Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lord of the Rings belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Wiglaf put a foot to the Dunlending's hip, wrenched free the spearhead lodged in his gut, spat a mouthful of blood, and raised his head to hear the drone of a far-off horn.
He staggered to a halt, the standard sagging in his grip. Wiglaf heard the howls, the answering blasts of the nearer enemy horns, and wiped the blood from his eyes to see Orcs and Dunlendings splashing through the currents of the Isen, back to the eastern shore, screaming at each other in panic and alarm. Beside him, Theodred pulled his blade from the hacked skull of an Uruk-hai mouth-foamer and shouted for the men to regroup beneath the standard. Wiglaf hastily raised and steadied the spear and banner he carried, the silk fluttering in the wind.
Grimbold found them a moment later, his beard and hair red up to his chin and helm. When he spoke, his rasping tone was almost questioning. “They flee.”
Theodred was looking after the retreating foe, his expression somewhere between a scowl and a worried frown. When he answered, his voice was so low that none of the others could hear but Grimbold—and Wiglaf, who happened to be standing behind them. “Aye, they flee, when only an hour longer and they would have taken the field.”
Wiglaf scraped back his hair, throwing down a handful of slimy blood, both red and black. His helm had been lost almost two hours since.
The hill was a mound of bodies, Orcish and Mannish. The other men were beginning to draw back up in their lines, raked and haggard and all perplexed. They grouped behind the Prince and Grimbold by clan, each looking for his own banner, and Wiglaf saw that many horses had been killed, for few now were still mounted. He himself had seen the Prince's mare speared out from under him, could still hear Theodred's cry of anguish. In his head, it was answered by his own grief, the memory of his own horse, his own Esa, collapsing of three spears to the neck.
Now, they both stood on foot at the top of the hill they had been fighting on for nearly five hours, at the top of a heap of corpses, staring eastward at the backs of the scattered troops of Isengard as they surged through the water and back over the ford, their shrieks and yowls skirling in the air like fetid smoke.
Theodred was clutching at his arm. Wiglaf leaned forward, attempted to look at the wound, and the Prince shrugged him off with a curt “Let me be, boy.”
Grimbold was looking fixedly into the distance. “My lord,” he said, and something in his voice made the men who heard it go quiet, made their heads, all of them, turn as one.
Theodred lifted his head. Wiglaf craned his neck, pulling himself up by the haft of the standard, trying to see what these two grown men, taller than him by a head, were seeing.
A hush swept through the ranks. Those on horseback began pointing.
To the East, perhaps a mile away, the retreating Orcs, Dunlendings, and Uruk-hai had stopped. The black figures clumped, roiling violently into one dark shape that swarmed, and on a stray wind they heard, faint and shrill, the clash of steel.
“Someone has come,” said Grimbold disbelievingly. “Someone is attacking from the East!”
Wiglaf felt his heart lift. Someone had come! The men looked at each other, and a weak cheer went up. He glanced out of the corner of his eyes to see that Theodred was staring at the shapes on the horizon, at the unmistakable signs of battle.
“Who could have come?” Grimbold was saying. “From the East? There is nothing there but—”
“Dunlendings and Elves,” said Theodred harshly, “and neither disposed to come to do us any kindnesses.”
The hill was beginning to reek of death, through even the bitter cold of Ninui. Wiglaf shifted his feet, slogged through the bloody mud to plant the standard in the slightly drier ground beside the Prince. The silk flapped in the raw wind over their heads.
The cries of the wounded moved Theodred into action. He called out for a detail of men to remove the hurt back onto the western shores, with a contingent of spearmen to guard them. The horses were to be gathered and counted, and riders were sent out to see the lay of the land behind them and search for sign of Elfhelm and his Riders, who were supposed to be fortifying the Hornburg, or of Eomer, who was coming from Edoras with reinforcements.
To the front, to the East, seethed the battle on the border of sight, and all anyone could see were the churning hordes of the enemy.
Wiglaf stood his ground and held the standard.
Nearly a half an hour hence, it was Grimbold again who shouted first. “They break!”
All movement on the hill ceased and men stretched their necks. Prince Theodred turned from his captains to hurry up to Grimbold's side, glaring into the distance.
Wiglaf saw the shapes scattering, saw that the throng that had fled East was now nothing more than dark figures breaking away and flying North, and could not resist joining his voice to the hoarse cheer that shook the hill.
He was not sure what he expected to see, then. The shining lengths of elven spears, the curve of elven bows? Perhaps the tall helms of Gondor, appearing like a conjuration out of the South? Perhaps even a clan of Dunlendings, come out of Dunland to fight for purposes of their own, though this would have meant another hard battle for the Eorlingas on the heels of the earlier scrap?
“Ranks,” shouted Theodred, “ranks! Archers to the front!”
The captains took up the cry, and within moments all were sorted. Wiglaf had his position behind Theodred, who had refused all the horses offered to him and now gripped a spear on the ground, and then they waited in tense silence for whatever would come.
In the distance, new shapes began appearing in clumps. These were small and unfamiliar, too far-flung for even the sharpest of eyes among the archers, and they moved over the earth with a swiftness that made Wiglaf's breath catch in his throat.
“Mounted,” said Grimbold quietly. “Look! Look how they fly!”
The strange shapes were riding after the scatting Orcs and Dunlendings, and overtook the exhausted, battle-weary troops easily. As the Eorlingas watched, the creatures of Saruman fell in droves, often long before their pursuers had even closed with them.
“Mounted archers,” murmured Theodred. “Archers who kill with every shot.”
Suddenly, before Wiglaf even realized it was over, the battle had ended. The fields of the eastern horizon was littered with unmoving black shapes, and moving more slowly among them were the unknown conquerors. These did not continue West or North, but gathered again at the site where they had first appeared, responding to a signal none of the Eorlingas could see or hear.
“My lord,” said Grimbold, “if they come this way...”
Theodred said nothing, but the men looked at each other and tightened their grips on their spears and swords. Wiglaf exhaled shakily and steadied the standard.
The dark shapes had formed one, giant multitude, a host that now stood still in the distance, and Wiglaf felt a chill down his back to see how many there were. Beside him, Theodred's breath remained regular and unbroken, his face quiet and resolute, and Wiglaf saw how the other men saw this and took heart.
They waited, the hill a mound of hoar-white corpses.
Then, in the air, out of the West—
They heard it, all of them, every man still standing.
The call of a horn, low and uncanny, a sound deep and weird that seemed to rise up out of the depths of a well. It hung, glimmering, a darkling voice, and beneath it, swelling up to meet the dreadful call, came the numberless howls of a thousand ululating throats, full of menace and nameless doom, and with them the drums that filled the nightmares of Eorlingian children.
The men swayed as if stricken by blows, and Wiglaf felt his own face grow cold and bloodless. When he looked, Theodred's own skin had whitened, his eyes dark with the old dread bred into every son of Eorl since the time of the Eotheod.
There was no one of the Eorlingas who did not know those drums.
It was Grimbold who put the name to them.
“Drugin,” he whispered, his voice a grating croak. “Pukel.”
Then, even as they watched, even as a Rider came splashing back into the waters of the Isen from the East, even as they heard the first horns of the coming of Eomer and aid, they looked to the horizon and saw that the strangers, the unknown riders who had so unexpectedly delivered them from destruction, were vanishing like smoke on the air, into the middle distance.
And Wiglaf saw, in the thick of all those dim, bleak shapes, like a spark off of a dying hearth fire, like the gleam of a single star in a night filled with clouds, the briefest glitter of bright, shining gold.