The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 64: The King is Dead

Éomer looked down at the fallen figure of Marfach for a few moments then reached out a foot and gingerly, fearing some trick, he pushed his fallen opponent over onto his back. To his surprise he saw that Marfach was still breathing, although the dusty ground was stained with blood from the dagger wound in his side. He gripped the Ranger’s sword Marfach had given him and bent down, taking hold of the collar of his enemy’s tunic and saying to himself;
‘The only way to kill a dragon is to cut off its head….’

And he put the blade to Marfach’s neck. But then he stopped. A long wailing cry echoed over the battlefield and Éomer looked up and what he saw appalled him.

All around him lay the slain. The enemy, great mountainous Mumakil and black-clad archers strewn dead around them. But among them too were the dead of Rohan, scores, hundreds of men and horses, many known to Éomer, some kin or friends.

He gasped and straightened up, looking long now, the tears streaming down his face. So much death, so much suffering….Éomer was the greatest warrior of the Mark, and had viewed many battlefields and had slain foes without count, men and orcs and battle-beasts. But this cataclysm of slaughter cowed even him. Suddenly, he was sick of killing. He looked down at Marfach, breathing with difficulty, and he remembered what the creature had said to Théoden when the King asked him why he had spared Théodred his son at the battle of the Fords of Isen….

‘I felt sorry for him’ Marfach had said simply.

At the time, Éomer had been angry; the royal house of Eorl did not need pity from its foes, certainly not a cursed creature like the Red Dragon….and yet, standing on this bloody field, with so many fair and beloved of his folk dead, Éomer no longer thought it was strange. He looked down at Marfach, hesitated then whistled and his great grey charger Liath cantered up to him with a whinny. He took a leather flask from his saddle. The Rohirrim were accustomed to carry some sour wine with a little honey in it, to drink or to put on wounds during fighting. Éomer carried the flask over to Marfach and kneeling beside him he lifted his head and gently moistened his lips with the bitter drink. Marfach’s face was grey and still, but suddenly his eyelids moved and he opened his eyes and looked up at Éomer. He smiled, only not in mockery this time, and asked in a whisper;
‘Why did you not kill me, Lord of the Mark?’

Éomer stared at him; with the battle rage gone Marfach’s face was pale but fair, and the Lord of the Mark realised with a shock that he was indeed not a man; he was an Elf. He said;
‘I felt sorry for you. I believe that you did intend to keep your vow to my uncle and to Aragorn, but some force beyond mortal strength prevented you. And I know too that you spared my cousin, Prince Théodred, and the law is a life for a life. And also….’ And here Éomer smiled wrily; ‘you spared me, even though you should have vanquished me, except for that orc-trick I played on you.’

Marfach smiled weakly. Éomer looked away across the battlefield and added;
‘And I fear you are right about King Théoden, for I do not see his banner, and
the heart knows when one dear to it has perished.’

For some time Éomer was lost in thought, then he seemed to shake himself and he stood up, first setting the flask beside Marfach, close to his hand. He said;
‘I cannot do anything to help you, Dragon. But if it is of any meaning to you, I accept your vow of allegiance, and give you pardon in the lands of Rohan. Farewell….’

Glancing about, Éomer saw one of the King’s guard lying nearby, slain. He went over to him and unclasped the man’s green and gold embroidered cloak and carried it over to Marfach and covered him with it. If any survived the day and scoured the field for their wounded, they would take Marfach as an ally of the West and spare him, on account of this cloak.

Then the Lord of the Mark turned and strode over to his horse and mounting rode away towards the battle, which still raged in a mist of dust and blood far to the East. Marfach, too weak even to speak his thanks, laid his head back on the hard ground and drifted off into unconsciousness….

Éomer had not gone far before he saw the remains of several éoreds streaming back across the battlefield in pursuit of one of the last surviving mumakil. Éomer shouted at them.
‘Elfhelm! Gamling! Where is the king?’

The Riders pulled up and wheeling galloped over to where Éomer sat on Liath. Short of breath Gamling said;
‘Lord Éomer, we were forced back by Nazgul and parted from the King. We are trying to find his éored now…’

A sick feeling was on Éomer’s heart. He said to Gamling;
‘Seek not for the king’s éored, for they are destroyed. Seek rather for the king. Where did you see him last?’
Gamling pointed in the direction of the city. Great fires were burning on the plain, lit by the forces of Mordor to hide their numbers from the city, and deceive the archers. Éomer shouted
‘To me!’ and without waiting to see if he was followed he put Liath to a gallop, across the wreckage of the battlefield, dead and dying orcs and men and enemies still with fight in them and stray beasts of terrible and strange kind. But always in the Lord of the Mark’s mind were Marfach’s words….
'The King is dead...'

At last, barely visible above the confusion of the field, Éomer saw the white horse banner, leaning at a steep angle with the sharp end thrust through the body of a great Uruk-hai. The white horse was torn and bloodied. Éomer’s heart sank.

He galloped up and dismounted. A fearsome stench assailed him and he covered his mouth with his mailed hand and looked around. Lying before him, stretched out in death, was one of the fell beasts used by the Nazgul for mounts. It lay sprawled and decapitated, and its great crested head, with red eyes still open and dull with the burning sun, sat on the dry grass some yards away.

Éomer stared in amazement; some great warrior made that stroke, he thought. But he did not wonder for long, for approaching the beast he saw beyond it a white horse lying dead….
‘Snowmane!’ he cried and scrambled over the Nazgul’s fell mount and hurried over to the slain animal. As he neared it he saw, pinned beneath his own horse, Théoden the king, dead.

Éomer fell to his knees beside his uncle and reaching out put his hand on the dead king’s brow. Théoden’s face was bruised and dusty, but wore a look of peace. Éomer took his hand in his own but it was cold; the King was long departed. Éomer kissed Théoden's brow and began to weep, not caring that the Rohirrim had gathered round and were looking at him.
‘This was what you wished for, my beloved uncle!’ he thought to himself.
‘Glorious death in battle! To wipe away all trace of your shame. But to me you had no stain to clear from your name, you were always the very heart of honour and bravery and kindness, Théoden my true father, my king….’

At length Éomer got to his feet, rubbing the tears away with the back of his mailed gauntlet.
‘Now is not the time for weeping!’ he said to his men. ‘This was a glorious death for Théoden son of Thengol of the house of Éorl. No greater was ever known in all the annals of the Kings of Rohan! High will his grave-mound be raised, when the battle is over. The women will weep……’
‘My lord!’ shouted Elfhelm suddenly. ‘See who lies struck down here!’

Éomer turned, fear in his heart at the urgency in the man’s voice. All the Rohirrim turned, and almost as one they gave a cry of dismay and grief. For close to the fallen king, stretched out as if seeking to crawl to her uncle’s side, lay Éowyn, the White Lady of Rohan, clad all in armour and with an empty scabbard by her side, dead.

Éomer walked over to his sister like a man sleepwalking. He knelt down beside her and lifted her up off the battle-ravaged ground and held her tightly to his armoured chest. His sister’s face was pale, still and there was blood on her lips.
‘Éowyn!’ called Éomer in anguish, rocking her backwards and forwards, but she gave no sign that she heard his voice, or felt his touch.
‘Éowyn!’ he cried again. ‘I thought you were safe in Edoras, ruling our folk in the peace of the Golden Hall! How came you here?’
Elfhelm hung his head, his face pale and ashamed. Éomer whispered to his unheeding sister;
‘Is this how you seek to shake off the memory of Wormtongue? Oh Éowyn, Éowyn my most beloved sister, there was no shame to wipe out, no shame at all…..’

The men gathered round wept too, and might have stood there till night fell had Éomer not at that moment laid his sister down gently on the grass and said in a voice hard as flint;
‘Lash spears together and bear them from the field!’ We will make their lament in good time, but now we will avenge them in blood, blood, and more blood…’

And with that Éomer ran to Liath, sprang into the saddle and seized his spear from Gamling and rallied his men thus;
‘Let us ride to ruin and the world’s ending! Death, death, death!’

And the Rohirrim replied with a great shout;
‘Death , death, death….’

Their loud cries almost penetrated the dim world into which Meriadoc the hobbit had been plunged when he stabbed the Nazgul.

Almost crushed by the falling Mumak, Merry’s head had cleared only for him to witness the Nazgul’s foul beast land a few feet away from the fallen king, and for him to see Éowyn spring to his defence.

But Merry was unable to go to the aid of the brave princess, for his limbs were frozen with fear; not just the stench of its steed, but the very sight of the Lord of the Nine smote the hobbit’s heart with dread. This was the great witch-King who had wounded Frodo, had maimed him for all time....Merry staggered to his feet and drew his sword, but could not approach the Nazgul. He had to watch helplessly as it stalked Éowyn and the fallen king….

But deep in his hobbit heart Merry had great store of courage, the slow-kindled courage of his race. He took a firm grip on his sword, the Numenorean blade he had taken from the barrow-wight’s hoard, and strength seemed to flow into him from the fine steel.
‘I am only a hobbit but I won’t let Éowyn face that foul carrion alone! I won’t! And King Théoden, who was so kind to me. I am a King’s man, and I will prove it….’

And forcing his legs to carry him, Merry ran forward towards the Nazgul as it swung its great mace at Éowyn. With a splintering sound the spiked head smashed the wooden targe she had snatched up to defend herself. With a cry of pain Éowyn fell back against the dead body of Snowmane; her arm was broken. Weak with pain, frozen by the sight of the approaching Nazgul, Éowyn waited for death….

At the end Merry’s legs failed and he covered the remaining few feet that separated him from the Lord of the Nine on his hands and knees. Then, with the last of his strength and all his courage, Merry took his sword in both hands and with a cry of
‘For the Shire!’ he plunged the barrow-blade into the Nazgul’s leg, behind the knee….

At once a force struck Merry, something like a great storm wind, only dark and bitterly cold. The bright day vanished and he found himself lying on the ground where he had been thrown by the impact unleashed by the wounding of the Lord of the Nine. His arm was broken, or worse. Merry held it, as if to reassure himself he still was whole, but his very body was wracked by pain and his blood turned to ice. And at the last his sight began to fail.

‘Éowyn? Gandalf?’ he called in a pitiful voice. Something came running and crashed into him, and he did not know if it was friend or foe. He fell heavily and there was the thump of an arrow into flesh and a cry and a great weight came crashing down on Merry and he knew no more….