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MOON LETTERS : CREATIVE WRITING
The Lady of the Riddermark - By Tiasha Freeland
The nights of Rohan were long and weary in the winter. Outside a small wooden hut within Edoras, the air whistled up chilly ghosts of fog and winter storms to come, but inside a cheery fire banished all shadows. Two small children, a boy and a girl, laughed and wrestled by the fire place, their toy horses competing for first place. Their mother threw them dark, warning glances as she cleared the table of supper dishes, but an old man resting comfortably in the best chair laughed at their antics.

"Grampa!" the youngest girl cried, breaking free to sprawl at his feet.

"Tell us a story!" chimed her twin, scuffling next to her for a fair share of the fire's warmth.

Still sitting at table, an older boy of eleven or twelve years snorted loftily, industriously cleaning a plain leather bridle with a worn rag.

"Grampa, please, you promised us!" the children chimed in unison, and the old man's wrinkled face broke into a wide smile.

"Yes, yes, I did," he mused, "and I have been thinking on it all day. I think tonight I shall tell you of…the Lady of the Mark."

The older boy looked up from the table, his brown eyes puzzled as his lips nearly betrayed a question. Recovering quickly, he held the bridle up for a close inspection; one smudge of grass on the bit, one scuffed spot on the straps and there would be no riding privileges on the morrow. Satisfied, he laid it to one side. He crossed the room to a small, neat closet lined with bridles, saddles, and miscellaneous tack. When he returned, he seated himself on the side of the table closest to his grandfather and spellbound siblings.

"The Lady of the Mark…now that is a legend worth telling. The Horsemaster of the Rohirrim stallions was Arad, and for a long time he had only a daughter, Aradyne. Her mother died in childbirth, and so Arad brought her up in the stables, the same as his horses…"

Grandfather's voice grew strong and waxed mellow; the children were absolutely still, their big eyes trained on his weathered face. At the table, the bridle polishing had stopped altogether.

"Long had Arad been Horsemaster, and his stock were the only ones used by the Riders of the Riddermark. It is said that he even knew the lineage of Shadowfax himself, although if he did he told not a soul before his passing. He loved those animals as his own kin, and slept most nights in the stable when they were foaling, watching over every birth with love and care.

Many times Arad tried to foster his young daughter out to some household or another, even once as far as Rauros. But always Aradyne came back to him, walking home through the snow or rain until one of the horses could hear her whistle-call. Aradyne was a strong-tempered lass, built large like her father but graceful. Although Arad scolded her upon each return, he could not find it in his heart to command her to leave again. She loved his horses as he did; like calls to like, so they say, and in a language without words those animals responded to her. High-spirited stallions and cranky mares alike, each and every one would stand still under her hand, though all she had was hardly eight years when Arad entrusted her to grooming them for the Mark.

Soon enough it was Aradyne was stealing rides ahorseback in the pasture. Horses only a man could master with bridle and saddle would give Aradyne a quick canter through the field, before stopping as if to say, 'That's enough, young girl. Off with ye.' Many times she would simply stay astride while the horse cropped grass, dreaming under the wide blue sky until duty called her back by force.

Aradyne was fourteen when she first saddled up with the Mark. A routine patrol they had, and all their horses gleaming and ready for a hard day's ride. She'd cropped off her hair and stuffed the rest under a helmet, and when the Mark headed out she rode at the tail of the procession. Tall even then she was, and she looked like naught but a slim young man in the padding of her father's armor. It wasn't until a skirmish with some of the mountain men that her deception was known, for in her excitement to mount and be gone, she had forgotten her father's sword.

Lord Éomer was furious; a woman in his ranks! She was made to ride without her father's helmet, in disgrace at the very center of the formation, like a prisoner of war…or someone helpless and under protection. Even then did Aradyne remain calm, her face impassive but her eyes… Ah, the girl could not help those grey eyes, always laughing in secret and shining through like stars.

That night her father Arad forbade her to go out, and as punishment Aradyne had to wear a dress. She did not own even one that would suffice; for so long she had been allowed to come and go as a boy in breeches. Still, Arad was very grave that night, and he began to talk of women's things to his daughterócooking, mending, the ways of family life. This hurt his daughter more than all the resentment of the men of the Mark, that long ride homewards with their chilly disregard and contemptuous exasperation upon her shoulders.

For one day Aradyne obeyed, burning bread in the kitchen, adding tears to a pitiful thin soup, and cursing vehemently at her sore, needle-stabbed fingers. For one day.

The next she was away in the pasture, too far away to be called back without much trouble and toil. Arad rubbed his leg as he sighted the path he would have to take, cursing his stiff knee, an injury that had forever more barred him from the saddle. As he limped over the uneven and hilly grounds, Arad muttered and seethed aloud about the troubles he would visit upon his daughter's backside ere he reached her…but his heart was proud, carrying a vision of his daughter's straight back and natural seat as she had returned home, surrounded by the indignant, stone-faced Riders of the Mark. There had been joy there, her joy at being among them and his joy upon beholding her place there.

As he crested the last slope, Arad caught sight of his daughter. Head bent, Aradyne was softly, too softly to be heard, speaking to Mirra, a mare of exceptional quality and fickle disposition. The mare seemed to nod in time to the girl's words, her black mane intermingling with Aradyne's fiery red.

Arad watched the two for some time, thinking of the mare and the girl. Mirra was the mother of Lord Éomer's steed, and though impulsive she was also steadfastly loyal. When at last he turned back, towards the stable and his home, Arad left the girl and her horse without disclosing his presence.

Later that night father and daughter had a long talk, of tears and acceptance. In secret they refitted his leather armor to fit her snugly, to keep her safe. The next day the Mark rode out, Aradyne again joined their ranks, this time mingling with the Left Flank, which were not as disciplined as the Right. For many days thereafter Aradyne's disguise remained intact, even in the small battles that often took place, driving the mountain men away from Rohan's peaceful villages. In fact, it was not until Lord Éomer stopped short one day for a random inspection, which required each rider to stand fast next to his mount with his helmet tucked under his arm, that Aradyne was discovered once again.

Stone could not compete with the granite reflection of Lord Éomer's eyes. As before, Aradyne offered no explanation, betrayed no sign of being other than where she should be. Calmly she stood beside her mount, brother to Lord Éomer's own. The Rohirrim mounted and again turned towards Edoras.

Of what he thought during that long trek home, it is impossible to say, but Lord Éomer could not help but consider the source of his trouble. The only daughter of Horsemaster Arad! The best Horsemaster save one for generations to come! It is safe to consider that pride warred with diplomacy as he considered matters.

Upon returning to the stables, Lord Éomer said nothing of the addition to his ranks. Instead, he congratulated Arad on the steadiness of his favorite stallion, making small talk concerning foals to come, breeding lines and the like. Thus it continued for six more years. Aradyne was never acknowledged, yet never again did the Mark return without having completed its duty tour.

*

It was not until the betrayal of Isengard that Aradyne was finally separated from the Mark. Caught unawares by the exile of Lord Éomer, Aradyne was at home when the Mark thundered through Edoras for the last time before the great battle of Helm's Deep. Horsemaster Arad had long been ailing, his crippled leg further impaired with each year age laid upon him. More stable-boys and horse-masters had been added as his duties diminished.Longer each day did Aradyne spend sitting by her father's chair as he watched the king's magnificent herds in the distance. Arad had remarried some years ago, but though his needs of hearth and home were met, his heart raced over the pasture with those creatures he loved.

When Grima tumbled down the outer stone steps of the Golden Hall, Aradyne sensed a change in the air and paused in her preparations to re-join the Rohirrim. Hours later King ThŤoden announced in the streets that Edoras was to be emptied; we were all to flee to Helm's Deep. Quickly Aradyne whistled in the great herd; quickly, so quickly she set them free over the plains, all but those who were staid enough to serve to pull wagons. These Aradyne led to every neighbor, imploring them to treat each horse gently.

As Horsemaster Arad left his home with his wife and small babe, Aradyne whispered in the stables, cinching on armor and saddle at the same time. She rode out with the vanguard, proud and wary. Her years with the Mark had given her experience she knew would be needed, watching over the long, struggling line of people spilling over the road towards Helm's Deep."

*

Grandfather suddenly sighed, and for the first time that night he looked very old. The room was still, silent but for the fire's coaxing noises of warmth and safety. More had joined the boy at the supper table, the children's mother and father, a neighbor or three. His gift for story-telling had spread quickly through Edoras, and it was an uncommon rough night when someone had not found his or her way here to listen. Recalling his breathless audience, the old man continued his tale.

*

"It was during that weary final hour or so when the wolves of Isengard came upon us. The Wargs lay in wait, and even with the few minutes warning we had, it was not enough to prepare. Aradyne rode forth at the first shout of the Elf, 'Scouts!' She and the others that were left of the King's Guard rode hard, and yet it was barely enough to stem the tide from overthrowing those on the road."

Grandfather sighed again, deeply.

"I was but a babe then, but I heard this myself later from those who were there. The Wargs leaped down among the Guard, killing with razor sharp claws. Orc riders stabbed here and there; the massacre was evenly matched on both sides, our noble blooded horses against those beasts of hell, the courage of our people against the fell evil of Saurman's orcs. Aradyne rode into the midst of battle, and her sword arm did not falter.

Although it lasted perhaps half an hour, the time of battle seems elastic. A moment is forever. So it was when Aradyne felt her beloved stallion scream in pain as his body was wrenched from beneath her. Thrown into the air, Aradyne could see the battle turning in our favor at last, and then the dark earth rushed up to greet her. She rolled upon landing, rolled underneath the chin of the Warg who had slain her best friend. With both hands Aradyne thrust her sword in between the snake-shaped underjaw of the great beast, and his blood poured hot and black over her hands. Setting her feet against its limp throat, she struggled to free her sword, embedded too deeply in bone.

Slithering from its dead back, an Orc hissed, 'Well, at least you'll pay for that death!' The sword stuck; it would not come free. The shadow of the Orc's flat iron hammer loomed across her face. Aradyne hunched her shoulders and took the blow on her helmet, buying her a dizzy moment to grab her boot knife and shove it into the Orc's black heart.

Up on a small rise, a lone figure shot arrow after arrow into the retreating horde, and each one found its mark. Some part of her mind recognized him; it was the Elf, come with Gandalf Greyhame. Then he was gone in a flash of riderless horses.

Scrambling away from the screams and curses, Aradyne took up a sword from a fallen comrade and once more headed into battle, this time on foot. A Warg slammed into her from the side, kicked by a horse. Off-balance she tumbled to the blood-stained grass, her helmet gone now, feeling the Warg's hot meaty breath at the back of her neck. Just in time she turned but her luck was gone; the creature grabbed her sword arm, grinding it slowly between its teeth from shoulder to elbow. For the first time ever Aradyne screamed in anguish, and the Orc astride the beast laughed cruelly. Hot saliva coursed down her arm, in between the leather of her armor, soaking the skin with its horrid stench. The Warg dropped her armó

'Legolas!'

--and lunging for her throat it toppled over, dead.

Across the torn battle-ground the Elf stared at her, and he recognized her for a woman. His name had come from rumor, a murmur in her mind, and like an invocation it had worked, his arrow speeding towards her rescue. The Elf stared at the woman, her flame-red hair loose around her shoulders, her plain face made memorable by those brilliant grey eyes. Eyes locked, Aradyne felt something stir in her breast, a yearning unknown, a terrible heartbreak. But the elves ever see us as we die and grow old. Even in the passing of a few seconds they see new cares carved on our faces, and the acceleration of our bodies weakening moment to moment until we finally perish.

*

Aradyne continued the march to Helm's Deep on foot, in long thought. She acquitted herself well in the fighting that followed, and Aradyne was one of those who rode out with the King at the very last. And the East Mark returned in the very instant of King ThŤoden's most deadly peril, turning back the wicked hell-spawn of Isengard in a victory that is forever etched in our memories and on our hearts. During that perilous time Lord Éomer noted her presence in the heat of battle and acknowledged her with a nod.

There ever-after Aradyne rode out with Mark, and thus she became known as the Lady of the Riddermark. She is the only one to have known such distinction, besides the renowned Lady Éowynóbut that is another story, for another night."

*

The house fell into silence, both children and adults alike in awe of their story-teller's spell. Abruptly a loud ca-chunk broke the moment, a sound of metal hitting wood. Blushing furiously, the older boy picked up the bridle he had dropped. Quiet laughter followed the neighbors out into the night air as they gossiped on their way home, saying good-bye respectfully to their host at the door. The twins complained as their mother fussed them into bed, lamenting the late hour. Content, the old man rocked back in his chair near the dying fire, watching the jerky movements of the eldest boy as he put away his equipment.

As he moved to pass by, the boy suddenly stopped.

"Grandfather, it's just a story. Nothing like that ever happened…" There was a question as the boy's young eyes looked into the mirrors of that old soul.

"Aye," the old man replied at last. "The Lady Aradyne was my half-sister, and your great-aunt. This is a story of our family, and of our blood." Chuckling, he patted the boy's arm. "You, too, will make a fine Rider of the Rohirrim, Araim."

The boy smiled, a brilliant flash of love and relief, and scampered off to his room.

The small hut was quiet for a long time afterwards, as the old man stared into the embers of the fire and remembered old days long gone by…


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