Many Guises and Many Names
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Eagle Rising: 2. The Muster
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.
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