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Chapter 12: Unbidden Visitors
Not knowing what to make of his cousin's remark, Éomer furrowed his brow as he followed Théodred's gaze to the outer cave without seeing anything.
"What do you mean? Of course I am not alone: you are here with me!"
"But only in your dream, Éomer! That is not, however, where the danger lies!" As his cousin abruptly turned back to him, the alarm in Théodred's eyes sent a sharp bolt of anxiety through Éomer's gut.
"But I am not-"
"You are asleep, Cousin, for how else could I be here? But someone is approaching! You must wake immediately, they are almost upon you!" Théodred twitched as another noise reached them from the entrance of the cave, and he jumped to his feet, eyes wide with panic. "Wake up, Éomer! Hurry!"
He sat up with a start, gasping and his heart pounding in a frantic rhythm against his ribcage as his fingers clenched the handle of his axe. Staring wide-eyed into the semi-darkness, Éomer's gaze came to rest on the red-glowing remains of the fire, and he realised with shock that he had indeed been asleep for a long time. Sometime during his lonely watch, his body had betrayed him, and daylight was already underway. There was already enough of it for him see the outline of the cave and the large grey shadow nearby which tossed its head and stared in the direction of the entrance with flared nostrils, trembling with tension.
In a heartbeat, Éomer was on his feet and at the stallion's side.
"Sssh…" he said, laying a hand on Firefoot's neck and instantly feeling the tremors of anxiety as he listened with baited breath. So it was indeed true: even asleep, he had been alerted by a noise, and his inner voice - in the shape of Théodred - had instantly woken him … unfortunately far later than he had planned to leave, leaving him to deal now with the consequences of his failure. Who were his unbidden visitors? Orcs? Or the Worm's henchmen? He doubted that they could be men of the Mark. They would have had to ride through the night to get here so early. No, it had to be enemies upon his doorstep. Involuntarily, his grasp around the axe tightened.
"Giet, Firefoot…" Laying a finger onto his lips, Éomer silently moved over to the wall that seperated the two caves, and from where his foes would enter. His back pressed against the rock, he breathed noiselessly while he reached out with his senses… and heard them: low mumbling, at least two different voices, guttural and throaty. The words were too low to understand, and yet the very sound of their language told Éomer that he was not listening to men. It was neither the sound of Westron, nor Rohirric, nor that of the Dunlendings that was spoken. No, he was listening to the Black Speech. Orcs, then. Feeling the short hair on the nape of his neck rising, he mentally readied himself for the fight. How many? Only those two? It would be unusual for orcs, who usually preferred to travel through hostile territory in greater numbers to improve their chances in case they were detected. The stealthy steps hesitantly approached his hiding place, and Éomer flexed his fingers around the handle of his weapon once more, waiting for what would happen, when suddenly, the whispering on the other side ceased with a hiss and was replaced by leaden silence… which was interrupted by an exasperated, heaving breath as the tension became unbearable for Firefoot, and the stallion burst into flight.
Cursing, Éomer whirled around, aware that he would have to make the brief moment of surprise count if he wanted to stand half a chance. Storming out of hiding in the wake of his charging horse, Éomer lashed out with the axe and buried it deep in the chest of an orc Firefoot's assault had thrown against the wall. Hate-filled eyes glared at him in stunned shock, but he did not linger to watch them glaze over with death. There were more of these foul things, and they were coming for him now.
Freeing the blade from the carcass with one hard tug, Éomer raised it in defence at the shadow attacking him. Sparks flew as the orc's long-blade crashed against it, the impact travelling up the his arms and almost knocking the hilt from his grasp. It was the moment when the warrior in Éomer took charge and instinct replaced reason. He threw himself against his adversary shoulder first, and it sank into the creature's stomach while their weapons were still caught between them. He rammed the orc against the wall, the impact stunning the creature through the tough armour of leather and bones that protected it. Pointed fangs snapped at him with a furious hiss, and spittle showered Éomer's face. The long-blade twitched, but he kept it caught with the axe and freed one hand to punch the aberration in the face, almost breaking his knuckles against the hard skull. The spittle became blood, but suddenly, the vile thing grinned at him and went down.
No time to hold on to it, no time to think. Instinctively, Éomer followed the orc's example and rolled, as with a rush of air, a spiked club hit the wall with bone-shattering force, missing him by the breadth of a hair. Completing the defence-motion by rolling over his shoulder, Éomer landed on his feet with cat-like agility, lashing out again even as he rose. A pained grunt rewarded his effort, and the club clattered to the ground. A second strike to the orc's head ended its misery, and Éomer whirled back in time to see a blurred shape hurl itself at him. It was too late to avoid the impact, and his bones groaned as this time, he was thrown against the rock. Somehow, he managed to hold on to his axe, but could not lift it. Though smaller than he, the orc was incredibly strong, it's muscles hardened by a life of hardship and violence. Never having fought one of these creatures in hand-to-hand combat, Éomer realised quickly that he was in trouble when long claws sank into his arms and a curse was spat at him, followed by a malicious chuckle, the yellow eyes in front of his face burning with lust for his blood. Slowly, Éomer's axe hand was forced down.
"Now you die, Strawhead!"
Pointed fangs went for his throat with the speed of a striking snake – and sunk into his left hand which he brought up in defence against the orc's grip. Amusement over his desperate struggle gleamed in the luminous eyes and the beast clenched its jaw, observing him in obvious delight while blood welled up around its lips. And still it pressed toward him while it mauled his hand, getting within strike distance no matter what Éomer did. The muscles of his arms trembled with the strain of trying to keep the creature away and bring up his weapon. Suddenly, the orc spat out his hand and with one mighty jerk, forced his arm aside to go for his throat again.
His reaction was pure instinct. With a violent thrust, the son of Éomund knocked his brow against the beast's opened jaws, causing it to howl in pain as its teeth first ripped through his skin and then shattered when they met with the harder bone of its opponent's skull. For a moment, its strength waned, and without hesitation, Éomer freed his arm and swung the axe in a deadly half-circle upwards, cleaving the orc's head clear from its neck and sending it flying through the cave. Yellow eyes widened in shock even as the deformed thing rolled into a corner, and then glazed over. Placing a heavy boot against the still standing body, Éomer pushed it back, and the carcass collapsed in a heap on the floor as an ear-splitting roar filled the cave. He swivelled, axe ready to hew down whatever came within his reach, when something punched against his right leg with a sharp sound, and the weapon fell from his hands.
There was no one behind him, not in his immediate surroundings, but as Éomer looked down, a thick, black shaft suddenly protruded from the middle of his thigh. Uncomprehending, he reached down to touch it while his gaze darted through the twilit chamber. It could not be real. Where was the pain? Yet all thoughts about his leg vanished when a massive shape stepped away from the wall next to entrance where it had hidden, a bow in its claws. The sight of it left Éomer stunned in realization that his worst nightmare had come true. It had not been a deformed orc who had left the larger tracks. It had been a Uruk-hai, and the prints on the floor had indeed been an indication of its true, massive build. Towering at least a head taller than he, its intimidating shape blocked out the light from the exit. Night or not, freezing temperatures or not, he should have moved on, Éomer realised with sudden bitterness. Now it was too late.
The huge creature chuckled maliciously at the sight of his adversary's dismay, revealing yellow, pointed fangs in a bellowing roar while its amber eyes sparkled with infernal bloodlust. It seemed to be in no particular hurry to finish him off, Éomer noticed as he stooped to retrieve his weapon from the ground. A first violent wave of pain from his thigh caused him to grit his teeth. Keenly observing him, the half-orc lifted the hand with the bow – and opened its fingers. The message was clear: it did not intend to kill him from a distance. Provokingly slowly, the clawed hand wandered down its impressive frame, over the thick armour of leather and bone it wore down to its hip, where it unsheathed a long, crudely worked blade with a double spike at the tip and lifted it up for its wounded opponent to see. It was the most intimidating weapon Éomer had ever laid eyes upon, and he had no doubt that the first strike he failed to parry would fell him like a tree.
His mind raced. So, the foul thing planned to hack him to pieces. What could he do? With Gúthwinë in his hands, he would have taken on the challenge confidently even with the arrow in his leg, but the little axe with its wooden handle felt like a joke compared to the Uruk's weapon; a tool for cutting branches rather than killing mutant orcs. As the tremors of pain from his leg intensified, Éomer took a stumbling step back toward the second cave. Perhaps he would stand a better chance in more confined quarters, where the orc's bulk would be a hindrance rather than an advantage. But how he was supposed to defeat his adversary without armour and adequate weaponry was beyond him.
Before him, the Uruk crouched into battle-position and slowly lifted the blade back over its shoulder. Its maw, wide enough to swallow a man's head whole, opened to emit a blood-curdling roar – and then it charged! With the unstoppable force of an avalanche it came at him, ready to hack him to pieces. Retreating the one step that separated him from the wall, Éomer awaited his opponent, and with a first, fierce thrust, blade and axe met in a rain of sparks. The impact knocked Éomer backwards and almost tore his weapon from his hands before he could use the force of the attack to spin around and disentangle his weapon at the same time. The blade grazed the Uruk's side and it roared in fury as it whirled around, but the wound was barely more than a scratch.
"A little over-confident, are we, filth?" Éomer laughed, now clear about the strategy he would use: he had to keep the orc raging. Although this bastard-breed had been domesticated by the Dark Lord and the traitor in the west to the point where it was intelligent enough to follow a given strategy, Éomer knew that once provoked, most orcs tended to regress to a beastly state and abandon common sense in exchange for raw power. While an enraged Uruk-hai was a fearsome sight to behold, warriors using their wits found them easier to overcome than in their calm state; one reason why the Uruk-hai were usually defeated despite their superior strength. "Come on, aberration! Or is one man more than you can take alone?"
The blade raced toward his neck, and Éomer intercepted it at the last moment. Yet the razor-sharp steel bit deeply into the handle of his axe, half separating the iron head, and a vile stench assaulted Éomer's nostrils as the orc bellowed its rage at him, the gaping maw directly in front of his face. Their weapons caught between them once again, both adversaries fought to free theirs first, yet Éomer quickly found that he was no match for the Uruk's brute strength: with a brutal jerk, it pulled its sword free, and Éomer had to let go of his axe if he didn't want to end up crashing face-first into his assailant's chest. Thrown off-balance, he was too slow to duck the creature's clawed hand, and it caught him behind the temple and jerked his head around, sending him reeling backwards and falling over a dead orc with its owner charging after him.
Stunned from the impact, Éomer watched as the blade descended upon him once more, slowly slicing through the air, which had become thick and liquid and hindered his moves while the hot wetness of his blood ran down his face and neck.
Théodred's voice sounded far away, but it woke him from his stupor, and he reacted, abruptly thrown back into reality as if surfacing from a deep pool. He rolled, and the strike that would have hacked him in two left a deep scratch on the ground he had occupied only a heartbeat earlier. The shaft in his leg clattered over the stone and twisted the arrow-tip in his flesh. Éomer cried out, just as his fingers touched something smooth and hard. Not pausing to examine it, he grasped it and lashed out at the big hand seizing his tunic, cutting deeply into his foe's forearm.
A bellow of rage followed him as Éomer stumbled to his feet and backwards to distance himself from the now seriously enraged creature. Holding the gaping gash that was gushing black blood, the Uruk had dropped its sword and stared at him with eyes blazing in an unspoken promise to rip him apart. Satisfied over having shaken his enemy's self-confidence, Éomer blinked away the blood in his eyes and grinned.
"See now why you always lose despite your greater number? You are a mountain of meat without a brain. Even our children are more adept at battle than you!"
The thing bared its fangs at him, yet did not charge. Yellow eyes flickered infernally as the Uruk-hai lifted its wounded arm and extended a thick, black tongue to lick off its own blood to demonstrate that it cared not for the injury. Fascinated and repulsed at the same time, Éomer stared at it, and when the orc grasped its sword and dropped into a battle-crouch once again without breaking eye-contact, he understood: the game was over, his adversary cured of his overly great self-confidence: the Uruk considered him a serious threat now, a fact that made it immeasurably more dangerous as it approached with the black blade drawn back for the deadly strike.
"You speak much, Strawhead," it growled, and its sparkling eyes followed Éomer's moves as they began to circle each other. "It tells me you afraid. I smell all over you. You scared… and you right fearing me, for now you die!" It struck, the impact hard enough to almost shatter Éomer's arm as he lifted his orc-blade in defence, and the top-half of his longsword was hacked clean off. The Uruk's expression brightened in expectation of its near triumph as it looked upon the short piece of iron left in its adversary's hands. "Next strike – will be you." In an uncanny display of intuition, it stepped into Éomer's way and blocked him from the carcasses of its brethren to retrieve another weapon, grinning at his obvious dismay. "You think me foolish, Strawhead? I know what you want. You not get it." It spat, and then, suddenly threw its own blade away. "I kill you with own hands. Will take longer… and be more hurtful!"
Feverishly thinking as he backed away from the beast which approached him now with extended arms, demonstrating its intimidating span and reach, Éomer lifted the pitifully short remainder of his weapon. Somehow, he had to get past the Uruk. If he got a hold of the sword, or at least made it back to where the carcasses of the other were strewn on the ground to retrieve the club – a claw swung toward his face and he ducked and slashed at it with the iron shard in a desperate dash to dive behind his enemy. Before him, the black sword reflected weakly in the intensifying daylight, and he threw himself at it, ignoring his wounded leg – when with a horrible crunching sensation, something exploded in his right side and he was flung against the wall, unable to catch his breath.
'Bastard kicked me!' Éomer thought through a haze of crippling pain, blindly groping to find something he could use for a weapon while the most immediate fight was the one for air. His lungs burning while bright explosions danced before his eyes, Éomer tried to move as a shadow fell upon him. An instant later, he was grabbed by the throat and lifted into the air as if he were a puppet. Air! He needed air! His feet dangling, he furiously clawed at the fingers that crunched his neck, and when that proved unsuccessful, reached for his adversary's eyes, but the Uruk merely extended its arm to its full length with a malicious snarl, keeping him out of reach while it observed his desperate struggle with obvious delight.
"What now, manling? You not on horseback no more, and no shining armour. Without it, you weak. I could crush you if I want." The fingers dug even deeper into Éomer's windpipe, and he gasped, his conscious fading quickly despite his efforts to hold on. Again he clawed at the hand holding him, sunk his fingernails into the thick skin and drew blood, but the grip of its claws was like the teeth of a bear-trap. A fleshy black lip curled upward in a menacing sneer. "But I want not. I kill you slow." It flung him against the cave wall like a bundle of rags, then stooped to pick him up again and ran a finger over the side of his face, tasting his blood. "You tasty, manling. Better than stinking orcs. I eat you raw. But first, make you tender!"
Again Éomer crashed into the wall, and as his broken body sunk back, he knew at last that he had lost. 'Forgive me, Éowyn,' he thought dimly, his conscious fleeing him. 'I meant to keep my word, I really did.'
Once more, he was hurled up, and the big, ugly head of the Uruk-hai swam into his blurred vision, triumph in its gaze. No longer able to keep his arms up to tear however uselessly at the fingers choking him, Éomer hung in their iron grip like a marionette with its strings severed. Soon, it would be over. His fingertips brushed over the arrow-shaft in his thigh… the splintered shaft.
"Now, prepare to die, Strawhead," his adversary growled, holding him up directly in front of his face as if about to bite his head off. "I think I eat your left eye first." As the claws dug into the skin near his nose, Éomer's fingers tore the splintered remainders of the arrow from his leg and sunk them in one continuous move into the Uruk-hai's left eye with the last of his strength. The great body shuddered, and the fingers around his throat clenched. Half-conscious, Éomer drove the splinter further in with one violent push before his hand fell down and everything turned to grey. When the pressure around his neck suddenly ceased and he fell to the ground once more, he hardly felt it. The last thing he heard was the muffled creaking of leather, and then a great weight landed on top of him and made it impossible to breathe…
There was already a faint stripe of daylight visible on the eastern sky, lighting the vast plains near the great city of the Eastmark as the long line of riders descended the slope. Although many of them had only just returned from the long journey and the battle at the Fords of Isen, none of the men had complained over being chased out into the harsh conditions again so soon. Only their commanders and scout knew about the further reaching implications of their errands, but orc-hunting was a duty all of them took seriously and saw to most eagerly. Their Marshal had told them of increased orc-activity in the White Mountains, where many of their kin dwelt and relied on their protection. None of the riders needed further motivation.
As the gate opened and the éored split into five parts, many men glanced back at the small group that would not accompany them. That Captain Céorl would return to Edoras had been widely assumed, but that Aldburg's chief protector, Elfhelm, would leave along with him, although he had hardly spent more than a few hours at his home, came as a surprise. Rumours of what their Marshal's errand in the City of Kings might be made their course, and after the tidings of the last days, many of the men quietly asked themselves whether they would see their commander again. It was only a small group that would travel to Edoras; the five men Céorl had brought with him, and four men Elfhelm had chosen to accompany him. Their number would be great enough to defend themselves against potential orc-attacks, but not sufficient to arrive in the city as anything more than beggars. Whatever Elfhelm wanted to force by visiting the King, ten riders would not give him a good position to bargain. The glances grew increasingly doubtful until the mighty fence blocked the riders' view of the small group, and they shifted back in their saddles and concentrated on the task at hand.
While the city around them woke, Freela hid her face against Elfhelm's broad chest, revelling in his warmth and scent embrace before he would be gone again too soon. She feared for him, but she also knew that his self-appointed task was honourable and urgent. As much as she hated to be left alone again, at the same time it was this man's incredible sense of duty that had first attracted her to him. He was a man always in service of his people; a man who would never rest until he could be sure that those in need of his protection had been cared for. So how could she even think of objecting?
Behind them, the men from his éored who would accompany him were also bidding their friends and kin farewell while Céorl and his men waited patiently just outside the open gate. Tightening her hold on him as she felt him prepare to let go, Freela lifted her head, fighting tears. It was not fair. She needed him, too! She saw understanding in his grey eyes which could look so fierce, but were now full of compassion… and at the same time, determination.
"You do understand why I am riding, don't you?" he asked softly, kissing her brow, and she nodded, her voice caught in her throat. "I will not be gone for long. I loathe leaving you so soon, too, but this is too important. I must see with my own eyes what is going on in Edoras. All that will follow depends on it." He inclined his head, saw brimming tears in her eyes and then kissed her once more. Her lips were dry and trembled underneath his, as if she was about to cry, but they opened to him, allowing him a taste of her he would carry with him until he returned.
"I will be here for you when you return," she whispered breathlessly between kisses, fighting the urgency and the emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. Her hands roaming through his hair, she deeply inhaled his scent and took comfort in it before she forced herself to step away at last. It would not do for her to make saying farewell so hard for him. If the other women could be brave, so could she. "My prayers will accompany you every step on the way. May the Gods protect you and your men and give you back to me safely, my proud Marshal of the Mark. Go and protect your people."
Gratitude and pride over her bravery lit up Elfhelm's eyes, and Freela was glad that she had held her emotions under control even if she felt like breaking down. Elfhelm's rough hand cupped her cheek.
"I will be back before you can miss me, léofa. I swear." And with that and a little nod, he turned around and mounted his horse, his eyes briefly coming to rest on Findárras, who would take over command over the city in his absence once again. "And when we return, we will chase the Worm's spies out of Aldburg, old friend!"
The red-haired warrior grinned.
"I am looking forward to that, Marshal. Make haste, for I can barely wait to begin!"
"But you will wait for me, for I would not want to miss that opportunity for anything in the world! Hiya! Ride, Sons of Éorl! To Edoras!" He spurred his horse, and in a cloud of snow, the group of riders vanished from sight even before the gates had closed behind them.
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