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The Haradrim would not have taken the most direct route. Éomer held onto that thought throughout the long night and endless day that followed. At first Éothain tried to cheer him up by reminding him that the men might indeed be harmless Gondorian wool traders, but his reassurances rang false. As for Éomer, he knew with absolute certainty that enemies had entered the Mark and were closing in on their unsuspecting prey.
They had to pace themselves, stopping every now and again for a rest, but though he knew it would do no good to push the horses to foundering, pausing for a break was almost impossible to bear. It felt as if his whole being was concentrated on reaching Lothíriel, the need for speed crowding out every other consideration.
By mid morning they passed the site of the herders’ camp and picked up the trail leading southwest, marked not only by the hoof marks of many horses and sheep, but also by the wheels of the waggons used to transport the tents and other gear. Éomer could have howled aloud when he envisioned their slow pace. Why hadn’t he sent Lothíriel and Tarcil home to Edoras at the first hint of trouble? Or not taken her to the Emnet in the first place. When he thought of his promise to keep her safe, he tasted ashes in his mouth.
One of his scouts tried to discover if anybody else had come that way since, but it proved impossible to be sure. Grimly they settled into the pursuit again. From overhead the summer sun burnt down on them, inexorably slipping into the west, reminding him of time passing away, more precious than gold.
In the afternoon they reached what had to be last night’s camp. A couple of hours later the trail split where the herders had turned south, while the main track continued towards the Entwade. And here for the first time they found traces of more than one group of riders ahead of them. Aelred, his best scout, pointed out the smaller hoof prints of a pony in a muddy patch of grass, overlaid by the marks of shod horses. The icy fist gripping Éomer’s heart tightened further.
They changed between their spare horses regularly, but even so it felt as if they advanced at a snail’s pace across the wide, flat grassland. Involuntarily he was reminded of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli traversing these same plains on foot, in pursuit of Saruman’s orcs. At least they were on horseback. Unfortunately, so was their quarry.
None of the men spoke much anymore, husbanding their strength against the fight to come. As twilight deepened into the third night of racing across the plains of the Riddermark, Éomer felt as if his will alone kept them going.
Shortly before midnight, they got to the Entwade. The sky had clouded over, robbing them of even the faint starlight, so they decided to call a brief halt for the darkest hours of the night. Éomer knew it made sense to rest the horses and let them eat the supply of oats they had brought with them. The men too would be better for a couple of hours of sleep.
But as he lay in the soft grass, listening to the frogs croaking in the nearby river, Éomer could find no rest. Before his mental eye he saw a picture of Lothíriel struggling in her captors’ hold, of Tarcil lifeless and cold. The Haradrim would not bother to abduct them. Surely they knew they had no chance to smuggle such valuable prisoners through most of Rohan and Gondor. No, their intention had to be to simply kill the boy, making sure he would never assert his claim as rightful king of Harad. As for what they might do to Lothíriel…
He jumped up, unable to bear his thoughts any longer. Seeking out Unferth, who was standing watch, he told the man to catch some sleep. Pacing the bounds of the camp, alert to any suspicious noise or movement, at least kept his mind focused.
As soon as the brief summer’s night lightened enough so they could make out the path, he woke his men. There were a few groans, but nobody protested. They were no more than a day’s ride from Edoras, and it enraged all of them that their enemies dared to cross their land with impunity. In grim silence they took up the pursuit again, alternately walking and pushing their weary horses into a trot.
Dawn was still only a faint promise to the east when Aelred, who was riding at the head of their company, gave a muted exclamation and veered off the path. Éomer urged his horse forward and found the scout examining the ground under a copse of trees.
“What have you discovered?”
“A group of horsemen must have rested here for a while. Look, my lord, there’s the imprint of many hooves and the grass is crushed where they lay down. Yet they lit no fire.”
The scout nodded. “Has to be.”
“Any idea how long ago they left?”
With a stick Aelred poked a pile of horse droppings lying nearby. “Not long, I don’t think.”
They went forward with fresh purpose after that, but also with increased caution. Here the land rose from the valley of the Entwash towards the mountains in a series of gently rolling downs, swathed in thin bands of mist.
When they neared the top of one, to their left, league upon league away, the sun came racing up over the rim of the world, turning the mist to gold and lighting up the dew in the grass like sparkling diamonds. Despite their urgency, Éomer paused a moment, struck by the beauty of his land.
Then he heard it: the faint metallic clash of swords. A moment later a horse neighed somewhere in the distance. His heart plummeting, he urged Firefoot forward and they crested the rise.
A wide valley spread before him. Smoke rose from a campfire set beside a couple of tents near a small stream. He saw figures milling about, several of them on horseback. It was too far away to make out individual faces, but he spotted ominous bundles lying on the ground, unmoving. Shouts rang out dimly.
Éomer perceived it all in a heartbeat. He spurred Firefoot into a gallop, his riders close behind. The horsemen were surrounding Lothíriel’s party, which had rallied around the children, and he made out Khuri wielding her double blades. They flashed in the light of the rising sun.
That moment Shirram’s dark form broke through the press of attackers. He saw Lothíriel clamber onto the stallion’s back and bend down as somebody threw up Tarcil. Nearly there! They had not been noticed yet, but suddenly one of the Haradrim shouted and pointed their way.
The horsemen bunched together and pressed closer. Lothíriel turned towards him and hesitated. But the main force of the Haradrim was between them. His heart faltered – he was still too far away, he could not reach her in time. One of the horsemen lifted his scimitar.
“Run!” he shouted in the voice that carried across a battlefield.
And Lothíriel obeyed. Just as the scimitar descended, Shirram sprang away. The other Haradrim reached for her, a blade flashed, but the stallion wove between the tents and raced away.
As one, the horsemen took off after her. Éomer swore. In order to save Firefoot’s strength, he had ridden his two spare horses in their dash across the plains, but even so the stallion was tired, while the Haradrim’s horses were comparatively fresh. He had little chance of catching them up.
Without stopping he thundered through the camp, catching a brief glimpse of Khuri running to get her own horse. Ahead of them, Lothíriel had outdistanced her pursuers, yet how long could Shirram keep up this speed? Éomer leant forward and urged Firefoot to greater effort, outpacing his men. They pounded across the ground, clods of earth flying from the horses’ hooves.
The Haradrim kept glancing back, and suddenly two of them peeled off and veered to face him. No doubt they recognised him from the white horsetail on his helmet. Did they think to kill the King of Rohan? Let them try!
As they cantered up, the distance between them diminishing rapidly, his focus narrowed. They thought to take him in a pincer movement, both of them closing in at the same time. From behind him Éothain shouted a warning, but he did not need it.
At the last moment he ducked and swerved, Firefoot responding as fast as if they were part of each other. Éomer cut at one of the riders, and when the man’s horse recoiled instinctively, in the same movement leant over and slashed the other one across the side. It took no more than a heartbeat.
The man crumpled in his saddle, but Éomer kept right on without breaking stride, leaving the other rider behind him. Éothain and the rest of his éored would take care of him.
Far ahead of him, he saw Lothíriel turn her head and look back. How much longer could Shirram stay the pace? Despite Firefoot’s best efforts, they were slowly falling farther behind the Haradrim. And there was no place for her to hide, no help to be had until they got closer to Edoras, which still lay half a day’s journey away.
Feeling helpless, Éomer started to curse inwardly. If they were clever, the Haradrim would simply settle into running her down, exhausting Shirram’s stamina. It would take no more than a moment to kill the two of them. Éomer would avenge her, but the Haradrim’s purpose would still be fulfilled.
And his own world shattered.
All at once he saw Shirram leave the well trodden path and begin to head to one side. What was Lothíriel doing? Didn’t she realise she would lose her lead that way, since the Haradrim would be able to cut across the diagonal? Already they too had left the path, whipping their horses to greater speed.
In desperation he too veered to the side, motioning to his men to follow. Her black hair streaming out behind her, Lothíriel rode bent low over Shirram’s neck, cradling Tarcil to her; Éomer had never seen the stallion go faster. Suddenly he understood her intent: she was going in a large circle that would eventually bring her back to him. But only if she managed to stay ahead of the Haradrim who were closing in on her.
Luckily the Haradrim seemed slow to realise what Lothíriel was doing, too focused on catching her. The distance between them and their prey narrowed constantly, but the circle she set was so large that they did not at first perceive that their course would slowly bring them closer to the Rohirrim.
Then one of them shouted to the others; they redoubled their effort, whipping their horses without mercy. They would cut her off! Éomer too urged Firefoot to greater speed. The stallion responded gallantly, though he had to be almost spent. So close.
The Haradrim had nearly reached Lothíriel and drew their scimitars, when she called out something to Shirram in Haradric. And somewhere the stallion found hidden reserves; it was as if he grew wings for a heartbeat, he went so fast. The foremost of the Haradrim was literally left standing as Lothíriel slipped past them.
And then she galloped straight for Éomer, was past him, and he met the Haradrim head on. Éomer realised two things that moment: he had outdistanced his own men, and the Haradrim had just changed their target.
They surrounded him, cutting at him with their curved scimitars. He set Firefoot to kicking out, making their horses flinch back. The stallion screamed a challenge while Éomer hacked and slashed, trying to fight his way out of this deadly fray.
Then suddenly Éothain was by his side, and an instant later the rest of his riders.
“Éomer Cyning!” the cry went up.
The Haradrim broke. Outnumbered and faced with the anger of men defending the land they loved, they turned to flee. Most of his riders took after them, but Éomer had other concerns.
Looking round, he spotted Lothíriel a little way away. She had slowed Shirram down. The stallion stood heaving, his head lowered in exhaustion. Lothíriel herself sat bent over in the saddle, cradling Tarcil in her arms. His breath caught. Her blue tunic was splattered with blood.
Alarmed, he urged Firefoot over to her side. “Lothíriel, are you hurt?”
She looked up at him, her face white as chalk. “Tarcil,” she whispered. Just the single word.
No! He dismounted and helped her slide down from her horse, still holding her son. Éomer spread his cloak on the grass and they laid Tarcil on it. The boy was unconscious and bleeding profusely from a cut on his head. But alive!
Lothíriel sank to the ground next to her son and tried to staunch the bleeding with the sleeve of her tunic. Feeling helpless, Éomer searched around for something better. He bunched up one corner of his cloak and pressed it to Tarcil’s head. The boy looked terrible, unnaturally pale and with blood smeared all over him. Without the usual animation on his face, he seemed younger and very fragile.
Her hands shaking, Lothíriel brushed back a strand of hair from Tarcil’s forehead. “He will be all right,” she said fiercely. “He has to be.”
If only he had been quicker, Éomer thought. To ride so far and be late by so little. That moment the thunder of hooves announced the arrival of Khuri. She jumped from the saddle and threw herself down next to Tarcil.
“I tried to protect him, but there were so many,” she said, anguish in her voice. “How is he?”
“He will be all right,” Lothíriel repeated, half order, half plea.
“Did you see what happened?” Éomer asked.
Khuri nodded. “I was eating breakfast when they attacked. They went straight for the children, those cowards.” She spat a curse in Haradric. “One of them struck Tarcil, and he fell and hit his head.”
Éomer saw she had blood splattered all over her too. Not her own though presumably.
Khuri noticed the direction of his glance. “I got two. But we wouldn’t have lasted much longer. I never thought I would be pleased to see the Rohirric cavalry arrive.”
Then Tarcil stirred and opened his eyes. “Mummy?” he moaned.
At once Lothíriel bent forward and took his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “I’m here, Sweeting.”
He blinked at her. “My head hurts.”
“I know. You’ve got a cut and had a nasty knock. But you’ll be fine, I promise.”
Her firm voice seemed to reassure the boy, but Éomer saw that her hands were still shaking.
“There were some men,” Tarcil added in a reedy voice. Suddenly he became agitated and tried to sit up. “One of them went for me with a sword.”
Lothíriel pressed him back down. “Don’t move, Sweeting, you’ll make the bleeding worse. We’re safe, Éomer is here.”
The boy subsided. “Oh, that’s all right then.”
But Lothíriel looked at Éomer with a sudden frown. Her eyes lifted to take in his riders standing guard around them. “Éomer, what happened, I thought you were on your way to the South Undeep? What about those orcs?”
“We dealt with them. But then I got word that a group of Haradrim had slipped by, so we returned.”
Lothíriel’s eyes widened in amazement. “All the way from the Anduin?”
Éomer gave a curt nod. “Yes.” He knew it was a ride that few could have accomplished and he was proud of his men, but he still wished they had arrived just that little bit earlier.
By now the rest of Lothíriel’s party had ridden up. At once Leofrun came over. “I have a little knowledge of heal craft,” she offered hesitantly.
Lothíriel looked up with fresh hope. “Leofrun, can you do something to stop the bleeding?”
The two women examined the wound, a deep gash from a scimitar.
“It will need stitching,” Leofrun decided. “We have to get him to Healer Brictwen in Edoras. Head wounds always bleed a lot.” She took off her scarf, a length of gauzy fabric dyed a pretty pink, and began to wrap it around the boy’s head, applying as much pressure as possible. Tarcil protested weakly, but got coaxed into holding still by his mother.
Hildwyn had come to hover over them, an anxious expression on her face. “They went straight for Tarcil. I tried to stab one of them, but he kicked me aside.”
Éomer closed his eyes for a moment. Did she realise how lucky she had been to escape unscathed? Fresh anger coursed through him. How dared they attack his people.
He jumped to his feet as Éothain trotted up, back from the pursuit of the Haradrim. “Did you catch them?”
His captain shook his head. “Two of them escaped, I’m sorry to report. I’ve set some of our men to track them though.”
That was disappointing, but not really a surprise with their horses exhausted from the long chase.
“We have to get going,” he decided. None of them looked forward to more hours in the saddle, but at least the men would be able to sleep in their own beds that night.
He helped Lothíriel back on her horse, giving Shirram a pat of appreciation, then very gently lifted Tarcil up to her and wrapped his cloak around the boy. With a sigh of exhaustion Tarcil snuggled into his mother’s arms and closed his eyes.
Éomer rested his hand on Lothíriel’s leg for a moment. “Try not to worry too much, dear heart.”
She gave him a shaky smile. “I’m telling myself that Tarcil has a hard head. Just like his mother.”
His brave lady. Éomer’s chest contracted at the thought of how close he had come to losing her. He took a deep breath. He would keep her safe from now on.
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