It was a clear, but stormy day in the Riddermark. The autumn sun blazed out of a blue sky, but its strength was already fading and could not warm the strong winds that raged through the broad valley on the outskirts of the Ered Nimrais leading to Edoras. With them, the first whispered promises of a long and frosty winter arrived: a winter the people of Rohan were facing with greater worries than usual.
The Ring War had cost them dearly in men and stock, and many a village had not been able to cultivate their fields due to the turmoil of war and resulting lack of experienced and hardened workers. Their cattle and other farm animals - sheep, pigs, goats, chicken - animals that had supplied their daily food, had been severely ravaged by orcs and the White Wizard’s Uruk-hai, as well as the assaults of the Dunlendings. Game was traditionally scarce in the plains, and there were many doubts among the elders as to how they would survive the grim months that lay before them.
Gondor would help, some were saying. Gondor and Ithilien would send them food. Surely they would not let their old and re-found ally starve, but even to the most optimistic people it was clear that King Elessar would not be able to send them much. Too severe were Gondor’s own losses. So whoever could took to the few patches of forest Rohan had to offer to hunt down the last remainders of game, and the competition among them was fierce. Whole villages were left bereft of grown men while they went across the land in a desperate search for food, open for attack by any foe who dared to set foot in the Mark despite the fierce reputation of its people.
Among the many parties crossing the open lands, one tiny figure on a gray horse was seen racing with great haste across the plains to Edoras, dwarfed by the towering snow-capped mountains. The gray was dark with sweat, its breath a white cloud in the chilly air as it stretched under its light rider. It was exhausted, but upon the pleading touch of its rider’s hand and an urgent squeeze of its thighs, the young mare responded with one last mighty effort and accelerated even more as it ran up the hill to the Golden Hall.
“Your men are ready, Sire.” Gamling, head of the royal guard and now faithful servant of the new King of Rohan, was watching from behind as Éomer threw the heavy leather cloak with the cape of wolf-fur over his shoulders. “They will be waiting for you in the stables. Your horse is also being readied as we speak.”
“Very well, Gamling.”
Éomer found that he could hardly wait to leave the Golden Hall. This hunting trip would be his first opportunity in weeks to finally take again to the wild and exciting life under open skies he had known from childhood. He had been missing it intensely. For months after his coronation his kingly duties had kept him at Meduseld and in its near vicinity, making all necessary arrangements for the change of power in the Riddermark: meetings with the many elders and majors of the villages in his realm and the few remaining marshals of the Rohirrim., all of them eager to swear their oaths to their new king and at the same time make sure to give him a list of their various needs.
One thing was found on them all: food. Supplies for the long stern winter they were facing. Éomer had heard each of them out and nodded to all of their requests, inwardly knowing all too well he was not in a position to promise them anything. As it were, the supplies in Edoras were as low as in the remainder of his kingdom, and the next promising spot to lead a hunting party to was a hard two day’s ride away in the Eastfold. To hear the concerns of his people all day long without being able to help left the young king frustrated and feeling powerless, a feeling he greatly despised.
So it had been with great relief that he heard the news from one of the scouts he had sent away a week earlier. It looked like they had found a pocket of forest which the orcs and Uruk-hai had missed in their rage, and deer, elk and wild boar were plentiful there and just waiting to be taken. With luck, they would even find one of the rare wild Eastfold oxen. One of them would be enough to feed all of Edoras for at least a week.
Éomer was looking forward to the hunt. The rage and frustration of not being able to help his people and being confined to the luxurious, but nevertheless limited, halls of his ancestors needed an outlet, and exercise and sword practice simply could not provide it.
“You have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time; have you not, my Lord?” Gamling said with a slight, understanding smile that deepened as Éomer turned his head in surprise, his dark eyebrows drawn together.
“Is it so obvious? Or - wait...” The trace of a smirk tugged at his mouth as he stuffed a few more of his belongings into a bag. “You have known my sister and me far too long.”
“Indeed. Both of you have always needed the wide open skies. I remember how hard it was to keep the two of you in Edoras when you were but children. There was more than one occasion on which we had to turn the entire city upside down to find you while the troubled king was waiting. Most memorably of course the incident in which you took your then ten year old sister on a day ride into the mountains.”
Éomer chuckled as he reached for his leather gloves.
“I shall never forget the lecture our uncle gave me when we returned. All of Edoras must have heard it.” He raised one eyebrow. “But Éowyn enjoyed our ride so much, I believe the trouble afterwards was well worth it.” Lost in memory, he paused for a moment. Once again, Gamling seemed to be able to look right into his mind and read the melancholic thoughts there.
“We all miss her, my Lord. Her laughter was always a welcome sound and sight in these halls.” He stopped himself, thinking of how rare the sight of the White Lady laughing - or only smiling - actually had been in those last, desperate years of Gríma Wormtongue’s secret reign, and felt forced to say something uplifting to chase the bitter thought away. “But we all shall meet her again when she comes to your wedding next summer. Now, I suppose that thought will conquer any feelings of loss and sadness you carry around with you.”
“Indeed,” Éomer replied, stifling his natural and somewhat unenthusiastic reaction. As a sign of the newly-welded alliance with Gondor and King Elessar, he was going to marry Lothíriel of Dol Amroth on Midsummer of next year. It was a marriage out of duty, not of love, as he had not yet made the acquaintance of his soon-to-be queen. She had been described to him as beautiful, delicate and almost Elven, something he - coming from a people of peasants and warriors - could not figure for himself at all. It was the usual way that monarchs married, yet Éomer dreaded it. Pushing the thought away yet again, he slipped on his gloves with more force than necessary. “Thank you, Gamling. I appreciate your efforts at lightening my mood. I know it must be hard for you, too, having lost my uncle and now having to handle his difficult nephew.”
The guard shook his head in negation, a calm, content expression on his face.
“You have nothing to apologise for, my lord. I understand that your new duties would sometimes feel like a prison to you... Maybe it will help you to know that the people think of you as a worthy king so far.”
For a fleeting moment, Éomer looked very young and intimidated by the shadow of his great predecessors and expectations his people had concerning his reign, but then the firmness returned to his dark eyes, and he gave the older man a little, appreciative nod.
“You seem to know a lot about our people.”
“As your advisor, is it not my task? It is always important to know what your people say about you, and I am glad I can provide you with their favourable words. There was hardly a day when your uncle did not ask me for them, too. A great ruler distinguishes himself by not having his people serve him, but serving his people, and to hear their voices, he needs many ears. I am providing but two of them.”
Éomer’s hand landed heavily on his shoulder.
“He was lucky to have you, Gamling. Just like I am. You served my uncle well, and I would be honoured to share his experience.” Éomer adjusted his belt and the cloak and turned around in search for his bow. “Even if our relation has changed, I want you to always tell me your true opinion in any business I bring to you. Never tell me what I want to hear, or what you think I want to hear, just because I am your king now. You know of my headstrong reputation, so I might need to hear wise words repeatedly and forcefully to really listen to them.” He looked up in time to see his advisor’s smile deepen.
“I shall remember your words when the occasion arises. As for the time being, my opinion is that you are fulfilling your duties as deems fit for an heir of Eorl. Except for this hunting party, maybe...” He interrupted himself, but it was already too late. The good-natured look had fallen from his king’s face and been replaced by the determined expression Gamling was familiar with. It usually meant that discussion was about as useful as running headlong into a stone wall. “Putting yourself in danger to feed your people is a noble deed, but not expected of you. You have enough men under your command who would be willing to go instead -”
“-but since it could also very well be the last opportunity for you to ride out and escape your duties for a few days before spring, nobody in his right mind would attempt to convince you otherwise. It would mean that, in addition to the cold, darkness and storms outside, we would have to live with a very ill-tempered ruler inside these halls for at least three months. Nobody could wish for that to happen.” Gamling fell silent and held his breath, inwardly praying he had not gone too far as he felt the king’s piercing stare on him. Éomer was known to be open for a brand of straightforward, rough humour, but maybe... The moment stretched and became uncomfortable, as Éomer’s expression remained unreadable, but then it slowly turned into a wicked, knowing smirk. Gamling dared to breathe again.
“I see my words have already done their work, Gamling. What a fool I was by thinking I would have to tell you how to handle me.” The king took his quiver from a hook in the wall and slung it, then went for the bow, briefly casting a glance back at his still waiting advisor. “But rest assured, there has never been a deer or elk I came across in all of my hunts which posed a threat to me.”
“I was more thinking of the Eastfold oxen and wild boars, my king, but now I am convinced that you could kill them with your bare hands - or a mere glance.”
Both laughed, then Éomer nodded.
“Go to Erkenbrand then, and tell him I shall meet him at the market square. No need to meet in the crowded stables.”
“Good hunting to you, my king. May your party be blessed with success and may all of you return safely.” Gamling bowed and retreated out of the dressing room.
Éomer nodded his appreciation and - after a short moment of lost contemplation - headed over to where his sword expectantly hung in its sheath. Smiling to himself in anticipation, he picked them up and slung them. The familiarity of their weight felt good. He was a warrior, a man of action, just like his uncle before him. Théoden had been a very active ruler in his time, and he planned to be the same. For a moment, his eyes fell on the banner on the wall directly in front of him, and he paused, taken in by the image of the White horse on emerald green: the kingly banner of the House of Eorl. It was ancient, and a long line of kings before him had carried it into battle. Now it was his time to do it justice. An intimidating thought, but Éomer was fiercely determined never to fail his people. It was an oath he had sworn to himself the first time when he became a soldier at the age of sixteen, renewed during the time when his uncle slipped into darkness through the devilry of Gríma Wormtongue and the White Wizard, and once again when he had been banished from the Kingdom, protecting the land with the few loyal men left to him even though he wasn’t entitled to its protection anymore.
It was no conscious act that made him extend his hand and touch the ancient velvet with his fingertips for good luck, lost in thought. Finally the moment passed, and he drew his sword and went through a few fluid exercise moves. It felt good in his hands, ready.
′Let the wild boars come,′ he thought. 'After Helm’s Deep, the Pelennor Fields and the Black Gate, there is nothing left in all of Middle Earth that could terrify me.′
Sheathing the steel blade, Éomer gave the room one last thorough glance and decided he was ready. His confident steps echoed in the corridor as he made his way to the Great Hall, where a disturbance could be heard. Four voices: Gamling and two of his doorwardens. And a higher, breathless, female one, yelling in the rolling rhythm of a particularly old Rohirric dialect only incorporated by the nomadic herdsmen of Rohan these days.
“The king! Please, I must speak to the king!”
The sound of that voice was familiar, even if he could not put a name to it. Yet its sound of urgency and desperation gave him chills. Something horrible must have happened somewhere in his kingdom. Frightened by the thought of what it might be, Éomer hastened his steps and entered the main hall.
“What is going on?”
The continued disturbance had attracted the attention of other guards and servants, and it was only in the middle of the crowd that the king caught a glimpse of actual fighting going on. A small figure in a wide cape of scruffy-looking fur was wrestling with his guards, the difference of their build making the fight an absurd sight. By all rights, she should not have had even a remote chance of freeing herself, but upon his puzzled shout and the frozen pause that followed it, the tiny figure freed herself from the guards’ grip and flung herself at him with a force born out of desperation.
“Éomer! Éomer! We need your help! You must hear me out!” She crashed against his chest, a whirlwind of fur, blond, matted hair, ragged clothes smelling of horse and sweat and a dirt and tear-streaked face, she raised to meet his questioning stare as he seized her sticky, slick wrists. Recognition struck him like lightning, even though it must have been four years since he last saw her. She had been but a girl then. One of the nomads who lived with and took care for the great herds of the Rohirric war-horses. He remembered that she had been there on the day of the ritual, watching with pride the great grey stallion she had helped to raise, his beloved Firefoot, choose him over all the warriors who had been standing in the middle of the herd, waiting to have the horses they would go to war with to approach them, looking happy for him. She could have been only twelve then.
“Éomer! Please, don’t throw me out! There is something very ill going on in the Mark, and we need your help!”
Éomer felt the questioning stare of the Royal Guard and, letting go of one of the girl’s wrists, held out his hand in a calming gesture to keep them back. Another stern look was enough to remind the other onlookers that they had other business to tend to which he expected them to take care of - now. Silently they left, but whispers sure enough started to flow through the vast hall as soon as they believed themselves out of earshot. Éomer lowered his hand - and frowned as he recognised the dark red stains on his palm.
“What is it, Elana? You are hurt!” He turned her still gloved hands in his and realised they were saturated with blood. “What happened?”
Her pale blue eyes met his with a look of utter desperation.
“It is nothing. I am not important, but they are killing our horses, Éomer! They are killing our great herd! Please, you must help us!” Her intense gaze held his for a moment longer, a moment of stunned shock, before her knees buckled, and she collapsed into the king’s arms.
“Here, Sire, lay her here. I will send for the healer at once.”
Gamling pointed at the bed in the guest chamber and waved at one of the children he could see sticking their heads curiously out from behind a pillar. The children of Edoras were educated by the elders, and often sent to the Great Hall for a variety of light chores which taught them about the way of life in Rohan. Tending their horses and keeping their tack intact, running errands, helping in the kitchen, cleaning... the variety was endless, and the children, while at first intimidated by the glory of the ancient hall of their forefathers, grew to enjoy their tasks often to a point where they came to perform them even on days when they were relieved from duty.
One of the smaller girls took the task as hers and approached.
“Élwyn, it is?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Go find Yalánda and send her here. Then go to the kitchen and ask them for bread, broth and tea, and bring it to us.” Gamling watched the girl take off like a playful foal, thankful for her important duty, then turned around to watch his king approach the bed and carefully lower his burden onto the sheets.
It seemed to Éomer that the girl barely weighed more than a feather, and only as he rose again did he notice her pale, gaunt look and the dark circles under her still closed eyes. A quick survey showed no injuries except for her hands, so little question remained as to what had caused her to faint.
“It must be exhaustion. Her kin dwell somewhere further south in the valleys of the Ered Nimrais at this time of year. She must have been riding hard for days to bring us this news. Look!” Carefully, he lifted one of her hands and pulled what was left of the glove from her fingers to reveal an open, bleeding wound where the reins had cut into her palm. He laid it back onto her stomach and met his advisor’s worried glance. Behind him, the girl moaned, but did not wake.
“You know her, Sire?”
“Aye. She belongs to the herdsmen. She was but a child when I last saw her, but- ” He interrupted himself. “She still is.” Inhaling heavily, Éomer recalled the girl’s last words before she had sunk into his arms. “‘They are killing our horses, she said. ’They’?” He looked up. “Who could she mean? Orcs? There are no orcs left in the Riddermark. We killed them all. No orc has been spotted in the entire kingdom for months!”
“I do not know, my Lord, but it troubles me. Orcs we could handle. But if it is some other fell creature -”
“She said ′they’. Dunlendings? Could it be them? I would have believed we drove them away once and for all.”
“We do not know, my lord,” a weak voice came from behind him, and Éomer turned to find the girl awake. “We neither saw nor heard anything during that night, but when we returned to the meadow to look for our horses four days ago, the ground was soaked with their blood, and there were dead and slashed bodies for as far as the eye could see, and the few they did not kill yet are wild with terror and unapproachable even for us.”
“‘The few they did not kill’? How many are left?”
“No more than seventy, my lord. They are almost all gone. It was a bloodbath none of us has ever seen, not even during the war. The stench of death hangs over our valley like a black cloud. We would have burned the carcasses, but we hoped the Rohirrim would know who it was by looking at them. Please, Éomer - my king - you have seen our herd in all its glory. You ride one of our steeds. The sight of what is left of them would bring tears even to your eyes. This is our darkest hour. You must help us!”
Éomer stared at her, but could not bring himself to envision the image she described. When last he had been to the great herd, there must have been over one thousand horses. Of course that visit had been well before the Ring War, and the numerous orc-raids, the battle of Helm’s Deep and, at last, the great battle of the Pelennor Fields around Minas Tirith had taken a heavy toll on both men and beasts, but only seventy left of a thousand?
The young king’s blood turned to ice water as he followed that thought all the way through to its ugly end: Yes, they had two more main herds, one in the far Westfold, the other one in the very East, but none had been as large as the one Elana’s tribe was guarding, not nearly, and theirs was the only one left in which the blood of the Mearas was still running strong. What if their line ended now? What if the killing spread into the other parts of the Mark, as well? Wouldn’t whoever was doing it, men, orc or beast, move on once they had destroyed everything in one place?
Without horses, their culture would crumble. They relied on them to cultivate their fields. They relied on them for the hunt. They relied on them for trade, to cover the vast spaces of their land. And they relied on them in battle. Without horses, they were defenceless. From the six thousand Rohirrim on the Pelennor, not even one sixth had returned. Around nine hundred mounted warriors were all that was left of Rohan’s once mighty army. Even without someone killing their horses, the kingdom would need years to recover from the blows it had received.
“My lord?” The girl sat up and seized his hand. “Please...”
Éomer came to his feet as he heard footsteps approach the room from the Great Hall and looked down on their unexpected guest.
“Do not be troubled, Elana of the herdsmen. Your decision to come here was the right one. I will not allow such villainy to go on inside our borders. Our herds, and especially yours, are our livelihood, and we will protect them. Whoever brought that grief upon us shall soon wish he had never set foot in the Riddermark.” He turned to the patiently waiting Gamling. “Get me Erkenbrand and Éothain and tell them to meet me in the hall. We need to hold a council.”
“I presume that the hunt is called off then, Sire?”
“You presume wrongly. Winter is approaching fast, and we cannot delay it. We will have to divide our forces. To find the best way, I need to speak with my marshals. Bring them to me.”