Written in response to the Henneth Annûn story challenge, "The Six-Legged Race," asking writers to tell a tale about the bond between a Rohirrim and his horse.
From the plains of Rohan where the long winds blew and the hard land whispered with memory, a single horseman trotted up a rise. His approach was marked by a muted jingle of harness and the soft thud of hooves on sod. Atop the slope he halted and removed his helm, placing it on the pommel of his saddle. There the breeze combed blond hair from the rider's brow and grey mane from the horse's arched neck.
"So, Firefoot," murmured the man, as he leaned to pat his mount's shoulder. "So."
Words that had no meaning perhaps, but for Firefoot - the great horse that bore Éomer, Third Marshal of the Riddermark - a touch of hand and gentle voice was communion enough. The horse lord's gaze narrowed into distance, into the long golden bars of afternoon sun painting the plains.
"Still ours," he whispered, teeth clenched in the fierceness of his thought. His fist tightened on the spear in his right hand. "Curséd be the wizard of Isengard and his treachery."
With that Éomer roughly replaced his helm on his head. At the touch of a rein Firefoot turned on his hocks, a vehement snort seeming to echo his rider's mood. Swiftly now, they trotted down the long slope, the horse's flowing tail a banner behind them.
This day had been a bleak and wearing one, despite the bright spring sun. The cost of defending the Mark from the depredations of the Enemy was ever dear, and yesterday's skirmish had been no less so. A Rider, one of Éomer's own men, had gone missing during the fight. Though the enemy had been slain and the bodies burned, little doubt remained as to the lost man's fate. However, his comrades would not rest until the body was found and laid in the barrow of his fathers.
Glancing up at the deepening angle of the sun, Éomer grimly acknowledged that the day was waning. He had parted briefly from his men to make one last, short sweep, but he realized now he would not be the one to do the finding.
"We must go back, my friend," he said above Firefoot's thudding stride. "We have come far enough alone."
He marked a grassy swale ahead as the limit of his search, and turned his horse's nose that way. "I hope the others have had better luck. I should not like to tell Osred's widow that we left her husband's body to the wolves."
Down a gentle incline they trotted, into thin shadow pooled in the hollow's bowl. Éomer looked ahead to where sunlight shed its beams across the broad mouth of the channel - then Firefoot spun violently with a whistling snort. In the next breath the horse arrested his explosive movement with rigid stillness. Horse and man alike made not another move, only the stirring of Firefoot's tail evidence that they were not cast in stone.
Beneath the rim of his helm Éomer's eyes searched the limited horizon. The top of the little vale was too high to see over, while in the open he saw no movement. However, he had long ago learnt to trust Firefoot's keen senses. At this moment, every fiddle-string-tight fiber in the horse's body screamed one thing. Orc.
Firefoot held his head high as his flaring nostrils tested the air, and his sharp ears swiveled for every nuance of sound. Another stiff snort marked the continued presence of the enemy somewhere beyond sight.
On guard, now, Éomer eased from his saddle, spear in hand, and let the reins drop to the grass. He paused an instant, straining every sense for hint of his foe. This was a pattern horse and rider had followed many times before. Firefoot remained standing fast, while Éomer bent into a crouch and using the horse's ears as his compass, he crept to the crest of the small hill. There he lay flat and pushed stealthily forward in the tall grass until he could peer over.
His breath caught in his throat with an audible gasp. At least a dozen dark forms jogged stolidly along the greater valley that sloped beyond. In moments their angled path would bear them directly past the mouth of the vale that concealed him. Had Firefoot let him continue forward, he would have been in full view of the patrol when he crested the hill.
Éomer quickly considered his options. He could flee. He could dash back and leap to the saddle, and trust Firefoot to make all haste, true to his name. However, among the foul troop he saw the curved black staves of heavy bows, strung and ready for use. Éomer had no wish to die with a dozen orc arrows bristling from his back. Indeed, he had no wish to turn his back to a foe at all.
There remained one other chance.
Down the hill he slid to Firefoot's side and cast his spear to the grass. He caught the horse's reins and drew the inside rein tight, while insistently tapping Firefoot's near foreleg.
"Down - down!" he hissed.
With a toss of his head, Firefoot submitted, bowing awkwardly to his knees. Equine hindquarters followed as his heavy body collapsed to the ground, whereupon he rolled onto his side with a patient groan. Instantly Éomer flung himself on the horse's neck, the length of his body draped over his thick mane. With one hand he stroked the satin coat while he breathed next to Firefoot's ear.
"So," he whispered soothingly. "So."
The deep hollowness of the horse's inhalations steadied as Firefoot relaxed beneath his master's trusted presence. This, they had also done before, but rarely at such dire need.
Éomer peered along Firefoot's neck and head through a thin screen of tall grasses. The nodding straw of winter bobbed gently in the breeze, which still blew towards him. For this he was grateful, as many Riders believed that the orcs could smell a human scent.
A moment later he heard them talking; rough, guttural sounds that were either no tongue he knew, or the common language mangled beyond his discernment. Firefoot tensed under him. As Éomer listened the harsh voices fell silent, followed by the muffled tramp of heavy feet. Noiselessly he pulled off his helm, lest the gleam of light on metal catch the enemy's eye. He hoped his fair head would blend amongst the remaining dry blades of winter.
There! Hunched, hideous heads and shoulders passed in the sunlight below - sunlight! There were foul arts indeed at work in these lands. Great orcs who dared move by day. On their dark and dinted helms Éomer saw the crude badge of a white hand, and he clenched his jaw in silent rage. The White Wizard's duplicity was clear to those who must fight: only in the great hall of Meduseld where Gríma Wormtongue had poisoned the king's mind was there any doubt.
Steady, now. Éomer lay in a scout's concealment; therefore he must do a scout's duty. Fourteen orcs there were in all, five with bows, the rest with various sharp-edged weapons. His eyes narrowed as the orcs trudged unknowingly past and one by one were lost from view. They had just as unknowingly invited their deaths. This night, Éomer and his éored would have their satisfaction.
He waited a long moment more before he stood. Firefoot remained prone, only the gentle rise and fall of his rounded sides marking that he was alive. When Éomer clicked his tongue, Firefoot's head came up, and the big horse lurched to his feet. Once upright he shook himself in a leathery flapping of saddle and gear. Swiftly Éomer gathered the reins and swung into the saddle, the horse turning even as he found his seat.
In two strides they were at a thudding trot; in two more Firefoot lunged into a reaching gallop back the way they had come. Yet defiance had ignited a quick flame in Éomer's breast and he veered towards the top of a high hill. There he spun the horse to a halt and gazed fiercely towards the plains below. Aye, the orcs were there, out of bow-shot now, but each iron-shod step remained a contamination upon the good soil of the Riddermark.
Éomer filled his lungs until he felt his ribs expand, and he hurled his voice in a clear ringing shout. The long hills echoed his cry afar, and the distant orc troop halted in startled disarray. He thrust his spear skyward and flung his battle cry once more. With teeth bared in a savage grin he wheeled Firefoot about and set his course for camp.
It was not long before he looked beyond Firefoot's sharp-swept ears and saw two Riders of the Mark coming towards him. At a touch of his heel the grey horse stretched into a rocking gallop. Éomer smiled as he recognized Éothain pressing into the lead.
"My lord!" his second-in-command cried, as soon as he was near. "We came to look for you! We feared you had gone too far!"
All three men brought their horses to a halt. The other Rider did not speak, but Éomer saw that his eyes held the same half-angry concern.
Éomer's smile widened. "Come now, Éothain. I merely did a little scouting. I know with certainty, now, where fourteen orcs have passed and I dare say we will have good hunting tonight."
Éothain snorted. "Be that as it may, my lord, we are pleased to have you whole. We should not tarry, lest the entire éored takes the notion to come looking for us."
They turned and trotted on for a time in silence. Finally Éomer asked the foremost question, the answer to which he both hoped for and dreaded.
"Had the other men any luck?"
"Aye." Éothain said stiffly. "We found him."
No further detail was needed. Éomer fought to swallow the hollowness that rose within.
"That is well. Osred will be sent to his fathers with honor." He paused for a beat. "And his widow will have a place to grieve."
On they rode, the thumping of their hooves as steady as the heartbeat of the Mark itself. The long rays of the sinking sun began reaching across the land to wash the hills in hues of gold.
Éothain glanced aside at his captain. "You must have care, Éomer. We cannot spare you."
"Fear not, my friend." Éomer reached forward to give Firefoot's gleaming neck a fond pat. "Wherever I go, I am never alone."
Author's Note #1: The seed for this story is sort of odd for Tolkien. I borrowed the concept from an old cowboy poem by Bruce Kiskaddon, called "The Little Blue Roan." In it a cowboy was taking an opportune moment to mis-brand a calf, so that he could come back when it was old enough to wean from its mother and claim it as his own. However, just as he was heating his running iron to apply his own brand, he glanced up to see his horse staring at something he could not see - which just happened to be the rightful owner of the cow and calf, riding out to see what he was doing. Thus he slapped on the correct brand, stood up to shake hands with the rancher, and went his merry way. But without the horse's warning ... he could have well been shot on the spot for a rustler.
A/N #2: I do not know if common folk were buried in barrows, as kings were, but I believe there is mention of mounds, so I am presuming the sake of this tale that warriors may have received burial in lesser barrows.
A/N # 3: Yes, people who ride a lot do tend to hold one-sided conversations with their horses. It's just a funny little habit many of us pick up. ;-)
A/N #4: A heart-felt Thank You to the surprising plentitude of beta readers who so generously answered my request for proofreading; Lady Aranel, who earned her Beta merit badge several times over, and also Avon, Elena Tiriel, Isabeau of Greenlea and Sulriel. You all have been great help in improving this tale!