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Oswy bent low over Peada's back, urging him on. The gelding's paces were ragged and his neck lathered. Ahead of Oswy his mother's great stallion still tore up the grass. Leofwyn did not look back, but held tight to five year old Gytha who sat before her, while in her pannier the baby wailed with fear. Behind Oswy, Oshelm and Cyn galloped, turning in their saddles to vainly waste arrows on the vile creatures who followed.
No, not waste. Let us take as many of them as we can, if that's all we do before we die.
They were driven further from the Wolds - the last hill giving way to meadow. A long flat, empty plain in which there was no place to hide, no place even to stand and fight. Looking ahead, Oswy's heart seemed to still, so that he wished he could scream like the baby. On the right hand, Anduin lay, deep and impassible. On the left a wide barrenness rose up to the mountains, where even now the swiftest of the warg-riders were drawing level with Leofwyn's steed. And ahead - golden and drowsy with enchantment, like honey on a fly-trap - stood the first slender trees of the Sorcerous Wood.
"They are falling away!" Cyn shouted suddenly. "The host turns back towards Mirkwood."
"The main host turns away," Oshelm corrected grimly, the mask of his helmet gilded by faint sunlight, "But enough follow for our doom. Be ware!"
Peada's hooves thundered against turf. The scent of horse-sweat was heavy in the air, but a reek came from the orcs - the stench of old blood and ordure. Leofwyn's horse tossed his head and neighed loud at the smell, and in reply, the Wargs gave tongue, their howling piercing Oswy's chest with a terror he despised in himself. "Where are we going?" he shouted, "There is nowhere to go!"
"Under the trees!"
A black fletched arrow came humming, hornet like, to sting Peada's flank, leaving a long shallow cut. The horse turned toward the river, and Oswy wrestled his head round once more to face the Golden Wood. Leofwyn said nothing, but, dropping her reins, she unshipped the precious shield she carried and held it over the children, riding like an archer. She had a grim look, but would not waste time arguing.
"Better that we drown," Oswy exclaimed, horrified, "Let us cast ourselves in the river rather. It is less perilous!"
Oshelm drew level with him, the black horse, Sceadu seeming as contemptuous as its rider. "I will forget you said that, my son. At least among the trees there is cover to fight from. Cast off this despair and learn to be a man."
It is not despair, Oswy thought, shamed, Better to die as myself than face whatever dwimmorcraft dwells in there. But he bent lower and whispered to Peada nevertheless, and, finding fresh strength, the horse leapt forward in a final burst of speed.
Two outriders of the Warg pack changed course as if avoiding the slender silver birches which were the sentries of the Golden Wood. They turned straight into the path of Leofwyn, bounding towards her, their mouths aslaver, coming between her and the twilight beneath the trees. The orc upon the first leered and brought his scimitar down in a blow to her head, fast as a striking snake. But Leofwyn caught the blow on her shield, and drove the iron-shod rim into his face, before wheeling and falling back. Gytha, who had been screaming, ceased suddenly, her eyes wide, as Cyn spurred past Oswy and Oshelm both to cleave the orc in two.
Fell handed! Oswy thought, and for a moment he saw clearly the joy and glory in battle of which the bards sang. But Cyn had forgotten the Orc's steed. The huge wolf lunged forward, taking the throat out of Cyn's horse in one bite. Cyn was tossed hard onto the ground. Dazed, he scrambled to his feet even as the wolf raised its streaming mouth from the blood.
"Daddy!" shouted little Gytha, before Leofwyn put a hand over her mouth, bidding her not distract the warrior with noise. At once all doubt in Oswy's mind was burnt away by rage. He drove Peada straight at the creature, landing a blow to its neck with his long knife. It turned its teeth on him. He saw death, and froze, thoughtless with shock. Then it fell, Cyn's sword through its side, and the world returned to Oswy in a bewildering rush.
Oshelm was fighting the second, alone. This was no ordinary orc. Taller than Oshelm himself, its brutish form was heavy and its face almost man-like, if men could ever sink so low. Blades rang as it struck out and Oshelm parried, but at the same time the warg it rode growled deep in its throat and jumped, closing its huge maw around Oshelm's leg and dragging him from the saddle.
"Oshelm!" Cyn and Oswy cried together, rushing the creature. There was a blurred moment of confusion, before Oswy found himself looking down at the corpses with blood up to his wrists. Oshelm lay a little apart. He lifted his helmet off with shaking hands just as Oswy dismounted, running to his father's side.
The warg's teeth had severed the great vein in Oshelm's thigh. Oswy lifted his father's head into his lap and watched as the light went out of his eyes. "No." he said.
But Oshelm pressed the hilt of his sword into his son's palm and closed the fingers round it. "You are chief now. I... You did well. Farewell."
Cyn stood nearby, holding the reins of Sceadu and Peada. His gaze was as empty as Oswy's. But Leofwyn, who had not dismounted, said "There will be time to mourn when the children are safe. You are chief now, Oswy. What do we do?"
He looked out on the orc force. Even now the two slower wargs were approaching and there were perhaps a score of the great man-like orcs behind them, running as fast as trotting horses. The rider of the closest warg unshipped a bow. Not even the black arrowhead gleamed in the sun. Oswy was afraid of the sorceries of the Golden Wood, but to stay was to die, and he was lord now, responsible for these lives.
He picked up his father's helmet and vaulted into the saddle. "Into the trees!"
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