The fields were blazing with fire under the sky to the south and west, in a wide ring near the River Isen. It was spring, and the fields were green, so the smoke was rising thick and black, but the flames wouldn’t spread. Eodred stared out aghast at the scene. He was about to run forward when Aful nudged into him.
He had never ridden so fast in his life.
Eodred leaped off before his horse thundered to a stop. Smoking cinders crunched beneath his boots. All the grass in a wide circle was charred and blackened, and scattered with debris: broken weapons, dinted armor, scraps of clothing–and the bodies.
Eodred knew enough of numbers to count quickly. Eight, sixteen, twenty-two, twenty-four. Twenty-four dead men, and seventeen horses. Only twenty-six survived of the original fifty.
There were other corpses as well: black, with red eyes and tongues and white fangs, garbed in dirty grey or brown. Eodred stared in morbid fascination at the leather straps and spikes of their armor, and the crude-fashioned iron and steel. It didn’t sink into his mind. Almost half the patrol, gone. Muddied tracks along the riverbank showed where the rest had dared the river to escape. How many orcs, to defeat fifty Riders? he wondered. The foul creatures lay in heaps; there were a hundred at least.
The number still hovered in his mind. Suddenly, desperately, he knelt down by each of the fallen Riders in turn, searching, searching. Let him not be here, he prayed silently. Dear Eru, not him, please. He stood up again, and looking about froze. A great black stallion was sprawled by the river. Eodred was drawn to it, against his will. He knew that stallion. And he knew its rider.
This Rider would have been the last to cross the river, making sure that all still alive were safely across. It was a Captain’s privilege to be last out. Eodred could see him in his mind, as he might have been: rising up in the stirrups, spear held high in defiance, the gold figuring of a horse on his helm gleaming in the sun.
The horse was still there, but broken now, lying cracked and scattered in the grass. Guthmer was facedown beside his stallion, his spear broken beneath him. The river burbled innocently two feet away. Only two.
Eodred reached out and touched one cold hand. “Guthmer.” His friend didn’t move. Eodred knew that. Dead people don’t move. He shook Guthmer’s shoulders. “Guthmer.” Nothing. “Guthmer!” he cried again, trying to lift him, trying to turn him over–but his friend was wedged beneath his horse, still and unmoving. Bereft, robbed of any comfort of physical touch, Eodred huddled empty-handed by the black stallion’s hulking corpse.
They found him there, still sitting in Death’s shadow. Eädil only looked down at him, the remote sadness of those who cannot fully understand echoed in her eyes. Elves do not die.
“Eodred,” She said, so tentatively, so gently. “Eodred, we have to go. They will come back.” He opened his hand, and sat there, staring at a little glitter of gold in his palm. Half the head of a tiny horse winked back mockingly at him as he turned it in his hand.
He looked up. Unshed tears gathered behind his eyes, but they were stone, and would not break. “Eädil,” he said calling her by her Elvish name, and speaking it perfectly. And for the first time, he said in perfect, flawless Elvish: “Eädil, nen firn.” I am dead.
She smiled down on him, smiled down with all the grief of the Eldar in her eyes.
He rose, the gold still clenched in his hand, and mounting Aful turned under the eaves of the forest. He did not look back. You cannot relive the past. “Nain fëa, Guthmer, autalye le: Illuvitar.” May it be your spirit, Guthmer, will pass to thee: Illuvitar.