At midday they rested and ate a little. Despite the rain Éomer had chosen a small glade where all the snow was gone and yesteryear's grass still covered the ground. Húrin protested that it was too open and uncovered to hide them from any scouting Orcs, but the shrivelled, yellow grass, poor as it was, still offered a better chance for the horses to feed than the naked ground beneath the trees, and there were bushes and young fir-trees at the edge. Éomer overruled him, and ordered that the reins be fastened and the horses left to graze for as long as they could. The horses were thin after the long winter; even with their long, ragged winter-coats their bones could be seen.
To give the horses more time to feed, Éomer stayed in the clearing while the rangers scouted ahead to find which paths were free to travel. Húrin went with them, taking with him the other Dúnedain in Éomer's company. He would know what waited ahead, he said, and had no patience to wait with the king and his Riders. Éomer said nothing, but nodded his consent. They could be no more than a few hours' ride from the eavesof Entwood and so far they had seen no sign of Orcs.
Another hour passed. Fastred had set a guard, but most of the men rested wherever they could find shelter. Éomer checked Firefoot. The stallion had begun to show his years, but Éomer had insisted on riding him on this trip. He was still fit enough to keep up with the younger horses, though he was somewhat stiffer and took longer to warm up. But Éomer would not ride another unless it was one of the mearas, and they would be too easily recognized – even outside the Mark. The long winter and scanty feeding had left most of their horses too thin, and the long winter-pelt left them looking even more unkempt and scruffy; they would not look much different from the poor workhorses of southern fiefs. At least not to the people of Gondor. Soon the horses would begin to shed their wither-coats, and then they would look even worse. But the mearas could not be mistaken, so Éomer would not risk riding one of them. Besides, he liked Firefoot. Sometimes he doubted he would ever have the same bond with a horse, even with one of the meara, as he did with him.
Éomer stroked Firefoot's neck and let his hand travel over his shoulders and legs down to his feet, feeling for heat or swelling. When he found nothing, he then lifted each of the hooves and checked for any signs of soreness in the frog or if any sharp stone had got stuck. He put down the last hoof when Húrin returned with his men.
"There is a small group of Orcs blocking our path to the northeast. If we go straight east we may be able to avoid them, but it looks like they are moving south and they will most likely cross our path if we go that way. We will have to detour south."
"Can we not simply wait for them to pass?" Éomer asked. "We can afford a few hour's wait, it will give the horses more time to feed and rest; there will be little enough of both until we have crossed the east plains."
"Lindir spotted more patrols to the north, all moving east along the Huorn border," Húrin answered. "He suspects that they have set up a large camp near the mountains, or even made tunnels in the mountains near the Limlight to send out patrols from there. If we wait, the risk is high that another group will draw too near before the first is safely away."
"How many are there? Can we not attack and drive them off," Bragloth, one of the Gondorian rangers, asked. "It irks me to flee from such filth."
"They are twenty men strong, but …"
"Then they are no match," Bragloth cut him off. "Our numbers are even, they are Orcs and eleven of us are mounted. We can easily break past them."
"No." Húrin's face was stern. "That patrol may be small, but there are others close by that will come swiftly to their aid, if not for concern for their fellows, then for the reward they will receive for any of us they catch or kill. We will not get through without loss of lives, which we can ill afford, or for all of us to avoid capture, which will be worse."
"Are the stories I have heard untrue, then?" Bragloth asked. "It is said that the invasion of Rohan would have been quicker if not for the terror of the Horselords. Three Riders could alone hold off entire companies of Men, or so I have been told, freezing them in place and leaving no more than half standing."
"That was on the plains, where we could move quickly," Éomer said with some impatience. "Among these trees the horses will give us little advantage. Only the most experienced Riders could make some use of them here; there is no room to manoeuvre or move quickly. We might be able to break though their ranks and escape by speed if the path is broad enough, but that would leave those on foot alone when the other patrols come. And if we have to ride in single file, then the risk is high that they would take down more than one of us. I have not even begun to consider the packhorses, which it will be harder still to get through. No, I will not risk that if there is another way. But if we cannot wait or safely break through, what do you suggest, Húrin?"
"Go south, lord, there seem to be fewer patrols there. If we can outdistance the Orcs, we can leave the forest further south and keep closer to the Entwash. That way we may reach the road quicker and save us time, or we can ride east into the Wold before we turn south again."
"The plains between the Entwash and the Gap is too heavily watched," said Fastred. "That is why we chose the northern road."
Éomer raised his hand; he had heard enough. "We go south for now," he said. "Then east into the Wold. I will not risk the Entwash; we have time."
Though the king claimed they had time enough, Fastred did not waste it; he quickly had the men break camp and gather the horses. Soon they were leading the horses away from the clearing. Two of the Rangers from their escort brought up the rear; covering their traces as well as could be done. The path to the south was easy to follow at first, but soon Húrin led them down a narrow track that could have been made by animals. It led to a small brook swollen by the melt-water. Even so, the water did not reach above the height of their boots; something they were thankful for, as they had to dismount and lead the horses across. Húrin followed it for a while, pressing through the thick undergrowth that grew around the stream, ducking under the branches that hung low over the water and wading in the cold melt-water. The horses grew restless and tense, and the Riders leading the Rangers' horses with their own cursed the ganghere who could not teach their horses to behave. The packhorses gave little trouble; they were steady beasts, used to following in line.
Finally they left the brook. Húrin found a path that was wide enough for riding, but he and the Rangers preferred to go on foot a while longer. Éomer, who had never understood the point of walking when he could ride, mounted with his men. Fastred rode behind him with Húrin's horse in tow.
Nothing much happened for at time and it looked as though they would avoid further patrols. Éomer began to hope that they would be able to leave the forest unseen when Húrin returned. The two rangers and one of the Elves were with him.
"More Orcs have been spotted, Lord Éomer," he said.
"How many and how close?" Éomer asked.
The two rangers went to take their horses while Húrin and Lindir reported to Éomer. The orcs were closing in on them from three directions and unless they turned back towards the Huorn border, they would be caught between at least three patrols, facing some hundred orcs or more.
"Without the Ents, the Huorns will attack us as quickly as they would the orcs," Éomer said. He shook his head. Going west would probably do them little good unless they could get word to Quickbeam before they arrived themselves.
"I sent my companions to find the scouts and gather them here," said Lindir. "We might be able to open a way for you if luck and skill are on our side."
"How?" Fastred asked. "There are too many of the enemy for an easy victory, even with the horses, and breaking though their ranks would be difficult in this terrain. Might it not be better to go south and west, and hope to find an opening between patrols? We might at least, if our luck is bad, reach the Entwash and gain entry there. Some of the Ents always watch that path."
"We might," Húrin said. "But I would not counsel it."
"Why not?" Éomer asked.
"Too much time would be lost. Though we are not desperate, our errand is urgent," he said. "And my heart is troubled. It tells me that time is more pressing than we think; the same urging that made you come with us, Éomer king, urges me now to waste no time on going back to the Huorns' Guard."
Éomer nodded. "Then we shall not, unless there is no other way." He turned to Lindir. "What plan did you have?"
"We have to hear what the other scouts have seen, but I think we will be able to draw them off and lead them away from you. If skill and luck hold, you might be able to pass between the patrols unnoticed. The forest is thinner near the edges and you would be able to use the speed of the horses to escape. Once out in the open, the orcs will not be able to overtake you even if you are spotted."
He used one of his arrows to outline a map on the ground. Éomer and Fastred dismounted and Lindir marked out their own position and those of the Orcs. "We spotted the orcs here. We do not know exactly where the patrol we sought to evade is, but I would guess that they are at least half an hour behind us. That gives us some time to act. If some of us lead the new patrols south, you could slip between them, as we first planned."
"It sounds easy enough," Fastred said, "but I do not like it. The patrols are usually not this thick; why are three large patrols so close to each other?"
"It looks as though both their orders and patrols have been changed," Húrin said. "Earlier they had their main strength in the south, and the northern parts of the forest was not so heavily patrolled. Now it seems that they have gathered a large force somewhere in the north – my guess would be in the mountains near the forest's edge – and we are near the place where the northern and southern patrols meet. They will probably turn back when they meet; they would have different parts of the forest to guard."
"Do you think they turn back if they do not meet up?" Éomer asked.
"I do not know," was all Húrin answered to that. "But we will have to hear what the other scouts say before we can decide on anything."
They did not have to wait long before three more men returned, all from different directions. The rest had stayed out to keep an eye on the patrols. One of the scouts, a young Rider who had quickly learned the woodcraft of the Rangers, could tell that there was an orc-camp to the east, and from what they had been able to hear, spying from the trees, the other patrols were expected to meet up with them, or send a few scouts to report. They had also learned that the Master of Isengard had strengthened the patrols, confirming Húrin's guess. Additional groups of Orcs patrolled the edges of the forest between the Entwash and the Limlight. These patrols were smaller and further apart, posing little threat to ten mounted Men, but still Éomer would rather avoid them if possible.
"Are any of the patrols close to the camp?" the king asked.
"The one to the south," Lindir answered. "They might be close enough to alert the camp if they see us."
"And the northern?"
"Further behind than feared," the answer came. "They have slowed their pace and when I left they had stopped to rest, or quarrel." The Ranger reporting grimaced. "There seems to be no love lost between the patrols, and the Orcs based in the north do not like to report to those from the south. The patrol is about an hour's walk from us and did not seem eager to hurry their meeting."
Éomer turned to Lindir. "Then your plan might work."
"Of course it will," the Elf answered. Éomer could hear the affront in his voice. "We lure the southern patrol back south, hopefully drawing the attention of the Orcs in the camp as well. When we have led them far enough from here, we will slip from them and find a way past the Huorns' Guard. You head to where the Limlight leaves the forest, as we first planned. If you can not avoid the patrols by the forest-edge, you can cross the river while still in the forest and leave Fangorn further to the north."
"We will need no more than four," Lindir continued. "Myself, Glirthor and the two rangers with him will be enough to divert them. Take the rest with you; they can divert the northern patrol if necessary and rejoin Bregalad later as planned. Together we should be able to open a path for you."
It was the best plan they had.
"Be safe," the king urged them in farewell. "We can ill afford to lose even one life"
"We may lose more than one life unless you can bring back food," Lindir replied. "Hunting will only sustain us for a short time; game is sparse in Fangorn. Against hunger, some risks must be taken. Fare well, and may the Valar give your horses speed."
Tauron, a seasoned Ranger, was sent back north. With him, the young Rider went, leaving Lindir to return to the other patrol alone. They would all move quicker through the dense forest than the horses would. Húrin went with them – he still saw it as his part to know what lay ahead.
Éomer let Fastred find them a path, taking a course that would take them straight back to the orcs.
For about half an hour nothing happened. The paths were no worse or, nor better, than before, the trees stood no further apart and raindrops still found their way past the barren crown above them. Then Húrin returned.
"The patrol has begun to move again sooner than we thought," he said. "I ordered Tauron to distract them and lure them away, leaving the paths open to us. We can only hope they will be able to draw all of the orcs with them, and still escape without loss. If they are successful, we will not hear from them until we return. We are on our own."
Éomer nodded. "Take the lead for now," he said. "I take it you know the road ahead?"
"Somewhat," Húrin answered. "But we should have some scouts out there, now that we have lost our escort."
"Fastred can go," Éomer said. "I would have you lead us for the time being."
"Then let Bádon go with him."
Éomer nodded. "Two eyes pair of eyes are better than one, and two set of legs too should you need to report back. Get some feeling for the road ahead; the more that knows what lies ahead, the better."
Fastred bowed and left, and Bádon followed him. Two Riders took their horses in tow.
For a while they travelled in silence. Húrin led them, but he did not speak much; his eyes and ears were on the road ahead. Éomer let him be.
They crossed the brook once, heading back in almost the same direction that they had come. Soon afterwards, they reached a place where several paths met, and it widened enough for two horses to walk abreast. The weather became a little better. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still grey, and underneath the trees it was almost dusk. Éomer wished for more light, but if wishes were horses... they would have had even less grain left.
The hooves of the horses were muted and made little noise on the soft forest-path. They had not been able to shoe them before they left; there was no iron left. While it helped keep their passage quiet, Éomer hoped that they would not be forced to travel on hard and stony ground. After the snow and the wet ground, the horses had not had time to get used to harder ground. If they got too sore, they would be delayed.
They had not ridden more than a mile or so when Húrin held up his hand and stopped. All of them halted. Éomer came up level with Húrin.
"What is it?"
"Sh!" Húrin hissed. "Listen."
Firefoot snorted once before he fell silent, and then the king heard it; the distant din of weapons, shouts and battle cries. An Orc-horn sounded once, twice. The signal was repeated two more times. The fourth signal was cut short, but whoever had silenced the horn-blower was too late; an answering call could be heard behind them, then another, weaker one, ahead.
"That first answer was near."
"Too near." Húrin spoke quietly. He leapt from the horse and bowed close to the ground, trying to hear what news it could bring. Shortly he stood again, shaking his head. "I cannot say for sure, there are too many walking feet around, and the horses move too much, but I think a small group of Orcs is coming up from the south. Up ahead the path forks again, and I guess they are headed there. If they take the western path from there, they will be able to move quickly and swiftly join the fight. They will pass this way, and they will be here soon. We must either fight them or hide."
"How many?" the king asked.
"I cannot say," Húrin answered. "Not many enough to threaten us, I think, but more might be drawn here if we fight them."
"And we will be revealed," Éomer added. "Can we outride them?"
"The answering horn in the north tells me that more Orcs are coming that way. They will aim for the same juncture. It would be safer to hide here, where there is some cover, and wait for them to pass."
Éomer nodded. He turned and gestured to the men: Hide!
Each man turned his horse and moved off the path. They spread out on each side of the road; if they were discovered, they would be able to surround the Orcs and hopefully take them out before they could alert more patrols.
Húrin wasted no time mounting; he bade the king follow him and quickly led his gelding off the path. Éomer followed.
The undergrowth would have been thicker if the spring had not arrived so late. It was both a blessing and a curse. It made for easier riding, but it also made it harder to hide. It was difficult enough to hide one horse at the best of times; fifteen was near hopeless.
Húrin was cursing under his breath, the words themselves drowned in the noise made by two horses forcing their way past twigs and small branches. Éomer tried to follow the same gaps as Húrin's gelding had made, but the bare branches tore at his clothes all the same. Firefoot did not seem to mind much; he had become less apprehensive of forests after living there so long, but Éomer knew, and silently agreed, that open plains were preferable. There you could see the enemy coming, and have time to attack or run away. Éomer had never been one to run willingly. Or hide. But these days he seemed to be doing a lot of both.
One of the thicker twigs struck him in the face. He ducked and narrowly escaped a branch that would have knocked him off the horse. Half hanging over Firefoot's neck, he was not quick enough to see the narrow gap between the tree-trunks ahead and was nearly unhorsed again when the stallion failed to consider that his knee needed to fit between the tree and himself.
"This way, and be silent!" Húrin hissed, the sound not quite a whisper. He had turned at a sharp angle, using a row of young fir-trees to mask their position. Éomer glared but said nothing. He joined Húrin and dismounted. His knee throbbed from the impact, but he ignored it; it would soon pass.
Behind them, the trees seemed to move closer, masking the bigger gaps that their passage had made.
ganghere: (OE) Foot soldiers. I have followed Tolkien in using Old English as the language of the Mark.