The price of oaths

Continued from The wolf of my dreams

We set out across the plains of the Eastemnet; our goal the town of Grimslade, far across the Mark. We’d have to cross the mostly empty though still dangerous plains of the Norcrofts, where the enemy had already burnt down many farmsteads and crofts, leaving naught but ashes and death in their wake. We passed the cliff-town of Cliving in late morning the day after, we rested there for a while, before our caravan continued westward from there. Towards Eaworth and then south along the Entwash, in hope of avoiding as many roaming foes as possible on the open plains, where we’d be easy to spot from even the farthest of distances. The rain poured down endlessly upon us and turned our roads to a slippery mud, and caused some of the wagon-wheels to dig deep down and nearly get swallowed into the wet earth. Any regular trading caravan would set up camp and wait for the rain to cease and the roads to dry, but we had little choice in the matter. The shipment had to move forward as swiftly as possible, and so we pushed on. The pace was slow, painfully so, and our moods began to sink as swiftly as the wheels in the mud with each passing hour and day. We reached Eaworth at long last, and our arrival wasn’t met with many greetings and welcoming arms, for they had troubles of their own, and could not house fifteen hungry riders, a number of cart drivers, and as many horses at the same time. Our own provisions were plentiful however, and so we set up our camp there, and did our best not to disturb the townsfolk. I knew many men there, though I saw none that I recognized that evening. There was an eerie feeling in us all, and none of it was good: it felt as if something was waiting for us along the road, like there was an ill will in the air and rain, and the very earth itself seemed to work against us, by wanting to swallow our carts and ourselves alike into its dark abyss. We barely talked, neither the men nor I, for there was not much to say except repeating the orders from the Marshals: the shipment must remain safe and unspoiled. We all knew our duty, and we’d see it fulfilled. 

We slept on hard ground, as high up as we could find to avoid the pouring rain and wet soil, and the men’s sleep was often disturbed by the sound of thunder and lightning in the northern mountains, and over Fangorn forest. Bright white bolts lit up the night for us, and only seconds after the sound of rumbling thunder deafened our ears. There was indeed something evil in the air, we could all feel it. I and another man, Herulf his name, kept first watch that night, and my eyes spied out across the wet, green fields in search for the wolf that had watched us as we departed from Floodwend. I longed to see it again, unlike the others. The man said the wolf had been an ill omen, a spy of the enemy, that they kept watching us with unseen eyes from beyond the hills, just waiting to strike. We were ready, but I knew better. The wolf was her, I was sure of that. She guarded me, and kept an eye every now and then. The unseen guardian in the night. My own sleep that night, once my watch had ended, was not a pleasant one. I had no dreams to speak of, save for the lingering darkness further down the road. I awoke at early dawn, my shoulders ached already, which was not a good sign; and we broke camp an hour later to continue our route southwards along the Entwash. The Entwade was our target now, and then we’d pass southward close to Edoras, before we continued to Grimslade. The roads were more heavily guarded here, but I still had that feeling of uneasiness about crossing the open plains with such valuable cargo. Our scout rode ahead and made safe the way to Entwade, and our hardest challenge yet waited upon us there. The wade was flooded from all the rain, and no carts could easily cross it, not even upon the now drowned wooden bridges that stretched across the stream. They were barely visible below the waterline, and I then rode out into the streaming water to measure the depth for myself, and in some places the water was so high that it reached Ealfin’s belly, where it would normally not cover more than his hooves or his lower knees at most. I sighed and gave a signal to Cwendur, the man who had rode to fetch me in Aldburg. I had never truly cared much for the man, but I knew he was a good and honorable man at heart, one whom I could trust, and was swift of thought and foot alike. We spoke for a while on how to approach this hindrance as quickly as possible. The wagons would get stuck in the river mud no matter what we did, and it could be days before the water had ceased enough for us to easily cross, since the rain still fell mercilessly in the mountains. I told Cwendur to ride on to Entwade town and fetch as many able-bodied men he could find to help us cross. The other riders positioned themselves on strategic places around the hills to keep watch. 

Cwendur returned with five men. Five, where I had hoped for at least ten, and they didn’t look strong to my eyes. Farmhands, stablehelpers, one young boy no older than fifteen at most. But if that was all we could muster today, so be it. We pushed across the streaming river, inch by inch. The strong workhorses struggled in the mud where the bridges were no help to us, and the five men were not enough to help the horses, so we had to thin out our guard and lend our help too. I dismounted and called for four more men, and together we pushed the first wagon across the stream, and then the other. The protective oil upon our chainmail and plates washed away, but there was nothing to do about it. Let the metal rust as long as we reach our destination, was all I could think of. At last we rested in the town of Entwade, our bodies already weary and nearly spent after this heavy ordeal. We had barely done half the journey, but the worst part was over, or so we hoped at least. A few hours of rest for our weary bodies and a few rations we managed to get in our starving bellies, before we continued on towards the western plains. Edoras was our goal planned hereafter, where the King’s patrols were plentiful, where the roads were safer, but the rivers deeper. A choice we had to make, following our struggles at the Entwade; should we aim for Edoras with safer roads but rivers deep, or should we go northwest instead, a longer road through the forests, but avoiding the streams? After deep discussions amongst those who knew the routes best, we chose the Edoras road and dared the streams. We passed over the first with not much difficulty, thank Bema, for the rain in the mountains had ceased now, and most of it had already passed and allowed us passage. We rested outside Edoras, near the mounds, and we all paid our respects to the fallen kings that rested there, and allowed us to rest in turn, by watching over us. A long rest we had earned, we thought, and we stayed there for a full day before the final push to Grimslade, which was about one full day away at this pace. 

Five more riders joined us at Edoras by order of the local marshal, which eased my mind much as we continued on. The next stream was not so kind as the first, for here the flowing water had washed away much of the gravel laid out to ease the passing, and we once again found ourselves in deep mud and stuck carts. We pushed them on… inch by inch, yet again. Streaming water up to our thighs and waists for some, and I saw one man losing his footing in the water and the stream took him further down, but to no real danger. He was strong and agile and grabbed a rock, and was soon back to us again. The last cart eventually crossed the stream and we were now out upon the open fields again, and we had an easy, straight-forward journey to Grimslade ahead. The final push before a well-made journey was over and a well-earned rest awaited, which we all longed for. Then a horn sounded in the distance… a shrill sound, not one of ours, and it was heard long and wide. Herulf, our scout, rode up to a nearby hill, and he let out a cry of pain and a gasp as a crude arrow then burrowed through his chest, seemingly from nowhere; the arrow pierced his lungs and emptied all the air he had stored. A split second later there was a howl from beyond the hill, not that of a wolf’s, but something much more fierce and brutal, with burned men and children on their dank breaths. Herulf fell down lifeless from his horse, and was already beyond saving.

- “Warg Riders! Make ready!”, I cried out and drew my sword from its sheath. From beyond the hill rushed a group of large wargs with brown-black fur, and they had orcs and goblins riding upon them. A few sported bows, and the others held crudely made swords and hammers in their filthy hands, and I quickly counted at least twenty of them, about as many as we were, with the five riders that had joined us from Edoras. “Protect the wagons!”, I shouted again. “And kill them all, leave none alive!”. The battle was inevitable now, for they had felled our good man Herulf already, and the warg riders spread out to cover more ground, while we effortlessly formed two ranks. The cart drivers were experienced archers, and they took up shelter behind their wooden boards from their driving seats, and pulled their bows for backup. The battle was chaotic, for wargs and goblins ride not often in organized numbers; they would rather scatter upon the fields and then cluster together again, not unlike the cloud of flies that surrounded their stinking flesh. We rode onwards to battle… We flanked them, but their wargs were quick of foot, agile and dangerous even to experienced riders of Rohan, and they had good aim with their bows, and their blades were sharp. We had bows of our own however, and I saw Cwendur turn his upper body as he rode and loosened an arrow that hit its mark, and pierced the throat of one of the orcs. It fell off dead within seconds, but the warg itself was still a danger and disappeared behind a hill. Their claws and teeth are strong and sharp like knives, and they fear not to use them. I rode on with five of my riders while the others did the same behind and around us, and we cut down at least as many warg riders there, both orc and warg alike.

Their numbers thinned, but so did ours. I saw two of the men from Edoras fall off their injured horses in the distance and they fought on foot, though their fates I did not know then, until the battle was over. I had my own battle here, my battle for survival and protecting the carts as was my duty. One of the cart drivers shot down a warg with an arrow right in its heart, and I rode on to cut down the orc that was still alive, and my sword sliced its ugly head open with a single strike. I looked around when I heard the sound of my name being screamed as a warning into the fray; and before I knew it, a warg jumped out of nowhere and knocked me off Ealfin. Its heavy paws dug into my padded armor as it striked, but it did not pierce it deep enough, and I then found myself on the ground while Ealfin lost his balance for a moment after he kicked at the warg, which ran away. The strong horse was soon up on his hooves again, but I had landed upon my hip and rolled around in the grass. It sounded like something broke upon me, and I feared I’d soon feel the pain of a broken bone or hip, but it was only the short javelin that I had strapped upon my back that now were in two parts and useless. I rose up from the ground after catching my breath for a couple of seconds, and I still held only my sword in hand, for my shield was still upon Ealfin. I looked at the chaos around me, seeking for the closest danger… the growling of the warg that had dismounted me came from behind as it had made its long turn over the grass, and I turned myself around as it charged against me at full speed. I readied my sword and dodged its charge, and I cut the warg’s front leg while doing so; it fell down and took its rider with it, and the orc slammed its grinning head onto a sharp rock and would not ever wake again from that skull-splitting blow. The wounded warg twitched upon the ground and tried to stand up on three legs, but it fell down again in shock and agony, and the tip of my sword made quick work upon its heart as it lay there growling and snarling at me. Ealfin returned to me seconds later and I mounted up again, though with much difficulty. My body was badly bruised and aching, the loss of breath was still a hindrance, and my head spinned after the fall. Cwendur rode up to me as the warg riders thinned out upon the plains. The last of them was chased off by our men who fired arrows at it but missed, and we saw it disappearing over a hill towards the forests, when I called our riders back. The battle was over; we were victorious and the carts were safe, but to what cost? 

Cwendur and I rode around the battlefield, now strewn with the bodies of wargs, orcs, goblins, men and a couple of horses. Twenty-one wargs and orcs and goblins I counted there; some still gasped for air and moved about in dying pains before we ended their miserable, wretched lives with spears and swords in their hearts or heads. Two riders from Edoras and four of my own men had paid the ultimate price in this battle. Herulf one of them, Dunwald another, two of whom I had ridden with many times. But we had no time to grieve. Grimslade was near, and we had to push on before more foes arrived. Our fallen comrades were loaded unto the carts, so they could be taken home to their final rest, and with proper burials and honors. We finally rode into Grimslade with the shipment we had sworn to protect; many men were broken and injured, and we were all hungry, wet and tired beyond belief, for carrying a shipment of dwarven weaponry that would hopefully aid us in future battles, but again I asked myself: to what cost? Six good men had paid for this transport with their very lives. After every battle I think the same thing over and over again: that I could easily have been one among them and left Ethel fatherless and Yllfa without a man, as these fallen do to their families, if they had any. Herulf had a wife and a young son, I remembered, not two years old. The boy will never get to meet his father, or remember him. Such is the price of oaths and duty. We live by them to fulfill our part for our land and King, no matter the cost. Even if it means our lives.