A line of ghosts arrive at our village; emerging without warning from the veiling white drifts of autumn mist before the gates. Only now the bell announces their return as does the screaming of the rusty hinges when the guards allow the Riders into the settlement, the combined noise calling together all of usdwelling in this isolated village of the Mark. Yet the damp atmosphere flattens – deadens – the bell’s usually bright toll, and together with the deep rumble of the horses passing into our streets,it lends the afternoon a chilling aura. The warriors have returned. But did they achieve what they set out to do?
The grim expression on the Marshal’s face destroys what hope I had even before I see the shrouded form he carries in his arms. We hoped for a wonder, but it seems that Béma was not in the mood to grant it. Stunned into numbness by this realisation, I wrap my shawl tighter around my shoulders, but nothing will help against the cold which suddenly grasps my heart with icy fingers. From the shelter of Tidwyn’s porch I can only stare as the endless line of riders make for the square, and from the corner of my eye, I see the others freeze as well. No cheers greet the returning éored. Instinctively all of us understand that there is no cause for joy.
A stroke of luck it had been that Éomer’s riders had been in the vicinity when the enemy raided our herd, yet by the looks of it, they arrived too late to prevent what everyone had feared. The orcs’ tracks had still been fresh and their stench still despoiled the air when Aelfric’s mutilated body had been discovered, and their advantage could not have been great when we sent the éored after them. For a while, we had searched the nearby surroundings for the herder’s children, hoping that they had escaped while their father had distracted the beasts. Yet Godhere and Lefsued had not been found, and slowly despair had crept into our breasts, although we still hoped.
But hope ends here. The black splatters of orc-blood on the warriors’ armour and steeds indicate that they found and confronted the enemy indeed, and their return confirms their triumph over the evil brood, but their victory can be no consolation when the price is the life of Mordryth’s fourteen year old son.
All it takes to freeze my innards is the glimpse of a patch of honey-coloured hair among the cloths Éomer holds against his chest. Alas, there is no doubt that the unmoving shape in his arms is Godhere, and I close my eyes in pain, not wanting to imagine Mordryth’s torment over being robbed of both her husband and her son. Although I have no further dealings with her – she is one of those women who neither approves of my occupation nor would ever understand its necessity – I feel for her I know too well from my own experience the gutting feeling of being bereaved of the ones we love.
Éomer spares me no glance as he passes me on his great, mud-splattered steed. I do not want to imagine his state of mind or the dark realm of his thoughts, but judging from the thing Firefoot is dragging behind him, the son of Eomund is in a murderous mood: the orc he tied to his saddle with the help of a rope seems to be barely alive; its black skin peeled from its bones by the rocky ground. The creature must know that it will not live for much longer, and that it will have to endure even worse pain before death will relieve it, for even now it struggles weakly in a doomed attempt to escape. It cannot even rise to its knees before the Marshal kicks his heels into Firefoot’s sides. The stallion jumps, the rope twitches – and the wounded orc is knocked back into the mud.
I shiver at this barbaric act, even if a hard voice in the back of my mind demands to see the murderers punished in the worst way possible as well. But this is not right. This is the cruelty of our enemies, the cruelty of beasts; it is not the way of the Rohirrim. We can be fierce and we kill when we must, but we do not torture, or at least, I have never heard of it. We pride ourselves with being better than our enemies, for our ability for compassion and decency... aye, and mercy. Aren’t those the very traits which make us human? And if we were to lose them... wouldn’t we just be orcs in another guise? Is this were the balance shifts? Has the cruelty that our warriors witness day after day irreversibly destroyed their humanity? I wrap my shawl even tighter around me, but there is no help against the cold in my breast.
Behind the Marshal, Éothain’s tall grey stallion, Scatha emerges from the fog now, and he, too, is dragging one of the foul brood likewise covered in glistening black blood. A cloud of its stench reaches me, and I breathe shallowly through my mouth as I look up. A moment later, a great weight drops off my chest when I behold Godhere’s younger sister, Lefsued in the Captain’s arms, her little dirty face turned toward me. Her empty eyes tell of her ordeal, but at least she is alive. So not all effort was in vain.
Yet the thought offers only cold comfort. What did they do to her... besides killing her father and her brother right before her eyes?
“They found them, Godwyna! Béma be blessed, they found them!”
Saewara runs past me and her joyful tone indicates that she has not yet seen the load Éomer carries. Against my initial intentions, I leave my place below the tavern’s roof and slowly follow the grim procession toward the square. I do not want to see the dead boy or witness his mother’s grief from up close, and I certainly do not want to watch as our men exact their revenge upon the two already half-dead orcs, but the pull toward the commotion is irresistible, and I feel that my presence is required among the people of my village. This loss is something we will have to mourn together, and I do not want to be left outside – not again. It is in community where the strength of our little settlement, if not our entire people, lies. We can only weather this storm if we hold together.
Before me, the Marshal’s tall stallion is still visible among the crowd, and I catch myself wondering whether Éomer will send for me later tonight. The thought frightens me. I have been with him when he came from battle before, and it was not a pleasant experience, even if he apologised afterwards. That dark place the warriors enter when they kill, sometimes... it stays with them. I do not know whether I have enough courage today to confront Éomund’s son, even if his appalling deed of violence seems to be a cry for help.
What should I do if he asks me? Or perhaps I will be lucky and he won’t even come to the tavern. Sometimes in the wake of a fight, the riders only want to be among themselves whereas on other occasions, they will seek our company to be distracted from the dreadful events they have been through. It is impossible to foretell. A death which could not be prevented will always weigh heavily upon the Riders’ shoulders, but when a child dies, it leaves even the hardest warrior gutted.
“Godhere! No, not Godhere! Béma, no!”
Mordryth’s anguished wails rise over the crowd’s murmuring as the circle of spectators closes around the éored’s commanders. The other riders remain behind, holding a silent vigil in the main street while underneath the dirt and blood that cakes their frames, their faces look too pale. It’s days like these when hope seems to be a word without meaning.
I shift my gaze back to the circle where Éomer lowers the lifeless body to the waiting men, and for a moment, silence hangs heavily over the square as they carry Godhere to his mother. She welcomes him with open arms… and sinks to her knees with her dead son. Her face buried in his fair hair, Mordryth’s slender body shakes with silent sobs, and I have to look away although there is no comfort to be found in my neighbours’ helpless and angry glances. How can it be that the Gods decide to take the life of an innocent child? What have we done to rouse their anger?
My gaze wanders to Éothain, and with a deep breath, I push despair back. We must be strong for Mordryth. Somewhere, we must find a way to lend her the courage and strength to move on, for there is still her daughter who needs her now.
“We followed the enemy’s tracks to the mountain path,” Éomer reports from Firefoot’s back in a flat, dead voice that sounds unlike anything I have ever heard from him, and Wiothere has to crane back his neck to meet the Marshal’s dark gaze. “Alas, the ground there is but hard rock, and they heard us coming and used the children against us.” The Marshal swallows visibly when his eyes stray back to the grieving woman before him, and when he continues, his voice is even lower: “Godhere tried to protect his sister, and they killed him for it, hoping to discourage us from an attack.”
Angry and dismayed murmurs rise in response to his tale, and Wiothere nods sombrely.
“You did what you could, Marshal, and we thank you nonetheless. At least you could save his sister.”
Upon his signal, Galwyn steps forth, and Éothain gently hands down Lefsued into the arms of her grandmother.
“Thank you, my lords! Thank you!” she weeps, joyful and grieving at the same time. “May the Gods bless you for bringing at least Lefsued back to us alive!” She rests the girl’s head against her shoulder and gently smoothes her granddaughter’s wild ashen hair as she turns to carry her home. We step aside and let her through, and as she passes me, I catch a glimpse of the utter horror written in Lefsued’s eyes and feel another chill. I was twenty-two when the enemy took me, and although I was already a grown woman by then, I barely knew how to carry on with my life after I was freed. I can only hope that the girl will somehow find a way to forget the horrors of this day.
Before me, Éomer and his Captain exchange a glance I neither like nor know how to describe, then their swords are suddenly in their hands and they cut their captives loose with two swift strikes. My stomach clenches in anticipation of what is about to happen, what must happen, and although I cannot see the orcs on the ground, I know that they understand it as well. Involuntarily I take the first steps backwards, my lungs suddenly too tight to draw even a single breath. No, I do not want to see this.
“We brought you the murderers of the boy and his father. The others we killed. What happens to them is your decision now, Wiothere.”
It is my signal to leave. The Gods know that I do not pity our foes, but their death will be long and gruesome, and no matter what those orcs did, I will never be able to bring myself to enjoy any creature’s death pains. I could not even avenge Heorulf when they handed me the sword, seemingly in another life. They had to kill his murderers for me. I was ashamed by my inability, even more so because I felt that I owed that deed to my dead husband, and yet I did it not find it in me to strike. Five years have passed since that day, but sometimes, the pain is so fresh that it robs me of my breath.
I all but flee the square, feeling questioning glances upon me as I hasten along the line of riders to the house I now call my home, but I am not willing to meet them or explain myself. If at all, they know my story only very generally; they cannot know how I feel. Only when I close the door behind me do I feel better, for it muffles the rising clamour outside.
Sometimes I wonder whether we will ever see an end to these dark days.
’Kill them! They deserve it. Think of what they did to you... and your husband. It is your right... and your duty” Those dark eyes staring at me, frightened and in pain. The heaviness of the sword in my hand. I cannot do it, cannot follow the insistent urging of that beast in the dark places of my mind, although I desperately want to. Perhaps the pain will go away when I kill those who hurt me, perhaps their pain will cure mine...
I surface from my dark memories with a jolt, dizzy from holding my breath for too long and at first not knowing what it was that woke me. The images of the tavern’s interior – tables, benches and windows – lurch back into place, and I shake my head as if to clear it of the cobwebs of the nightmare. Yet its horrors were very real at one time in my life, and while I had believed I had overcome their grasp in the years since then, I can now feel the beast slithering around in the dark pit in my mind, still as powerful as ever and only waiting for the right time to burst from its prison to assault me again.
It is the last thing I want to think of, the last thing I need on this already grim day, and my attempts to force it back into the darkness where it belongs become frantic as I sweep the floor so fiercely that the broomstick threatens to break in my hands. I do not want to think of ‘it’, and I do not want to hear the clamour outside. At first I tried to hide from the hateful shouts and the images they stirred up in the cellar, but the darkness there did even worse things to me than the noise and I quickly came back up. The fact that I was all alone in the tavern because everyone, even Adney, had gone to the square was no help, and so I threw myself headlong into work in hopes that it would help me to shut out the world around me.
But now something has changed, and I straighten with the broom in my hands as I realise that this is in fact what woke me from memory: it is silent, but it is not a good silence. Heavy as a rock it hangs above my head, for I know what it means: it is over. Vengeance was served and the orcs must be dead, for even while I stand and listen, I can hear the first riders returning from the square on their way to the stables. I send a silent prayer to Béma, bitter but at the same time relieved, and make for the door with reluctant steps.
Aye, the crowd is dispersing, but the people do not look happier, or at least satisfied now that they avenged themselves on the orcs. I step out onto the porch, hoping for some fresh air to battle the tight feeling in my chest... but it is not fresh. The stench of fire despoils it, and my stomach twitches yet again when I notice that underlying smell of burning flesh. They are burning the corpses... or were those orcs still alive when they set fire to them? Sickened by the very thought, I focus on the rider before me... and inhale sharply when I realise that it is the Marshal himself who stares at me with piercing dark eyes. His furrowed brow tells me that Éomer sees the disgust on my face, and that it angers him. For a moment he seems to contemplate whether or not he should come over, but then decides against it and continues toward the stables with a last dark look at me.
I am ashamed and at the same time relieved. Ashamed, because if there ever was a time when he needed my compassion and not my scorn it is now, and yet I am afraid of meeting him. Relieved, because it will take him a while to tend his horse and perhaps even have a bath himself before he comes to the tavern, if he comes at all. The coward in me hopes that he won’t, but running from the task I set myself is no solution. Perhaps the hours until then will help in returning Éomer to himself, in helping him see, for one thing seems clear to me even from the short glance that we shared: darkness still holds him in its grasp. It was the beast and not the son of Eomund of Aldburg that looked at me from behind his dark eyes, and the prospect of waging war against it steals my breath... but I will dare it nonetheless.