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There was no moon that night, and though the Rohirrim had better night vision than most, they had to stop for a couple of hours when the horses were stumbling too badly. It was no surprise that the orcs had chosen such a time to attack, they liked the darkness. Éomer just hoped his people had heeded the warning of the scout and retreated westward.
As soon as the faintest blush of dawn appeared in the east, they set out again and by early morning reached Stánbeorg, the rocky hill at the foot of the Downs he had designated as a meeting point. Here the plains of Rohan rose towards the Wold in gentle waves, but in places the bedrock thrust through the carpet of grass and wild flowers covering it. A stream rose at the foot of the hill, bordered by reeds and sedges, and meandered away towards the east. Éomer’s men took the opportunity to water their horses, feed them some of the oats they had brought along and have a brief rest themselves.
From groups of herders they had passed during the night Éomer had discovered that no attack seemed to have taken place yet, so he sent out more scouts. The messages he had dispatched the day before now began to bear fruit, as more and more riders from other camps started to trickle in. Éothain at once set about organising them into small companies, each with a captain.
As he surveyed his growing force from the viewpoint on Stánbeorg, Éomer considered his options. It was a delicate balance between waiting for reinforcements and striking as quickly as possible. First they needed up-to-date information though.
They got it at noon when another scout rode in on a lathered horse. To Éomer’s surprise this was a girl, surely no more than fifteen winters old. Freola, the rider who had brought them the news of the orc invasion, hugged her.
“My sister Goldrun,” he introduced her proudly.
Éomer was forcibly reminded of Éowyn at that age. The girl had gathered up her blond hair in a braid and kept herself ramrod straight while she delivered her report in a clipped voice, including precise details about the location of the enemy and their number.
He shuddered inwardly at how close she must have been to gather such extensive information. Her brother realised as much too, for his face lost all colour as her tale emerged. A true daughter of Eorl this. It was not only the men of the Mark the orcs would learn to fear.
As anticipated, the enemy had crossed the Anduin at the South Undeep, where the river grew broad and shallow, and was now camped on the western shore. Goldrun was able to point out their exact location on the map.
Éomer came to a quick decision. “We ride at once.”
If they waited longer, he would have more men, but would lose the opportunity to surprise the orcs and cut them off before they could do any harm to his people.
They ate a hasty meal, then set out. As they drew closer to the uplands of the Wold, the land became more hilly. This part of the Emnet was sparsely populated with only a few temporary camps. If Éomer and his Marshals hadn’t decided to deploy additional scouts, they might not have known of the orcs for another day or two.
Towards the middle of the afternoon, Éomer suddenly spotted black smoke rising into the air ahead of them. He exchanged a grim look with Éothain.
“What is there?” he ask Freola and his sister, who were riding at his side.
“It’s a small camp of herders,” Freola answered. “But I warned them yesterday.”
“They had all left when I passed through this morning,” Goldrun confirmed.
Éomer frowned. It seemed stupid of the orcs to set fire to the place and risk attracting the attention of the Rohirrim. Of course they might have been angry at not finding anybody there, but it could equally well be a trap. Orcs were quarrelsome amongst each other and cowardly when faced with superior force, but possessed surprising cunning.
So they approached the camp, a ring of burning tents set in a little dell, with caution, arrows nocked and swords drawn. However, the alarm of the orcs they found there was not feigned, and when the Rohirrim charged, they fled in terror.
Éomer passed through the tents hardly stopping at all, weaving through the smoke and striking right and left with his sword. It was over in a matter of minutes, the last orc shot as he tried to escape into the hills. Éomer drew up Firefoot and surveyed the bodies lying trampled on the ground amongst the smoldering wreckage of the camp. There couldn’t be more than two dozen, so where was the rest of the filthy creatures? They had to be getting near the Anduin.
He waved Freola and his sister forward, who both looked queasy at the carnage. “How much further is it to the river?”
“No more than three miles or so, lord,” Goldrun answered. “The path narrows into a gully, then opens up again near the shore. That was where I saw them early this morning.”
Éomer considered the situation. The orcs must have crossed over during the night, but had not got very far. Since they preferred moving during the dark, likely they had sheltered somewhere. He cast a look at the sky; there were several hours of daylight left. It would be much better to fight them while the sun was up, but he did not want to lead his men into a trap.
Goldrun seemed to read his thoughts. “We will scout ahead,” she announced.
Éomer nodded reluctantly. “But take care not to risk yourselves.”
And despite Goldrun’s protests, he sent a small company of riders with them, while the main body of his force followed behind more slowly. However, very soon they came cantering back.
“We’ve found them,” Freola called. “They are starting to dig a ditch in the gully, but it isn’t deep yet.”
Éomer looked at the captain of his riders for confirmation.
The man nodded. “I’ve seen it, we’ll clear it easily. They haven’t done much work on it.”
As the hills rose on either side, they broke into a trot. Gradually the path narrowed until they could only ride two abreast. Then they rounded a corner and spotted the orcs ahead. Éomer urged Firefoot into a gallop. The orcs’ shouts of alarm turned into screams as the first arrows landed amongst them.
A moment later they were upon the enemy. Firefoot jumped the trench, which was no more than a narrow trough in the earth, and Éomer leant down to dispatch an orc in passing. He carried right on though; his men would account for any orcs he had missed.
Heady as wine, the familiar excitement of battle rushed through him. How bright the sunshine sparkled, how keen was the wind in his face. The world was beautiful. Éomer laughed out loud as behind him his riders burst into song. The sound of their horses’ hooves echoed back from the hills either side like thunder
Within another half a mile the path widened out. He spotted a glimpse of the river glittering in the afternoon sun. Ahead lay a wide beach, the greensward trampled into brown earth, and finally they found themselves faced with the main force of the enemy.
The large horde, a couple of hundred orcs or even more, must have rested in the shelter of the hill, but was milling about in the open, alerted by the sound of the Rohirrim’s approach. Éomer knew he had to keep the initiative. Snatching up his horn, he blew the call for the attack, the clear notes rising and rising.
His éored fanning out behind him, he led the charge. A few arrows whistled by, but the orcs were so rattled by the sudden attack that most missed. Not so his own riders, who were expert at shooting from horseback.
The orcs tried to form a hasty shield wall, but the Rohirrim crashed right through it with jarring impact. Éomer slashed and parried; Firefoot’s iron clad hooves flashed out: they moved as one deadly creature. Fury rose within him at the thought of the orcs’ filthy feet despoiling the green grass of the Mark. These foul beasts had no place in his lands.
Knowing they must not get bogged down, they passed right through the main mass of the enemy, then turned and reformed for a second charge. At that, some of the orcs broke and tried to escape across the river, but the Rohirrim hunted them down and speared them in the shallows.
In the middle of the battle a knot had formed around the orc chief and the largest of his followers. Urging Firefoot forward, Éomer fought his way towards them. The orc chief turned to face him and shouted something in his ugly language, lifting his scimitar in a challenge. His helmet was decorated by two tusks like those of a charging boar.
Éomer gave him no chance. His blade came singing down with all the weight of his wrath behind it. The orc chief tried to block it, but simply crumpled before Éomer’s onslaught. Gúthwinë bit deep, cleaving the helmet in two.
After that the battle turned into a rout. Dismayed by the death of their leader, the orcs tried to save themselves in any way. However, the Rohirrim showed no mercy: their women and children would have received none either, had they fallen into the hands of the orcs.
When all their foes had been accounted for, Éothain led a detachment across the river to the other side, to make sure no more enemies lurked there. The Anduin was wide but shallow at this place, with gravel-shoals in the water that meant the horses could wade across.
Surveying the aftermath of the battle, Éomer exchanged a word of praise with all his men. Those riders who knew a little leechcraft looked to their wounded comrades, but they had come off lightly, thanks to surprising the orcs. In another day or so, the ditch in the gully could have been turned into a deadly trap, had they been lured into it after investigating the burning camp, but that plan had come to nothing. He would have to commend Freola for bringing word so quickly.
Suddenly he saw Éothain hurrying back across the river, his horse plunging through the water. Instantly alert, he urged Firefoot forward to meet him. “What’s the matter?” He had heard no sound of more fighting.
His friend held out a broken bridle. “Éomer, we’ve found traces of horses on the other side.”
“They had the time to steal horses?” Éomer asked with a frown. “Why didn’t we hear of it?”
But Éothain shook his head. “No, it looks as if they were over there for a while.” He hesitated. “I think whoever it was, they brought them with them.”
Éomer’s hand closed on the leather strap. Both of them knew that orcs didn’t ride horses, only men did. But there had been no men amongst the slain. And neither had they found horses not their own. So where were they? A trickle of fear ran down his spine. There might be a perfectly harmless answer, he told himself.
There might not.
“Where is Freola?” he asked.
They found the scout sitting with his sister, a little away from the carnage. The two youngsters jumped up at his approach.
“Freola, when you brought us the news, did you seen any strangers? “ Éomer asked without preamble.
“No, lord. All I met were the people from the camps I passed.”
That meant nothing, though on the open plains it was not so easy to slip by unnoticed. “Are you sure?” he asked. “There are signs the orcs might have been accompanied by men.”
Freola shook his head. “I saw no strangers, lord.”
“There were those Gondorians,” Goldrun said hesitantly.
She jumped as Éomer whirled round towards her. “What Gondorians?” he snapped.
“Some wool traders. But they came from Edoras.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw them arrive,” she stuttered. “Well, at least one of them, he had a horse bred in Rohan. The others came from another camp.” She frowned. “Or so they said.”
Éomer had to keep himself from shaking her for more details. “When was that?”
Goldrun bit her lip. “The one from Edoras, a few days ago, the others yesterday. I didn’t pay them much attention, we had got word from Freola and I was getting ready to ride out.”
“Where are they now?” Éothain threw in.
“I don’t know. They wanted to get back to Edoras when they heard of the attack. Our father, the headman, thought them chicken-hearted, for we could have used another dozen warriors to defend the women and children.” She sounded indignant at the memory. “Father told them Rohan had come to Gondor’s aid, but they laughed at him. So he said we didn’t need friends like them.”
“How do you know they were Gondorian?” Éomer asked.
She looked surprised. “They had black hair.”
So there were a dozen enemy warriors on the loose out there. The trickle of fear became a torrent of ice running through his veins. What if the aim of the orc incursion had been to draw him away and ambush him? Had they succeeded, the Mark would have been left in confusion. What better time to slip into Edoras unnoticed? It spoke of long planning. There could only be one purpose behind it. Only one goal.
And he had practically handed them over.
In Edoras, at least his guards kept watch, but now Lothíriel and Tarcil were with a slow group of women and children. Suspecting nothing.
For a moment Éomer felt like he could not breathe. He wanted to scream, to spur Firefoot after them at once. With iron control he clamped down on his impulses. Lothíriel needed him to keep his head.
“Éothain,” he said, “I want thirty of our fastest riders. Choose only men who have taken no hurt. Each is to take two spare horses and sufficient bags of oats to last the journey.” Speed, not numbers was of the utmost importance.
“You will stay here to wrap things up.”
“I’m coming with you.”
They locked eyes, but he had no time to argue. “All right, leave your second-in-command in charge.”
He too chose two spare horses and quickly saddled and tacked them up, so they could change over without stopping. Word had spread amongst his men, and the mood was grim.
At first they had to keep to a trot following the winding path up the gully, past orc carcasses, but once they cleared it, they settled into a canter that would eat the miles.
Ahead of them the sun was sinking behind the rolling downs in a blaze of crimson glory.
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