MOON LETTERS : CREATIVE WRITING
Eagle Rising - by Windfola
Night was falling in the Eastemnet. Shadows were stretching broad fingers across the rippling plains. The curlews were calling, their long haunting notes filling the evening sky. The horses were quiet. Some lay in sheltering hollows amid the long grass, others stood, blowing warm breaths in calm contemplation of the coming darkness. They had run far, driven southwards in the annual muster of the Mark. In two days they would be at Edoras, where the best of the young new stock would be cut out from the herd for the king's men.
A little apart had run the mearas, the dozen or so mares and their young that were born in the direct line from Felaróf, the father of horses who had been tamed by Eorl the Young. They were not of the herd, but rarely strayed far out of reach, for they counted the lesser horses as their kin. Not driven by the riders of the Mark, they came of their own accord, out of interest and perhaps loyalty. They would come to Edoras with the rest, but would not enter the muster field, nor permit any men to handle them save a chosen few. The whole town would turn out just for the chance to set eyes on them.
Their leader was Feste, a great grey mare with a fine head and wise face. She was ageing and had delivered her last foal. She would carry no more. The colt was a yearling now and his dark coat was already beginning to lighten. One day it would match his dam's and carry the light of the moon into battle. Three offspring Feste had born to her mate, Freolic. Since his untimely death, the eldest had run alone on the plains, taking up the mantle of his sires. Already his size and stature marked him out and no other stallion would best him, though a few had tried. Men called him Shadowfax and unseen he moved through the darkness; bonded now with Thengel, like his sire before him and ready to come at the king's call. The youngest Feste kept close by her and her neck gleamed silver in the moonlight as she nuzzled his marbled coat.
All of the direct line of Felaróf were born dark, to turn hoarfrost silver by maturity. All except one. Feste's second foal had stayed black. At five summers old, he ran with the mares, lately uncertain of his position, neither colt nor yet quite grown. His flanks had not born the tell tale flecks of grey at his birth, and it was said that he was a throwback to the days when Felaróf himself was seen on the plains and had taken a black mare as his favourite.
That day Théoden was lately returned to Edoras with Ælfhere, his kinsman and elder, with whom he had trained since childhood. The boy took seriously his duties for he burned with a passion to live up to his father's name, but this excursion to Eastfold had offered time for sport and the two had left the éored early to watch the start of the muster, before riding home ahead of the rest. And Théoden had seen the mearas gathering, appraising the two young colts with a practised eye. The black throwback had a fine arching neck and the most beautiful head that Théoden had ever seen, and he already stood tall, but he lacked the powerful bulk of his father. There was a restless energy about him and he bore an air that seemed to challenge. 'Tame me if you dare' was written in his eyes. The yearling, still gangling but with the makings of a bigger stallion, looked every bit like his dam, earnest and temperate, born to love and be loved. Théoden knew in his heart which he desired, but he knew also the rules. No mearh would unwillingly submit to any man, be he the lord of the Mark or his son.
Perfunctorily the young man greeted his father and then fled from the hall to seek Théodwyn and his mother. As he passed the doorwardens, a few riders appeared, coming swiftly up the hill and led by the tall foreigner. He had always stood out amongst the Rohirrim, for he had not their blue eyes and yellow hair, but shaggy dark hair, which contrasted the fine, slightly aquiline features of his pale face. Then Théoden made out ragged shields and tattered and bloody clothing, and saw that some of the men were wounded. He stopped abruptly, but the foreigner swept past without pausing to pay his respects and entered the hall. His eyes spoke a thousand words. The others, some of whom Théoden now recognised, remained outside to tend to the horses and their wounded. One rider was sprawled awkwardly across his mount, head lolling, and as Théoden reached his side, he turned sightless eyes towards him, his face a bloody mess of torn flesh and crushed bones. Théoden recoiled and felt his jaw tighten. Accustomed as he was to the sight of bodily hurts, he would never fail to be moved by them.
The healers came and bore the injured inside and Théoden turned away, feeling useless. Then he remembered his father's words, urging him to take more part in matters of state, now that he was nearly of age. He slipped back into the hall and approached the dais. The king was questioning the dark haired rider.
'Nine of you? Only nine of you left out of forty? How came this?'
'We were ambushed, lord. We expected attack by men from the west, but these orc came out of the Misty Mountains by night. We were cut off at the river.'
'And Ælric dead, you say? That was a valiant man.' Thengel's voice barely rose above a whisper, but then his mounting rage exploded like one of the resinous pine logs in the hearth. 'As if we hadn't enough trouble with Dunland!' Then he rounded on the rider. 'So what was you part in the affair? You have scarcely taken a scratch I see.'
Slate grey eyes met the king's fierce gaze. 'I have fought with orcs before, my lord. They are not so dangerous if you are prepared. But we were outnumbered and already weary from battle. I was on watch and warned Ælric, but it was too late. We had insufficient guard on our northern flank. And more Dunlendings came before we could break through.' The foreigner's voice was controlled, but taut, his accent more pronounced as he chose his words carefully. And as the king shook with anger at the news, the foreigner held his corner. Théoden was impressed, but Thengel had not finished.
'You did not seek safety at Isengard?'
'Isengard was due north of us when we were attacked, lord; the same way that the orcs came.' The rider hesitated. 'I deemed it safer to use what speed we had and ride straight back here.'
Thengel relented. Théoden knew his father's temper well and felt relieved that he seemed disarmed by the young man's candour, though irony remained in the king's words.
'Very well, Thorongil. Then I must be grateful to you for bringing me back any men at all.'
The other made no sign that he had detected the disparagement, unless it were by the merest upward tilt of an eyebrow and the slightest hardening of his hawkish gaze. 'Thank-you, lord.' He turned as if to go and then added, 'And, may I say that there was nothing more that Ælric could have done. He died an honourable death.'
'I would have expected no less of him,' growled Thengel.
As Thorongil strode down the hall he passed Théoden and the prince smiled at him ruefully, for, though he knew him by repute only, he couldn't help liking the grave young man, with his strange looks and reserved confidence. The foreigner nodded briefly and left Théoden wondering how he got away with such informality before the king.
'Ælric is a heavy loss, not least to his young brother, for he was as a father to him from his infancy.' The king pulled at his beard thoughtfully and gave a weary sigh. 'Have Ælfhere brought to me. He should hear this news before rumour reaches him first.'
He beckoned to Gálmód, his closest councillor, a small wiry man with a face that many likened to that of a fox, clever, animated and ever alert. He walked slowly across the room, his trademark dragging gait less pronounced than usual; more than likely, thought Théoden, from the ale that he had evidently been consuming.
The king lowered his voice with bitter resignation. 'These orc raids increase with every year. They disgust me with their barbarity. But they are more dangerous even than I feared. They seem to guess when we are at our weakest, though how I cannot understand. I can hardly believe that they parley with the Dunlendings. And now I have lost my best marshal. It is a pity that Ælric's brother has not his head for command.'
'I fear you are right, lord. And his captains are yet young for the task.' Gálmód pondered for a moment, scanning the king's face, his pale eyes eager and calculating.
'I shall put Eorulf in Westfold for the time being,' continued Thengel. 'The Eastemnet is little troubled this year and can spare him.'
'Unless, my lord,' Gálmód hesitated. 'Unless you were to try the northerner, Thorongil. He hungers for higher rank. I can see it in his eyes.'
'A stranger in our land as Marshal?' questioned the king. 'His skill with horse and sword are not in doubt, but he has been little tested as a leader of men.'
'He is a decisive thinker, and has a will of iron when once it is set. And the men trust him.'
The great oak door opened then and Ælfhere entered, bowing low before his king.
'You are lately returned from Eastfold with my son, Ælfhere,' began Thengel. 'Your coming is timely, for I fear that I have grave news from the Fords of Isen. Your brother has perished in battle against orcs from the mountains.'
Ælfhere stood frozen, his face betraying no sign of his thought. Finally he spoke, his voice stiff and controlled.
'My lord king, I thank you for breaking this news to me in person. Has my mother been told?'
'She knows nothing of it yet. It is best that such tidings come from one that is closest to her. As my sister, she is naturally welcome to remain at Meduseld if she so desires.'
Ælfhere nodded. 'May I know how my brother fared in his last foray, and how he met his end?'
'He died bravely, defending his men and his country. You must ask Thorongil about the manner of his fate. He led the retreat.'
The shadow that had crossed the young man's face lengthened, and he took his leave. Théoden stared after his friend, in half a mind to follow him, but a look from his father held him where he stood.
'There goes one who may be displeased if you make the northerner a marshal, especially Marshal of Westfold,' said Gálmód.
'It is the king's lot to keep safe his lands and people, not to flatter his own kin,' said Thengel. 'And more men than Ælfhere would aspire to be marshal. This Thorongil now, he is shrewd, as you say. And bold when need drives him. I see an old head on young shoulders there.' He moved over to the great woven cloth of Eorl the Young and stared at it for a moment. 'Very well, we shall give him his chance. And, after all, he will not be the first leader of men to feel like a stranger in this land, even though he be the first of foreign blood.'
Later that day, Thorongil was recalled to the king's chamber, where sat Thengel and his councillor and his son nearby. They regarded the soldier with renewed curiosity, as though examining him for the first time.
The king took a long sip of ale and looked thoughtfully at the tall foreigner. 'Gálmód tells me that you are popular with the men. I know that you can fight and ride, but can you lead, I wonder? You are yet young to take command, but the old goat is a good judge of character and if you wish it I shall make you Marshal of Westfold. Do you think you can hold the Gap of Rohan?'
A half smile crossed the foreigner's lips. 'Give me one hundred of your best men and I will hold it, Thengel King.'
There was a pause and then Thorongil spoke again. 'May I make one request, my lord?'
'Name it,' said the king.
'Before I begin I should like two months leave to see to some business of my own.'
The king laughed suddenly, transforming his scarred face. 'I was hoping you had found a cure for this wanderlust. Some might doubt your resolve.'
The foreigner frowned. 'Have I ever failed your trust, Thengel King?'
'You of all people have not,' he answered slowly. 'And if I refuse, you will go anyway?'
'I must, lord.'
'Then you shall go with my thanks, master Eardstapa. But hasten back before the autumn. And if you are to ride north, then take a letter to Orthanc for me. I was going to send a runner, but you will be swifter no doubt. Gálmód has it sealed and ready.'
'Yes, my lord.'
Alone again, Thengel turned keen eyes on his son. 'You are surprised that I make a marshal of a foreigner in our land?'
The young man hesitated. His father often toyed with questions that invited the unwary into his traps. 'Why, father,' he answered slowly, 'he has shown courage and skill, and all speak highly of him.'
'The Westfold éoreds may take the news ill, but I doubt it. Indeed, had I to choose between them, I might have suffered more discontent from the house not favoured. This way none shall accuse me of favouritism. And in any case, the posting is a poison chalice in these days. But we shall see.'
The king stood up and leaned on his staff. 'I want you to remain at Edoras for the summer. You shall have a horse to train, and I would see what Eorulf has made of you while you have been away. When Thorongil returns you and Ælfhere shall join him in Westfold. It will do you well to be tested, for even the finest steel must first be tempered.'
Then he took from a coffer a belt with a silver buckle worked in the shape of a horse's head and overlaid with many winding traceries of gold. 'This clasp was my father's and his before him. It came from the hoard of Scatha the Worm, and was worn by Eorl when he came down from the north. I shall no longer ride to battle, save in my heart. Therefore receive it, my son, and wear it when you go to war, in honour of your fathers.'
Théoden knelt, suddenly overwhelmed by the moment, and bowing his head, took the belt. Then he recalled Ælric and the face of the injured rider and realised at last how the rules had changed in the months that he had been away. The days of mock fights and easy victories had passed. He fingered the tracery on the buckle, but could find no words to speak.
'Herugrim you shall receive when you are worthy to bear it,' said Thengel and, taking his son by the shoulder, he raised him up and smiled. 'I see your mother's wisdom in your eyes. Use it well my son and you shall not dishonour your line.'
It was barely light and still cold. Aragorn stood by the river, looking into her eddying grey waters and tried to put from his mind the scenes at the Fords of Isen. He could not. They had stalked him all night as he lay, half sleeping half waking, and stole into his dreams to taunt him.
You waited too long before you raised the alarm. What were you thinking of? Did you suppose you could despatch the orcs without waking your fellows? He saw again the fear in his young companion's eyes and his own indecision, whether to try to save him or alert the camp. You knew what your head was saying, but your heart betrayed you. Had you gone back sooner the others might have been better prepared. The loss of one might have saved many. If you really think you can hold the Gap of Rohan, come winter you will need to sharpen up. That Thengel had promoted him to marshal, after near disaster on his part, had wrong-footed Aragorn, when he had been expecting reprimand. But he had no harsher judge than himself.
He looked towards the Hithaeglir and beyond, to the north-west. That way lay home. He could be there in two weeks on a swift horse, maybe a little less with fair weather and no delays. How long had it been? More than four years, he realised as he counted back. You have been avoiding it, he told himself, and found that he was smiling at his self-deception. What are you afraid of? That it will have changed? Or rather that it won't? That she will be there? Abruptly he snatched a flat stone from the bank above the path and cast it into the river. It skimmed the surface two or three times and sank. And what will you do if she is? He put the question from his mind, but the memory lingered, that and the heartache. And what of Elrond? Finding no answer, he began to walk slowly along the riverbank towards the rising sun.
I shall need another horse. The chestnut mare that had born him for the last three years had fallen victim to an orcish spear. He could still hear her dying scream and it affected him more than he was prepared to admit. She had been his most constant companion, gentle and courageous. You never thought to call yourself sentimental. Maybe that is half the problem. He heard Gandalf's voice then. Do not harden your heart over much, son of Arathorn. It does not become you. His friend's words recalled five months of winter hardship and sickness at Fornost, when wolves had dared to attack and slew many of the dying. So, will that be the day for me to lie down before my enemy? The day I can leave a young man to his death and think nothing of it? If truth be told, Aragorn had long before learned the hardest lessons of leadership, but the dead faces of Ælric and the others still haunted him as he watched the red dawn in the east. They joined the line of friends that were lost to him and which lengthened with every season. He turned back towards the town and entered as the dawn bell was ringing. The gatekeepers let him pass for they knew his early walks of old, and he stopped to break his fast with them, as he often did when not on duty.
Scarcely an hour later the watchman discerned a great dust pall rising from the dry ground to the east and knew that the horses were coming. The cry went up and young and old alike began to gather in great numbers around the gates. Aragorn had long before heard the approaching thunder of their hooves, drumming on the plain.
Between the river and the dyke that surrounded the town was a large area of rough grass, more or less level and enclosed with a strong fence. It was here that the townsfolk began to gather, some by the gate, many more hanging over the fence and still others within the dyke that circled Edoras, higher up to get a better view. Stockmen on horseback waited by the gates, ready to keep back the onlookers and steer the herd into the field.
Before long there rose out of the dust and thunder flashes of chestnut and grey and black and bay, and soon horses of every size and hue could be seen galloping towards the town in a broad, heaving swathe, like a great wave on the ocean, deafening to the ear and quite unstoppable. And, just as the townsfolk seemed about to be swept under and trampled by the stampede, the riders brought the whole herd about and began to guide it deftly into the field, so that not the smallest child was in danger. One by one the horses streamed in, like so many grains of sand in a glass, until all had entered and they were come to a graceful halt, arching their necks and tossing their heads. There they would be counted and marked, and the best corralled separately for backing and training before the remainder were released to the summer pastures.
As the gates were swinging shut behind the final stragglers, there suddenly appeared the mearas by the river, unconcerned and a little aloof, curiosity drawing them near. And all eyes turned upon them, for everyone knew that this year would see the union between the lord Théoden and the horse that would one day bear him into battle.
Feste drank long from the Snowbourn, washing her legs in the stream and encouraging the yearling to join her. The black hovered nearby, regarding the town with mistrust in his dark eyes. The other mares and their foals followed Feste's lead and presently they were all walking in the shallow, stony river, enjoying its cooling waters, moving all the while nearer to the gates and the field. Patiently they waited, looking on while the stockmen ordered the herd and the marshals began to examine the younger adults, checking for soundness of limb, conformation and strength; the essential qualities of a good saddle horse. The older stock, used mainly for breeding, knew the routine. After years of gentle persuasion they were only half wild and were tempted easily enough by the promise of a good haynet. It was the youngsters that objected more vigorously; unused to being handled and high in spirits, they ran in circles, heads in the air and fought their halters as the men sought to catch and hold them. Once the king's men had taken their pick, the townsfolk and many others from the surrounding farms would be permitted to choose what they needed from the remainder. In the town, meanwhile, preparations for a night of feasting were being made, to celebrate the horses and reward the workers for their toil.
And so it was well after noon before the marshals were done and the folk of Edoras had their chance. Aragorn had been watching with interest and had helped with the more difficult beasts, keeping an eye out for a promising steed for himself. He had a reputation in the Riddermark for his quiet skill with animals and this had earned him more than a little respect. For the Rohirrim as a rule held their own ways with horses in high esteem and had little truck with strangers, habitually considering them to be thoughtless, verging on cruel, in the ignorance of their horsemanship. But for his affinity with horses, Aragorn would not have been accepted as a rider in the Mark, much less as a captain.
Presently the proceedings came to a halt so that the men could eat. The muster was earning general approval, for the quality of the young stock appeared good and no one had yet been hurt, beyond the usual scrapes and bruises. The horses were now quieter, drinking their fill from the troughs and standing more or less sedately in the afternoon sun. An air of some festivity pervaded the town, ale was in plentiful supply and spirits were high.
Théoden slipped out of the hall as inconspicuously as he could, though he knew that all eyes would be upon him as soon as he reached the gates. Then he noticed Ælfhere in the crowd. In their flight from the fords, the company had been unable to bear the body of Ælric home to Edoras, and so, with no focus for his grief, the young man was trying to take a half-hearted interest in the muster. His pretence did not fool his cousin, however. Théoden beckoned to him and together they walked down the sloping road to the gates, past the muster field and out towards the river where the mearas stood waiting. Feste regarded them benignly. She knew the prince as well as she knew any man in the Mark, save the king, and was well disposed towards him. Less welcome was the trickle of onlookers who were following at a discrete distance. Within a few minutes it was turning into a stream. Ælfhere turned and raised a hand in warning. The bonding of a future king and his mearh was a private moment of symbolic significance. All knew it, but curiosity to witness the occasion was a strong temptation to the townsfolk.
Théoden surveyed the colts, not only Feste's but the others, too. He knew, though, that he wanted above all Feste's child, a brother to Shadowfax. An accomplished rider almost before he could walk, he knew what to look for amongst these, the best of horses, and yet this felt strangely more like seeking a lover than a companion at arms. The flecked grey yearling stood impassive, his face true, his conformation strong and promising. His mane and tail were already almost wholly white and he would rapidly lose the ungainly look afforded by gangling legs and oversized head. The dark eyes promised love and loyalty without reproach.
Théoden's gaze turned to the black. Not a white hair was anywhere on his body. The sculpted head was poised and alert, while his raven coat seemed to reflect a hundred colours where it glistened in the sunlight. Restless energy rippled through every taut muscle, and he bore not an ounce of spare flesh. Already he was taller than his mother, and his height and build were all for speed.
'He may yet gain a little weight as he matures,' remarked Ælfhere to his cousin.
'He may, though Shadowfax was already broader at his age.'
'But in Shadowfax has not Felaróf returned, at least in spirit?'
'That may be so,' said Théoden sceptically, 'but it seems unlikely that Shadowfax will ride to war after my father's death, unless he bonds with another.'
'That remains to be seen,' said Ælfhere. 'Meanwhile you must choose and be chosen. You, at least, cannot wait on your father's end, and should not speak of it lest you hasten the day.'
'I might ride the black, unarmed and young as I am. But in full armour and carrying a pack, he may lack endurance where he excels in speed. It is a pity, for he is a fine creature.'
'No king has ridden a black steed since the days of Helm Hammerhand. It would be an ill omen for one to do so. In any case, your father may not permit such a bond.'
'Surely no mearh could be the bearer of ill fortune? Black may be rare, but it is not considered unlucky in the Mark.'
'Even so, look at him. He is beautiful, but there is a demon behind those eyes, if I am not mistaken.'
As they watched, the black colt moved abruptly up on to the far bank, apparently disturbed by movement in the crowds. Théoden turned in time to see his father making stately progress down the road, leaning slightly on his staff. Feste raised her head and snickered a greeting to the king. Then she left the river and came over to the old man. The yearling followed hesitantly, curiosity overcoming his shyness. As he approached, Théoden held out a hand and whispered to him.
'Come, my quiet one. Do not fear.'
The colt looked at the young man for a moment and then took a faltering step towards him, breathing his smell and brushing muzzle against skin. Ælfhere stepped back so that man and colt stood alone. Théoden stood in silence for a moment, and then gently caressed the marbled head with one hand and his ivory mane with the other. The colt did not flinch and presently the prince turned to the people and his father.
'He shall be called Snowmane,' said Théoden, 'and we shall ride together to war, and our enemies shall break upon our wrath like rain clouds on the mountain.'
'So, you have chosen,' said the king. 'That is a steed worthy of his sires, and of his brother.' But as he spoke he saw that Théoden's eyes turned rather to the young black stallion that grazed the far bank. Then he added, 'You chose wisely my son. The black colt is very fine, but I fear that he would not willingly serve any man of the Mark, not even the king himself.'
Then Théoden realised that his father was staring over his shoulder, at something in the distance. On the line of hills across the river strode a great stallion alone. Very tall and beautiful he was and his pale coat shimmered in the sun as he moved. He tossed his head and began to make his way down the slope towards the town. It was Shadowfax, come to approve Théoden's choice and pay his regards to the king.
The young black horse saw him too, and made his way swiftly up the bank towards him, the sudden backward tilt of his ears betraying his intentions.
'He seeks to challenge Shadowfax!' cried Ælfhere.
'He will not succeed,' said Thengel. 'Shadowfax will drive him from the plains; for, young as he is, he will not tolerate a rival.'
The two stallions slowly approached one another, until they were parallel and seemed about to pass each other at a distance some ten yards apart. Shadowfax watched the black, his ears carried erect, the great head up; quiet, but his demeanour clear to see. He wished his sibling no harm, but would not hesitate to deal with him if the black forced a confrontation. The youngster watched his rival for a few seconds, and then dropped his head and charged. Not waiting for the collision, Shadowfax bore down on him, favoured by the slope, and as they were about to pass, his head snaked across the black's withers, teeth bared. They glanced off each other and the big grey turned on a penny piece and, faster than sight, repeated the manoeuvre before the black had time to recover. Screaming, the black twisted out from under the grey and fled along the riverbank, away from the town. Shadowfax chased him a short distance and, satisfied that he would be no further trouble, stepped into the running water and crossed to meet the king. A little blood was trickling from his broad neck.
'Aye, Shadowfax my friend,' said Thengel, smiling. 'We all must watch our backs, even when we are surrounded by our kin.
Downstream, the black waded in the river, shaken and blooded, but not broken. It was late afternoon and the town, perhaps half a mile away, was growing quieter, as folk left the horses to rest and retreated within the gates to attend to the serious matters of drinking and eating. They would not go abroad again tonight. But the young horse was uneasy. He had never ventured so far from the group before and still he could taste the alien odours of smoke and leather and human sweat. Restless, he looked back up the river but could see no sign of his dam. Instinctively he knew that he could not return to her, for today everything had changed. And as the sun began to drop towards the mountains west of the town, his solitude closed in upon him and for the first time he knew desolation and felt suddenly very young again. He picked at a few coarse blades of grass, but was too wary to get on with the task of feeding.
Something stirred on the breeze, a scent, or the faintest trace of a footfall. The colt lifted his head and looked about him, sniffing the air. Nothing came to him, but he heard again a noise from a rocky outcrop a few yards downwind. It was no horse that he had heard. As he stood like a stone, straining for a scent, a strange sound came to him. It was akin to the voices of the men that had disquieted him that afternoon, but this time it did not change or cease, but flowed softly like water in a stream or spring birds in the evening, rising and falling to some inner rhythm. It was not harsh to his ears like the shouting of the men at the town, and certainly it was not frightening. Somewhere in his heart he seemed to know it and it reassured him like his mother's call; at the same time it roused in him a sense of longing that drew him towards it.
He took a few steps towards the rocks, and then stopped, caution overcoming his curiosity. The sound continued and then confusion took him as he saw a figure rise up seemingly straight out of the ground, but he did not flee. It was a human, for that much he could now smell; tall, hands outstretched, mouth slightly open as he continued to sing. Slowly he approached, and the black stretched out his head until his nose was almost touching the man's fingers. This was different from his previous encounters with men. This human seemed already to know him, to be calling his name, though he had not realised that he possessed one. He felt safe.
The nightwatch at Meduseld was just beginning. Inside, the feast continued and the king was holding forth in fine style. He was as ever generous with his table and all the household was seated in his thrall. Morwen had sung of Gondor in her own tongue and captivated the guests. Now was the time for tales in honour of the fallen, as the ale wound its way about men's heads and gently disarmed them. Théoden had been the whole evening in the king's stables with his mearh and only now came into the hall. He had felt all day the growing thrill of this new phase in his life, this rite of passage. But he looked on his father and felt spurned for a boy again, while, when he saw Gálmód flirting drunkenly with his mother, he realised the true meaning of contempt. He stayed a matter of minutes and then made his excuses to Ælfhere and left, ignoring his father's joking insinuation that he could not hold his drink.
Sitting on the steps by the horsehead fountain, he watched the last vestiges of red as they stained the western sky, as red as the gifts of wine that guests brought from Mundburg, he thought. The sound of hooves made him look down and in the fading light he made out Thorongil coming up the path, leading a horse. He decided to speak to the foreigner, whose company he was to join in the autumn, and followed him casually into the stables. It was then that Théoden recognised the black colt.
'How did you catch the black mearh?' he asked in surprise.
'I came upon him down river. He was tired and a little hurt, but he came to me easily enough.'
'I do not understand. He was wild this afternoon, like an otter in a trap. No man has ever handled him.'
Thorongil smiled enigmatically. 'I think he was waiting to be found.' He hung a haynet in the stall and gently began to rub the colt's coat, taking care where he had been bitten.
Théoden cautiously held his hand under the animal's muzzle and, seeing no reaction, rubbed his nose. But the black instantly pulled away at his touch and moved to the corner of his stall, watching him guardedly. The yearling eyed them from his own stall nearby.
'I never thought the mearas would challenge each other like that,' said Théoden.
'They may be remarkable beasts, but they are still horses and they live the ways of other horses,' answered Thorongil. 'This one learned his lesson today. He is growing up fast, but he will not try the strength of Shadowfax again, I think.'
'They say you ride well for a stranger. Where did you learn?'
Thorongil frowned. 'The Eorlingas are not the only folk who love their horses, my lord. I learned to ride in the north. The customs of my people are different from yours and our horses must tread the mountain paths and the cold heath, but we cherish them next to our children.'
They regarded one other, the king's son with clear blue eyes in his fair, open face and the tall soldier, dishevelled from the long day's toil, the mane of dark hair falling half across his face, but not concealing his penetrating gaze, which disconcerted Théoden, though he knew not why. For a moment he recalled a great stone hall filled with statues and tall, stern men like kings, with noble faces and eyes of grey; but it was a memory from distant childhood that he could not place and he put it from his mind.
'I shall stay here with the horses tonight,' said Thorongil, pulling hay from his tousled hair and wrapping a discarded horse blanket round his shoulders. 'Tomorrow we shall hear what the king has to say.'
'I hear strange news this morning, Eardstapa.' Thengel tore some fresh bread and placed on it a piece of blue veined cheese. 'They tell me that the black colt was brought in last night as calm as an ass. What would you say caused such a change in him, I wonder?'
Aragorn studied the king's face. He sometimes found Thengel's wry humour difficult to read when added to the burden of translating his Rohirric. He had never dared confess that he knew the speech of Gondor, which Thengel habitually used at court in deference to his queen.
Then Gálmód broke in. 'I think you know, captain, that it is unlawful for any man not of the royal line to ride one of the mearas.'
Aragorn ignored him and addressed the king. 'I found the colt down river and brought him to the stables, lord, but I have not ridden him. He followed me of his own accord.'
'There is none here who can lawfully tame him, now that my son has bonded with the grey yearling. But, if he remains riderless at Edoras, a time will come when he will have to leave the Mark. He cannot go back to the herd for Shadowfax will not permit it. So how is this matter to be resolved?'
'My lord,' said Aragorn softly. 'As to who may ride the children of Felaróf, there are no rules, but the king's rules. Therefore the king is at liberty to change them without the leave of others, be they the dead or the living. It seems to me that the fate of the black colt is yours alone to determine.'
'You would do well to remember it.' The king inclined his head and eyed Aragorn as though he were a magpie examining a newfound treasure. 'You say that you have not tried to mount this animal?'
'No, lord. I have not.'
'Then let us make trial of you. Yesterday I made you Marshal. Today you shall aspire to a much loftier distinction. You shall attempt to ride a mearh. Ælfhere and Gálmód shall bear witness. You shall mount the black at the fountain and ride out of the town. Then you shall try him for one hour. If at the end of the hour you are still astride him and he has done your bidding, you may show yourself worthy of the horse, and I shall give him to you and you will be bonded, as I am bonded to Shadowfax.'
It was a little after noon and Ælfhere and Gálmód could be seen by the horsehead fountain, already mounted. The misshapen foot that had hampered Gálmód since his birth troubled him not at all on horseback. Soft rain was falling, brought down from the Misty Mountains by the north wind.
'Isn't it enough that he is made marshal of Westfold?' Ælfhere's Westemnet burr was laced with resentment. He was of an age with the foreigner and, as Gálmód predicted, had taken the news ill.
Gálmód smirked behind his hand. Uniquely among the king's men, he enjoyed the privilege of the freedom to speak his mind without fear of reprimand. And as ever he made the most of it.
'He may not have your blood, but he has twice your brains when it comes to leadership, young man. If my own son of just nine summers can best you at chess I would not give much for your chances against Thorongil.'
Ælfhere squirmed, for he knew that Gálmód was right. Outstanding archer as he was, he had no head for strategy and lacked authority when it came to the decisions of battle.
Suddenly the subject of Ælfhere's discontent appeared before them, leading the black and moving so quietly that they had not noticed him arrive. The horse bore no harness, as was the way of the mearas except when they were going to war, but instead wore a soft headstall with a long rope. He followed the man without question, though he was watchful and regarded the townsfolk suspiciously. Off duty now, Aragorn was attired loosely in dark hose and a soft grey tunic, quite unadorned except for the ornate silver ring that never left his hand. The effect was to make him appear taller and more a stranger even than usual amidst the warm colours favoured by the folk of the Mark, accentuating his pale features and lending him an air both exotic and oddly remote.
He paused by the fountain and nodded in casual greeting to Gálmód and Ælfhere. Facing the black colt head on, he murmured to him words that no one else could understand, all the while caressing his face and ears. Then quicker than sight he was on the animal's back. The black sidestepped and for a moment his ears tilted backwards, but presently he grew quiet and stood still, confusion in his face. But Aragorn placed gentle hands on his neck and whispered again and this time the black took a few hesitant steps down the slope.
Then Aragorn turned to the others and smiled broadly. 'Shall we start, my lords?'
They permitted him to lead the way through the town. The colt looked ill at ease, but his rider whispered to him softly as they went, with the occasional light touch of hand or foot to guide him towards the gates.
They say that the mearas have little need of the conventional methods used in backing their less exalted cousins. For, since the days of Felaróf, they have understood the speech of men, and such is the love they bear for their chosen companions that they will carry them safely into any danger, not questioning or doubting, but trusting in their own strength and speed, and thus they meet whatever end with pride and determination. The black heard again the music in his new friend's voice and felt reassured by the firm touch of thigh against ribs. Aragorn, for all his height, was lightly built, and in this man and horse were well matched. He sat perfectly balanced, accustoming the black to the slightest movement of heel or squeeze of knee, using not the ways of the Rohirrim, but skills he had learned from a people much older; touch without force, words that did not command, but rather coaxed and entrusted.
They made their way down the steep hill through the winding ways of the town, pausing frequently so as not to startle the colt, who flicked his ears nervously and occasionally shied a little, at a dog or child in his path. But when they left the town behind them the black began visibly to relax. Out here all was familiar, from the springy turf to the sounds of the river. He looked about him, seeking the mearas or even the Eastfold herd. But the Snowbourn valley, bright with spring sunshine, was empty of creatures bigger than the many rabbits, while the air carried no sound louder than the calls of the lapwings, that rose en masse and wheeled over head at the sight of the approaching horses.
Aragorn glanced over his shoulder at his followers, amused. He knew already that he and the black were bonded. The mearas were akin to the horses of Rivendell; that much was plain from the ease with which he had calmed the colt the day before. You remind me of Elenya, he thought. She has your long stride and your head too. He felt suddenly more at home with this wild young mearh than he had for a very long time.
In the valley bottom there was space enough for the black to show what he was made of. Gently Aragorn eased him forward, into a trot, then a brisk canter and seconds later the black was at full stretch, head and tail high, relishing the pace and open terrain and surefooted as a mountain goat. The horses of Gálmód and Ælfhere had no chance of keeping pace with him, so that at the head of the valley Aragorn had to work hard to pull him up, lest the others lose sight of him entirely. The black halted at last, scarcely blowing from the half-mile gallop, but overwrought and nervous from his first experience of bearing a rider. He had much to learn.
Presently the other horses caught up. Gálmód smiled grimly.
'You make a fine pair, Marshal of Westfold. But who was in charge, I wonder?'
'He is headstrong, it is true,' said Aragorn. 'It will take some time to learn his mind, but he is bold and swift as an arrow.' The black backed away as Gálmód approached, and Aragorn had to turn him two or three times before he would stand. Gálmód laughed.
'You'll have your work cut out teaching him to run with the men.'
'Give the beast a chance, Gálmód. He is not six years old and he doesn't yet have even a name.'
They climbed higher, following the ridge, which tapered gently upwards before curving north away from the line of mountains to their left. It was a favourite path with the Edoras folk, as much for the beauty of its views as for any practical advantage. The black tossed his head and stepped out boldly, impatient to run once more, but Aragorn held him close with voice and hand, teaching him his first lessons in caution. Slowly the path fell back down into the valley, returning to the softer turf near the river.
Gálmód stopped abruptly, just as Aragorn was beginning to turn towards home. His roan gelding was favouring his nearside foreleg.
'It is very likely a stone. Go on ahead and I'll catch you up.' He dismounted and stooped to examine his hoof.
Aragorn, some yards ahead of Ælfhere, drew near the rocky outcrop that stood twenty feet or more high and marked the main thoroughfare leading towards the gates. It was a natural lookout across the valley. Just where the path ran beside the jutting cliff the black suddenly shied and lunged forwards, head down. In the moment that he rounded the bend Aragorn glimpsed a small figure in front of them, which seemed instantly to disappear beneath the horse's forelegs. Then he had to brace himself as he felt the black rise upon his hindquarters and spring forward in a great leap that must have been the length of a man at least. And almost before the colt had landed, much less slowed down, Aragorn had swung himself to the ground and was running back to the place where he had seen the figure. There it lay, in a crumpled heap on the path. It was a child, a young girl of perhaps six or seven. Quiet sobs could be heard from deep within the disarray of folds that made up her dress.
Very gently Aragorn turned her over and moved the shock of sandy curls from her face. As he cradled her head, she opened her eyes and stared at him in surprise, forgetting her tears. Apart from some cuts and bruises on her knees and hands, she appeared quite unharmed and presently Aragorn raised her to her feet. At that moment Ælfhere came round the side of the cliff and stopped amazed as he beheld the tall soldier holding the child.
He stared at her face for a moment.
'That is Garulf's daughter,' he said.
'I saw her fall across the path, but the horse could not stop in time, so he leapt over her. She was fortunate that he did so.'
Gálmód rounded the corner at that moment and his sharp eyes widened when he saw the scene.
'Picking up passengers now are we?' he intoned. 'Might I remind the Marshal that it is his task to return to the fountain without leaving the mearh's back?'
Aragorn shrugged. It seemed hardly necessary to answer. But then Ælfhere stepped forward, and, looking Gálmód straight in the eye, said;
'I fear he fell, Gálmód. The mearh reared at the child and Thorongil could not hold him, and he fell. I saw it happen.'
Aragorn turned on the king's nephew, eyes suddenly blazing. This man of Westfold, who must soon entrust me with his life, would tell a falsehood rather than admit his envy. Yet if I challenge him I risk driving a wedge between myself and half of the Westemnet. Must I always choose between diplomacy and my desire? He gathered himself, shrouding his fury with the mask that so often these days had to face the world, and then said simply, 'It was as Ælfhere describes.'
There was a pause. Gálmód surveyed the foreigner shrewdly. 'So be it,' he said slowly. 'Then you must forfeit the mearh.'
Aragorn merely nodded. Then he turned and with a sideways glance at Ælfhere began to walk up the slope towards the town. The black followed close behind and, after a moment's hesitation, the girl too. They looked an odd company as they walked in single file, man, horse and child.
Gálmód eyed Ælfhere with disdain. 'That is a waste of a fine animal, but a man may sacrifice much to keep the peace,' he muttered. Ælfhere said nothing.
The party returned to Meduseld in straggling fashion. Ælfhere hung back. He had no desire to walk with the foreigner, for he had seen the look on Thorongil's face, and it had unnerved him. It had also occurred to him, a little late, that the new Marshal might find ways of making life difficult when he joined his éored that autumn, king's nephew or not.
They were making slow progress up to the gate when Théoden came upon them and fell in quietly beside Ælfhere's horse. The cousins nodded to one another and then the prince spoke in barely more than a whisper.
'I advise you to tell Gálmód that you were mistaken, if you do not wish my father to hear what you have just done.'
Ælfhere looked first startled and then alarmed as he comprehended what he had heard. But he answered coolly;
'What do you mean, my lord?'
'I was on the Mount. Must I go on?' The young man's face grew hard. 'You are my oldest friend as well as my cousin. You have always had a jealous streak, but I did not believe that you would dishonour another to salvage your own pride'
'No man not of the royal line can ride a mearh. It is our law.'
'You heard what the king said, or would you dishonour him also? Besides, even that child could see that the black is bonded with the Wanderer. He will let no other man touch him.'
'So you would have this stranger, this Thorongil, worm his way into your father's counsel until he commands not just Westfold but Meduseld? You would do nothing until one day you wake up and find that the Mark is ruled by another and the emblems of your house are in tatters?'
There was a silence. 'I do not think you believe that any more than do I, cousin.' Théoden almost spat out the words, so that they were audible to Gálmód, some yards ahead.
'Indeed? Is it not strange that this fellow leaves his own people to seek his fortune with another? Does anyone know why he came here? He may be a hunted man in his own land, a traitor or a common thief.'
'I have never asked him. But my father trusts him, Ælfhere, and that is enough reason for me to trust him also, aye, and for the Riddermark. You would do well to do the same.'
Ælfhere had heard enough. He broke away abruptly, a look somewhere between humiliation and disgust on his face, and cantered up the hill into the town.
Presently Gálmód joined Théoden. He did not speak, but rested his pale eyes on the prince, satisfaction on his face.
'Thorongil no more fell from that horse than would he fall from an ass,' said Théoden curtly, refusing to meet his gaze. 'Why did you believe that he did?'
'I did not,' countered Gálmód. 'Thorongil shall not forfeit the horse. But affairs of state rarely follow the straight road, my lord, and resentment oft leads to thoughts of revenge. The foreigner knows that well. He may face more opposition than orcs and Dunlendings at the Gap of Rohan.'
Théoden looked troubled. 'Perhaps,' he conceded. 'But I have lost a friend today, for Ælfhere does not forget when he is slighted. Was I then wrong to speak out?'
'You have outgrown your cousin, son of Thengel. You should look to new friends, and find them perhaps where you least expect it.'
'Meaning yourself, I suppose?' The question was moot. Théoden had not troubled to hide from Gálmód his dislike of him. His youthful morality had ever judged his father's councillor as lecher and drunkard, though it was apparent that his mother tolerated Gálmód's attentions, seeing no harm in them and enjoying his sardonic wit. And the king knew it well, but he was secure in the love of the Lady of Lossarnach and took vicarious pleasure in her popularity.
Gálmód laughed out loud. 'I would be a fool to hope for that, my lord! But a time will come when you will need captains of war that you can trust; men swift both in mind and at arms. Today they may be young, even as you are, but, like you, there are some that show great promise. Mark them now and make them your allies and they will never desert you. For even a king must needs be mindful of the enemy at his own court.'
It was evening and Aragorn sought Ælfhere's chamber, unsure what he wished to say, but certain that he must say something. Irritated as he was, he could not help but feel a degree of sympathy for Théoden's cousin and, more importantly, he had no desire to ride from Edoras leaving the matter to fester through the heat of summer. He passed Ælfhere's mother, in mourning twice over now, but she barely acknowledged him, though he nodded to her and smiled.
Ælfhere looked up in surprise when the foreigner entered. His face was weary with pain and now, as he watched Aragorn, it acquired a patina of suspicion. He said nothing, daring the other to speak first.
'Forgive me if I am intruding, my lord,' the soldier began.
'You are intruding,' snapped Ælfhere abruptly. 'Is there no horse that requires your attention?'
A half smile acknowledged his retort. 'I am sorry, Ælfhere. I will leave you if you wish it, but tomorrow I must ride north and I came only to speak of your brother, not of what occurred today.'
Ælfhere stirred, but the look of hunger that had flitted briefly across his eyes gave way once more to suspicion. 'Very well,' he acquiesced at length. 'Go on.'
'Ælric was my friend, not only my captain. He was a valiant man. He saved my life more than once.'
'A pity that you could not return the favour, captain Thorongil.' He enunciated 'captain' with sarcastic precision.
Aragorn winced at the memory. The bitterness in Ælfhere's voice had struck him like a wave. He stood in silence, fumbling for a way to reach him, but then Ælfhere appeared to soften a little, as he continued.
'You are fortunate, sir, that you knew my brother as a friend. For I barely knew him even as a countryman.'
'He was many years your elder.'
'Eighteen years,' corrected Ælfhere. 'He came to Edoras to avenge my father when I was a year old, and I saw him but half a dozen times in the past decade. And men say that he was like a father to me. But all I ever hear is 'Ælric, Marshal of Westfold, fearless in battle and ruthless in victory. How proud of him I must be.''
Aragorn walked slowly over to the fire, his back to Ælfhere. He was beginning to understand. In ten years amongst the Rohirrim he had said nothing of his former life, but he was about to break his own rule, at least in part.
'I know what it is to be the youngest child. Brothers old enough to be my father accomplish great deeds and I must trail at their heels, hoping that they will leave something over for me to achieve before I pass into oblivion.'
Reluctant curiosity caught Ælfhere as he found himself asking, 'Is that then why you left your home? To escape from the shadow of your betters and find fortune on your own account?'
Aragorn shrugged ruefully. 'In part, yes, that might have been a consideration. But in truth I yearned to travel, for my heart was restless.'
Another silence followed. Ælfhere remained stubbornly aloof, shielding his thoughts from the other even as Aragorn opened his own mind. So the marshal tried again.
'You mistrust my motives, I think. And I can hardly reproach you, for no outsider should be above suspicion in these times. Loyalty to your king makes you a harsh critic and none the worse for that.'
'Loyalty I can at least give him, for I have little else to offer it seems. My mother married beneath her, for my father was no mighty lord, but a simple farmer.'
'There is no shame in that. The simplest farmer may beget kings, and the sons of great kings may dwindle into ragged wanderers. And a poor man's heart may have more worth than his king's hoard.
You asked why I could not have saved your brother. When I was at the Fords of Isen I was on watch as the orcs ambushed our camp. I made a choice; to try to protect my comrade when he fell beside me. He was little more than a boy, and he paid dearly for his inexperience. I can still see the pain and fear in his eyes as he died. But had I chosen differently I might have warned the company sooner, including the marshal. They might be living still. Who can tell? But that is the truth of Ælric's death. My decision might have been the cause, and I have to face that or stop fighting. And it will happen again, to me and to every soldier and every captain until the end of the world.'
Ælfhere poured a cup of mead and grudgingly offered it to Aragorn, who took it and smiled. This time his smile was returned, at least in Ælfhere's eyes, if not on his lips.
'So the mearh is yours after all?'
'When all is said and done my friend, he is but a horse, albeit a very fine one. I would not presume to call him mine, but Thengel is satisfied, so it seems we shall ride to war and learn our craft together. And you shall ride with us. I shall need skilled archers in Westfold.'
They drank in silence, brokering an uneasy truce. Then as Aragorn turned to go, he added, 'I too lost my father before I knew him. I grieve for him still, and even now the child in me is angry with him, though he did nothing to deserve it. But if you give yourself leave to be angry with your father, then maybe you will learn to forgive your brother. For such is the way of loss. Since we cannot undo our misfortunes, we must learn how best to use them so that we may grow strong.'
On the steps of the great hall Aragorn met Thengel and his son. 'My lords,' he said. 'I must take my leave, for I ride early tomorrow to Orthanc, and then north to visit my kin. And I may be a little delayed, as my new horse is somewhat wayward.'
'I doubt he will trouble you for long, Captain Thorongil,' said Théoden. 'I shall look forward to riding with you on your return, though it will be a year or two before Snowmane can go to battle with his brother. And what will you call him?'
'His name is Fleet. And it was not I that named him, but the Wind,' laughed Aragorn. 'If fortune is with me he may carry me home without hurling me into a ditch.' Though, if he does, I think I might well stay there without much persuasion, he almost added under his breath as he contemplated Rivendell.
'Then I shall await your swift return, Eardstapa,' said Thengel. 'The Westemnet shall need you before long, and I shall need you to turn my son into a captain worthy of his grandsires.'
'He shall be worthy with or without me, my lord. Do not doubt it,' said Aragorn.
A little before dawn the next day Gálmód could be seen sitting by the fountain, trying to clear his head from another evening's excesses. His withered foot was more troublesome than ever, despite the anaesthetic effect of the ale, the only antidote he had found for the pain it brought him. Below him, the young horses grazed in the muster field, settled in their new home. Through the morning mist he became aware of Thorongil astride the black mearh, speeding along the banks of the Snowbourn on the road to Isengard. There goes a man such as I could have been, if fortune had been kinder, he thought blearily, just as Feste appeared over the rise and snickered to her colt. Then she sprang ahead of him, as if to show that she was not yet spent, and turning north, they raced away up the slope, the marshal bent low over Fleet's neck, his long braided hair streaming in the wind. The curlews were calling and high up a great eagle soared over the mountains. As the sun pushed rosy fingers into the eastern sky the last star blinked a greeting to the dawn and was gone.