MOON LETTERS : CREATIVE WRITING
The Saga of Erik of Rohan - By Vison
It fell out that Theodred, son of Theoden King, rode to the fords of Isen in February, 3019, of the Third Age. He and his Eored broke their journey in a nameless hamlet along the road, halting one noon to bait their horses and refresh themselves.
The folk of the hamlet came out and stared at the horsemen. Here were men tall and bold, carrying long spears, clad in shining armour. Their horses stepped lightly on iron-shod hooves. One old man knew Theodred by the arms he bore, and he spoke out, saying, "My lord, how fares the King your father?"
The tall young man in the crested helmet turned to the old man. With grave courtesy he said, "The King my father is well, grandfather, but he grows weary of his years. He rides out no longer, but his ease takes in Meduseld."
On hearing this the old man laughed and nodded. "I rode with your father, lord, when I was young. The years lie heavy on me, too, but it is not my fortune to sit at ease in the Golden Hall. Still he was a bold man, in his youth."
It seemed that a shadow fell across the face of Theodred. "The cares of the King are many, old man, and the crown weighs heavy."
The Smith, bowing low, spoke to Theodred. "What brings your lordship hither? We seldom see the King's men here."
A man beside Theodred spoke, saying, "We have news of the enemy at the fords of Isen. It suits my lord's plans to come at them from a direction they do not expect. Has aught been seen of the enemy in this place?"
"This is a poor place," the Smith said, bowing even lower. "There is no lord in these parts, there are no horses to fit to steal. Even for the Orcs of the White Hand there is no loot."
Theodred spoke. "I would have a scout. Is there any man here who can take us quickly and silently away from the road?"
No one spoke. Moved by impulse, then stepped forward the boy Erik. "I can, my lord."
The soldiers looked askance. "This is only a boy, lord," the standard bearer muttered. "This place is mighty thin of men."
Theodred said, "A boy like this might know the land right well. Coneys and partridges, such are the things that draw a lad like this to the hills. Think you your father can spare you for the space of a day or so?"
Then rose the hot blood to Erik's face and his eyes fell. "I have no father, lord. I am only Erik." As he spoke, the word "bastard" was heard behind him, and some of the folk laughed slyly.
Theodred frowned and said, "I am sorry, Erik, for I would touch no man's honour lightly. If it be so, it is your misfortune not your shame, that you have no name. Be sure your sons will be proud to bear yours." He gestured to one of his men. "Bring forward a spare horse."
Brought forward then was a tall roan horse, not saddled. The boy Erik clambered up and took up the reins and, heart pounding, looked at the tall prince whose blond braids lay on his armoured breast, one gloved hand resting on the pommel.
"Can you manage, bantling?" Theodred asked of him.
"Yes," Erik answered, and hoped he did not lie. The great horse sidled and snorted, with the untried boy on its back.
"Grip with your knees, boy," the standard bearer said. "Be sure this horse knows his business better than you."
Theodred raised his arm in salute and farewell and the Eored moved, riding to the West. Behind the prince and his standard bearer rode Erik, hands steady on the reins now, the power of the horse felt through his legs. Came a pause and he was called to the fore and now he rode a little ahead, taking them on a path he knew well, but that was away from the main traveled road.
Never did Erik forget that ride. Harness jingling, the hooves of horses on the winter earth, overhead the hawks wheeling in the blue sky. A man would say a word, no more. Not silent, but quiet enough. He began to feel like a horseman; he began to feel like a man, not a nameless boy. He straightened his thin shoulders, and he knew that he would someday have the sinews of a trooper. He knew that his hand was made to hold the smooth shaft of a long spear. On and up, until the sun set and the sky was darkening. He knew this place well, and drew rein.
"How far to the fords?" he was asked.
"An hour's ride, no more. If we stop here, no one on the other side of the hill will see us," he answered.
"Nonetheless," Theodred said, "we will light no fire tonight." He dismounted and handed off his horse to one of the men. "Come, Erik," he said. "Let us see what we can see, over the hilltop."
Dismay filled Erik's heart, as he crept to the hilltop and looked down to the fords. Fires were numerous on the far side, surely the enemy was here in force? Theodred lay beside Erik, and it seemed he counted the fires. He put his hand on Erik's shoulder and said, "They are only Orcs, lad. We are Rohirrim."
But Erik was afraid. "They are not all Orcs, my lord. See? There are men there, too. I see horses, do not you?"
The prince shrugged. "Some. No doubt there are men, but what of it? Come, we will return to the Eored. I am hungry, and I wager you are, too."
With the dark came the half moon, and the cold. Erik had only his thin jerkin to his back, and he shivered where he sat, leaning on a saddle. Someone dropped a cloak over him, and he looked up to see the standard bearer frowning down at him. But even with the cloak he was cold after a time and so he moved about the fireless camp, walking to warm himself.
He saw something on the ground and bending, picked it up. It was a glove. He stared at it in the moonlight and saw that it was embroidered with vines and leaves, and runes he could not read. But he did not need to know his letters to know whose glove it was, and he carried it to where Theodred sat, making his plans for the morrow.
The prince took the glove gratefully. "I thank you, Erik. I would grieve indeed to lose this, these gloves were a gift from my cousin Eowyn. Sewn by her own hand, and mayhap too fine for such use as I put them to." He folded the glove with its mate and tucked them into his belt, and returned to his discussion
Erik slept but fitfully. He was not much used to comfort and so it was not the hard earth that kept waking him. Truth to tell, his spirits were high. Such had been his life that until this day and night nothing of import had ever happened to him; he felt that he was setting his feet on the path to some better future than he had ever dared to dream of before.
In the dark all around him men slept. Sentries went to and fro and the horses on their pickets moved now and again, stamping a hoof, or speaking softly to one another in their way. The smell of horse was borne strongly on the cold night air, but it was not unpleasant to Erik's senses. He was used to the sour smell of his unwashed bedclothes, and to the fumes of his mother's drink. To be in the clean open air suited him.
Before first light the camp was astir. Horses were fed from saddlebags, and water was brought in leathern buckets. Dry meat and cheese with hard bread made the men's breakfast, but it was good meat, and good cheese, and Erik had never had bread that was not hard, so he made no complaint. He saw that Theodred had gathered several men about him and he went to where they stood.
"Here is our scout," Theodred said, smiling. He looked somewhat unkempt, for there had been no shaving or combing for anyone, but his bearing was that of a prince and warrior and no one seeing this Eored would mistake anyone else for leader. "Come you, Erik, and you, too, Olaf and Rolf. From yonder hilltop we will see what goes forth in the enemy camp."
They lay on their bellies looking down at the far side of the river and saw that there was a host of Orcs on the right and a few score of horsemen to the left. Again Erik was afraid, but the Prince and the other two men spoke calmly of what they saw. "Maybe ten or twelve score of Orcs," Rolf counted, "and about four score of horsemen. We are five score and one more, with Erik here." He ruffled his hand through Erik's hair and grinned. "These odds are the same as even, lad."
"But, lord," Erik said. "If you ride at them across the ford, they will come upon you from either side, and so get at you in the water."
Theodred nodded. "Such indeed would be our fate, Erik, if we came at them straight across the ford. But see you that shallow sort of ravine there, to our left? There I will set maybe three score of my men and then make a sortie from the right, thus drawing them across thinking us so outnumbered. Once they are all across, we will fall upon them, the sortie turning to face them, and the other men coming from the side."
Erik smiled. "I see, lord. It is a good plan."
"Yes, I think it is, myself," Theodred joked. "Now, can we get to that ravine without being seen?"
"Yes, lord," Erik said. "If you go down there, just beyond that copse? It means backtracking about a half a mile, maybe, but no more."
As they walked down to the camp, Theodred spoke to Erik. "You have earned my thanks, Erik, and more besides. Take you this coin, and I make you a gift of the roan horse. And I would have you return to your home now, and so be out of harm's way. Battle is no place for an unarmed boy, no matter how bold. No, do not frown so at me, Erik. My mind, and the minds of my troop, must not be distracted by worry about you. I know what you would wish, and when you are a soldier, you may fight to your heart's content, but for today you must stay away."
Erik tried to be grateful and he did not wish to dispute with the prince. But he could not stop the quick words that flew to his mouth. "Please, lord. I will stay back. I will not get in harm's way, I promise you. I will watch, from the hilltop, and I swear I will go no farther."
"It is an ugly business, Erik," Theodred said. "It is not like the tales."
Erik grimaced and looked away. "I am not a babe in arms," he said. "I have seen ugly things before."
"Have you seen a man try to run holding his guts in, Erik? Have you seen a man picking up his one arm with the other?" Theodred was firm. "If you were one of my men, you would have to obey my order. That is the way of it, lad."
"Yes, lord. I understand." He tried to smile. "And I may really keep the horse, lord?"
"The horse is yours. No doubt it has a name, but I know it not." Theodred's horse was brought to him, and the roan. "See here," he said, his voice clear and carrying. "This roan horse I give to Erik here, for showing us the way."
The standard bearer handed the reins to Erik. He smiled grimly. "Good wages, my lad. A troop horse, from the king's own Eored."
Erik drew himself up, putting his chin out. "It suits my lord, so it ought to suit you."
"Oho, little rooster!" The standard bearer laughed. But it was an honest laugh, and his smile held warmth. "Well, you are right. If it suits my lord, it ought to suit me, Harald Haraldson."
Harald Haraldson put out his hand and Erik put his in it. "I deem we will meet again, Erik," Harald said. "Come, I will give you a leg up. Maybe someday you will get a saddle for Ruadh, here."
"Is that his name? Ruadh?" Erik asked. He bent and stroked the arched neck. "Ruadh. The red one, eh?"
He pulled on the reins and turned the horse and rode away, staying behind the line of the hill so as to remain unseen by the enemy. He did not turn around. He could hear, for a space, the sound of men and horses, then he could hear nothing but the wind in the gorse, and the piercing cry of a hunting hawk.
He rode quickly, and was in the hamlet before noon. The few folk that were out and about stared at him, and he rode past them to the cottage he shared with his mother. Tying Ruadh to the ramshackle fence, he went up the stairs and into the front room. Kneeling by the hearth was his mother. Erik could see that she was already well on in drink, for she staggered against the chimney as she rose to her feet. He felt the old disgust churn in his belly, and could not look at her for loathing. He sat himself down at the table and stared dully around the filthy room and thought of the clean night air and the sharp smell of horses and the Prince's keen grey eyes meeting his. What had he to do with this squalor? He was now a king's man, he thought.
But how was he to get away? True that he had a horse to carry him, but whither could he go? One gold coin lay heavy in his pocket, it was all his wealth. He wished to be away, away anywhere, riding Ruadh over the great East Emnet, a spear set in rest on the saddle, the wind of his passage lifting his hair. Almost he could see it, and he clenched his hands together, to keep from shouting out. Somehow he would follow Theodred when he returned along the road. Somehow. Somehow.
His mother said nothing, but moved about in sullen silence. She put some cold porridge to fry, setting the iron spider in the coals. She had a jug of some kind of spirits near to hand, and now and again would tip the jug up and take a drink, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. When the porridge was brown on both sides she slapped half of it onto a plate and thrust it under Erik's arm. He wished he was not hungry, but he was, and he ate it, washing it down with water. After a time his mother lay down on her pallet in the corner and went to sleep. Erik waited, and waited, but he knew not what he waited for, only that there was something coming, something was about to happen. He wondered how it fared with Theodred at the ford.
Near dark the first horsemen came to the hamlet, men of Theodred's Eored. They rode at a walking pace, and when Erik went out he saw that some were wounded, and that there were two or three horses bearing bodies that lay like long bundles across their withers. He saw Rolf and Olaf riding side by side, and saw that Olaf had one arm bound up. He ran out to the road and hailed them.
"It is I!" he shouted. "Erik, who led you to the hilltop."
"Eh, lad," Rolf said heavily. "I know who you are. We are going to bivouac here this night, some of the men need to be indoors, and to have their wounds tended. Will you go about to your neighbours, and get them to prepare what is needful?"
"Of course I will," Erik said eagerly. "I will do whatever is called for, sir. And the battle? Did you beat them?"
"Aye. We beat them, boy. Beat them. They have fled, those that still live, back to their warrens, back to their master. It will be a while before they dare to try the fords again." Olaf stared into the distance. "But we paid a long price, Erik. Theodred son of Theoden King has fallen, and they bear his body, the men coming behind us."
As if turned to stone stood Erik, unmoving. He felt the blood of his body go thick and run slow and his hands felt as if he had dropped something. His mouth was dry so that when he tried to speak he could not. For the space of some three score heartbeats he stood still and then he turned away, biting his lip so hard the blood ran down his chin.
More men came, among them Harald Haraldson, the standard bearer. He rode beside Theodred's horse that carried Theodred's body. The prince's standard was furled, and the handle stood where the prince's spear had been. The folk were there now, some helping hurt men down from horseback, some carrying water. Erik could do nothing, he sat on the step and stared at the ground. He heard people speak, heard even his mother roused and coming outdoors.
Some few of the men were put up in houses, and those who were unhurt camped in the open space before the smithy. Erik put Ruadh in the half-ruined byre behind the house and got some corn and water to the horse. He leaned against the warm beast as it ate, and wept sorely, clutching the horse's mane in his hands. That night he slept heavily, wrapped in his wretched blankets and lying on the rude cot that was his bed. Once he woke. He heard the sentries calling to each other, calling the hour, calling that all was well. He groaned in misery. All was not well. Theodred was dead, the bold tall Prince. Those long limbs stilled in death, the bright braids caked with blood. His body lay on a makeshift bier in the forge, and a trooper stood at each corner, spear in hand.
In the morning the Eored made a mound for Theodred and the other fallen. "Be sure," Harald Haraldson said, "that we will return for the body of our Prince, and the bodies of our comrades. Now must we ride to Edoras and bear the tidings to Theoden King."
The folk of the hamlet watched as the troopers worked to raise the mound. Erik watched, too, and waited. The day wore on and night fell and then the next morning the Eored prepared to ride out. There had been speech between the Smith and Grima Sigurdson, now in command. Three score of horsemen were left behind as a watch on the fords, and they were to billet in the hamlet. Erik rode to the East and lay hidden in a thicket, Ruadh's reins in his hand. He watched, and waited. Harald Haraldson asked where he might be, but no one could say.
The weather changed. Cold rain fell as the Eored rode out, the men riding with the hoods of their cloaks drawn over their helms. Past Erik they rode, in orderly ranks, silent under the slicing rain. He waited, and watched, and then they were only a dark blur ahead and he got himself up onto Ruadh and rode after them.
Here was another ride that Erik long remembered. Soaked and shivering, behind the Eored he rode. No cloak had he, but an old horse blanket tied anyhow about him, one corner serving as a hood. First the right hand on the reins, then the left. He saw that both hands were blue with cold, and after a time he simply tied the reins together and let them rest unheld on Ruadh's neck. The roan horse walked on, keeping to the quick pace of a troop horse, never gaining on his fellows, never falling farther behind.
Midday came and went, unbrightened with sun, still gloomy with low cloud and icy rain. Erik wondered how long he could keep his seat; he was now so cold he knew that only the careful stepping of Ruadh kept him astride. Could the horse sense his misery? Almost Erik began to believe he did. Yet he thought too that the tall beast must also be weary, and longing for warmth and rest. He spoke to the horse, naming him. Ruadh's ears flicked, and he lifted his head a little.
The road was straight here, leading to Edoras, the country open and untreed. There were mountains ahead, Erik knew, but they were hidden this day, looming unseen both South and East. Yet the road did rise and fall somewhat and so it was that Erik came over a low hill and found that two horsemen waited, and he saw that they waited for him. Ruadh quickened his pace and then Erik saw Rolf and Olaf, their faces pale and grim beneath their hooded helms.
"Fool of a boy," Rolf growled. "Were it up to me, I would bid you return to that miserable place."
Erik looked pleadingly at them, and said at last, "I won't go back. You can't stop me from following."
Olaf laughed harshly. "No, we cannot. But we could leave you to drown or freeze, whichever comes first on this fine day."
Naught else was said at that time. They turned their horses and rode on, Erik in the rear. Some time later they came upon a signpost, and it had two arms, one pointing to the Southeast, and one due South. Erik could not read what the signpost said, and he did not ask. They did not turn aside, but carried on to the Southeast and when it was growing very dark they came upon a cluster of buildings and saw lamplit windows. Erik followed the two men into a stable and with stiff, cold hands he tended to Ruadh. Someone gave him a bit of corn in a basin and he managed to get some water into a bucket for the horse. He took up a handful of straw and began to rub the horse down, and the work warmed him and by the time Ruadh was done his corn his coat was dry and smooth and Erik was thinking he wasn't frozen after all.
Rolf and Olaf had been engaged on the same labour, watching Erik as they curried and brushed their mounts. The boy seemed to have the making of a horseman, no great wonder in a youth of Rohan. It was not anger at Erik that made them speak harshly to him, it was the heartsickness of loss, and cold and weariness. Grima Sigurdson, in command after Theodred's fall, had allowed them to wait for the boy, but he had not said what he intended to do with him. Horses fed and watered and settled clean and dry, they looked to their gear. Erik helped as he might, taking a rag to wet leather and undoing lacings that might dry stiff and tangled. The troopers set their tack aside in an orderly fashion, saddle blankets shaken and spread out on straw, reins pulled smooth.
Going into a barracks, they then looked to themselves and their armour, damp metal was dried and rubbed with oil and leather jerkins and leggings scoured with rags and straw until supple. They were stripped to their shirts and drawers, and now they washed their hands and faces in cold water, and combed out and rebraided their long hair. Erik saw that Olaf's hair was as much silver as gold, and he saw that Rolf had little hair at all on the top of his head, yet both were hale and strong men in the thirties, no more.
"Too many years under a helm," Rolf laughed, rubbing his bald pate. "Mayhap I ought to tie it over the top, that the maidens might think me as hairy as old Olaf here."
Olaf snorted and thumped Rolf's shoulder. "The maidens! And you with a wife and four daughters at home." The wound in Olaf's arm was bleeding sluggishly, blood staining the bandage, but he made nothing of it.
A shadow flickered in Rolf's eyes at this reminder of loved ones at home, but he laughed again. "And you with four wives and no daughters at all, you old scoundrel."
They unrolled woolen shirts and trousers from their packs and pulled them on. But in the loose clothing they still bore themselves as soldiers, none could mistake their calling no matter what they wore.
Other men were in the room, and now stepped forward a younger trooper. He looked Erik up and down and said, "We must find this wretch something fit to wear. We cannot take him about with us in those rags." But his voice was kind, and he grinned at Erik in a comradely fashion.
"Doubtless there will be somewhat in store here," Olaf said. "The quartermaster will know."
"By thunder," another man said. "I am hungry enough to eat the south end of a north bound cow. Let us go to our meat. Come, lad, we can spare a plateful for you."
Erik was as hungry as that man, but he held back, waiting until they were all at table. The long bare trestles held pitchers of ale, and trays of bread. Lamps hung on wall brackets provided a golden light. The food was plain, but to Erik it was a feast. He was used to being fed as if he were a dog, some slop tossed grudgingly to him. The clean orderly room, and the low rumble of the men's voices made him content. Warm, and with a belly fuller than common, he leaned on his elbows and listened.
They spoke of Theodred, and the strange mischance that felled him. They did not weep, such was not their way. They talked of his bravery, and the power of his arms, his skill with weaponry. They were sober, wondering how the old King would take the tidings
Erik understood that a swift rider had gone on, and that the news of Theodred's death would reach the King long before the Eored. "But it is our duty," Grima Sigurdson said, "to tell the old man how his son fell." He sighed. "A duty I have done too often. Even this time I have three new widows to visit. There will be a scarcity of black gowns to buy, methinks, before the next year or so is out."
They fell to talking of the War they knew was coming. The affair at the Fords, they held, was a feint only, a finger of a mighty hand testing the waters of Rohan's chivalry. Erik heard the name Saruman, heard the contempt in the voice that named him traitor and false friend.
"Took you notice," Olaf said, leaning back and scowling, "that the enemy rode our own horses? Have we not heard how they steal only the black ones?"
"'Tis true," another man said. "In my home village there are no black horses left, neither mare nor foal." He struck the table hard with his fist and the mugs jumped and one spilled.
"There is no need to waste good beer, just because we are going to War," Rolf said. "We must remember what is important."
Erik listened as they jested. He was very tired, and yet he wished to sit as long as they did. Harald Haraldson spoke. "Tomorrow we will doubtless meet the new garrison riding West. Methinks none too soon."
"And who will go in command, now that Theodred has fallen? The whole of the West Emnet was in his charge," Harald said.
"It must surely fall to Eomer Eadig," Grima said. "A valiant man, so I have heard, although I have never been under his command."
"A valiant man indeed, but his hands are full already, with the charge of the East Emnet. And the King
." Rolf stopped. "Well, the King is not like to come out of his Hall and ride to war."
Harald Haraldson nodded. "True. Well, as Theoden's sister's son, Eomer is now heir to the kingdom, maybe he will be kept in Meduseld, not sent afield. Should he fall, Rohan would be in a sorry state."
"No other is there but Eomer?" Erik asked. "Did the Prince have no brothers?"
"No, lad, he did not. Nor does Eomer, there is only his sister the Lady Eowyn," Olaf said. "I have seen her, a beautiful maiden, very like to her brother and cousin. Ever were they close, Theodred and those two. She will weep sorely to hear of his death."
"He had gloves," Erik said, his voice a little thick, "that she made for him. He told me."
"Aye, lad. It is a sad business, all told. Who would have thought it? That he would fall, in a little affair like that?" Olaf said.
Rolf shrugged. "No man knows the hour of his death. Nor the manner. Come, set that pitcher moving, you fellows. I am still dry."
In his heart Erik was a little sore, that these troopers jested over their beer while the Prince lay dead in a pile of dirt far from his home and kin. What it was he thought they ought to do, he did not know. He looked at the weathered faces along the table. Many bore scars. One man had only two fingers on his right hand, another he had seen walked with a dreadful limp. These were hard men who lived hard lives; even in grief they were hard and dry like tree roots or stones.
Then came in a man who put a bundle before Erik. He unwrapped it and there was a pair of woolen trousers and a woolen shirt, and a cloak. Nothing was new, but all was clean and well tended. He stammered his thanks.
Some of the men left the table and went into the long room lined with bunks. Erik was shown to one near the door and he put on his new clothes and lay down, pulling his new cloak over himself as an extra blanket. He was so weary his hands trembled, but he did not sleep for a time. He heard voices, but not words, laughter, benches scraping along the floor.
Then someone began a song, and other men joined in. Erik's tears flowed in the dark, hearing the slow, sonorous lament that the troopers sang, an old song from days of Eorl the Young. Erik saw, in his mind's eye, the tall Prince on his horse, like a hero of olden days. Like the warrior in the song, Theodred would ride no more.
In which Erik goes to Helm's Deep
Some men had sentry duty, the guard changed every four hours, and Erik woke each time he heard the outer door thud shut. He lay listening for a time, but fell back into sleep, warmer and more comfortable than he could ever remember being. But the barracks were astir early, and Erik was roused from sleep by the clatter of men going to their breakfast.
It was with some surprise that he heard the troopers complain of hard narrow beds, and rough fare for breakfast. To Erik all was luxury, clean and well ordered. Along the trestles steaming pitchers stood, full of some hot drink new to him, they named it Tea and told him it came from some far off land. He tasted it doubtfully and found it somewhat bitter, but the others drank it eagerly and so did he. Bread thick sliced and sweet good butter, hunks of cheese and even some slices of ham, were set about, and he fell on the good food like a ravening wolf. Or so Olaf named him, laughing.
"How many years have you, Erik?" Rolf asked.
Eric flushed and answered, "I am not sure. Fifteen, I think."
"Ah, yes," Rolf said. "I remember fifteen, and seeming never to have enough to eat. My mother was always threatening to hide the victuals, to keep my brother and me from leaving everyone else hungry." He slid the platter of ham toward Erik. "Eat your fill, boy. We will ride all day, and no stop for a midday meal, if I know Grima Sigurdson."
Harald Haraldson came in just then, and he looked at Erik in a measuring fashion. "Are you done your breakfast? Then come with me, Erik."
Erik followed Harald out into the grey morning and into the stable. Harald said, "I have found a saddle for you, and some other gear. You can see that all is dusty and stiff, and since you must be ready to ride out when we do, you ought to get at it." He showed Erik where was stowed the saddle soap and Erik fell to with a will.
Gleams of wintry sunshine fell upon the stable floor. Horses stamped in their stalls and men came in and began saddling up, soon the stableyard was full of mounted men. Grima Sigurdson was last to leave the barracks and when he was mounted the order was given to ride out.
But scarce had they left the post when they met Lord Ulfwine with his troops, riding hard to the Fords of Isen. These men had been in the land at the roots of the mountains between Edoras and the Hornburg. Some news had come to Ulfwine that the enemy was indeed on the move in great force. Word he had had of Theodred's fall, and he was hot for vengeance. So it fell out that most of Theodred's Eored turned to ride Westward with Ulfwine again, while some few, the wounded and some others such as Erik rode with them until the signpost was reached that showed the road to Helm's Deep.
Grima Sigurdson then said, after some talk with Ulfwine "We must haste to the Fords with these men of Ulfwine's. Do you send men out to the folk in these parts that they ought to prepare themselves to take refuge in Helm's Deep. Should the fight go against us at the Fords—"
Here was he shouted down, men slamming their spears on their shields.
"Never!" they shouted. "Never while Ulfwine the Fair commands!" For this Ulfwine was named the Fair, a nickname first given in jest, due to his fine garments and gilded armour. Those there were who sneered at his finery, and it was said that he wore the yield of half the Westfold on his back. Yet the men who rode in his Eored would brook no insult to their lord, vain as a maiden he might be, but he wielded a sword as well as any and better than most. His men loved him, for he never sent them into the fray but was always in the van, his gilt helm and shield a mark for them to follow. His finicking ways were laughable to those who knew him not, but no man who had fought beside him ever laughed at him again. In him lived again the berserker warrior of old, and when the battle fury was upon him none could stand against him.
Ulfwine the Fair raised his hand. "We must prepare for the worst, our folk must be ready to move! Should the fight go against us at the Fords we will retreat here if we can, and so aid those who must then flee. At worst, some word will be sent. See that the folk understand and obey!"
Erik thought of the hamlet that had been his home. Away from the main roads to the Fords, would his old neighbours be safe? His mother? He put the thought away, there was naught he could do. He knew he could not come there in time to warn them. Some three score of Theodred's men remained there, and he heard Grima Sigurdson say that some men would take that road and see how they fared. He did not say, and no one else did, either, that they may already have learned the lesson, written in their own blood, that the earlier raid had been a feint indeed, and had succeeded.
The main host rode on away from them. Gone with Grima Sigurdson and the others were Rolf and Olaf, eager to avenge their lord. On the road to Helm's Deep Erik fell in beside a young trooper. The man was wounded in the leg; he could not bend it but let it hang loose, that foot not in the stirrup. He cursed his wound, wanting to ride to the Fords.
"You are Erik, are you not?" he said at last. "I am Tostig Ulfson."
Erik answered, "Yes, I am Erik. Does your leg pain you much?"
"Not much. But the worst of it is, as you see, that the splint keeps me from bending it. I would be no use in a fight, so here I am. Ah, well, it may come to fighting anyway, if things go ill." He frowned. "Who would have though that Theodred would fall? And now we hear from Ulfwine's men that Eomer Eomundson is in bad favour with the King! Surely in this hour of need the folk of the Mark must not be troubled over such a thing! A valiant man is Eomer Eadig, worthy heir of the Mark!"
Shocked, Erik said, "But there is no other! The King cannot set him aside, can he?"
"Not the King, no." Tostig frowned. "I am no courtier, mind you, but these matters are become common knowledge. The King does not rule. He is in his dotage, and in the hands, as well, of those who do not have the good of the Mark at heart."
Such was Erik's ignorance of what went forth in the kingdom that Tostig's words frightened him. He wondered if it was that Tostig made out to know more than he did, if Tostig sought to make himself greater in Erik's eyes. Yet the young man's honest face and worried look made Erik think his doubts groundless.
"Still," Tostig said. "This is my homeland, the Westfold, and I rejoice to think I will soon see my father and mother."
Erik looked around him, this was a richer land than his own part of the West Emnet, here were rich farms and pastures, not the rocky fields and gorse uplands that lay farther to the North and West. They came upon a village and did as Ulfwine had ordered, warning the villagers to prepare to flee to Helm's Deep should need arise. The folk they spoke to listened at first in doubting silence, but then the sight of the wounded men and the news of Theodred's death shocked many of them into moving out right then, following the horsemen.
The evening of the second day's riding brought them to the Deeping Coomb. They rode into the Hornburg in good order and Erik stared about in wonder. Such sights he had never seen, the great rock wall and the tower, the sloping road rising to the ramparts. He felt very small and unimportant, riding into the great fortress. Surely no power in the world could take such a stronghold?
The next day and the next a stream of country folk poured into the place. Carrying what they could on their backs, or pulling handwagons, women and children and old men came. Tostig's mother came, and his father, and the four of his nine brothers who were too young to go to war, and the lovely dark-haired sister of whom Tostig had said, "I am one of ten sons, and there is a sister for each of us." Erik quickly understood that Tostig had only one sister, but the joke made him laugh in the midst of his worry. Warriors straggled in, ahorse and afoot, escaping the enemy that now roamed the Westfold seemingly at will.
Thus it was that Erik and the men he rode with were there when the King of the Mark rode in. Standing with Tostig Erik saw the old man on his white horse. Tostig shook his head in wonder. "This is a thing I thought never to see, Erik. I have never before seen the King, yet I have been in Edoras many times. All knew that he sat frail and foolish on the Golden Chair, guided to and fro by women. Yet here he is!"
Erik heard many of those around him say the same. Erik raised his voice, shouting, "Theoden King! Theoden for the Mark!" All this was new to him. He had scarcely known that his land was called the Mark of Rohan, and until now the King had been like a tale told to little children.
With the King came news of a great battle at the Fords, and all wondered if the Rohirrim were defeated. All felt dismay and the bite of increased fear. Erkenbrand, maybe, had fallen. Of Ulfwine the Fair and the men he commanded nothing was known.
Erik understood that he had come to a time and place of great danger, that a savage enemy was on the march to where he and his white-haired King sought safety, yet he exulted, thinking that at last he was living life as a man should.
For so he now named himself. The day before he had been given a sword, and Tostig, leaning on a crutch, gave Erik and a few other boys some hasty lessons in the sword exercise. "The chief thing is," Tostig urged, "that you use all your strength. You must put all such power as you possess into the blow!" He frowned at Erik and at the other youths who looked to him with trust in their eyes. Tostig muttered a curse under his breath and turned away. "I need water," Tostig said. "Do you, Eorl, fetch some to me." Other men so engaged had the same look on their faces, this was not soldiering as they had known it, teaching downy-cheeked lads just enough to get them killed.
There was much talk among the folk about the strangers who rode with the King. Wild stories flew about in the caverns behind, where hid the women and children. Erik did not listen much to the tales, he deemed himself too old for fairy stories. Eomer Eomundson he had seen for sure, a tall man much like Theodred, and beside him a warrior roughly dressed yet with lordly bearing. These two seemed to be everywhere, ordering the defense of the Hornburg, and wherever they went men took heart.
Erik wandered to the rampart and looked out into deepening night. He saw torches in the dark, everywhere, and knew hosts of the enemy were drawing closer with each heartbeat. There was a kind of roaring noise in the air, like a distant waterfall, it was the voices of brigade upon brigade of the enemy marching, their voices and their feet upon the rocky ground, the rattle of weaponry. There was no sound of horses, in the Burg or out. Horses there were, stabled in caverns behind, but here was no ground for the Rohirrim to ride in battle. All along every inch of the wall men waited.
Erik returned to Tostig and the others. They were to be held in reserve, Tostig said, and he and the other men ordered things so that Erik and the other lads were set in a quiet place near the South end of the Deeping Wall. "I or some other will come for you, if need be," Tostig said. "Do not move unless you are ordered."
Some of the boys muttered angrily and Erik, too, felt that they ought to be on the wall now, ready for the fray. "Do as you are ordered!" This from a tall harsh-featured man with one arm bound on his breast in a sling. "You are soldiers of the Mark now and must do as you are commanded!" Erik remembered Theodred's words to him, and swallowed the defiance that surged in him. The memory of that prince steadied him. He tried, too, to swallow his fear, for always the roaring noise grew nearer and louder, and now could be heard shrieks and screams, the enemy pouring out oaths and curses of hatred for the Eorlingas.
With them waited an old man, Gaute Hardrada he was called. He held a sword in his gnarled hand, the blade bright and sharp, made in the old fashion such as was not used any more. His arms were thin but ropy with muscle and tattooed with marks signifying the campaigns he had ridden in. He grinned at the boys with his toothless mouth, his sunken cheeks white with stubble. "This is the worse part, my lads," he said. "The waiting. Now does the time drag, and the heart quail. Take courage. Many a fight was I with Theoden King in the old days, and came ever home ahorse, and maidens throwing roses at our feet. This night will bring sure victory over the witless fools who think to take the Hornburg."
Gaute Hardrada sat with his back against the rock wall, his helm resting on his bony knees. The mail shirt he wore hung loose, once his shoulders and chest had filled it. But his eyes were bright, and his calm courage steadied the boys.
Erik closed his eyes and listened to the beat of his own heart, then he knew that the sound was coming through the very rock. Men shouted nearby. Boys, younger than they, ran past with buckets and bags of sand. They were to throw it beneath the feet of the men to keep their footing dry and upon any fire that should begin.
Tostig was there of a sudden, and he shouted, "Come with me, men!" Erik hurried with him, wondering that Tostig could run so fast on his bad leg. Now, around the corner of the wall, the noise struck Erik and the others like a fist. Erik's foot hit something and he saw that it was a man lying dead. Wounded men crawled back, and the floor was slick with blood despite the sand.
Tostig got them to the wall and there before them was a scene from a nightmare, hordes of the enemy swarming over all the ground before the wall, and onto tall ladders. They were placed between older men, to steady them, and Erik looked to his left and saw old Gaute Hardrada. Taller he seemed, and his face was stern. He had fastened the chin strap of his helm and Erik did the same, yet the thing was so heavy it hurt his head. Noise like thunder, only sharper and closer than any thunder could be, assaulted them.
There were men clambering over the wall, he saw Gaute's sword slice down and saw a man's face, startled, then the man fell away. Just a man. A face like any other man. But before Erik could take a breath, in the space of only heartbeats, another man was there. Erik raised his sword with a shout and swung it. He could hear nothing for the riot of noise all around him, he could hear nothing at all, yet in his mind he thought he could hear the sound his sword made when it struck the man in the shoulder and the blood spewed forth, and the white bone glinted in the torchlight.
"Good!" Gaute Hardrada grunted. "A mighty blow, youngling!"
Now did Erik go into another place. He could see all that took place in front of him, but it was as if time was slowed, and it passed thick like honey, flowing in a new way. His ears closed to the noise and he heard it not, neither the enemy nor the men and boys who fought and died next to him, nor his own voice shouting The lust for killing was upon him.
It is a Long Night
From midnight on fell the heavy rain, but such was the shape of the walls and tower that the rain fell most on the enemy. Frequent flashes of lightning and the fitful light of torches showed that the ground had become a sea of mud and blood, and corpses lay everywhere. Yet on they came, endless rank upon rank, it seemed almost that two sprang up for every one fallen, and so the night wore on. Scarce did Erik draw breath. A red mist was before his eyes and he swung his sword until he could hardly lift it for weariness.
He came to himself, someone was pulling on his arm, a voice was urgent in his ear. "Back! Back, men!" Tostig was shouting. "We can do no more here!" Gasping and staggering Erik followed Tostig. He saw men dead and dying everywhere, but one at least walked with him, old Gaute Hardrada. He had a long gash down one skinny arm, and blood trickled from a cut on his chin, but he stepped along with Erik as if he were walking in a meadow on some sunny day.
They were herded back to the next wall, one flight higher. Erik rested on his sword, trying to slow his laboured breathing, to marshal his strength . Naught did he remember of the hours he had just lived through. He was unscathed, not a mark on him anywhere. When someone thrust a bottle into his hands he drank deeply of the cold water.
"We have done good work, men, " Tostig said. "Take now some slow breaths while I see where the Captain wants us next."
Gaute Hardrada took the bottle from Erik and drank, then set the bottle down empty. He took a rag and wiped his sword and then pulled out a stone and honed the edge of his blade where it had been dulled. "And to think," he said, "that this day week I was sharpening the plough, and my grandson playing at my feet. Well, well, once this little scuffle is past, we will be home in time for ploughing after all." He leaned against the wall again, and closed his eyes. "Take what rest you can," he said to the boys, "we will be at it again in a trice."
Spoke up one of the other boys. "Scuffle? Is that what you call this?" His voice shook, and Erik saw that his hands did as well.
Answered Gaute, "No, lad. ‘Tis no scuffle, but the worst fight I was ever in. I spoke lightly, it is ever the soldier's way." Now did Gaute Hardrada show all his years on his old face. "Whatever comes of this night, my lads, know that few here will ever see such a battle again."
Pale and drawn of face, their gowns bedraggled and bloodstained, women and girls hurried about tending to the wounded. Tostig's sister came to where Erik stood, her sweet and pretty face ashen. "Where is my brother Tostig?" she said. "I must have speech with him."
Tostig stepped forward from the shadows and she ran to him and said, crying, "Our brother Ceorl is dead! Oh, Tostig, he died in my arms!"
Tostig frowned down at her, shaking his head. "That is ill news," he said, his voice flat and hard. "Yet many have fallen this night, sister. Many will weep on the morrow. Go now, and do your duty."
She reeled as if he had slapped her, then she gasped and said, "I am sorry, Tostig. Yes. I see." She straightened her slender back. Erik saw that she reached up and touched Tostig's face gently. "Take what care you can," she said. Then she turned and was gone.
Erik looked away, for he could no longer bear seeing Tostig's face. He looked up. The sky had cleared, but the stars were now fading with the dawn.
Came now one of those moments that come in the midst of a battle sometime. Here and there a voice echoed in the caverns behind, and the noise of the fighting below seemed stilled for the space of a few heartbeats. Then there came a dreadful blast, like all the thunder of all the skies of Middle Earth. Erik heard cries of dismay from the men on the walls and he stood up straight, drawing in a long uneven breath. Gaute Hardrada and Tostig and the others fell into line behind the Captain.
Then sounded the horn of Helm from the Hornburg, and never could Erik recall this without his blood leaping. Cheering he heard, and other horns, and going to the wall he and the others looked down and saw the King's white horse bearing the King, and he saw horsemen behind, swords held high, and they charged out onto the causeway and into the midst of the enemy.
As another chronicler has told the tale, the armies of the enemy were destroyed in that morning. Yet not all the enemy was down there, plenty yet were left climbing about the walls and ramparts, men wild with fear now, and caring only to kill as many as they could before they were themselves killed and cast over the wall. On fought Erik and his friends and the stone floors ran red.
Fell now Gaute Hardrada, mortally wounded. Erik would have lifted him, but the old man pushed him feebly away. "No," he whispered. "Leave me be, boy." He breathed quick and shallow. Erik could not believe how much blood his thin body held, it ran bright and quick across the stones. He grinned at Erik. "This is how we die, boy," he said, "we men of the Mark." With that, he drew his last breath.
Erik knelt by the old man's body. He looked up at the sky now bright with morning, and thought of the day he had shown Theodred the way to the Fords. "An ugly business," Theodred had said. "Not like the tales." No, it was not like any tale Erik knew, that an old man should die by the sword and not in his bed. He took up Gaute's sword and with a sword in each hand he ran shouting down the rampart.
The fighting ended, yet maybe not soon enough. Tostig Ulfson took his charges into the caverns where they were fed and could wash and find some clean garments. Some, like Erik, had no other clothes to wear, but he did what he might, and after eating he went out and about.
Who should he come upon almost at once, but his friends Rolf and Olaf. They buffeted his shoulder and swore they had come only to find him.
"By thunder!" Rolf said. "We hear that there were great deeds done here in the night! It is ever our fortune to come late to the party."
But soon Erik heard of the great battle at the Fords and the long retreat to Helm's Deep, riding and marching with Erkenbrand of Westfold, and with Ulfwine the Fair. By the fortune of war, few of Theodred's Eored fell in this battle, and Erik was glad. To be sure, men had to fall and it was a grievous thing, yet ever better it seemed if it was not men he knew.
There was much talk of the strange doings in the Coomb, trees appearing where no trees had been before. Yet little heed did Erik pay this. Valiant men had fought through the night. Trees or no trees, the King of the Mark would have come to a bad end without the valour of men.
Rolf and Olaf were full of the second Battle of the Fords. "The troops we left, Erik, when we left with you, were in the thick of it when we arrived, none too soon. Be sure the enemy thought to cross the river at will! Though we did fall back, we made him pay. Aye, we made him pay."
Olaf looked sidelong at Erik. "But Erik, we have ill news for you. Your home is no more, all the houses there were burned and all the folk killed, as far as we can discover. It is certain that your mother is dead, lad."
Erik shrugged. He did not know what to say, as he could not feign grief that he did not feel. Yet it was a blow, for now all he had ever known was gone beyond recall. He struggled to find words. "I am sorry to learn of this," he said at last. Ugly words sprang to his mind, but he understood it was not a man's part to speak such things of his own mother. No tender memories had he of his mother, yet here he stood and she was dead and something like sorrow stirred in him.
Grima Sigurdson rode up, and beside him Harald Haraldson. They saluted Erik gladly. "Men," Grima Sigurdson said, "we will ride this evening. Word has come that Theoden King will ride to Isengard."
Men exchanged looks. "Isengard!" Rolf said. "Well. Well. I guess we had better see to the horses, then, before we once again take the road to the Fords." He muttered something, and Erik thought he heard, "Are we made of stone? Is the King mad?"
Yet soon came a Captain with orders. None who had been at the Battle of the Fords of Isen would return there, they were to ride to Edoras on the morrow, they and all the others except the small troop that would ride with the King. Here were many seen to shake their heads, wondering at the seeming folly of the King.
"The comings and goings of Kings and Wizards and such folk mean naught to us, anyway," Rolf said. "Doubtless they will not seek our counsel!"
Rolf and Olaf went with Erik into the caverns, and stabled their horses beside Ruadh. They groomed their horses and cleaned all their gear and then took some sleep, spreading their bedrolls on the cavern floor. Erik slept beside them, and he slept dreamlessly all the rest of that day and through the night.
He came slowly awake on the next morning to the sound of voices. He stretched and yawned and someone nudged him with a booted foot. "Come, you sluggard," someone said. "If you would eat before we ride, you had better hurry!"
The caverns were still pretty full of folk. Many wounded lay there, and would for some time, and so would remain those who cared for them. Tostig Ulfson was at table when Erik came in and they ate breakfast together. Erik saw that Tostig looked weary still, and he ate little.
At last Tostig spoke. "What think you now of it all, Erik? Of war, and soldiering?"
"I do not know," Erik said. "It is too big for me, I only know my part."
"Yes," Tostig answered. "That is all any man knows. But you bore you valiantly, Erik. It was a terrible battle."
"So he said," Erik said. "Old Gaute. He said it was the worst fight he was ever in."
Tostig nodded. "Yes. It was. Many good men fell. My brother Ceorl is dead. My brother Ivar is sore wounded."
"I am sorry," Erik said. "You will stay here? You will not ride with us?"
"I will stay. And do you go? You are not a trooper yet, Erik. Maybe you will have to stay here."
"I will not stay," Erik answered. "I will go with Theodred's Eored."
Here Tostig smiled ruefully. "I suppose you will," he said.
"I would do one thing before I go," Erik said. "I must find the kin of Gaute Hardrada. I have his sword and I deem he would have liked it to go to his grandson."
Tostig nodded. "I will come with you, and see how my brother Ivar fares."
Here Erik again spoke to Tostig's mother and father, as they sat by the pallet where lay Ivar feverish, tossing his head about on his pillow. His sister Frieda was taking her rest, and the younger brothers were getting some gear together to return to their holding.
After some inquiry Erik found the daughter and grandson of Gaute Hardrada. The daughter was a tall homely woman, but her face was kind and she took the sword from Erik gratefully. Her son, a lad of about six summers, looked up at Erik with admiring eyes.
"You stood by my father?" the daughter asked. "How did---"
Erik understood what she did not ask. "Be sure he died well. He was a valiant man." He looked down at the little boy who had taken the sword from his mother. "See that you take care of that, youngling." There was not much more he could think of to say.
They rode out of Helm's Deep into the westering sun, taking the road that led them straight to Edoras, along the roots of the mountains. Here was the great estate of Ulfwine the Fair, and Rolf and Olaf had much to say of that man.
"His right hand was hewn off in the battle," Rolf said. "And he did but bid his henchman to make a sword blade red hot, and when it was so, he put it himself against the stump to stop the bleeding. They say he made a great shout of agony, but he held it there."
"They say he is going to have a gold hand made," Olaf said, laughing. "And I for one believe it. I hear that the King bid him return to his hall, but he vows he is going to Edoras. That is where the goldsmiths are, he said, and he does not intend to go about without a hand."
Erik shook his head in wonder. Such deeds as these were worthy of a song, he thought. He wished it was in him to make a song.
They rode along in companionable silence for a time under the starlit sky. The waxing moon rose. Grima Sigurdson rode now beside Erik. "So, lad," he said. "They made a soldier of you in that place, I hear."
Erik felt the red blood in his face and he stammered, "I did only what I could, sir."
"No man could say more," Grima answered. "But nonetheless you are not yet a trooper and it has been much in my mind how to deal with you."
"I would stay with you, sir," Erik answered. "I can help with the horses and gear, I can do whatever is needful."
"It is not that simple, Erik," Grima said. "I am not sure that I have the right to allow this. But these are strange days, and it seems that many things are done that were not done before. I will do what I can."
Grima and the other men fell to talking about the King of the Mark, and Eomer Eomundson, and other matters that set Erik's mind wandering. Erik had seen the old King, a fine looking man with white hair on a white horse. He had seen the King's great standard, the running horse on the green field. He had seen tall Eomer.
But the doings of the great folk were far from Erik's thoughts. He thought instead of Gaute Hardrada and Tostig Ulfson and the boys he had fought beside. Some now were dead, boys no older than he. There came into his mind the things he had seen and done in the battle. Of a sudden he felt sick and afraid. And he wondered, too, how could it be that he was here, safe, and so many lay dead? There was no one to ask, and so he went along in the dark.
It chanced that they came to Edoras as the sun set. Erik rode yet with Rolf and Olaf, among the last of the horsemen. Erik had never seen aught like this place. Speechless with amazement he rode, staring about at all he saw. He had heard that there were such things as cities, and if this was a city then what he saw far surpassed any word he had ever heard. Folk stood on the steep roads and cheered as the horsemen rode by. Some they cheered by name, and those lords raised their hands in salute. Such had been the pace of the troopers that marching men with Erkenbrand were at the heels of the last horses.
"Now we part company from these great ones," Rolf said. "We will go to our barracks. It is long since we lay there, I tell you."
The barracks were far from the courts. They rode in with a clatter of arms and hooves, and there were folk there to welcome them. A plump pretty woman ran to Rolf and he seized her laughing in his arms, his four little girls hung on their mother's skirts and stared shyly about. Olaf steered Erik into the stable and then was there plenty to do, to get the horses tended to and to visit the paymaster and the laundry and whatnot.
"Tomorrow," Olaf said, "I will take you about to some shops and you can get you some other clothes. Have you any money, lad?"
"I have the coin that Theodred gave me," Eric said. He drew it out and Olaf whistled.
"Ever was he free with his money! This is wealth indeed, my boy. This will buy you clothes and more besides, even a decent pair of boots. Now, let us get to the bath-house and then we will see what there is for us to eat."
The place was a-bustle. Scores of men were garrisoned here, and there were smithies and forges and woodshops and all the things needed to fit out such soldiers. Armourers, and men who made boots and other leather gear. Farriers and grooms. It took many trades to make an Eored, Erik saw. And at the end of the row, across from the dining hall, was the bathhouse, built over a hot spring that poured from the rock beneath.
Never before had Erik had a bath in hot water. He felt foolish and awkward stripping to his skin among all the others, but no one took note of him and he followed Olaf into the steaming water. Olaf ducked himself and came up grinning, and he began to scour himself all over with soap and a stiff brush. He unbound his braids and rubbed soap in his hair, and then ducked under again to wash the soap away. Erik did as he saw others do, and soon thought that the sensation of the hot water and soap was very pleasant. He got soap in his eyes and it stung, but that was his only mishap. Benches along the wall held piles of towels and Erik wrapped one around himself and followed Olaf and some others into the steam room.
Here men sat about and baked themselves in the steams that rose from the slatted floor. Erik listened to their talk, and heard nothing to do with the war or fighting. They spoke of horses and women and sport. Some of what was said made Erik want to laugh, some did not. Olaf said little, but Erik took note that when he did speak the other men listened.
Erik was reluctant to put his filthy clothes on again, after the bath and the steam. But he had nothing else. In the barracks many of the men were putting on their town clothes and preparing to go out, and some laughingly invited Erik to join them.
He was abashed and was glad when Grima Sigurdson came in. Grima wore still his riding gear; he had been busy with duties and had not had time to go to the bathhouse. Among his duties he had found time to think of Erik and now he told Erik where he was to sleep. Grooms and stable boys for the officers were kept at this barracks, and there was room in their quarters for Erik.
Two youths were in the boy's quarters when Grima brought Erik. They sat at a table absorbed in some game but leapt to their feet when they saw Grima. Grima gestured to the bunks lining the walls and said, "Not all are used, as you can see. Blankets there are in that cupboard, I think." He turned and left.
Erik wished he could follow Grima. Instead he tossed his pack under an unmade bunk, and took some blankets out of the cupboard. He did not look at the other boys, but he knew they were watching him.
At last one spoke. "I am Leod Aldorson, and this is Folca Fengelson. What are you called?"
"I am Erik," Erik said. He lifted his chin when he said it.
The two boys looked at each other and the one called Folca said, "Erik? Erik who? What is your father's name?"
Erik flushed angrily. "What is it to you? " he said.
Leod frowned. "They have foisted some nameless hick on us, Folca. Let us show him what we think of such doings!"
They came at Erik with no good purpose in their clenched fists and frowning faces. He felt his breath come quicker. "Are these town manners?" he asked. "For two to attack one?"
"How are we to decide which one of us will have the pleasure of teaching you town manners?" Folca sneered.
"Then come ahead," Erik said. "I am worth two such as you, any day!"
It was a brief affair. They were no match for Erik's fury, and soon gave way. Leod had a black eye and a sore hip from being thrown against a bench. Folca tried to wrestle Erik to the floor, then felt his arm being twisted cruelly up his back.
Just then the door opened and a man came in. "Fighting?" he shouted. "You know the rules, you boys!"
Folca and Leod staggered to their feet and cast scared looks at this man.
The man looked at Erik. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?"
"I am Erik," Erik replied. "And Grima Sigurdson brought me here."
The man stared hard at Erik. "Well," he said at last. "I will let you off, this once. But these two know the rule and they are not let off." He went to the wall where a board hung with letters on it and he scratched some more alongside.
When he had closed the outer door behind him, Leod said, "You fight like a wildcat, Erik." He put out his hand. "Cry friends?"
Erik shook hands with Leod and then Folca. "What will happen to you for fighting?" he asked.
"Extra work," Folca answered. "They can always find somewhat for punishment. You are lucky to be let off, I tell you."
Just then Olaf came in. "Come, Erik," he said. "If we do not hurry, we will get nothing to eat."
As Olaf and Erik walked to the mess, Olaf said, "A rough welcome, boy?"
"Yes," Erik answered, "but we are friends now, I think."
"Boys are ever so," Olaf said. "But I think you can take care of yourself."
The mess was nearly empty, but a servant found food for Olaf and Erik.
Erik saw that Olaf was not dressed to go out. "Do not you wish to go out, Olaf?" he asked.
Olaf shrugged. "I am weary, Erik. Those younger men, they are eager for fun, but I confess I am eager only for my pillow." He laughed. "Once I would have been in the forefront, mind you. But I hear we are to have the weapontake the day after tomorrow and then we will ride out again, and I am too old to do all this warring about without my rest!"
Erik nodded. "I am very weary, also. And besides, I would not know where to go."
When Erik returned to his quarters there were more boys there. He went quietly to his own bunk and sat down and pulled off his boots. Leod came over and sat beside him. "I hear you were in the battle at Helm's Deep, Erik. What luck you had!"
Erik shook his head. He could not say what he thought, that it was not lucky to be in a battle. He knew the other boys would laugh at him, and think him a coward, if he were to say that it was an awful thing, to be in a fight such as that. He saw that Leod admired him, and envied him. At last he said, "I was there, yes. But a man fighting does not see much of what goes forth. He sees only his own part."
"So my father says," Folca said. He picked up Erik's sword, turning it over in his hands. "Where had you this? It is not like the swords made here."
"It was given me at Helm's Deep, from the store there. There were many such, and armour besides. I guess they were from other days." He did not like to see Folca handle his sword, and when it was given back to him he sheathed it carefully and put it along the wall at the back of his bed.
He lay awake for some time. He heard the other boys joking and the noise of their horseplay and he thought that he felt as old as Olaf. Some of these fellows were likely older than he, but he thought they were all very young. He turned on his side and faced the wall and drew his blankets up and closed his eyes. He hoped that sleep would come before the other things came, the memories of the battle, and how a man's foot slipped in the blood, and how even the screams of the enemy hurt the ear.
Erik goes Shopping
Erik woke to the noise made by the boys whose quarters he shared. All had duties to do before breakfast, and he had Ruadh to see to so he followed them to the stable. The tall roan horse greeted Erik gladly. Erik mucked out his stall, saw to his feed and water and then went outdoors.
Here were troopers going about their morning duties. Erik saw Harald Haraldson and they had some speech together, then when Harald left him Erik wandered up the row to the mess. Inside was the din of many men eating and talking but Erik saw Olaf seated with some other men so he went in. They hailed him and soon he was sitting with them and eating his breakfast. They jested with him about the amount of food he had taken, but he knew them well enough now to return jest for jest, and besides he was hungry enough to eat without much talk anyway. He could not take in the fact that some of these men complained of the fare. Eggs and ham and cheese and good thick bread, porridge with honey and milk poured over, and pitchers of steaming tea. He cleaned his plate with a hunk of bread and Olaf said, "If you think you could swallow more, lad, go back for seconds."
Erik did so, and while standing in line he was jostled by someone. Turning, he saw Leod and Folca grinning at him. Since Olaf had risen and gone out, Erik took his second plateful and sat with these boys. They, too, ate as if they were starving. Erik saw that they were washed and that their hair was neatly combed and tied back and that they had changed out of their stable clothes. He wished more than ever that he had some decent clothes to wear, and he hoped Olaf would remember that he was to take Erik to the shops.
Men came and went, going on duty or off. The courtyard was a constant stir and Erik and the two other boys stood in the porch for a time and watched the comings and goings. All were preparing for the weapontake. The boys knew many of the troopers by name, and all the Captains by repute. Grima Sigurdson they held in high esteem. "After all," Leod said, "he rode second to Theodred the King's son."
Folca spoke up. "There was a Captain! All admired him, Second Marshall of the Mark. All looked to the day when he might be King."
They looked at Erik questioningly. "We hear that you knew him," Leod said.
"For a day," Erik said shortly.
"How so, Erik?" Leod asked, somewhat shyly. "I have served in this barracks for two years and saw him ride in and out countless times, yet never did I have speech with him, or even think to."
"It chanced that he came to the place I lived and that he needed a scout. Any man of the place could have served, but it happened to fall to me." Erik shifted uncomfortably and turned the subject, saying, "There is Ulfwine the Fair. Did you hear the tale of his hand?"
Indeed this tale had gone abroad over the whole city in one night. The boys watched as the great Captain dismounted and went to the armourer. They wished they might hear what was said. They could see plain enough that he did not have a gold hand on the end of his right arm, but a bandage bound about.
Now came Olaf, wearing a loose robe belted over hose, and soft boots. "Well, Erik," he said. "Shall we go into the town and see about spending that gold coin of yours?"
They walked up the steep street to the middle of the town. Erik tried not to stare about like a wild Wose from the woods, but he thought he could not take in the half of what he saw. Crowds of folk everywhere, and the noise of their voices, and the clatter of wheels and the iron shoes of horses and the squealing of pigs and the crowing of roosters, and piemen shouting and all the rest. Yet, Olaf said, the city was more than half empty, many had fled to the Hold at Dunharrow, and more were leaving with each hour.
Olaf spoke to one and another, and so they came to a shop where he said Erik might find some breeches and a shirt.
It was well that Erik had Olaf with him, for he was no hand himself at bargaining. Olaf and the shopkeeper seemed to make a game of it, and the upshot was that Erik's gold coin bought more than he could have imagined and he got a handful of lesser coins in change.
A bootmaker was next, and here again was Erik glad to let Olaf do the dealing.
Nothing would do but he had to make a pair of boots for Erik, the man said.
Olaf snorted with disbelief. "Do you take me for a some simpleton of a rustic, standing about pulling the straw out of my hair? I know full well that you have a stock of good used boots behind that curtain, you old swindler!"
"Used boots? You would buy used boots for your son?" the man asked, with pretended disbelief.
"He is not my son, and if he was, I would still buy him used boots. His feet will grow for years yet, it would be foolish to waste coin on having boots made!" Olaf answered.
And so it proved. The curtain was drawn aside and there were pairs of boots in lines on shelves. As the man fumbled with them, Olaf leaned close to Erik and said, "You know how he comes by these boots, lad?"
Erik shook his head, no.
Olaf grimaced. "Well, he buys boots from widows, you see. Poor folk, who must turn a penny where they can. Do you care?"
Erik laughed. "I never had new boots," he said. "And the pair I was wearing came off the feet of a dead man and what's more, I knew him well." He pulled on the boots the man offered and stood, pleased with their fit.
Then came again the haggling and bargaining and Erik stood trying not to laugh as Olaf and the bootmaker went at it, hammer and tong. At last they left the shop, Olaf in seeming anger, tossing the boots onto the floor. The man stood with folded arms, looking away as they walked out.
"Do not walk so fast, Erik," Olaf said. "I do not wish to kill him of an apoplexy, chasing after us."
Sure enough, scarce had they walked half the length of the alley when the bootmaker called to Olaf. "It must be as you wish," he said, sighing. "My daughters may go hungry, but you may take the boots." Then the bootmaker said to Olaf, "What think you, soldier? We are ordered to Harrowdale. Think you this is a necessity?"
Olaf answered, "Who knows what is to come? ‘Tis ever better to be safe than sorry, and that place is easier of defense than this town. There is great store there, long has it been prepared for a time such as this. Is not the Lady Eowyn returning there now, with more of the folk?"
Erik pulled the boots on again. A little demon of fun made him say, "Keep my old boots, master bootmaker. There will be some profit in that for you, will there not?"
The man scowled, then burst into laughter. "Profit! Aye, they will save me on firewood, for I will burn them, you may be sure! I tell you, youngling, this trooper here is a hard man. Do you see that you never go into a shop without him."
"I will leave you here, Erik. Think you that you can find your way back?" Olaf asked. He gestured up the street. "See the roof of the Golden Hall? That is your landmark. Bear to the East and downhill, and you will come back to the barracks."
Erik watched as Olaf turned away down another street, then he decided to go up and see the Golden Hall for himself. Higher climbed the cobbled road until he stood before the great building. Soldiers of the Mark stood guard at the bottom and the top of the broad stairs, and the sun glinted off the golden pillars and roof. A few men went in and out. Erik stood for some time, wondering what sights might be seen inside.
He thought it strange that only days ago he had never heard of Meduseld, did not even know the name of the King, and here he was, wearing new boots and wishing he could go up those stairs into the King's own house. Just then some ladies came out. One among them caught his eye and he knew her for Eowyn Eomundsdattir, so like was she in woman's form to her brother and cousin.
She ran lightly down the stairs. Her golden hair blew free. Now Erik could see she was wearing light mail over her gown, and that a sword hung at her side. A guard holding her horse handed her a helm. She donned it and swung easily into the saddle. Taking up the reins she lifted her hand in salute, and then was gone, she and her ladies and the guards who rode with them.
Long did Erik think of Eowyn Eomundsdattir. He returned to the barracks and attended to Ruadh, and went carefully over his tack and other gear, but as his hands were busy on these matters, his mind was full of the golden-haired woman he had seen at Meduseld.
Never before had he known that his heart could be so stirred by beauty. It was not so much that she was a woman and lovely, but that for the first time in his life Erik became aware of the longing for beauty that lives in all men. He saw now that the blue sky and the rolling grasslands under the sun, and the clean lines of a running horse and the sight of that slender maiden were all one, in some way.
That day and the next more folk left the city, following the Lady Eowyn to Dunharrow. Some soldiers rode with them, more to keep order than to defend them. At the barracks all was being made ready for the weapontake, and for the march that was sure to follow.
Harald Haraldson, who had been standard-bearer to Theodred, was given new duties, second to Grima Sigurdson. But Theodred's Eored was no more, now all were blended into the charge of Eomer Eomundson. Some grumbling there was, but all knew that this was no time for resentment. Two great battles had been fought. Who knew what was to come next?
Of one thing was Erik certain, that he would ride with his friends. He stayed on the watch for Olaf or Rolf, or for any other that he knew. He listened to all, hearing rumour and fact intermingled, nearly sick with fear that he would take lies for truth and so be left behind. Long he sat in the porch of the stable that day, on the watch. The winter sun faded as heavy cloud rolled over the land. The sun set in dreariness, no red splendour lit the West.
The next day opened under the same cloud. Even at noon it was gloomy as the King rode from Dunharrow to the weapontake. Many riders were already with him, and the muster in Edoras was to be quick. The troopers were ready, and Erik fell in behind his friends. They were to set out that very hour.
To Mundberg, Rolf said, the great stone city to the East. Some message had come from the Lord there, that the enemy was assailing him in great force. Alliance of old was there between the Mark and this other realm. Days of hard riding lay before them before they could come there.
As the King's troop passed down the cobbled road the troops at the barracks fell in behind him. Again Erik saw the white-haired King on his tall white horse. The King's standard fluttered in the wind. Eomer Eomundson and other great captains rode beside Theoden. The folk that were left, not many, did not cheer the King's passing, but stood silent and watched him ride by.
Never did the sun shine that day. Daylight it was, but the low gray cloud made it hard to see where the land ended and the sky began. Sound did not carry well, all sounded dull and distant. When the host stopped for the night the smoke from the campfires hung in the air, and at times Erik felt as if he could not properly draw his breath.
All the next day he rode beside Rolf and Olaf. They talked, as was their wont, lightly; complaining of small things so that one might think them other than they were, bold men and hardy, troopers of many campaigns. Oft did they return to the subject of Ulfwine the Fair and his missing hand. Indeed, this tale was on the lips of nearly all the troopers, the kind of tale they liked, one in which they could laugh at some great Captain, and one moreover that had naught to do with dread of what was to come.
"I saw it myself," a man said to Rolf. "It is a golden hand."
Rolf laughed. "Nay, nay. It is but a common glove gilded, I tell you! There was scarce time for a gold hand to be made and fitted while we lay at barracks!"
Other gossip there was as well. Olaf said he wondered why there was no sign of the strange Captain who had fought beside Eomer Eomundson at Helm's Deep. Up spoke a man who said that he had heard that strange Captain was a Lord from far North and had taken himself off in a fey mood, he and all his party, and was gone.
"They say he went in under the mountain," the man said. "If it be so, be sure he will be seen no more. But very likely he and Eomer had some falling out, it is ever the way with these great lords."
But spoke another man, hot with anger. "Nay, ‘tis not so! There was no dispute, I tell you! Who that Lord might be I cannot say, but that he and Eomer parted friends I can swear! I saw their farewell, and they embraced like brothers."
"Well, well," Olaf said, ever the peacemaker. "Let us at least have no falling out, fellows. Let us save our heat for the foe."
But the strangest tale was this: Olaf was now a married man. He scowled jokingly at Rolf, for spreading the news, but laughingly affirmed it. "Yes,' he said. "The sad news must go out to all the maidens of the two realms, Olaf the Handsome is a bachelor no more!"
"That wind you feel," Rolf jested, "is all those maidens sighing with relief. The snares of the fair widow Helga caught Olaf the Wary, you see, and so his wings are clipped and he is a barnyard rooster henceforth!"
It seems that the very day Olaf took Erik about to the shops was his wedding day, and not a word had he said to any. "I tired of living in barracks," he said. "When next we are at Edoras, I will lie in my own bed in my own house and my own little wife will wait upon me hand and foot."
"Little wife!" a man scoffed. "Helga Ivarsdattir? She is the kind of woman who is warmth in the winter and shade in the summer." Seeing Olaf's eyebrows go up, he hastily added, "But a fair woman, to be sure, and looks a right cozy armful."
Olaf grinned. "Ah, well, at my age, I could not be too choosy." Then, somewhat serious, he added, "I deemed the time was ripe to set my life in order, you see."
He said no more, this kind of talk did not go down well with the riders. All knew what was likely to come, and it was held to be bad luck to speak of it.
Each day was hard riding. Ever were the horses their worry. Hard but not too hard was the pace, else would the horses break down. Where the way was steep, men dismounted and walked. Even Erik did so, and the troopers jested with him, saying that Ruadh need not be spared of so light a rider.
A long ride it was, and wearisome for man and horse. Yet it seemed good to Erik, to be riding with these men in the wild country of the mountains. The days wore on dark and heavy, yet for the most part Erik was content. Here he was someone, not a nameless brat living nohow in a nameless place. Here he was a man, here he had duties. Here he had friends. Never did he lie down hungry. He lay softer under the stars than ever he had in his mother's house. Each day he woke with a light heart, he hummed bits of song as he groomed horses and carried corn and water and firewood. He put his hand to any task, and never complained.
Moments there were when he thought of what was to come, at the end of this ride. Some of the troopers had been in Mundberg before. "Minas Tirith" they called it, telling of the great city, greater than a score towns like Edoras, so vast that Edoras was like a hamlet in comparison. This city, it seemed, was built on a great river and that river ran to the sea.
The sea! Erik had never even heard of the sea, and he scoffed inwardly at the tales of these men. Water in the sea was salt, they said, and it rolled so far out of sight that boats upon it fell over the horizon. Monsters lived in this salt sea, the men said, and beautiful maidens with tails like fishes. Erik thought he would like to see one of these beautiful maidens, they were said to wear naught but their own long hair, and were also said to sing very sweetly.
At times as they rode, the men would sing. One would begin, and then would the rest take it up, and this did Erik love. Little music had he ever in his life. These songs lifted his heart and made his blood race. He began to sing along, learning the words as he went, and he found to his delight that his voice was musical and good, that those riding near would cease their own singing to hear his.
They rode on open land and rocks, but came at last to the forest where old tales had it that the wild Woses lived, man-like creatures who turned themselves to stone when a man's eye fell upon them. Whatever the truth of that tale, it was true that all could hear some sound like drumming, and the troopers muttered among themselves, and watched warily as they passed under the trees.
Such was the weather now that they rode in a dimness like twilight; heavier and heavier seemed the air, warm and close. Scarce had half the month of March worn away, and yet there were no frosts in the nights.
Came Harald Haraldson back to where they rode. He greeted his old companions and rode for a space beside Olaf and Rolf and told them what was decided by the King and Eomer Eomundson, that after a short rest they would ride, that they would make no camp. The King had taken counsel of the Woses, it was said, and these beings would guide them to a secret road that led to Mundberg.
Men stared at each other and shook their heads. The Woses! Harald said he had seen one, had seen him speaking to Theoden King. "A man, surely," Harald said, "but near naked, and looking as savage as a wild boar."
Erik wished he had seen the Wose talking to the King. He thought it must have been a strange sight, and wondered what the white-haired King made of it.
They stopped and took a bite standing. Many men looked to their spears and swords, though surely all were sharp and bright. Straps were inspected. A loose horseshoe was quickly tended to. Came the order to move, and on they rode. No singing now, and such was the low, close air that they rode with little noise.
"Curse this gloom!" a trooper swore. His mount stumbled, and he swore again under his breath. All were weary and all knew the end of their journey was near. Came the order to halt and make a rough camp. No fires, the order said. And closer watch than ever before, sentries going on horseback and foot, and not singing out the hours.
It seemed the gloom lifted a little during the night. Stars shone briefly in wracks of clouds. A breeze stirred the air, then died away. To the East the sky glowed red along the horizon. "The city," one man said.
"The city is burning then," another man answered.
They moved long before dawn. The order came and horses were saddled and gear stowed. Erik watched as his friends made ready to ride. Their faces were grim and set, and they looked far, across the still-dark land, and across the hours to come.
Erik did not beg to ride with them. He knew that it was like that he and the few others coming behind with the spare horses and gear would have fighting enough, if the reports were true and the enemy as numerous and fierce as was said.
The Riders of the Mark galloped away behind the King's standard, the Captains had given them all word of where they were to place themselves, and who was to command each arm of the host. Erik watched them in silence. After a time he took himself to the trooper whose duty it was to lead the horses and the mules carrying the tents and other gear.
This man, a grizzled trooper named Walda Bryttason, had chosen the ground where he would picket the mules and horses, and where the tents for the wounded would be set up. Near water, and with firewood handy. "Yet who can say," he said dourly, "whether any of our fellows will find us? I never saw such a sight in all my years, I can tell you that." As he spoke the wind rose, coming strongly from the South, from the sea, and a roar went up on the field.
All know how the day ended. A great victory was won, but no one has ever counted the number that fell. Even the King fell, and now was Eomer Eomundson King of the Mark.
Long did Erik labour that day and into the night. Scores of men came to have their wounds dressed, some walking, some riding, and many, many borne on litters. He stumbled with weariness hauling buckets and firewood. He learned not to turn away at the sights that came before him, and he remembered again the words that Theodred had spoken, "An ugly business. Not like the tales." This was victory, but he thought that it was nearly as hard as defeat.
Not only men fell. Horses were wounded, and many too hurt to live. Men went about with swords, to still their suffering. And there were men, as well, who begged for that mercy. Someone came and said that wagons would come and bear the wounded into the city, yet few would go. Those who could refuse, did, saying that men healed ever faster away from hospitals.
Erik lay down to take some rest about midway through the morning after the battle; he spread a blanket near the picket line and drew his cloak up and lay his head on his saddle. The sun shone. It was a fair day.
After the Battle
Erik rose about midafternoon. He had not slept, but had been dozing and half-dreaming in the mild March sunshine. Voices he heard, and shouts, and horses calling, and above it all the seabirds crying. Riders of Rohan returned to the tents and Erik heard them moving about tending to their horses and gear. He tossed off his cloak and got up, and went into the mess tent to see if any riders he knew were yet returned.
Someone told Erik that Eomer King of the Mark had gone into the city to take and give counsel, but it was known that he would come and speak to his men. And Erik heard with a sad heart the tale that the Lady Eowyn, who had ridden secretly with them, had been grievously wounded and was like to die.
This was a sorrowful tale indeed. That lovely maiden! Erik wondered how she had kept herself secret among all the riders, and his heart ached to think of her beauty and bravery maybe coming to such an end.
Then who should come in but Rolf and Olaf. They hailed Erik warmly, but he could see that they were weary and heartsore. Olaf had a long cut down his face, and Rolf's helm was dented by an axe blow, but they had taken no other bodily hurt. Erik brought their plates to them, and great mugs of clean cold water, and sat with them while they refreshed themselves.
They said little. "What use is it to speak?" Rolf said. "Look out on the field."
Erik asked what news they had of Eowyn Eomundsdattir. Olaf shook his head. "Only that they took her up as one dead, and carried her into the city. One who was there told me that it may be that she is not dead, she nor her page, but no more do I know."
Erik was able to tell them that she lived, but no man knew more than that. After they had eaten they went to take some rest and Erik saddled Ruadh and rode out onto the field. He did not stay long. He did not wish to be drawn into labour out there by some officer he could not disobey, so he rode back to the tents and busied himself helping those who tended the wounded. Here was the other side of the bold Riders; they were as tender as women in this work of nursing their wounded comrades. The least hurt waited on the worst, and all fell silent when orderlies had to come and bear away those whose wounds were mortal after all.
For out on the field was a picture of horror. Wains drawn by oxen hauled the corpses away, piled like cordwood, friend and foe alike. They were being taken somewhere, Erik knew not where, and there the Riders and their allies would be laid out and folk would go and look to see who was dead. Women from this place would go looking for husbands and sons and brothers. No man killed in battle lays straight and tidy, hair combed over the shoulders, hands folded on his breast. Erik could scarce bear to think what it would be like for those who had to go there. Grima Sigurdson, if he had not fallen, and Harald Haraldson, would have undertake this, to see which of their men they could name. A list would have to be made and when the campaign was over, Grima and the other Captains would have to go about the Mark and tell women they were widows, tell children they were fatherless, tell old folks they had no son. They would say what they always said, that the man had borne himself valiantly and that he had died as became a Rider of the Riddermark. No one told the folk at home about the screams and the sundered bodies, no one spoke ever of the day after the battle and what lay on the field.
And the enemy? What became of the bodies of the Southrons, those fierce black men with gold earrings and red-tipped spears? Long would their women wait for the warriors to ride home. And there were many, many more. Many hundreds lay dead, and of those hundreds scores were horses. The horses would be burned, Erik knew. Indeed, before nightfall pyres were set alight and the thick, greasy smoke rose in the still evening air.
Eomer Eomundson, King of the Mark, rode to his pavilion during the night and in the morning did he address his men from horseback, his voice clear and carrying. Erik stood at the back of the ranks and heard him. He praised the Eorlingas, Riders of the Mark, and wept at the number of the fallen. He spoke of his sister, the Lady Eowyn, saying she was like to live. A cheer went up at this, men clashing their spears upon their shields.
Then he said that in two days time he was riding with the other great Lords, and they were riding to the East, to the fortress of the enemy himself. The men fell silent. Then one, and then another, put himself forward as willing to go with the King. Eomer put up his hand and said, "Five hundred horse and five hundred foot I have pledged to this host. Do you who are willing speak to your captains. I will not give you soft words, men, this is like to prove deadly to all who venture with me."
The only grumbling Erik heard was that half the Riders were to walk. This told hard on them, men bred from childhood to ride the proud horses of Rohan. In vain did the Captains go over and over the reasons, and while any number of horsemen could be found, few at first were willing to go afoot. Yet in the end the captains had to draw lots, so many volunteered. Whatever came determined was Erik to ride with his friends. The army must eat; no matter where they were going, horses must be groomed and fed. Walda Bryttason would be on this march, for sure, and Erik knew well that Walda would choose him over the other mess-boys.
Erik looked about the camp until he found his friends. They were sitting in the sunshine, leaning on the low stone wall behind the tents. There with Rolf and Olaf was Grima Sigurdson, and Erik most gladly greeted him. But he had ill news, of the fall of Harald Haraldson in the first shock of the first charge. Erik thought of the man who had been Theodred's standard-bearer and of the first day he had seen him, riding with that prince. Harald had been ever his friend, and he felt the news of his death like a bruise on his heart.
Now were the men recovering their spirits, however. True it was that the battle had taken place before a great city, yet nearby were hamlets and farmsteads aplenty. Not all lay in ruins. Some thirsty man had ridden in with news of inns here and there and since soldiers ever seek amusement after battle, many sought out these places after their daily duties. They could not refuse to let Erik go with them on the score of his youth.
"He is as seasoned a man as any," Olaf admitted. "Yet I deem he is as ignorant as a girl in some things."
Erik laughed scornfully. "Think you so?" He shrugged. "I am not likely to see aught I have not seen before."
And so it proved. They set out on foot and walked in the gathering darkness. An inn, all its windows lighted, stood by the Western road, and while it had taken some damage, it was nonetheless open for business. The taproom was crowded and noisy, like any taproom, and full of troopers shouting and singing. Erik and Rolf and Olaf pushed through the crowd to the bar, then found space on a bench. Erik was not overly fond of the taste of ale, he held the same beaker all evening, never draining it. For the most part, he was content to sit and watch and listen, it was not in his nature to put himself forward.
Olaf and Rolf were ever temperate men. It was the company they sought, and the song, and the relief from care. And the tales, of course.
Once more the name of Ulfwine the Fair was in all mouths. One-handed, he had fought most valiantly, leading his Eored in his usual bold way. He came through the battle unscathed and merry as ever, they said, and now was lying in some grand house in the city and was said to be going about with a beautiful woman whose eye had been caught by his splendour. He and his troops were not to march with King Eomer, but were ordered with the captain Elfhelm to the West road.
Here, too, was more talk of Eowyn Eomundsdattir, and that she was like to have broken her brother's heart. No one could say why she had done what she had done, but all grieved that so lovely a maiden, so highborn and brave, had suffered such hurt. Still, she was like to live, they said, and so no one dwelt overlong on her sorrows.
Someone talked of the warrior who had been with Eomer at Helm's Deep, saying that this man was now known to be the true Lord of Minas Tirith, kept out of his place by the strategems of the old lord, who now lay dead in the citadel. Someone else shouted this tale down, no, no, he was not Lord of Minas Tirith, but King of all Gondor, born in the North and kept secret until now. Another man laughed, all knew that the stranger had vanished under the mountains; surely he could not have come here? Erik listened to all these tales, each to him was as likely as the other.
Women moved about the taproom, bold eyed and free of manner. Erik looked away, such women reminded him always of his wretched mother, and he wondered if any of these had sons at home to be ashamed. But such was the press of the crowd that the landlord's own wife and daughters were waiting upon the men. He kept them behind the bar and his sharp eyes and ears kept watch that no man offered any insult to them. Erik went with his friend's mugs to be refilled and the youngest girl drew the ale, her pretty face intent on the task. She handed the mugs to Erik with a smile and he smiled back and, turning, tripped on someone's outstretched leg and tumbled to the floor, managing by some feat of balance not to spill the ale. He sat, feeling mighty foolish, holding the full mugs; all who saw were laughing. It was not easy to stand up without using his hands, but he was young and limber and up he came.
"Well done, youngling!" Rolf said. "I have seen it before, that a maiden's smile knocked a man off his feet. But that you didn't spill the ale! Now, that I have not seen before."
Erik could see her, standing behind the bar, her roguish eyes smiling at him. He wished he could think of some reason to go back and speak to her, but the only reason would be if Rolf or Olaf wanted more ale. Never had they drunk so slowly!
Erik in Love
Finally, Rolf tipped the mug he held and drained it. "What say you?" he said to Olaf.
" Will you have another?"
Olaf shook his head no, watching Erik's face, and then he laughed. "Well, maybe a half. I will get it." He moved as if to rise to his feet, then laughed again and handed his mug to Erik. "Here you go, youngling. Now, make hay while the sun shines, if you take my meaning. We cannot hang about here all night. And mind those feet of yours!"
Erik took the two mugs in his hands and made his way to the bar. There she was. But standing beside her was a tall young man who was scowling at Erik, and Erik's heart sank.
"Miriel," the young man said, "Mother says you have been at this work long enough and bids you go upstairs. I will serve this fellow."
Miriel smiled saucily at her brother. "But I know he would rather it was me," she said. "You frown so much you frighten folk away." She pushed at her brother's shoulder and he moved along.
She took the mugs from Erik and her fingers touched his hand and he felt as if some wonderful bolt of lightning had flown through her little hand to his. "My friends want only halves, if you please," he said.
Very slowly did she draw the ale. Sliding the first mug across the bar to Erik she said, "Are you really a Rider of the Mark?"
"I am not really a trooper," Erik said. "But I have a horse, and I will ride with Eomer King. I am in the Eored of Grima Sigurdson, and he was second to Theodred son of Theoden King."
Miriel nodded. "Theoden was the King that fell in the battle, wasn't he? An old man, my Father says."
"Old, but very valiant," Erik said.
"Oh," she said. "I think you are all valiant." She looked up at Erik with her big dark eyes. "I was so frightened! My Father took us all into the city to my Aunt's house, and we stayed there until it was all over."
Something touched Erik on the shoulder and he turned to find a tall surly trooper there, holding a half dozen mugs. "Step aside, lad," he ordered. "Let a man get his ale."
Now Miriel lifted her pretty chin. "My Mother says I am done with serving for tonight. You had better go along to my Father down at the other end."
"But you are serving this boy!" the man protested.
"Oh," she said, with one of her saucy smiles. "That is different. He is my friend."
The man would have doubtless said somewhat unpleasant but Miriel's brother stepped up and the look on his scowling face stopped the trooper from hasty speech. "Miriel," her brother said, " Mother has bid you go upstairs."
"Yes, I will, just as soon as I am done with this," she said. She wiped the outside of the mug very carefully and set it down on the counter. "If we are to be friends," she said, "I had better know your name, had I not?"
"Are we to be friends?" Erik croaked. Then, hastily, before she could think what a fool he was, he said, "I am Erik."
"I am Miriel," she laughed. "But I think you already know that, don't you?"
He nodded. He stood for a moment, staring down at the foaming mugs in his hands. What could he say? He could think of nothing.
"We ride out tomorrow," he said at last. "Maybe—you could watch us ride by?"
"Maybe I could," she answered.
"Miriel!" her father said. "Upstairs with you, my lass!"
Rolf took the mug with a look of long suffering. "I thought you were lost," he said. "Now I wish I had asked for a whole pint and not a half, I got so dry waiting for you."
"Now, now, friend Rolf," Olaf said. "What is a little suffering in the cause of love?"
Erik flushed, and said, "Her name is Miriel." He said nothing about the word "love", but he felt it, like another of the little lightning bolts.
" Ah, a pretty name for a pretty lass," Rolf said kindly.
Olaf nodded. "Yes, a pretty lass. You have a good eye, lad."
Long did Erik lie awake that last night at Mundberg, thinking of Miriel's pretty face, and the touch of her hand on his. He felt truly that he had been felled by her smile, and that he would be taking a wound should he ride away from her. Could it be that he would ever see her again?
Always had his heart pumped away in his breast in quite the common manner. But now was his heart not his own any more, he had given it away at the first sight of this maiden smiling at him, nay, not even that, at the first sight of her, her shapely form and dancing eyes. Even her dark hair; and yet ever, ever had Erik favoured golden hair. As he fell into sleep he wondered if she would care to watch for him, as the Riders moved out on the morrow.
The 18th of March dawned fair and fine, with a brisk seawind catching the pennons and standards of the Host of the West as it mustered on the Pelennor.
Erik was awake betimes and he groomed Ruadh until the roan horse shone and he cleaned his gear and he put on his clean garments and scrubbed his face and tied back his hair in a neat club on the nape of his neck. He knew it not, but he was a fair youth. Taller than the common height already, he still had a boy's lanky frame and would likely be taller still one day. He had the golden hair of Rohan, and clear gray eyes set in a comely face.
But little did Walda Bryttason care for Erik's looks or the looks of any other man, for that matter. He paced about, his odd hat pushed back, the wide brim turned up. Such was his care and industry that all was in readiness for the order to move, but Walda fretted and chewed his lip, thinking he had surely forgot something of import. "Salt," he muttered, "horseshoe nails. Coils of strapping. Linen for bandages." He cast his eye over all his charges, two and four-footed both. Much fell to Walda, and he had never yet been found wanting. But never had he set out on such a road as this.
Erik saw the great Lords assembled, with their standards snapping in the wind. There was the green field and white horse of Rohan, and there was Eomer Eomundson on his great horse, armour gleaming. There was a blue standard bearing a swan, and an Eored of splendid knights with their Prince. And there was a Lord with a black banner bearing a white tree and Erik knew that Lord, he was the warrior that had been with Eomer at the Hornburg. "The King of Gondor," Walda said, in answer to Erik's question. "Aye, he was at Helm's Deep, ‘tis the same man for sure. A mighty man, all say."
The road was lined with folk and they cheered as the host began to move. Erik looked this way and that. Then he saw her. She was standing with her brother and when she saw Erik she ran up to the column and held up her hand to him. He bent and took from her hand the blue ribbon that had bound up her hair. She put her hand to her lips and blew him a kiss as he passed by. Turning in the saddle, he looked longingly at her. He pressed the blue ribbon to his lips and then thrust it in under his shirt., and on he rode.
As the morning wore on Erik rode up through the ranks until he came to his friends Rolf Waldeson and Olaf Deorson. They rode with Grima Sigurdson as Captain, and it chanced that Grima was with them when Erik came up.
They were speaking of the thick air, and the heaviness of the cloud, that seemingly oppressed their spirits and slowed their blood. Grima gestured to the East, where all was dark, and said, "It comes from hence, the darkness and the air that weakens us. I deem it will be worse before it is better, my lads."
As they rode over the bridges at Osgiliath the workmen stopped and stared at them, and Erik could see swarms of men on pilings and half-burned boats, all staring at the host passing by. He shivered, and wished they would not stare so, it made him uneasy. They rode on and came to some crossroads. Here paused the host behind the King's upheld hand. All sat in silence. Orders must have been given, for suddenly the silence was shattered by the blare of trumpets. Erik saw men blench with fear, and stare with something like terror into the trees. Erik was afraid, too, and wished they could ride on, away from the pull of horror. Yet near here they camped.
The night passed slowly. Some men slept in tents, but some, like Erik, slept under the sky, and all who did so saw the white stars blazing in the blackness, and strange to say their spirits lifted. Erik mused on this, that the day was now heavy with foreboding and the night brought some hope. He knew little of old tales, but this seemed to go opposite, to him, it seemed that things had been turned askew somehow. He slept restlessly and woke heavy-eyed. The men about him were quarrelsome and hasty words flew about; the orders from the Captains came in harsh tones.
Breakfast was quick, they were soon on the way again. As he rode, he thought of Miriel, and he touched her blue ribbon where it lay against his skin under his shirt. Scarce three weeks had passed since that day Theodred had ridden into the nameless hamlet where Erik had lived. Adventure and war he had had in plenty since then. But naught stirred him like the thought of Miriel and her laughing eyes. He said her name under his breath. Yet despair he felt, too, for how could he return to her? What could there be, between Miriel and him? Erik son of no man, from nowhere. Not even a trooper yet, and such home as he had known was many leagues from her father's inn, the hamlet erased from the surface of the Earth, heaps of ashes all that was left of the wretched place where he had been born.
He remembered what Theodred had said, that it was his misfortune, not his shame, that he was nameless. That his sons would be proud to be Eriksons. How could this be? It had been the kindness of great lord, no more. And then that great lord had fallen in a pointless skirmish, only one of many valiant men to be slaughtered in this awful war.
Of a sudden he knew that the despair was coming from a place outside him. The stifling cloud, he thought. The heavy air. Fear seemed to glide like a great serpent along the roadway beside them. Erik began to take note of the ruins they passed, and he felt a sinking in his heart at the sight of such greatness despoiled. What manner of men had raised these things? And what manner of enemy could throw them down?
Now as they rode, the trumpets would sound at times, and men would shout out the name of the King Elessar, claiming all this terrible country for him. Erik wondered what he could want with such a place. Erik wished he was anywhere else. He tried to swallow his fear, to force his blood to beat quicker and hotter. He thought of turning Ruadh about and running away. He named the horse, patting the smooth neck, and the good beast flicked its ears upon hearing its master's voice.
When they stopped at midday, Walda told Erik that some men had turned back, unable to march any farther. How Erik envied them, he could have sobbed with longing, he would have gone, he thought, if someone had told him. Then he shook his head and swore, no, he would not run, he would stay it out, no matter to what end it led.
Rolf and Olaf were quieter than was their wont. Seasoned warriors they were, yet this place was telling on them, too. Rolf cast a glance at Erik and frowned. "We have done you wrong, youngling," he said. "Bringing a lad such as you with us on this road!"
Olaf shook his head, "Nay, friend Rolf," he said, his voice harsh. "Say not so! We have seen no sign of any enemy."
"No sign of any enemy! What is all this desolation, but sign of the enemy?" Rolf answered. "This is an evil land. An evil land."
"'Tis so," said Olaf. "But we are Rohirrim. We ride with Eomer Eomundson, King of the Mark. When have we ever refused a road? We will spit the enemy on our spears and roast him in his own hellish pits!"
Scarcely had the words left his lips than orders came from the Captains. An ambush had been discovered, and riders were set on to surprise it. Rolf and Olaf tore off with their Eored. There was some fighting, and the ambush failed and the enemy died or fled. Erik stayed with Walda and the packtrain, but he could hear the screaming and shouting. Dread grew in him, making his limbs heavy. The sounds bore such hatred; it seemed to him that the ugly noises were meant only for his ears.
When Rolf and Olaf returned Erik could have wept with relief, so sure had he been that all his friends would be slain. This heartsickness and fear he could not bear, this certainty of death and grief. He made his thoughts turn, gritting his teeth together. He thought of the tall prince who had given him the gold coin and the horse Ruadh, but those thoughts led to the long body on the bier, and the troopers standing guard with spears. He thought of Miriel and tried to imagine her going about her day, walking under the blue sky. Thinking of him, he hoped. He wished he had given her some little thing, but truth to tell, he had had nothing to give.
Another day passed, and another. And ever the fear grew, until Erik felt that he was moving through some horrid thick substance that not only slowed him but chilled his blood and muddled his mind. Though he tried not to, he thought back to when he was a child, hungry and alone, sure that no boy had ever been so friendless and unloved. Folk sneered ever at him, nameless brat that he was, even his mother cared naught, he was only a reminder of her shame. "Miriel," he breathed. But even that lovely name could not cheer him, and he crushed her ribbon in his hand, as if his fierce grip could bring some perfume of her, some faint breath of some place other than this.
And he saw that all around him were troubled in the same ways. Men seemed downcast beyond reason; except for the one ambush there had been little sight of any enemy. That night they camped in increasing cold, and white chill mists lay about. Men huddled unsleeping by fires and cast worried looks over their shoulders into the darkness. Creatures roamed about, their eyes caught the firelight and gleamed green and savage. Something shrieked high in the air, and the sound shivered along Erik's bones, turning them to water. He bent his head to his knees, his guts churning. What was he thinking of, thinking that he was a Rider, and wishing to ride to war?
In the early light they broke camp and set out. The agony of the awful night had passed and Erik felt renewed courage and determination stir in his heart. The very airs of the sky fought an unseen battle in the clouds overhead, almost could Erik see the great struggle there. The wind came first from this quarter, then that. Smokes rose, the reeks hurt his eyes and nose, then of a sudden there would be a glimpse of blue sky, and a breath of clean air.
The air throbbed against his ears. High and unseen, terrible creatures flew screeching, but Erik would not look up, he made himself look only between Ruadh's ears. He began to sing, and all around listened for a space, then took up the song themselves. Such a sound had not been heard in these parts before; the very rocks seemed to listen. But such was the place that the song could not pierce the dead brooding silence, and their voices faded.
About midmorning the order came to halt. All knew that they had arrived at the end of the world, and it seemed as though every man drew a deep breath and set himself steady for what was to come.
Walda Bryttason drew his packtrain somewhat back, under the lee of a great overhanging cliff, and he and the others began to array their gear, picketing the mules and packhorses. Trumpets sounded and Erik clambered up onto a shelf to see what could be seen. Far ahead of him he saw the black gates of the enemy's fortress. It seemed that a man had ridden from thence and there was some parley with the King Elessar. Erik could hear nothing, only the dreary wind. His mouth was dry. He watched the little far off figures moving about, saw the banners of the great Lords borne back. Then the far off black gates opened and a terrible swarming host of the enemy poured forth.
Erik gets a Name
The hosts of Mordor swarmed over the ground, shouting and clashing their swords and spears, moving at a trot, coming so quick there was little chance for the Captains of the West to array their men. The noise was unbearable, rising to a pitch of terror that made Erik long to fall on the ground with his hands over his ears. But he did not. It was plain to Erik that there was no use setting up tents for the wounded, no use making fires, no use waiting for Death to come to them. So few as they were, they were needed down there where King Eomer raised his standard and set himself in the first line of riders.
Walda went ever armed, but he wore no helm. Now he flung aside his peculiar broad brimmed hat and put on his battered old helm, then shrugged into his mail shirt. It was very snug, having been made for him when he was younger and lither, and so had his sword. But that was sharp and well-tended; he got upon his tall horse and drew his bright sword and said, "Well, if you're ready lads, we'd best get going."
Erik buckled the chin strap of his helm. His hands trembled, but his heart did not quail. He mounted Ruadh, and drew his sword. Down into the black melee he charged beside Walda and the others. Rising in Erik was the battle fury that had come upon him at Helm's Deep, and he spurred Ruadh hard. His sword came down, cleaving an enemy's head from his shoulders. Erik laughed, and shouted defiance; rising in his stirrups he was borne into the midst of the slaughter. He savaged his way through the ranks of the enemy, joy and power surging in his blood.
The enemy swirled about the Host of the West like a mighty river of dread and terror. Grim faced the Rohirrim encircled their standard and took the shock of the charge. They were borne back, and back, and yet they held their line.
Songs have been made, but what song tells all?
"Stand and wait!" came the call.
A strange and terrifying silence fell
Like an enormous hammer,
Stilling the field.
Most of the enemy flew, but some horsemen regrouped and came on, mad with despair. Their only thought was to take all they could into the darkness with them. Erik did not see the horseman who bore down upon him, nor did he see the flash of the man's sword in the sudden sunlight that stabbed down from the sky. The sword rose and fell and Erik's grey eyes widened in astonishment and his body thudded to the earth.
Many hours later the Riders of Rohan and the rest of those who had ridden with King Elessar were scouring the field, searching among the fallen. The wounded Rohirrim were carried to the tents that Walda Bryttason had now set up; horses roaming riderless were caught and tethered. Rolf Waldeson and Olaf Deorson who had come unscathed through the fight were among those moving about, turning bodies over, looking and looking for some man who might still live. Then they came upon Erik. By some chance of war he was not gruesome with blood, but lay face down with his sword arm outstretched. His helm had fallen off and they saw first his bright golden hair tied back with a bit of blue ribbon. Rolf cried out and turned him over.
Olaf stood silent.
Rode up Grima Sigurdson. He saw Rolf kneeling by Erik's body and he dismounted quickly and put his hand on Rolf's shoulder. "This is a woeful sight, " he said. "That our valiant boy died thus!"
Rolf wept. At last Olaf drew him to his feet. "Come, friend Rolf. For him we can do naught."
"Said I not it was wrong to bring a boy like him on this road?" Rolf shouted. He shoved Olaf away. "We must bear him hence, man. We cannot leave him lying here."
Grima nodded. "Yes," he said. "We are taking the fallen to the foot of that hill. There will we raise a mound tomorrow."
Olaf and Rolf bore Erik's body to the place Grima named. There were not so many, after all, for the battle had been short, the end coming unlooked for. All who saw Erik being carried there wept, for the bright and comely lad had been much loved..
The day ended in glory, it is said. Yet the glory was bitter and poisoned the cup of victory. Riders of the Mark would lie here now forever, far from the green fields of Rohan, their bones mouldering in the foreign dust.
There were torches burning about the tents, their light flickering in shining steel and casting baleful shadows over the faces of those who stood guard. Eomer Eomundson came. Weary he was; he still wore his battle dress, and he was filthy with dirt and sweat and blood. Someone caught the reins of his horse as he slid to the ground, and men saluted. He went first to the wounded and he spoke to every man, taking each one by the hand and praising the valour of the Eorlingas who had ridden this road with him.
Leaving the tents where lay the wounded he said, "And the fallen? Where are the fallen?"
"Lord," someone said, "go you to your rest. Surely the dead can wait until morning."
He shook his head. "I did not have to wait for them," he said.
The guards saluted the King of the Mark as he came to where the dead lay under the stars. He walked slowly down each row, looking at each face in the torchlight. When he came to Erik he stopped. "How came this boy to be here?" he said, and all could hear the shock and pain in his voice
Spoke up Grima Sigurdson. "Sire, it is the poor nameless lad who followed us from the Fords of Isen after Theodred fell. He it is that I told you of."
Eomer bent and touched the cold still face, brushing back the yellow hair that lay tumbled over Erik's brow. "Ah, yes. I remember that you told me. What was he called?"
"Erik," Grima said.
The king stood silent and stared into the night. He sighed and all could see the tracks of his tears down his face.. "We cannot have this man of the Riddermark lie here with no name," he said at last, drawing his sword. He touched his sword to Erik's brow, then his breast.
"Rest you easy, Erik Markson," he said.
Months later when the lowering skies of November brought sleet and snow to Edoras, Helga Ivarsdattir the wife of Olaf Deorson was brought to bed. As his wife laboured Olaf sat before the fire with his friend Rolf. They said little, but watched the flames and listened to the wind around the eaves of the snug house.
Then came the midwife bearing a red naked babe lying on a blanket embroidered on each corner with the figure of a white running horse. Olaf rose and took the child from her and he saw that it was a manchild; the boy squalled heartily and fought the air with tiny clenched fists.
"Friend Rolf," he said, laughing with pride and delight. "Look you here at this new Rider of the Mark! Here is Erik Olafson."
Rolf caught one of the tiny fists in his callused hand and bent and kissed the wrinkled little face. "Hail, Erik Olafson," he said.
Then he looked grinning at his friend. "Olaf, this is good work indeed for your first try!"