Many Guises and Many Names
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Eagle Rising: 1. Coming Home
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 your 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.’
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