Many Guises and Many Names
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Eagle Rising: 5. Choices
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 ten years. 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. ‘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 he 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.
But 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 lack of years. 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? Aelric was dead by the water when I found him afterwards. Many orcs lay about him, and others of our men. 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 rose and stood with his back to Aragorn for a long time. Then he turned and 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.
‘Thank you for your honesty. 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 northerner 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.
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