Chapter 1: A Hero returns
ROHAN – EASTFOLD
„Ssh… careful now. Very careful…”
The voice was but a whisper in Éomer’s ear, and he held his breath, feeling his heart’s thunder in his chest as he focussed on the deer before him over his drawn arrow. Almost within range now, and the breeze still blowing into his face so that their scent would not give them away. Sweat ran into his eyes and he blinked it away, concentrating on the point between the deer’s third and fourth rib where his arrow was supposed to go. Directly to the heart, guaranteeing a quick death.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Tolgor’s cautious nod and understood. Exhaling oh so quietly, Éomer shifted his weight slightly to edge around a fallen tree, when sudden alarm broke out in the foliage above them. The buck’s head shot up.
His fingers let loose, simultaneously knowing that it was not a killing shot as his bow had not been fully drawn. And yet as the beast fell to the ground on the clearing, twitching twice before it lay still, Éomer could not help feeling the exhilaration of the hunt as he straightened.
“We got it!” he exclaimed and beamed at his teacher. The older rider smiled back.
“Aye, but it was close.” Looking up to the still ongoing disturbance in the branches above them, Tolgor slung his bow and stepped up to their prey with Éomer on his heels. Silently, the two men regarded their work, and the younger man’s excitement shifted to mild disappointment when he saw that it had not been his shot that had killed the beast. His arrow stuck in the buck’s shoulder while his experienced comrade’s had half disappeared in the deer’s chest, piercing its heart.
For a moment, Éomer’s gaze remained fixed on the animal’s large, dark eyes, already glazed over with death, and he marvelled how quickly the change from radiant life to cold, dead corpse had happened and understood with sudden clarity that such knowledge did not only hold true for deer. His features grew pensive as he stooped to retrieve his arrow, already feeling Tolgor’s knowing gaze upon himself.
“So, Éomer son of Eomund, tell me: what lesson did you learn from today’s foray?”
He did not have think long about the answer.
“That one has to be constantly on one’s guard, because a life is quickly taken?”
“Aye,” Tolgor nodded, now bending to retrieve his own arrow. “That would be one. What else?”
“What else?” Knitting his eyebrows, Éomer stared down on their prey while his comrade began to bind the buck’s legs together. Behind them in the trees, the noise reached new heights, and a moment later, he caught the brief glimpse of a squirrel as it raced up the branch to escape the angered birds whose nest it had robbed. He cleared his throat. “I don’t know… to always be prepared for anything?” He looked at his arrow, and the furrows on his brow deepened in displeasure with himself. “The noise surprised me. My bow was not fully drawn when I loosed the arrow.”
“Yes. And if this deer had been an orc, it would not have stopped it. If you do not kill an orc with your first shot, they’ll keep coming at you. No matter if you are deerstalking or hunting for orcs, you need to be constantly alert. Without the necessary body tension, you can kill neither prey nor foe.”
Looking up, Tolgor saw the young rider’s disappointed expression, and his smile returned as he shook his head and straightened. “That aside, it was a much better effort than last week’s. Our brothers will be pleased with us today for enriching their dinner. Come on, young man. Let’s carry our trophy back to the camp, and then you can show me what you have learned concerning the preparation of the meat. The Captain should be almost back by now with Arnhelm. We’ll throw him a welcoming feast!” He helped Éomer lift up the buck and laid it around his shoulders, smiling as the apprentice rider puffed up his cheeks in effort. “Too heavy for you, young man? Should I help?”
“Of course not!”
Although he was given a devastating glance, Tolgor’s grin widened.
“Well, it is quite a heavy load…”
“I can manage,” Éomer interrupted him firmly, and deliberately took the first step. Aye, the beast upon his back was heavy, but he was determined not to fail. The heat of embarrassment still flushed his face when he remembered Captain Elfhelm’s words about how Éothain and he first needed to fill out before they would be allowed anywhere near any orc. Of course the two friends had insisted that they were ready for the challenge, but their indignant objections had only resulted in charitable smiles from the surrounding warriors.
“Trust me, you’re not,” Elfhelm had assured them, and – upon seeing the young men’s frustrated expressions – drawn his sword with a sigh. “Come on, attack me.”
Uncertain whether he had heard his Captain right, Éomer had exchanged a sceptical glance with Éothain, who had likewise hesitated.
“Come on, you two!” Elfhelm had invited them again, impatiently. “Draw your swords. Attack me… and don’t hold back. Let me see what damage you can inflict when you mean it.”
Still uncertain, Éomer had drawn his own blade, aware of the expectant circle of warriors that had suddenly formed around them from seemingly out of nowhere, and with a shrug, stepped forth while Éothain had still hesitated. Not knowing what to do – he certainly didn’t want to hurt his commander – he had stood in the circle with the sword in his hand until Elfhelm had raised his own weapon and attacked him. Just in time Éomer had brought up Gúthwine for the block, but the Captain’s force had knocked the blade clean from his fingers and sent it sailing in a glistening arc through the air where it embedded itself into the ground, much to the merriment of the observing riders.
The next moment, Éothain had made his move – and was blocked and pushed backwards with such power that the son of Céorl stumbled over his own feet and landed hard in the grass on his behind to even louder laughter.
“Well…” Elfhelm had then concluded upon sheathing his sword, and his gaze had admonished his warriors not to show their amusement too openly as he did not want the two young men disheartened. “I think we can say for now that you are not yet ready for the orcs. But with a few more months of sparring and some additional pounds of muscle on your frames, this will change sooner than you think. Patience, young lords. Your time will come.”
The memory of Elfhelm’s lesson still stung, but it had also revealed to Éomer why he and Éothain had been appointed the most gruelling tasks– chopping fire wood, carrying water and the likes –day after day ever since their first day with the éored. There had been evenings, especially during the first two weeks, when his whole body had ached after he had been finished with his chores, and he had fallen asleep on the spot immediately after the evening meal, barely able to get to his feet the next morning.
That was not longer so. A month with the Riders had strengthened his body in a way that Éomer felt he could even take on the heavy buck they would have for dinner although they had left their horses about a quarter league behind. Also, he found himself increasingly often looking for additional work now after he was done with his chores, wanting nothing more than to turn his lanky, boyish frame into that of a warrior as quickly as possible. While he had grown a fair bit over the last year and promised to become at least as tall as his father, the son of Éomund was still painfully aware of his too-slight build whenever he compared himself to his brothers-in-arms.
“I understand that you want to grow muscles fast, Éomer,” Tolgor voiced his thoughts as if they had been scribbled onto his brow for everyone to see, “but if you break your back, Elfhelm will have my hide. You cannot have the body of an experienced warrior over night; some things cannot be rushed. You are not even fully grown yet. Come, let me give you a hand with this. There is no one here to see us, and that is indeed an extraordinarily big buck. I would have trouble carrying it, myself.” Without waiting for an answer, he grasped the animal’s antlers. Silently conceding that his comrade was right and swallowing his pride, Éomer shifted part of the weight to the older man, and together they carried their trophy back to their waiting horses.
As they slung the deer to Tolgor’s saddle, Éomer stared for a moment in the direction of their camp, a sudden flutter of excitement stirring in his stomach. Tonight, Éothain and he would finally get to know a member of their éored they had not met yet, and one of their most esteemed warriors at that. Widely acknowledged as one of the Mark’s best scouts, Arnhelm of Aldburg had been wounded in the éored’s last fight before their two recruits had joined, and would complete their numbers tonight. Éomer could not wait to meet the man. Arnhelm was one of the few true heroes of the Rohirrim these days, along with Erkenbrand, Lord of Westfold, and of course his cousin Théodred. With fascination he had listened to the men’s campfire tales over the past weeks, in which their scout had always played a significant part, proud to call such an esteemed warrior his brother-in-arms. So, today finally was the day when the man of those heroic tales would actually take shape for him. He could not help smile with anticipation as he turned to Tolgor.
“Do you think Arnhelm will share his knowledge with us, Tolgor? I heard that some scouts prefer to keep their secrets to themselves, although I could not imagine why.” He glanced at the older man, who had already swung into the saddle.
With a deep intake of breath, Tolgor turned his steed around. “Well, Elfhelm said that he wants the two of you to learn from him, so I’m sure he will make that clear to Arnhelm. Perhaps he will not show you everything, but I would not worry about this just yet. You’ve got years of learning ahead of you until you will have acquired even the basic knowledge of what it takes to survive out here, and before you would even be able to understand the finer points of scouting… However, you should not expect too much of Arnhelm just yet. Serious injuries can sometimes change a man, and he might need some time to get back to his former self. My best advice for now would probably be to leave the man alone until he seeks you out.”
Tolgor turned away casually enough as he kicked his heels slightly into his stallion’s flanks, but there had been something to the older man’s tone that gave Éomer pause. Or had it been something in the healer’s gaze? Whatever it had been, it had stirred up an unpleasant feeling in the son of Eomund; some strange tension as if he were a tightly-drawn bow. For another moment, Éomer stood and stared at his fellow rider’s back, then – upon Tolgor’s curious glance back over his shoulder, he snorted and swung into Stormwing’s saddle himself, dismissing the notion as wrong. With a click of his tongue, he directed the mare alongside Tolgor’s massive bay, and together, the two Rohirrim left the forest.
The camp was already established, and a massive fire burning merrily in the middle of it, above which an empty spit only seemed to wait for the meat they brought, as the two riders approached. With an expectant smile upon his lips, Éomer scanned the grazing horses on the other side of their resting place, but he could not make out Elfhelm’s long-legged bay among them. He let his eyes sweep over the plains beyond the little pile of rocks that shielded them from potentially unfriendly eyes, and sighed with contentment. Aye, this was the indeed the life he had been dreaming of ever since he had first taken a sword into his hands to become a warrior. Although night was slowly approaching, the sun still shed its light upon them on this perfect summer evening, lending everything a golden finish, and the endless sea of grass before them swayed in the warm breeze as it stretched all the way to the horizon.
Éomer could not remember when he had last - or if he had ever, even - felt such a deep love for their land. Who in their right mind would want to live anywhere else? And who would not choose this life if the choice was his? ‘It is not always like this,’ an inner voice immediately made itself be heard, the voice of reason he did not want to hear on this perfect summer evening. ‘You will find out about the dark side of this life soon enough. There is a price to be paid for evenings like this.’ Éomer’s smile wavered a little as he watched the path of a hawk – or a falcon, he wasn’t sure as the bird was too high up – until he was barely more than a black dot in the sky, but then he detected Éothain among the faces that were turned toward them, and his good mood returned. The hunters had been successful, and what a good feeling it was to hear his comrades’ appreciative comments as they steered their horses through them.
“Who killed it? You or the lad?”
Tolgor turned around in his saddle and looked at Bard, who had uttered the question.
“We both killed it, Bard. It appears that the son of Marshal Eomund is a fast learner. Soon, you will ask him for advice!”
The warrior, in his fourth decade and built like a bear, snorted and chuckled in approval as he shifted his gaze to Éomer.
“Well then, well done, lad! Be sure to come to me later on and we’ll have a drink together!”
Blushing, Éomer nodded his thanks to the man and was more than grateful to escape the general attention and occupy himself with unsaddling his mare when they stopped. For a while, the noise behind him died down as the men returned to their various tasks. Quickly Éomer freed Stormwing of her tack and laid the saddle aside to dig an apple out of his pocket, which he offered to the mare in payment for her loyal service. One hand caressing the animal’s silken ears as she lowered her head to take it from his palm with soft lips, Éomer whispered his thanks to her, then he patted the muscled shoulder and quickly stepped aside when with a loud whinny, Stormwing bolted, head and tail held high, to join the other horses.
For a moment, Éomer followed her path with a vague smile upon his face, until Tolgor’s voice brought him back to the present.
“Well, young man… now that you were over-showered with praise for your kill, how about preparing it for the spit? Your fellow riders are hungry.”
“Aye,” he nodded, turning around, and his smile became a little strained as he accepted the knife from the healer. Knowing all too well the reason for his displeasure, the older man patted him on the back as they turned toward the buck.
“You will quickly get accustomed to it. Trust me, Éomer, you were not the first recruit to retch when he found himself up to the elbows in entrails for the first time in his life. Just don’t do it today. It would be shame to throw this away.”
He managed not to retch, but only barely so. And still, while he prepared the buck for the spit under Tolgor’s supervision, his stomach once again felt like the hot, throbbing centre of the universe, and Éomer was more than glad when Bard and one of the other riders – he had not yet learned the names of all one hundred and twenty five men – came to carry the cleaned carcass to the fire. Swallowing hard against the nausea, Éomer stared at his blood-covered arms with revulsion, just wondering how he would get them clean again when Tolgor gave him a pat on the shoulder.
“Well done, young man. Now, all that’s left to do is bury the entrails, and then you can go and wash yourself. No more lessons for today.”
“What about the watch?”
“You’re on second watch tonight, with Gaer. See that you get some sleep before that. Not like last time, when you looked as if you were about to fall from the saddle all day long.”
"“I hate second watch. How do you do it?” Éomer wondered as he thrust his little shovel into the loose ground to dig the hole. “How is it that everyone can sleep almost immediately whenever they lie down? I have no problem with first or last watch, but-”
“- to come to rest first and then get up in the middle of the night, be wide awake again for a few hours and then immediately go back to sleep again, aye, that is difficult at first,” Tolgor admitted. “But you’ll learn that just like everything else. Sooner or later, your body will remember these turns, and it will claim what it needs only when you permit it. It’s the cat’s way of sleeping: close your eyes and you’re asleep, open them, and you’re alert. It will soon become second nature to you, too, don’t worry.” He turned his head when there were sudden shouts from behind, and quickly discovered the reason for the excitement on a nearby hill. “Well, it seems that the Captain is back in time for the evening meal after all.”
Beside him, Éomer straightened; his excitement suddenly back. A tangle of hair fell into his face and he smoothed it aside absent-mindedly with a bloody hand, leaving a broad, dark smear on his face as he stared at the two advancing riders with his heart in his throat. There was no mistaking Elfhelm’s powerful frame as the Captain of Aldburg approached; amiably chatting with his long-time brother-in-arms by his side, but it was the rider beside him who quickly became the sole focus of Éomer’s attention. So, this was Arnhelm. This was the scout whose incredible skill had ensured victory for their éored more times than anyone could count.
“Éomer, look!” Éothain’s excited voice reached his ear from behind. “That is Arnhelm…and Ravenwing! Béma, look at his stallion! He must be eighteen hands tall at least! He is even taller than Éon!”
Silently, Éomer agreed as his eyes briefly strayed from rider to steed, taken with by the horse’s smooth movements. At that moment, he believed all the tales he had heard about the scout’s steed: how Arnhelm had trained the colt to tread lightly even before he had broken him in, and how that black stallion stayed quiet and calm even in the most precarious situations, displaying the ultimate trust in his rider and that way, allowing him to get closer to the enemy than anyone else would ever have dared. He believed it all now because the stallion moved with a grace Éomer had not yet seen among their horses; almost like a cat Ravenwing moved; the confident stride of a predator on the prowl while his black hide glistened in the setting sun. He was awed.
“Isn’t he a sight?” Éothain shook his head. “What a horse!”
“Aye. He is indeed.”
Éomer’s gaze returned to the warrior, who had by now advanced enough so that his face could be distinguished beneath his helmet, and although Arnhelm appeared to be older than he had figured him to be – ’Much older; he must be at least ten or even fifteen years older than the Captain!” – his weathered features impressed the young man just as much as his steed had done. One look was enough to assure him of the scout’s extraordinary skill, for his gaze had the intensity of a hawk. Although he appeared to be completely at ease, even laughing now and lifting his hand in greeting over his comrades’ welcome, Éomer was certain that there was little that escaped Arnhelm’s attention – including, perhaps, the ants which had discovered the buck’s messy remains to his feet… which reminded him of his task. He could hardly welcome one of Rohan’s greatest heroes while he stood up to his shins in deer-guts.
Barely looking at what he was doing, Éomer frantically dug the hole deeper and quickly shovelled the bloody pile into it while the riders closed around their returning comrade. There was much relieved laughter and good-natured bantering when the scout dismounted and found himself unable to unsaddle his horse, because everyone wanted to be the first one to welcome him back among their ranks.
Feeling like true outsiders for the first time since they had joined the éored, Éomer and Éothain stood just outside the circle of warriors, watching.
“He seems to walk well enough again,” Éothain stated after a while, although he could barely see the man among the others. “Was it his shin or his thigh he broke in the fall?”
“His thigh, I think.” With a last look at his work, Éomer decided that it was good enough and tossed his shovel over to where he had stored his saddle. “And two ribs, because he ran into a pike. Thank the gods it did not penetrate his hauberk, or he would not be here today.” Instinctively, he looked for the tale-tell dent in the scout’s armour when an opening formed among the men, but Elfhelm’s next words took his mind off that:
“Come on, old friend, and welcome our new recruits! I’m pleased to say that two very promising young men joined our éored last Midsummer, and they are very excited to meet you. They hardly talked about anything else this past week. We were all already tired of hearing your name!” With a broad smile, Elfhelm steered his friend through the riders toward them.
Éomer felt his mouth go dry, and he could tell from Éothain’s suddenly rigid bearing that his friend felt equally nervous about meeting one of the Mark’s most esteemed warriors. No longer did he hear the éored’s din behind them as he stared at his Captain, his breath caught in his throat and involuntarily squaring his shoulders as Elfhelm introduced them.
“This is Éothain, son of Céorl. In the past month, he has proven himself a fast learner and promises to become an extraordinary archer.”
“My lord…” Éothain bowed, barely even daring to look at the scout.
“The son of Céorl? Céorl of Edoras?” Arnhelm asked, his voice deep and impressive, and to Éomer, the man seemed impossibly tall as he towered above them. Up close, he now saw the dent in the man’s cuirass, but quickly lowered his gaze again.
“Aye, my lord.” Éothain said, and his voice sounded strangely strangled by excitement. And, after a deep breath: “It is an honour to meet you, Lord Arnhelm.” Éomer understood only too well that those words were probably everything his friend had been able to utter, and he worried whether he would get any sound at all through his dangerously tightened throat upon his turn. He did not have to wait for long.
With an appreciative nod, Arnhelm turned toward him, and Éomer braced himself.
“And this is Éomer, the son of Marshal Eomund. If it had been his decision, he would probably have joined us years ago; he’s a very eager young man and already very skilled in the use of his weapons. Once his skill is met by the necessary weight and strength, the orcs will run when they will merely hear his name.”
Elfhelm winked at him in encouragement, but Éomer did not see it, because he found himself staring into the scout’s keen grey eyes, and what he saw stopped his breath for real. For a second, Arnhelm’s pupils seemed to widen in shock. Not noticeably, not to anyone who did not hold eye contact with the scout then, but Éomer caught it and suddenly, he felt as if a bucket of ice-cold water had been emptied over him. He could not speak, not for the life of him. Had Arnhelm truly flinched at his sight?
“Éomer?” Elfhelm’s voice sounded irritated by his silence, and yet as Éomer desperately wracked his empty head for the words he had been meaning to say, the look in the grey eyes before him changed again, and along with them, Arnhelm’s entire expression turned to stone.
"Marshal Eomund’s son, you say?”
Was it truly hatred he saw in the scout’s eyes? But why? Éomer’s thoughts raced. He had never even met the man before! And yet what else could that sudden hard glint in the warrior’s gaze be? His heart pounding against his ribs like a crazed animal, Éomer saw himself helplessly extend his hand in lieu of the words of welcome he had meant to say before his brains had decided to suddenly die on him.
Arnhelm regarded it with the same enthusiasm he would have held for a steaming pile of warg excrements upon the plains before he looked him in the face again and said in a cool, dry voice: “I think not.” He turned away, the spell of the moment broken as he slowly made his way back to his waiting horse. “It is getting late, old friend. Let’s unsaddle our horses, and then eat. I can already tell by the smell that this is going to be an extraordinary feast.”
“Aye,” Elfhelm replied with a last, admonishing glance at Éomer before he followed the scout. “We spared no effort to welcome you home in the right manner. This is going to be an evening to remember!” The two warriors disappeared in the crowd.
With deep lines upon his brow, Éothain turned to Éomer.
“What was THAT, Éomer?”
Still stunned, Éomer could only shake his head.
“Why did you not welcome him? That was disrespectful. You cannot seriously expect a warrior like Arnhelm to shake hands with a recruit, much less in the state you’re in! I mean… look at you. You still got deer blood all over you!” Éothain wrinkled his nose. “It’s even in your face!”
Could that be it? Éomer wondered. He had not yet had time to wash himself after his return and was painfully aware of his condition. He knew he reeked, and yet shouldn’t an experienced warrior like the scout be accustomed to blood and guts? Apparently, Éothain had not seen what he had seen, that cold, hard glint in the older man’s gaze. The initial shock in Arnhelm’s face when they had first locked eyes. And Elfhelm’s reaction, too, seemed to indicate that the Captain – usually an extraordinary perceptive man – had missed their strange exchange. So had he imagined it then?
“Come,” Éothain’s voice finally reached him through his dazed shock. “Let’s get you cleaned up, or you will have to eat alone tonight. There’s a little stream just behind the rocks…”
With a last glance at the crowd of warriors, Éomer followed his friend.