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Chapter 16 – So Many Regrets
Theodred was gathered with the other commanders in the strategy tent when the scouts reported in at the first light of dawn. He listened to them, the eggs and bacon he’d eaten around the fire with his men when he first awoke lying in a heavy lump in his stomach. Saruman’s forces had advanced during the night. They were well out of Isengard now. Except for the events of the previous night, Theodred would have been inclined to hold his forces there at the Fords. But now he knew that option was a snare, its promise a deceit. He concealed his bitter satisfaction. You lose, Saruman. You gambled that you could buy me, but in so doing you have revealed your own hand.
Swallowing with difficulty, Theodred met the expectant, eager gazes of his men. Forgive me, Elana. “We attack. Muster your men and be ready to depart within the hour.” He quickly reviewed the assignments of each commander. The foot soldiers from the Westfold would all remain here, along with three companies of riders, to remain in reserve in case any of Saruman’s forces should escape and make it to the Fords. With them would remain all the spare mounts, so that the companies traveling north would be light and unencumbered. They would hold the Fords, east and west, against any foes. Theodred would take the main body of the army, eight companies of Riders, plus his one company of mounted archers, and ride swiftly north to meet the advancing host.
Practical matters settled, Theodred caught the eyes of all his commanders. “We ride now to victory. Let this day be remembered in song and story as Rohan’s hour of greatest glory. Forth Eorlingas! Eager voices joined his in the battle cry, and as they surged out of the tent the cheers of all the assembled men greeted them.
Preparations were quickly accomplished. Soon Silverfoot’s hooves splashed into the icy, leaden waters of the Isen. The day was grey and misty, and along the river thick banks of fog drifted downstream. As behind him the ordered and disciplined horsemen streamed across the Fords, Theodred led the way up the western bank and north along the road. Turning, he could no longer see the camp, for it had vanished into the mist.
He set a brisk pace, fast enough to cover the miles, but not so fast as to exhaust the horses. Constantly he searched the landscape for an appropriate location to stage an ambush. The persistent fog would lend itself to such a strategy, but the lay of the land was simply not suited to the purpose. The only trees where men might wait hidden were down at the edge of the river, separated from the road by a steep bank where the raging floods of late spring had dug the river’s course below the level of the plain. This portion of the plain was unrelieved flat land, unlike the gently rolling hills around Edoras. There was simply nowhere a force of sufficient size could lie concealed. At least Saruman’s forces would be similarly unable to ambush them.
By midday, the sun had burned off some of the fog, though it still lay thick in the river valley. So the leading troop of orcs was still more than a mile away when Theodred caught the first glimpse of sunlight glinting off helmets and mail, twenty miles north of the Fords. The moment was here at last. Around him the men of his eored fell neatly into battle order, charged with excitement. Behind, the other eoreds assembled, commanders shouting a few last minute orders. When all were ready, Theodred gave the signal, and the horses thundered forward, a roar of challenge ringing from a thousand throats.
The vanguard of Saruman’s forces showed every sign of being taken by surprise. The orcs scattered before the Rohirrim onrush. Soon enough, though, they rallied, and fought fiercely. Though not mounted, among them were many armed with pikes and long spears, effective weapons against mounted foes. At least one of the orc commanders must have had some intelligence, for a portion of the orcs fell back into a defensive position, shoulder to shoulder with pike butts braced against the ground, a wall of spikes for a charging horse to impale itself against.
Falling back, Theodred surveyed the situation. Only a few of his own men had fallen, and many orcs lay slain. This company seemed to be made up of only the familiar mountain orcs Theodred had fought against his whole life. He searched the ranks of the enemy, but saw none of the half-orcs his scouts had reported. He signaled to his company of archers, who until now had hung back, carefully firing only when they had clear shots at a foe apart from the tangle of their own men. Now the eored galloped along the pike wall, firing shot after shot rapidly into the massed ranks of orcs. Gaps opened up in the wall, and Theodred led his eored deep into the center of their formation.
Within moments it was over. The remaining orcs threw down their weapons and fled screaming. Theodred led his eored in pursuit of the stragglers, riding down and slaying most of them. He looked back. A few knots of orcs still struggled with the eoreds in the rear, but those skirmishes would soon be over and his men would regroup. The Riders’ losses were minor, thankfully. Theodred shut his mind to the fact that he knew the name of each Rider and horse that lay motionless on the battlefield, each face that should fill each gap in the ranks. After the battle would be the time for grief. For now, the only thing that mattered was the strategic situation, which was good. Almost their full strength remained. And they would need it, Theodred saw, for farther north along the road he saw the main body of Saruman’s host, in much vaster numbers than the advance party they had just defeated.
Theodred urged Silverfoot forward, the men of his eored thundering alongside him, confident that the commanders of the other eoreds would bring their men up behind. We can do it. We did take them by surprise. They cannot stand against us.
These troops were better prepared. They had seen their comrades ahead fighting, and had fallen quickly into readiness. Again, Theodred saw rows of pikes forming a thorny hedge across the road. He slowed, waiting for the archers to catch up and deal with these as effectively as with the last. But as he drew closer, a chill struck him. No orcs were visible holding those menacing pikes. They bristled above a mound of earth stretching right across the road. The orcs had dug a shallow trench, mounding the dirt in a dike that sheltered the pikemen from attacking arrows.
Pulling up and gathering his men about him, Theodred saw that the trench extended all the way to the drop off east toward the river. Westward the trench seemed to end much closer, so Theodred led the eored that way. They galloped down the length of the trench, just out of bowshot of enemy arrows, and rounded the end at a gallop, hoping to sweep around behind.
Once beyond the end of the dike, Theodred assessed the situation, dread growing in his heart. More trenches and dikes had been dug here, stretching as far as he could see, gaps between the ranks of bristling pikes just large enough to permit the passage of hordes of charging orcs. Farther west, a larger force hastened southward, attempting to surround Theodred’s eored and cut him off from the rest of his companies that remained behind.
These trenches could not be the work of only a few hours. Theodred knew, his heart growing cold at the thought, that the orcs must have been laboring to build them for a full day at least, long before he had set out from the Fords that morning. Even before Donaldo had visited him in the night.
No time now to ponder what that meant. Shouting orders, Theodred gathered his men around him and faced the onrushing orcs. His spear and Silverfoot’s hooves were black with blood, and the tight knot of his eored was smaller by a dozen men and horses, when finally he heard the shouts and horns of the other companies coming up to join the battle. The greater numbers pushed back the foe, and fought them to a moment of stalemate, orcs huddling behind their trenches, Riders regrouped but unable to advance against the hedge of pikes that still held firm across their path. Theodred seized the lull to sound the notes of retreat on his horn, and his well-disciplined troops immediately, if reluctantly, wheeled and rode back south along the river. For the moment at least, they were not followed, and they gathered again near the site of the first skirmish.
Theodred circled his men on Silverfoot, assessing their losses. They had lost many, but they were still a strong force. Could they circle around the trenches to the west, and come up behind Saruman’s forces that way? The wind freshened, blowing from the west, and Theodred pulled off his helmet and turned his face thankfully to the breeze, letting it dry the sweat of combat from his brow, and breathing its sweet fragrance gladly after the stink of blood and fear.
The fog that had surrounded them all morning was rapidly blowing away, rolling eastward away from the river. Theodred turned and gazed east and south, toward Edoras. Was Elfhelm even now on his way with reinforcements? How long would the city wait, defenseless, until Eomer could arrive with his eored to man it?
A motion caught Theodred’s eye, and he focused his gaze on the east bank of the river. It was far off, and trees and brush concealed the far side, but were those men he saw, making their way across the rough country on the river’s eastern bank? No, those shapes were unmistakable. Orcs, a large company of them, moving south, away from Isengard, toward the camp he had left only lightly defended on the east side of the Fords. Even as he watched the wind died, and the fog settled again in the river valley, obscuring his view.
Horror drained the strength from Theodred’s body, and he trembled, shutting his eyes. His hand’s tightened convulsively on the reins. Suddenly everything was clear. Saruman’s cunning, and his own folly.
Donaldo had never meant him to take the offered bargain. He had expected, in fact depended on, Theodred doing exactly what he had done. Saruman known the Rohirrim could stand against him on the eastern bank of the Fords, and so had devised a plan to use Theodred’s own integrity against him, and draw him over to the west, to the chosen and prepared place. And Theodred had taken the bait. His secret love had made him vulnerable to secret dealings and offers, and his determination not to be corrupted had blinded him to the possibility of being tricked. What a fool he had been! The ploy now seemed so obvious, so predictable, that he could not understand how he had not seen it before.
He had failed them. His men, his father, the people of Rohan. Elana and Deore. Despite everything, despite his best intentions, he had betrayed them all.
Leaden shame paralyzed him. If only he were free to cast away reason and charge in suicidal rage against the ranks of orcs, to take down as many as possible before he fell. But his responsibility still held. Though his honor lay in broken shards around his feet, still he must do what he could.
He forced his eyes open and composed his face into a calm, resolute expression. He took a deep breath, then urged Silverfoot into motion. Spying Grimbold, he hailed him. “There is a company of orcs advancing down the eastern side of the river. Saruman means to attack the Fords from both sides.”
“But how could he get troops enough across the river?”
“I don’t know! But he’s done it somehow. I just saw them. The country is rough on that side; they’ll be slow. We can make better time on the road. But the forces on this side will be pursuing us. I want you to keep your eored to the rear, and turn and face them whenever they get too close. Fight them off, but don’t pursue them, break free and continue to cover our retreat. The force at the Fords will fall if we don’t get there before the orcs on the eastern bank do. I’ll be leading the retreat. Signal if you need our help. We’ll turn and fight as often as we must, but no longer than we have to. It is a race, now, and speed is what matters.”
With swift obedience, the Riders followed Theodred’s and Grimbold’s orders. Many were wounded lightly, though still able to ride and fight. Those injured too badly to have made it away from the battlefield were lost to them now. Some were horseless, their mounts slain under them. Theodred took up one such behind him on Silverfoot, and distributed the rest among the other men and the few horses that had escaped with empty saddles. Then they set off south, grimly determined to spare no effort to reach the Fords in time.
All through that long afternoon they raced southwards, forced to stop all too often to fight against the orcs that eagerly pursued them. By the time they finally drew within sight of the Fords the day was waning. The sun stood low in the west, enveloped in flame colored clouds, and their shadows stretched long before them as they made the turn eastward toward the river.
Theodred strained for the first glimpse of the far shore. Were they in time? As far as he could see, the camp was still calm. Did they know yet what was approaching?
The foot soldiers of the Westfold Theodred had left to guard the west bank hailed them. “How goes the day?”
“Ill. Saruman’s forces are close behind us. And more approach on the east. Grimbold!” The commander drew his horse alongside Theodred. He was weary, scored with many small wounds, though none apparently serious. Theodred hated to ask more of him, so much had he already given. But he was the best commander he had. “Keep your eored here on the western shore. I’ll leave all the horseless men with you – there’s about fifty. Do what you can to slow them down. I’m hoping it’s just a small band coming down the east. When they are dealt with, you can bring your men over the Fords and we can make our stand united in the east.” As we should have done from the beginning.
Swiftly he instructed the rest of the commanders to take their companies across the river. Then he eyed the islet in the middle of the Fords. It would have to be held, so that Grimbold and his men would have a safe escape should Saruman’s forces prove too much. The task would be dangerous, because the space was too small and the footing too treacherous to allow the horses to be effective. Though well trained on foot as well as on horseback, no rider would willingly sacrifice the advantage the Rohirrim’s unparalleled skill on horses gave them in battle, save at great need. But in this case, the horses would be more a liability than an asset.
Calling his own eored around him, he quickly gave his orders. If the men disliked his choice, none showed it, instead dismounting with quick efficiency and trusting the reins to members of the other companies crossing the river, to be taken to the relative safety of the east side. Theodred swung down off Silverfoot. The mearas would have little trouble with the footing, but Theodred would not ask his men to do what he would not. Stroking Silverfoot’s sweat streaked neck, Theodred gazed for a moment into his calm brown eyes, wise beyond mere animal intelligence. “Find your own way, my friend. Strike a blow against our foes, if you have the chance, and be ready for me when I call you.” He unfastened the bridle from around Silverfoot’s head and stowed it in his saddle pack. Then with an affectionate slap on the rump, he sent the mearas galloping through the water eastward.
Gathering his men in formation around him, Theodred knew the hardest task was before them. They must wait, able to watch the progress of the combat but do little to help, until the battle came to their post. He set lookouts to keep watch in both directions. Westward, it was quiet. They had outdistanced the orc hordes in the later part of the afternoon, and apparently they were approaching only slowly and cautiously, having learned to fear the Rohirrim’s skill. So Theodred, along with most of his men, turned his attention to the east.
The first of the Riders had reached the bank and were shouting tidings of the imminent threat to those who had remained behind. The Riders who had spent the day idle, impatient to play a part in the battle, leapt eagerly astride and began falling into order. The exhausted men who had been fighting all day stopped to let their horses drink, some dismounting themselves to thirstily scoop up the sweet cold water of the river, ignoring the swirling silt churned up by the horses’ hooves.
Disaster had struck before Theodred became aware of it. The sound of more hoofbeats was lost among the noise of his own men, so the first he knew of the Dunlending horsemen that attacked, coming down out of the trees to the north, was the clashing of swords and screams of battle. The forces on the east shore were caught in disarray, and fell back before the wild onslaught.
The Rider beside Theodred tensed, and his body yearned toward the fighting. He was young, only recently promoted to his place in Theodred’s eored. Theodred placed a hand on his shoulder. “Steady, man. We must hold our position. The battle will come to us soon enough.” The Rider nodded mutely, and continued to stare across the river, fist clenched. Theodred knew only too well the rage and helplessness the young man felt; his posture reflected exactly the emotion that surged through his own heart.
The battle was going badly for the Riders on the eastern shore, very badly. The Rohirrim companies were being pushed south along the course of the river. Soon their line would be forced past the road down to the Fords. Then, behind him, Theodred heard the shouts of the watchers and the noise of battle. The main force of Saruman’s army had appeared and engaged Grimbold’s eored and the men of the Westfold. Theodred began to swing around, to assess the situation on that side too, when a terrible sight on the eastern shore caught his eye.
Around and between the Dunlending horsemen streaked great wolves, orcs clinging to their backs. Even their allies’ horses shied away from them, and the Rohirrim horses were quickly thrown into panic as the beasts darted in among them, snarling and snapping at exposed flanks and throats. Theodred had heard of the fabled wargs, but had never met them in battle before. The Riders were unprepared for this new threat, and were hampered by horses suddenly mad with terror. More wargs raced along the lines of picketed horses, slaying with fierce glee the helpless animals. Now behind the Dunlendings orcs appeared, huge and heavily armed. Their numbers were relatively few, compared to the force on the west bank, Theodred could see, but large enough for the purpose.
A stallion’s scream drew Theodred’s attention beyond the fighting, to where the herds of pregnant mares, foals, and yearlings brought from the breeding and training farms were gathered. They were milling about, heads tossing and eyes rolling. Wargs had surrounded them, Theodred saw, and herded them like sheep, preventing them from turning and fleeing across the plain. Even as he watched, the wargs began to move in among them.
The scream rang out again, and Silverfoot streaked toward the lead warg. He whirled and lashed out with his hind hooves, sending the attacker tumbling into the ranks of his companions, skull caved in. The mearas reared and bit, chestnut flanks heaving, silver socks flashing, glorious in his fury, as the wargs abandoned for the moment the herds to surround the defiant stallion. Freed from constraint, the mares and yearlings fled, stampeding wildly away towards the open plain. Silverfoot’s sides were gashed and bloody, but he fought on, slaying warg after warg until orc archers found him with their arrows, and he stumbled and fell, dragged down to vanish under a writhing pile of the ravenous beasts.
Theodred, stunned, found he was crushing the young Rider’s shoulder with his grip, tears blinding him. The boy turned to him with awkward compassion, unsure what to say. Then his eyes widened, and he dragged on Theodred’s arm. “Look, sir! Orcs are coming!”
Swiping furiously to clear his vision, Theodred saw them come. The Rohirrim on the eastern shore had been driven downstream, giving Saruman’s forces access to the Fords. A troop had emerged out of the trees to the north, following the swath of destruction cut by their comrades, and had turned onto the road, splashing now through the shallow water toward the island. Theodred knew at a glance what they must be. Not merely orcs, but taller, heavier, eyes gleaming with intelligence, faces somehow the more hideous for their greater resemblance to men. These were half-orcs, products of rape and torture, crossbreeds between orc and human.
Their mail was thick and heavy, and they carried axes. Inexorably they marched through the Fords, eyes fixed on Theodred’s eored waiting on the shores of the island. Something like relief coursed through Theodred. Here at last were foes he could kill, and in his despair for the utter ruin the day had become, the likelihood that he also would meet death seemed no ill thing.
“Attack!” he cried, and his men surged forward, meeting the half-orcs as they came up out of the water onto the sand. The Rohirrim were eager to fight, and their valiance held the orc-men for a time, but the foe was disciplined and well trained, and their long, heavy axes gave them an advantage against the Rider’s swords. Step by step Theodred’s men fell back, falling one by one under the half-orcs’ blades.
Gladly Theodred surrendered to battle rage, and for a time he was oblivious to all save the swing of his sword and the shock as it met his foe’s blade, the satisfying resistance as it bit into flesh. He knew not how much time had passed when in a momentary lull he realized that he had been driven up to the peak of the low knoll at the island’s northern end, and only a handful of his men remained about him. Even as he watched, two more fell, and he realized with cold detachment that the battle was lost. No hope now remained.
Even as he thought this, he looked eastward, and wondered at the sight. Charging down the road came what seemed a great force, white banner gleaming in the twilight. They crashed into battle with the orcs on the eastern bank. Hope unlooked for flared in Theodred’s heart, and he cried out in a great voice “To me, Eorlingas!”
On the western bank Grimbold heard the cry, and looked up from where he fought. He saw Theodred, alone at the peak of the island, surrounded by foes, the few remaining men of his eored separated from him and greatly outnumbered. Grimbold slew the orc he had been fighting, and turned to race toward the island, calling to the men closest to him, “With me! To the king’s son!”
Theodred turned his attention back to his attackers, fighting with renewed energy. Foe after foe fell beneath his sword, but their numbers were too great. A new enemy took the place of each that Theodred dispatched, and fatigue was beginning to take its toll, slowing his reactions and weighing down his arms. Finally, tugging his sword free of the half-orc he’d just slain, he looked up to see looming above him the hugest orc-man he’d yet seen. His axe was already in motion, a powerful swing sweeping around to cleave Theodred’s body in two.
Desperately, Theodred strove to bring his sword around in time to parry the blow, only partially succeeding. His sword crashed down on the half-orc’s axe, deflecting it away from his torso. Instead it slammed into his left leg, biting deep into his thigh.
Bone shattered and muscles severed, the leg crumpled under Theodred and he fell. Time slowed, and the pain seemed far distant. So this is how I meet death at last. Weariness overcame him, and he closed his eyes and waited for the final blow to fall. So much grief, so many regrets. I tried, Elana. I tried to do what was right. I couldn’t save you, or Deore, or Rohan. I will wait for you, if I am permitted, as Beren waited for Luthien, that we may pass beyond the circles of the world together.
No blow fell, but a crash shook him as a body fell beside him. He opened his eyes to see Grimbold standing above him, drawing his sword out of the half-orc whose blow had felled Theodred. More of the orc-men assaulted Grimbold, and the two companions who had come with him fell before them, but Grimbold fought on. Loss of blood was blurring Theodred’s vision, and the pain of his leg was rapidly forcing itself into his consciousness, a fire like to consume him. But, just as Grimbold seemed overmatched by two great foes, he glimpsed one fall beneath a new blade, as Elfhelm leapt up beside them. Grimbold quickly dispatched the other, and the two men faced each other over Theodred’s body.
Elfhelm! So the reinforcements had come in time. Dimly Theodred heard their voices. “Look, Grimbold, he yet breathes! Theodred, can you hear me? We hold the eastern shore, and are prevailing on the west. The day is ours. I’ll send word for Eomer to bring his forces out of the east, to reinforce us. We can hold, Theodred. All is not lost.”
Theodred opened his eyes and focused with difficulty on Elfhelm’s face. Grimbold was busy at Theodred’s side, binding his belt around the stump of Theodred’s half-severed leg. Let be, Grimbold. You cannot save me. Eomer must take charge now, and be king after Theoden. May he serve Rohan more faithfully than I, and win some hope back out of the ruin I have made. He opened his mouth, and forced his voice out in a rasping croak. “Let me lie here… to keep the Fords until Eomer comes.”
He closed his eyes once again. His leg burned now, the fire grown fierce and wild, devouring his flesh and his soul. Darkness yawned, ready to swallow him, and he welcomed it for the relief it brought from his pain. He surrendered to the blackness, and knew no more.
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