I soar southwards in lofty stillness on Súlimo's divine breath, wind-swept pinions rippling... gladdened by the morning sun's caress on my wide-stretched wings. Far below, the Long River glistens, its silvery path edged by the Lady's golden-roofed forest.
Beyond, near the River's bend, something catches my eye: swarms of goblins and men raise a tumult as they clash on the green plain. Further on, another host approaches the battleground on horses, straggling across the smaller stream.
The raucous flesh-eaters will feast well today.
Sloping easily, I wheel away to resume the hunt, leaving the petty creatures to their earthbound quarrels.
Nigh on a fortnight since the summons came, and now the day has dawned:
My first battle.
At last, a chance to prove myself a man full-grown. So eager am I to wield my weapons, the precious time spent waiting for the rest of the Riders to cross the river drags endlessly.
Idly, I watch as the Lord and Captain Éomund confer with the Elves. One points at some faraway specks circling near the horizon.... Stomach sinking, I realize the foul hard-beaks have found the battlefield.
I try to summon enough spit to swallow the sour taste searing my throat.
Swift runs the fight, but slow walk the hours of waiting.
I spot Eadgar, young son of our village ironsmith, and ride over to greet him warmly.
"Have no fears, lad. Your skills will see you through the combat."
Startled, he blurts, "How did...?"
Chuckling, I choose not to mention his pasty-white face. "Before my first skirmish, my belly roiled so much that I vomited.... in front of everyone! Thought I had disgraced myself.... But many of the Riders — including my captain — told me they, too, had been queasy before their first blooding."
My words seem to hearten him. Good!
Tempered in the fires of unforgiving desert, honed by years of expert warfare, we are the Great One's most lethal instruments of destruction... selected for this vital campaign to reward generations of devout service.
He foretold that our seasoned warriors would simply overrun the weak-willed minions of Gondor:
Lift but one hand; this foe will fall at your feet.
And so it seems. Our assault is pressing the craven sea-kings into retreat, backs to the river. Though their resistance is stronger than expected, we will crush it ere long.
Our scimitars flash, red as our banners. We give no quarter.
Exhausted, I slowly give ground to a scarlet champion of Rhûn. His mighty thrusts jolt me to the backbone, but experience still guides my sword-arm to ward every blow without hesitation.
Hours ago, we foot soldiers fought in close-serried ranks, guarding each other well. Now I stand alone, focused solely on the next assailant, the next stroke, the next block, the next breath.
Face impassive, the Easterling drives me to the rear, step by flagging step, until I stumble — sprawling backwards against a heap of corpses, shield momentarily askew.
With an exultant shout, he slashes downward with his blood-smeared blade.
Strong captains always keeps their snivellin' maggots stirred up, at each other's throats, so they don't get no ideas 'bout turnin' on us. But we near as 'ad a revolt after them cursed orders yesterday... till we throttles the loudmouths. Shut their traps fast.
An' today, we 'as ter watch 'em squabblin' over the battlefield swag, or they'll sneak off ter attack them tarks.
Not that I likes protectin' tarks! But them as carried the Dark Lord's orders from Dol Guldur tells how He threatens captains that don't obey... makes me toes curl.
Ain't nobody goin' ter skin me alive!
Like whirling black shadows, my excited brethren settle on a quiet corner of the killing fields.
Cautiously, I alight on a cooling body, intent on feeding. It rests on one wing, beak-down, head covered by a shiny crest.
My favorite tidbits... out of reach!
Hopping down, I tilt my head, studying the problem.... I peck the crest, worrying at its hard rim, then try to push underneath; it stays in place.
But two flock-mates land on the body's upper wing. I ruffle my crown-feathers and croak menacingly... still they cling to my claim.
So I strike with beak and claw....
Since dawn have we fought grimly against great hosts of Balchoth and Orcs innumerable, but were forced into relentless retreat.
Now, scarcely three furlongs from the River, we must stand fast. I order the standard of the Stewards, argent unblazoned, planted on a knoll. Around it, my men form a shield-wall, bristling with weary sword and spear.
Despite our bitter plight, these soldiers of Gondor remain valiant to the end.
I know not why, but the Orcs hang back, leaving waves of Balchoth to batter our dwindling defences.
Small comfort that our deaths will be at the hands of Men.
Tha's wot them uppity 'igh-ups calls us.
Ever since the stinkin' cap'n shuts us snagas up 'bout them stinkin' orders, we bin lookin' ter get the drop on 'im. But 'e musta bin expectin' us, 'cause 'e killt me stinkin' mates an' then comes fer me, jus' 'cause I were runnin' away. I tried ter stab 'im, but 'e were lots stronger'n me.
Cut me leg off, curse 'im.
Now I'm pressin' me claws ter where 'e got me, tryin' ter stop the blood. But it keeps comin'.
Gettin' real 'ard even ter hoosh 'way all them flies buzzin'.
At last, we halt on the edge of a field thick with bodies, both man and beast. The scent of sweat and river mud on our coats is overpowered by the stench of the hunted: spilt blood, rent flesh, and fear.
Save for the ravens, it is still nearby — but harsh cries and the clanging of weapons drift towards us from the fighting.
Eager to gallop, I dance lightly towards Windfoot. Speaking with my Rider, his Elf points to a limp grey flag far across the battlefield, close to the Great River. My ears prick up.
Is that our goal?
While Eorl issues concise orders to all his commanders, Elrohir joins me; we survey the teeming battlefield together.
Glad to have an army at our backs, Elladan?
You know I am. My eyes meet his.
Valar guard us all! For an instant, I feel how desolate I would become if my brother were lost... then firmly dismiss the notion.
Flying low, a craban passing overhead caws abruptly. Narothal, already tense, snorts and starts crowhopping. Caught by surprise, I shorten the reins to pull his head up, cursing roundly.
"Harsh language, brother! So often used; so seldom of use!"
Though I tease him, Elladan's discomposure troubles me.
Normally, he anticipates Narothal's restiveness and checks it deftly. He seldom becomes nettled — and never curses!
Elladan, what ails you? You cannot go into battle distracted! He blinks a moment, then shrugs.
It seems foolish, brother. Maybe because of Mother, I just realized how... bereft I would be if....
I clasp his shoulder.
Be easy, brother! There are no finer warriors on this field than we. Together, we will prevail!
Besides, Grandmother foresaw our safe return... and you know she is never wrong.
His lips finally twitch at the age-old family jest.
In minstrelsy, last stands are celebrated; Isildur and Ondoher are hailed as heroes. The reality — surrounded by seas of enemies, awaiting certain slaughter — is less glorious.
If song is made in Gondor extolling Cirion's Nirnaeth, it will be because no one lives to bear witness to my misjudgement.
In truth, I did take precautions, sending messengers north to seek aid from the Northern Lord and his worthy Riders... but too late to bear fruit.
For a commander, it is no honour to needlessly spend the lives of stout-hearted soldiers, pledged to protect you to the last, for your own folly.
Countless enemy hosts hold the field between us and the Steward's fleece-white flag, sighted nigh Langflood.
Béma, help us reach them in time!
While the captains marshal their éoreds, I turn to the Gondorian lad.
"Borondir, ride under my banner." He assents, pale but resolute.
The brothers, mounted nearby, lean towards each other as if speaking — but in silence.
"Lords Elladan and Elrohir, are your blades eager to bite Easterling and Orc alike?"
They turn fathomless grey eyes upon me.
"Nay, Lord," replies Elrohir. "Orcs alone will feel our steel."
The glitter in his eyes bodes ill for their prey.
Eorl relays his plan quickly: the central éoreds will ride ahead, driving a spearpoint towards Cirion, whilst the flanks destroy the divided foes.
Léod would be proud!
The captains depart to array their éoreds as directed. Mine awaits, as always on Eorl's sword-side.
Eorl watches the line form, ready to signal the onset.
Finally, his clarion call rings forth. The Riders, keen spears on restless horses, reply with a hundred horns, blowing fiercely. Rank upon rank — lumbering at first, then gathering speed — the host begins to charge.
Grizzled may be my beard, but battle horns still make my blood sing.
Crowded battlefields flow and eddy, like water in a brook. Wherever holes open, soldiers fill them — and wise commanders seize the opportunity.
With both Orcs and Easterlings before us, my éored has a choice of foes. But the Elf-lords surge ahead, fearsome riders borne abreast by mighty war-stallions, cleaving a swath of ruin through wailing Orc-hosts.
Panicked Orcs... scattering like flies!
Grinning, I sound "Follow!" on the horn of Scatha. We speed after the Elves, White Horse streaming proud and free above our heads, to join the swirling fray.
The Riders of Éothéod fell every enemy, singing as we slay....
The bandits flee at my ferocious attack... and my prize tips onto its back, face exposed at last!
Oh, those eyes! Those warm, luscious eyes.... I squirm my way beneath the unyielding crest, shredding the nearest tasty morsel and lapping up the clear juices....
Where should I stow the other one for the morrow?
But a loud racket and shaking startle me; I try to pull out quickly, but my plumage catches.... Feathers scattering, I take flight just in time, barely avoiding the brutes thundering below.
I squawk in helpless fury as my hard-earned meal is pounded into the ground.
Us riders is th' bes' fighters. Ain't many of us, so's fittin' I takes th' good loot. Them south-tark bodies ain't much, but these 'ere eastaways ones is good pickin's.
This'n's got an 'uge gold collar. Comes off when I cuts 'is 'ead right off... polishes up purty on 'is funny-lookin' red rags.
But I 'ears summat, an' looks up. Lots of 'orses comin'... an' th' ones out front is ripe fer slashin'!
I grab me lazy warg an' kick 'im 'ard ter get 'im goin'.
Gonna be a good fightin' day, wi' me lucky gold-piece an' me wicked-sharp blade!
"Bowmen to the right! Warg!"
Seldom does Éomund sound worried, but a warg-rider gallops full tilt towards Eorl. His guardsmen turn, lances braced to face the threat. The orc brandishes his scimitar, poised to slash the horses' bellies.
My first arrow hits the warg's shoulder... but in the throes of battle-madness, it hurtles onwards.
The second shot strikes true — on the neck, below the ear. Its forelegs finally collapse; pitching haunch over head, it crushes its rider.
Alive but dazed, the beast regains its feet and tries to hobble away, dead orc dragging behind — till the spearmen finish it off.
Being the runt of the litter has few advantages.
My brothers, all older, teased me for being short, saying I would never become a soldier of Gondor... while teaching me street-brawling and sword-work enough to defend myself.
But as soon as I could straddle a horse, I outraced them.
The Steward let me serve Gondor proudly as errand-rider, and I have also earned respect from these Riders for hazarding the journey north.
Now I see my liege and countrymen — and my brothers? — in grave peril, beset by countless hordes.
Blade unsheathed, I urge my mount towards my Lord's beleaguered banner.
My entrails spill forth, despite futile fingers clutching my belly in desperation.
My body... mutilated!
Though I now yearn for the unawareness of sleep, pain enflames every sense, goading me ever to wakefulness.
Loud moans. Unbearable stench.... My own?
Propped against a mound, I see naught but carcasses nearby.
Whither the enemy? Should the Easterling not hew me, Orcs will.
I taste the tang of blood like the welcoming salt breeze of Lebennin's roaring seashore....
But my eyes snap open: this roar is coming closer!
I watch in listless fascination as the first hooves land upon my ribs.
Two brothers slain so far, and the youngest sent weeks ago on a fool's errand....
My gashed forearm, bound up quickly, aches. But naught will truly pain me till after the battle... if ever.
I run to strengthen a thin spot in the line; with so few left, every man fit to raise a weapon is needed.
The soldier in front of me shrieks, crumpling in agony. I step into the breach to fend off the yammering Easterling that felled him. He writhes beneath my feet, rasping a woman's name — his wife? — then lapses into silence.
My turn to die.
Hoarse from shouting over the din, I command the last available troops — my personal guard — to reinforce the shield-wall facing the river. They hesitate, but know that death awaits all, lord and lowly, when the line is broken.
"My lord, look yonder!" I whirl about — to be struck dumb by an impossible sight:
The horizon seethes with cavalry! In the van, two dark-haired horsemen, sable against gold, lead the charge towards us. Dimly, music from many horns reaches my ears.
Riders of the North!
My knees weaken, yet I manage to cry aloud,
"Hold fast, Gondor! Help is at hand!"
We are the Chosen of the Great One; we cannot fail!
We delight in the heady joy of cutting the enemy down, butchering them swiftly like honourless swine. These heathens perceive our might and quail, breaking ranks and fleeing in the face of our deadly fury.
Though prophesy is the province of soothsayers, I need none to predict this outcome: Triumph is at hand!
Now the very ground quakes under our righteous onslaught as we encircle the impotent defenders in sight of the river. The sound of our victory-chant soars above the noise of battle, lifting our spirits and....
Easterlings hurl themselves at my leaden sword-arm with abandon.
The shield-wall must hold!
I am startled to find a guardsman of the Steward's Company at my shoulder.
Our last reserves?
But then we hear unexpected horns blowing; tremors of alarm run through the enemy... they turn away, gibbering.
Flaxen-haired riders! Two grey-clad horsemen peel off, pursuing fleeing Orcs; the mass heads straight for us.
Before the banner rides a mere lad, green-cloaked and star-helmed — Gondorian?... but a wounded Orc, barely struggling to its knees, braces a pike on the ground and unhorses him.
The guardsman's scream rends my heart:
Was feelin' real good... thinkin' 'bout goin' home to the Great Caverns at Gundabad... till I feels someone tappin' me shoulder.... Tryin' to wake me up...?
When I opens me peepers, there's this big black eye, above this 'uge black beak, towerin' over me, starin' down at me face....
I jumps up, snatchin' me sword to swing at th' blasted rook. Then I looks around, dizzy and wonderin' who clubbed me head bloody.
An' sees all them horse-riders with spears — rushin' right at me!
Turnin' tail, I runs like a warg, knockin' over anythin' gets in me way.
As our ring tightens around the enemy, the press of bodies forces half our warriors to step back. I tread carefully over the piles of corpses, slick with scarlet... vivid spatters, stark against black garb and wraith-white skin.
Glad for a breather, I beckon Talfar to bring the waterskin.
Yet I hear strident braying from trumpets; I swing about — and see bands of frenzied goblins swarming our position. Desperate to shield the boy at my back, I engage the large one charging at me.
But then I spot a horde of horsemen over his shoulder and freeze....
We are lost!