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Chapter 6: Hunters and the Hunted
Éomer heard the rush of fast-flowing water long before he saw the river's dark floods through the steady change of sparkling snow, tree shadows and thick undergrowth. With the merest pressure of his thighs and a slight tug at Firefoot's mane, he signalled the grey to halt, and breathlessly, both rider and steed reached out with their combined senses to listen to the voices of the night. Each rustle in the thicket of dead plants, each stirring in the crowns of the trees and each call that reached their ears was registered and identified: close by, the urgent sound of a rabbit breaking cover; from above, the almost inaudible rustle of air on feathers as a bird in the crown of the nearest tree stretched its wings, and from a distance, almost on the edge of Éomer's perception, the hesitant, careful steps of perhaps a deer moving through the deserted forest. There was no crunching of snow underneath heavy boots, or the distant whickering of horses left tied to a branch while their riders lay in a stakeout for him, nor muffled noises or urgent whispering giving away the presence of human visitors to this corner of the Mark. It seemed to Éomer that he was indeed the only human soul in this forest… and still he knew better than to trust first impressions. He waited, biding his time.
The blanket of white he saw over the stallion's pricked ears looked undisturbed except for a few animal tracks, yet further confirmation of his solitude since the snowfall had stopped hours ago. From the left, the rush of wings prompted Éomer to turn his head just in time to see a big owl land on one of the stronger branches of an old oak, and for a moment, wide orange eyes met his before the bird lowered its head to tear a strip of meat from the prey it held in its talons. A faint, unconscious smile wandered over Éomer's face at the sight of it. Owls were shy, elusive birds. If this one felt secure enough to feed, it probably meant that there was indeed no danger to be feared.
And still he waited for another moment before he dismounted, his senses now exclusively focused on his mount, and the experienced war-horse knew what his rider expected of him. The slightest twitch of the mighty muscles or even the lowest hint of a whicker from his throat would mean that Firefoot sensed the presence of others in their vicinity, but for now, his steed remained quiet. The dark eyes swept the silent forest as the stallion drank the chill air through his widened nostrils, tasting it for the scent of predators. At last, he shook his head and released the breathless tension with a heartfelt snort. Following his example, Éomer allowed himself to relax as well and patted Firefoot's shoulder as he slid from the horse's back.
He had decided to walk the last part of the way on foot. So far, the trees had provided them with excellent cover from potentially hostile eyes, but his old hideout lay closer to the edge of the river, well-hidden within a broad belt of dried reed. As children and even more often as young adults, they had sought refuge here whenever the days in Meduseld had been too dark and depressing to bear. Endless hours had they spent here together with Éothain, and on occasion also Élric, making plans and vows about what they would change as soon the necessary power was theirs. Although it had been their shelter, the memories Éomer held of this place were bittersweet.
Forcing himself to concentrate anew, he shoved away the distant images and assessed the situation: it would be difficult to move through the reeds without giving himself away. So far, Éomer had neither seen nor felt the presence of others, but he had not survived countless battles and risen to the position of a marshal at his young age because he underestimated the necessity of caution. This was not the time to rush things. Out here in the wild, even the smallest mistake could prove fatal. He had seen enough valiant warriors unexpectedly called to the halls of their ancestors because a single, brief moment of impatience, and he was determined not to fall prey to the patterns of behaviour expected of him. They believed him to be rash, inconsiderate. Very well. If they thought that, it would make his task easier.
"Wait here," he muttered under his breath to Firefoot, knowing that the stallion understood and would not stray far from the place he was left. On second thought, Éomer also slipped out of his cloak although he hesitated to abandon the excellent camouflage its grey colour provided it would render it impossible for him to move silently through the reeds. Laying the folded garment on a tree stump next to his stallion, the son of Éomund stealthily made his way over to where the last rows of trees granted him cover before the area of dried scrub, his eyes tirelessly sweeping his surroundings for eventual columns of frozen breath. The crunching of the snow beneath his boots seemed treacherously loud to his ears as he ducked through the undergrowth and halted. A brief flicker of movement in the shadows of the thicket to his left caught his attention and was quickly identified as a fox. Suddenly aware of the presence of his unbidden visitor, the beast darted away, a white blur in the nightly forest, and only its tracks in the snow remained as proof of its existence.
Savouring the sensation of crisp air filling his lungs as he took a deep, silent breath, Éomer suddenly noticed a first slivery sparkle on the water. The moon was about to begin its course over its silken black realm, and its pale light would soon reflect from the freshly fallen snow and illuminate the night; a combination favouring the hunters and putting the hunted at a disadvantage. No matter if he was indeed the only human soul out here, it would be best to hurry, as he had no intentions to change from predator to prey. Only one question still remained, and soon enough it would be answered: had Éowyn succeeded in sending his weapons?
With infinite caution, Éomer lowered himself onto all fours and began to edge through the scrub toward his destination. Skilfully using the cover it provided without causing the dried stems to sway and betray his whereabouts, he moved along; a cat on the prowl, the born hunter, his movements noiseless and fluent as he advanced and at the same time soaked up the noises around him. Nothing escaped his attention: not the low song of the mild breeze in the thicket of dead stems, not the low gargle of the river through the patches of ice which tried to hinder its waters from their journey south – and not the sudden flutter of wings as three small birds suddenly burst into flight before him.
Cursing soundlessly while his heart pounded furiously against his ribcage, Éomer sat back and held his breath. Anyone looking had now been alerted of something moving through the thicket, and so he waited anxiously for the noise of heavy boots in the snow closing in on him, or the telltale rustle of heavy bodies in the scrub. Yet it remained calm. Closing his eyes for a brief moment as relief almost became too great to bear, Éomer silently shook his head to himself and proceeded. It was about time he finished this and went on his way, for his nerves would not take many more of these incidents.
When he finally caught sight of the group of rocks he was headed for, a first wave of exuberance flooded his veins as he detected the single line of footsteps leading up to the biggest of them, the one with the small den underneath they had used as a storage for their provisions and later, messages. From behind, a lonely cry of the owl drifted into the night, unanswered. Encouraged by the silence, Éomer moved on, and as he approached, he caught a first glimpse of a heavy-looking leather pouch underneath the rock.
'Béma be praised! Oh Éowyn, I am forever indebted to you!'
His heart beating a frantic rhythm against his ribcage, he advanced, and the feeling of the first triumph over the Worm, even if it was only a small one, pushed him forward with renewed purpose. All of a sudden, his prospects seemed vastly improved: armed with sword, bow and knife, he would give the foes he met, orc or man alike, a fierce fight. His reputation as one of the Mark's most valiant warriors had scared away solitary enemies for a long time now; in fact it had been years since any of them had been willing to test their battle-skills against him in a one-on-one fight at all. As long as it was no army Gríma had summoned against him, Éomer felt confident that he had what it took to emerge victorious from this greatest of his challenges. With the object of his efforts now almost within reach and impatient to feel the encouraging weight of a sword in his hand again, Éomer pulled off his gloves with his teeth and reached out, his fingers closing around the pouch. It felt absurdly light as he pulled it out from the den, and he frowned as he unpacked the one item it contained: a stick. All of a sudden, the feeling of a sling tightening around his neck paralysed him.
'It's a trap!'
Frozen by the implications of his discovery – 'They caught Éowyn! Is she dead? How many- ' - Éomer stared at the gnarled parody of a weapon in his hand, until a sudden rustle in the scrub broke the spell. Reflexes honed by years of experience sent him to the ground and into a controlled spin before his mind had consciously realised the danger; the warrior in him taking over as, with a sharp thwack, an arrow embedded itself into the ground he had occupied only a heartbeat before.
Back on his feet, he instantly charged into the wall of reeds, not pausing once to look back and check how many foes there were on his heels or whether they were men or orcs. As cunningly as this trap had been laid, they had probably spread around him and even the slightest hesitation would buy him an arrow in the back. Abruptly breaking to the left, Éomer felt the current of air on his neck as another shot missed him by only the breadth of a hair.
From further behind where he had left Firefoot, a horse's shriek suddenly pierced the air, and Éomer cursed under his breath as he ploughed through the thicket in a hare's zigzag, performing another sudden switchback only to drop to his knees and breathlessly wait for his pursuers to give their positions away. How many were there? Would there be a chance to take one of them by surprise and acquire his weapons? Sensing movement to his right, he crouched deeper.
"Is he dead?"
"I missed. Rabid dog's faster than a snake! But he can't be far. Be silent!"
Two men so far. And at least another one back where Firefoot was. Silently praying that they had not killed his horse, Éomer laid a hand on his mouth to disperse the vapour of his breath as he cautiously exhaled. From behind him, the concussion of approaching steps caused his strained muscles to vibrate with tension. He was ready for the fight, but where was the other man? To his right, moving away, the distance between them growing.
Flexing his fingers, Éomer concentrated on the steps and tensed. His life probably depended on him killing the man silently. The darkness in front of him took shape as the reed parted, and he threw himself at his adversary with the velocity of a striking snake. The surprised man he crashed into barely had time to utter more than a breathless gasp before Éomer had him in a death grip and snapped his neck with a powerful jolt.
Alas, their brief fight had not gone unnoticed. As there was no point in easing the dead man soundlessly to the ground, Éomer dropped him where he stood and stooped to retrieve his knife, the rustle in the scrub already indicating that his foes were closing in on him again. Deciding to place his hope in speed rather than stealth, he bolted as an excited shout erupted into the night.
"Mordred, Gunthard, he is here! Hurry!"
The reeds whipping his bare face as he raced toward the forest's edge, Éomer somehow managed to collect enough air for a sharp whistle. It compromised his position but could not be helped, for there was but one thing left to save him now, and the furious shriek of his horse told him that he had been heard. Almost simultaneously, a pained shout rang out from the darkness of the forest, followed by the distant thunder of hooves.
More shouting, orders screamed regardless whether they were overheard. They felt certain that he was cornered and advanced from two sides now, cutting off his path to the cover of the forest. It did not change Éomer's strategy. They would not be able to shoot at him with great accuracy while they ran, so Éomer dashed toward the shadow closest to him; already switching his grip on the knife toward the blade. Only at the last possible moment, his ears told him that the man had already stopped and was probably aiming his bow in his direction, and he acted instinctively. A pained shout rewarded him as the knife he had thrown blindly found its mark, and with a dull thud, the arrow meant to kill him embedded itself into the ground at his feet.
Starting toward his adversary to retrieve his just won knife, Éomer parted the reed and froze: the thug was still on his feet, the heft of the weapon protruding from his left shoulder while he already held his sword in his other hand, looking both pained and eager to kill. With his comrades advancing fast, there was only one decision open to Éomer, and he ground his teeth and bolted, abandoning the blade with a heavy heart.
"Aye, you better run, filth! If we catch you, we'll skin you alive!"
The stallion answered him immediately, and suddenly, his great grey body broke through the undergrowth and raced toward Éomer. A rope dangled from his neck, but there was no one at the other end.
"Shoot! Shoot! He must not escape!"
In full run, Éomer shot out his hand, and his fingers closed around the horse's thick mane as he virtually threw himself onto Firefoot's back. A hail of arrows rained down on them, one even leaving a tear in his tunic, but by then Éomer had already found his right seat and the Half-Meara accelerated, leaving only little clouds of snow in his wake that had already settled while the hunters realised that their plan had failed.
Grinning at the sound of frustrated shouts behind him even if he could not understand the words, Éomer cast a quick glance over his shoulder to establish that his assassins had indeed stopped at the edge of the forest. A flood of pure energy raced through his veins, so intense it stole his breath. He had bested them. They had been waiting for him, five of the Worm's henchmen, heavily armed and with the advantage of surprise on their side, and yet he had managed to kill one of them and wounded another. For the first time, the stinking traitor in the Golden Hall had received a taste of what it meant to be at war with the sons of Éorl, and if it was in his power, Éomer was determined for this to be only a vague hint of what he had in store for Gríma Wormtongue and his minions.
The sensation of triumph was fleeting though, as the question of how those men had found out about Éowyn's plan sobered him quickly and thoroughly. He doubted that the Worm would actually hurt his sister, not while he still desired her and ultimate success was within his grasp now that all her protectors had either been killed or expelled, but still the question remained: what had happened?
Still battling with his unsettling thoughts, Éomer was suddenly cast back into reality by his stallion's enraged shriek, and from one leap to the next, Firefoot accelerated to full speed again. A moment later, a similarly angered answer clamoured from the thinning trees they were headed for, and there Éomer could make out the shapes of six horses in full tack. He had found his assassins' means of transportation. Acting on impulse, Éomer directed Firefoot at them with a malicious smile: here was his chance to buy himself some rest for the remainder of the night, possibly even longer.
His eyes watering from the icy wind in his eyes, Éomer blinked as they charged toward the small group and could not help feeling amused by the display of his own steed's fury. The way the grey stallion stretched beneath him, his hooves hammering the ground in a frantic rhythm at the other horse's challenge, it appeared that Firefoot - just like his master - was in desperate need of unleashing the accumulated frustration of the past days against someone. He wanted to fight, and the bay horse that presented itself to him by separating from the others was an ideal target. Yet as much as Éomer sympathised with his animal ally, killing those horses was not what he had in mind. If he instead succeeded in re-directing Firefoot's fury to chase the horses away and thus rob his hunters of their transportation, the manoeuvre would buy him valuable time. Perhaps, if he was lucky, Gríma's henchmen would not even make it back to Edoras on foot. The Mark was a dangerous place not only for the righteous men. Yes, this plan seemed sound. Now all that was left to do was convince his furious stallion of it.
"Hoh, Grey One, slow down! No need to scare them senseless! They are your kin, remember? You are not a warg, so stop behaving like one!" He tugged on the mane and shifted his weight to bring Firefoot alongside the other horses – and found himself ignored. "Hey! I am talking to you!"
Now forcefully attempting to hinder the Half-Meara from charging into the others like a ram, Éomer was almost unseated when, without warning, Firefoot performed a wild swing to the right. Clinging to the thick mane for all he was worth, Éomer – to his bafflement – suddenly heard a surprised shriek and caught a fleeting glimpse of a dark shape in their path before he felt the impact of Firefoot's hooves on something soft. Looking back as his steed continued almost without interruption, he saw the man collapsed in a heap behind them, unmoving. Of course. They would not have left their horses unguarded. Not finding it in himself to pity the man when he had come to kill him, Éomer regained his seat and shifted his attention back to the horses they had almost reached by now.
The bay which had challenged Firefoot had apparently come to his senses at the close-up sight of his steaming opponent, because he suddenly turned on his hind legs and bolted, taking the others with him. Swearing and seeing his stallion's ears twitch at his angered outcry, Éomer slapped the grey neck hard with his flat hand.
"Stubborn mule, now see what you've done! It could have been much easier!" Still angrily shaking his head to himself, Éomer decided he had enough of being only a passenger on his steed's back. It was about time he claimed back control. With a few rigorous commands, he threw Firefoot around almost in a circle, clinging to his back like burdock, before he allowed him to resume pursuing the other horses at a much slower pace. As soon as they were no longer spooked, he would ride up to them and grasp their reins, and then lead them far, far away…
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