3. The Company of Strangers
Éomer and Fréalas rode their horses, cantering side by side, then split up to guide the straggling sheep toward their destination in an awaiting pen. It was early summer, and time for the sheep to be sheared. This was Fréalas’ favourite time of the year, after the lambs had been born and could be seen playing with each other, then running to be with their mothers. Their legs, unsteady at first, became stronger as they moved around the valley, indulging in the plentiful grass that was found there. Éomer would have been hard-pressed to admit it, but this was his favourite time of year as well. While Éomer was the nephew of the King and not his heir, he had still been encouraged by Théoden and Théodred to learn as much as he could about everything, for Rohan was a vast land with many responsibilities. Of course, swordsmanship and the love and knowledge of horses were as integral to life of all the Rohirrim as was the air they breathed, whether they resided on the plains or nestled in the foothills of the White Mountains. There was also animal husbandry and crops to be grown, and people in authority needed to oversee these enterprises.
Éomer had found to his surprise and satisfaction that he had an affinity and understanding about the care and management of sheep in particular. Though he was still young, his skill at sheep shearing was well known and appreciated by the nearby herders. The royal family of Rohan had its own stables near Meduseld, but their crops and sheep were outside of the gates a short ride away at a nearby settlement. He looked forward to this time each year when he would go to the shearers’ shed and deftly wielding his sharp blades, assist with clipping the hogget wool from the first shearing of the sheep.
As Éomer and Fréalas and their well-trained horses manoeuvered the last of the shaggy-coated creatures into the pen, they saw Éowyn. Her horse Léoma was a distance away, contentedly eating some grass near the horses of the resident herder’s family. She was practicing a sword exercise, a look of focused attention on her face. Éomer was almost upon her before she noticed him. “You have returned!” she exclaimed, lowering her weapon as he pulled up Firefoot. “About time, too.”
“The time and the task would go faster if you would only help, you know,” was her elder brother’s tart reply. “You should be learning how to manage a farm, as well. What if there is a war and all the men are gone? How will you be able to lead the citizenry through the year when you can barely tell a ram from a ewe, much less a gimmer from a shearing?”
Leaning on her sword, Éowyn’s eyes flashed with anger. “I will not be left behind if there is war in Rohan. I shall go and fight, as well. That is where my skills lie and you know it.”
On the far side of the paddock, Fréalas closed the gate. As she approached, she heard the tail end of this familiar heated exchange, the topic having arisen several times before. As she dismounted from Salupád she racked her brain for a way to diffuse the situation.
"Fréalas, you tell him!” Éowyn wheeled around in the direction of her friend. “The King has advisors and counsellors that would fulfil their duties in his place, were he needed in a war. And who is to say I would not find a helm and join the Riders?”
Éomer shook his head while rolling his eyes.
“Now Éowyn,” Fréalas said in placating tone, “you both have a point. As a potential ruler, it would behove you to know how to manage a farm as well as how to kill an orc, and your talents in that department and all fighting arts would indeed be valued if we were attacked. But you should also know how to settle disputes, and converse with people from nearby countries. We are not an island, and have alliances with Gondor that we may one day be called upon to honour.”
Éowyn sheathed her sword, then said accusingly, “You are taking his side! Besides, since when do you care so much about allegiances and ruling?”
Fréalas sighed, and smiled. “Only since you and Éomer have insisted on arguing about it for the past few weeks.” She put her arm around Éowyn’s shoulder and pulled her to her side. “It has gotten a bit dull listening to the same conversations again and again. Maybe you could pay more attention to the sheep while we are here.”
“Why do you care so much about the silly sheep?”
They had begun to walk toward Salupád but Fréalas stopped. “First of all,” she said, losing her patience, “They are not silly. We could not make our clothes without the sheep wool. To be honest, I am fond of them because they remind me of my early childhood down by the Firien Woods.”
Éowyn looked up into the face of her friend who was almost a head taller than herself at this point. The recent growth spurt meant that Fréalas was almost as tall as her eighteen year old brother, Frithlíc, but Éomer still towered over all of them having come into his height and wide shoulders even earlier. “Why do you not prefer living here in Edoras?” she asked.
Before Fréalas could answer, Éomer, who had been making a last circle around the sheep pen, called to them, “Two people are approaching and they are not on horseback! Take your horses and stay out of sight until I find out who these strangers are.”
While Éomer leapt onto Firefoot and galloped out to the strange pair, Éowyn and Fréalas ran to their horses and led them to the nearby stables, putting each horse in a stall and then going to stand to look out from one of the windows that faced the direction of the visitors. Fréalas was not necessarily frightened, as it was obviously not an orc party, but she had not seen many people who were not of Rohan. A few folk of Gondor would come to visit the city of Meduseld from time to time, but Gondorians came up from the south, and these people were walking down from the north. Walking?
“I cannot imagine travelling on foot,” Éowyn said incredulously, and Fréalas stared at her.
“Have you learned the craft of reading minds?” Fréalas asked. “I was just thinking that.”
Éowyn raised an eyebrow. “Now there is a skill that would be useful in being a ruler!” She shook her head. “Fréalas, I want to be a warrior, not a queen. Let Éomer be the diplomat and take everything so seriously. Let my name be sung in songs of great battles.”
Fréalas was stunned to hear such words out of one so young, but she knew that her friend meant every word of it. “Surely you do not wish for war for war’s sake?”
Just then Éomer rode up to them, his expression both of incredulity and purpose. “I must ride ahead and tell Théoden King that there will be two visitors with us tonight, possibly a third. If you would care to join them during part of their walk to Edoras I think you would be welcome.”
“Who are they?” Éowyn could barely contain her curiosity.
“One is the wizard Gandalf, though you have heard our uncle call him Gandalf Greyhame. He has been here to visit before, though it was before we were born.”
“A wizard! What does he look like?”
“And the other is an Elf.” Éomer shook his head, almost as though he didn’t believe it himself, and as though he had not heard his sister’s question.
“An Elf?” Fréalas was in shock. These were unexpected guests indeed, and she wondered what it could mean that such exotic visitors were coming to Edoras.
Éomer had turned to go when Éowyn exclaimed, “Wait! You said maybe three guests! Who and where is the third?”
He turned Firefoot back around and said, “A man of the North who has been here before, but long ago. He is taking a different route from Gandalf and Hîthuldir, and may be at Edoras by nightfall, but that is not certain.” Digging his heels into his horse, Éomer galloped away, leaving a small dust cloud behind him.
The two girls retrieved their horses, mounted them, and rode out to these mysterious travellers on foot. “What do you suppose an Elf looks like?” Éowyn asked, as though her friend had an answer.
“People say that they can hide even in broad daylight, and that they are fair to look upon, but I do not know,” Fréalas replied. “What an exciting day! An Elf and a Wizard! And we are to accompany them!”
“This is better than spending time with smelly old sheep,” Éowyn retorted, but her face was set in a smile and Fréalas knew that she was only making fun.
The two travellers were getting closer, and then seemingly all at once Éowyn and Fréalas were upon them. The visitors were both of tall stature. One wore a tall pointy blue hat and used a walking stick, and the other had a grey-green cloak that billowed in the wind and long, almost black hair that stopped below his shoulder blades. The walkers both stopped as the two youths pulled up their horses, then dismounted. For a few uncomfortable moments it was almost silent except for the swish of horse’s tails and their occasional snorts.
“Well!” The man with the staff and long grey hair smiled at them, obviously bemused by his greeting party. “You of the golden hair,” he looked at Éowyn, “must be the niece of King Théoden. Your brother Éomer was kind enough to meet us and offer up your company for part of our remaining walk to Edoras so that he could ride ahead and alert the King.”
Éowyn nodded her head, fascinated by his twinkling eyes, his tall hat, and his aura of knowledge and distance and great events of the world. “Are you Gandalf?” she asked suddenly, any sense of decorum lost in the excitement of meeting these two foreigners.
The wizard nodded. “I am known by many names, and that is a fine one for you to use. But you have not told me who your companion is!” He leaned his head toward Fréalas, who blushed brightly, making the smattering of freckles across her face stand out even more. “I would be remiss to travel with someone whose name I did not know.”
“My name is Fréalas, daughter of Fréawyn,” she said, and while the answer was directed to Gandalf, she found herself unable to tear her eyes away from the Elf-man. His eyes were the strangest color she had ever seen, a cornflower blue that in the light appeared almost violet. And his skin! White as Fréalas had seen only in a pearl pendant her mother usually kept hidden, the small orb seeming to contain its own inner luminous glow. His ears came to a point at the top with a tiny delicate braid traversing from above his ear down his back. She knew she was staring, and she hated herself for appearing so boorish and provincial, but nothing could have prepared her for this face to face meeting with a creature - a person- so unlike herself, out of stories told to children, and yet apparently not a legend at all.
The Elf bowed his head to both of the Rohirrim. “My name is Hîthuldir,” he said in halting Rohirric, yet to Fréalas’ ears it sounded like water merrily traipsing over rocks. “Do you mind if we use the Common Tongue? I know but a few words in your horse-language.”
Éowyn and Fréalas both nodded their heads, since everyone in Edoras was now required to learn the common speech in addition to their native language. They did not use it very often, but they could have a conversation in it well enough.
“Shall we continue on?” Gandalf began to converse in Westron as well, and the two Rohirric youths answered in the affirmative. Fréalas did so after attempting a curtsey of sorts to both of the exotic visitors, though she guiltily realized that she had spent more time slightly bent toward Hîthuldir so that she could start at his brown, leather-looking shoes and absorb as much detail in his clothes and person as possible for a later conversation with her mother.
“Will you ride your noble steeds or accompany us on foot?” asked the Elf.
“It would be rude for us to ride if you do not also have horses, and we are happy to walk with such esteemed friends of Rohan,” Éowyn replied.
As the small convoy continued down the road, Fréalas burned with questions she felt would be too rude to ask. Where had they come from? Why were they in Rohan? Did the wizard really do magic? Did the Elf have a wife and children? Was his hair as silky to the touch as it looked, shining even though there was not much sun?
“You may wonder why we are here, and why it is that we seek the counsel of King Théoden,” Gandalf spoke, his voice a resonant baritone. Fréalas, for the second time that day, suffered the discomfort of feeling that her mind was being read by another. “My two companions and I are in search of someone, and while he is not dangerous, we would like to find him as quickly as possible. But he is a crafty figure, and has eluded us so far.”
“Two companions?” asked Éowyn. “Éomer said that there might be another tonight. This person must be important if it takes three of you to track him!” she spoke excitedly.
Underneath his white bushy eyebrows, Gandalf’s eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled. “The house of Eorl is still a brave line, I see,” he said, as he fished around for something in his pack.
Fréalas turned to the Elf, unable to keep quiet any longer. “Are you finding this person too?” she queried, allowing herself to turn and look at his face, though she had to tilt her head somewhat as he was quite tall compared to her, especially now that she was on foot and no longer riding Salupád.
“Only for this journey from Lórien to Edoras,” he replied in his melodious voice. “I am accompanying Gandalf and Aragorn but primarily my business is to tell your King of the increasing belligerence and numbers of orcs on our borders, and to advise him to be especially wary. The dark powers of the South appear to be growing, and while the King of the Horselords is perfectly fit to rule his lands alone, the Lord and Lady of the Wood felt it not inappropriate for me to make him aware of this increasing peril if he knew it not.”
Fréalas heard only about one word in four that he spoke. She was simply captivated by his face and movements that were unearthly in their elegance and poise, despite the rather earthly weight of his pack and quiver of indeterminate grey material and large bow that was strapped across it. So masculine, she mused longingly, yet with such beautiful eyes! His lashes! And he does not have a beard! How did I not notice that before? How old is he? Do all Elves look like him? What is it like to live forever? Does he sing? He must have a most beautiful voice…
Her inner monologue of questions chattered away until she noticed with a start that a small white ship of mist had drifted between her and Hîthuldir. She blanched as she watched it, the wind slowly carrying it away until it vanished. Turning her eyes up to the Elf, she opened her mouth to ask if he had seen what she had when another shape meandered over her head, this time in the shape of a bird. Fréalas clamped her lips shut as the Elf cocked one eyebrow at her, a hint of a smile revealed in the upturning of one corner of his mouth. She quickly turned her head forward again, and then it became clear: Gandalf was smoking! A very long pipe was in his hand and he was puffing on it contentedly, speaking with Éowyn a few paces in front of her.
“You appear to have much on your mind, maid of Rohan,” Hîthuldir said, watching as a blush began at the base of Fréalas’ neck and crept upwards to settle in her cheeks. “I stopped speaking some moments ago, and yet you have not had anything to say in reply.”
Fréalas carefully began to inspect the rocky ground on their path, fervently wishing that she was not so transparent to everyone that day, and desperate to be seen as clever and witty, not the dolt that she was sure she appeared to be.
“Do you perhaps have some questions you would care to ask? I am under the impression that you have never seen any of my kind before. Please do not be embarrassed.” At this Fréalas raised her head hopefully to gaze at him again. “We Elves do tend in these later days to stay among ourselves. Ask what you will.”
After swallowing, then watching a rather large smoke ring float overhead, Fréalas asked the first thing that came out of the swirling eddy of questions in her mind.
"Do Elves really live in trees?" The lyrics of a song sung to her from her early childhood had tugged at her memory as soon as the word Elf had been uttered from Éomer's mouth, and of all the questions she wished to ask, this one spilled forth.
It might have been a look of surprise on Hîthuldir's face that Fréalas saw, but she could not be sure given his slightly alien, though beautiful appearance. "We do not spend all of our time in trees, no, though we do sleep and have some guard-posts and residences above ground in the mallorns that are in Lórien. Our Elvish kin in distant lands to the north and west do not do so, but we of the Golden Wood do have decorated platforms in the trees that we call telain."
"What is a mallorn?" Fréalas asked, her curiosity piqued now more than ever. They did live in trees! "Do they grow in Rohan?"
Hîthuldir smiled so widely that his teeth showed, and the sixteen year old knew absolutely that her heart had stopped beating for a moment.
"A mallorn is a type of tree, but I am almost certain that they do not grow on your grassy plains. They came to Beleriand from Númenor and are the most beautiful of trees to our eyes. Their leaves are silver in spring and summer then turn to gold in autumn and winter." The Elf tilted his head and looked at her for a moment. "Do you mind if I ask you a question before we approach the gates of your city?"
Fréalas looked ahead and saw to her dismay that indeed their group was much closer to Edoras than she had hoped, given the Elf's company. "Of course," she replied, unable to fathom what he could possibly not know, being immortal and so wise.
Hîthuldir reached out his hand and lifted up a curled tendril of her hair from her shoulder. "Are there many of your people with hair the color of the sunset? It is highly unusual among Elf-kind, but perhaps it is more common among your people on the sea-like grasses of your lands."
Fréalas was still in shock that his finger had lightly brushed her shoulder, but she managed to come to her senses enough to answer. "No, most people have hair in shades of gold, or brown, but my brother also has red hair. Our mother is said to be distantly related to some wandering but noble folk in the North, and that reddish hair was less rare among their line." She found that with the hand not holding Salupád's reins, she was now fidgeting with her hair, suddenly under the scrutiny of the violet eyes of Hîthuldir. "Truthfully," she said, looking back at the Elf, "I would prefer to have gold hair like Éowyn's. But I do not think about it that often anymore."
Hîthuldir gave her a searching look, then in his melodious voice said, "I say truthfully to you that your fire-locks are a gift, one just as much as I consider having met you."
Fréalas focused on breathing to ensure that she was still doing so. He was glad to have met her?
The group was now walking past the barrow-mounds outside the walls of Edoras, and Fréalas could hear as though from a far distance away Éowyn explaining the lines of the house of Eorl to Gandalf. She was speaking animatedly as the wizard continued to smoke his pipe. Hîthuldir excused himself to Fréalas and quickened his pace to tap Gandalf on his shoulder. They conferred for a moment while continuing to walk through the gates and on the main causeway to Meduseld, then the Elf slowed for Fréalas to draw up beside him.
The inhabitants of Edoras who happened to be out in the streets stopped what they were doing to gape at the small entourage making their way up to the Golden Hall. Elves and wizards were rare visitors indeed, and soon there was a gaggle of children clustered near the road, elbowing each other and speaking excitedly among themselves.
Fréalas patted Salupád on her brown neck and stopped, the horse beginning to pull its owner toward their house down a nearby path. “I suppose I should go home,” she said wistfully, then turned and made another curtseying motion to the Elf and Gandalf. “It has been a great pleasure to make your acquaintance. Éowyn, you will find me sometime tomorrow, will you not?”
“Yes,” Éowyn replied. “The sheep will not shear themselves, will they?”
Fréalas chose to ignore the sarcasm in that sentence. Gandalf put his hand to the brim of his hat and nodded to her. “Farewell, maid of Rohan,” he said. “Perhaps my travels will bring me back to these lands and I shall see you and Éowyn again. Now however,” he said as he stowed his pipe and reshouldered his pack, “we need to continue on and make our greetings to the King.”
Hîthuldir bowed his head. “My business with Théoden also awaits. In my language I would say to you namárië. I wish you well.”
Fréalas had a fleeting and fanciful thought of rushing to him and grabbing him around the waist and begging him not to leave. She needed days, weeks to spend with him, to learn about this Golden Wood with magic trees, to see the telain, to… an unbidden vision of kissing his soft lips flashed before her, and she knew that she must squelch that image immediately before her face betrayed any more of those hidden desires. “Good-bye Hîthuldir,” she spoke softly. “I would be honoured to see your forest of gold one day, though I fear that shall never be.”
He smiled, and to Fréalas’ great delight, he took her hand and clasped it within both of his as he said again, “Namárië.” Then he released her and strode up the path with Éowyn and Gandalf.
Fréalas remained, standing still among the other staring citizens of Edoras, watching his graceful steps, his dark hair streaming behind him.
Light danced on whorls and plaits of the carved stone columns, the flames from the torches lining the walls providing a gentle glow on the assembled group. Théoden sat at the head of the heavy table, his son Théodred at his right, Éomer at his left. Gandalf and Hîthuldir sat across from one another, all drinking a stout ale except for the Elf, who preferred the lighter mead also brewed by the Rohirrim. Éowyn had been sent away from the Golden Hall after dinner, and her displeasure had been obvious. She was not, however, so young as to talk back to her uncle in front of these visitors, though she wished desperately that she could have stayed. Receiving a good-night kiss on the forehead from Théoden was no consolation.
"So!" the King began, his commanding voice aimed at Gandalf. "It is always a pleasure to see you, wandering friend, but I sense that you are not here simply to pay a social call." With bright summer-sky blue eyes he glanced keenly at the wizard down the table, who was again smoking his long pipe, albeit with less ostentatious smoke rings than earlier in the day. "What brings you to Rohan?"
Gandalf gazed back from under bushy white eyebrows and replied, "There is a creature that one of the Dúnedain and I seek. He is not loyal to the dark forces of Sauron, but he was held captive in Mordor."
Éomer leaned in, cupping his chin in his hand, two fingers stroking his coppery beard.
Théodred looked disbelievingly at Gandalf. "And this person escaped? Why do you think he would be found in our land?"
“I did not say that I think we will find the creature in your land,” Gandalf tartly replied. “I only said that we are looking for him and he may have passed this way.” After issuing a smoke ring which floated somewhat suspiciously toward Théodred, he continued, “I must admit that we have lost his trail.” Gandalf shook his head slowly. “In truth, this is more of a social call, for I have not been to your fair city in many years, and the hospitality of Théoden’s house is welcome indeed as we journey to the South.”
Théoden raised his chalice a short distance from the table and nodded in appreciation of the compliment.
“You are a gracious host, caretaker of the mearas.” Hîthuldir raised his glass as well. “It is exceedingly rare that our people trouble you, and I wish that my news were more pleasant. The foul yrchs,” here the Elf accidentally slipped in his native tongue for a moment, “have become much more numerous and we must keep ever more patrols out on the borders of our woods. Our most beloved Lady has been troubled about dark powers growing in the South, and this was borne out with the news that Mithrandir brought to us.”
“Beloved Lady? Sorceress more like,” Éomer muttered under his breath, leaning back into his chair and crossing his arms across his chest. Théoden gave him a sharp glare, but Hîthuldir appeared not to hear the comment.
“Yes, we are well aware of the menace of orcs, and even in olden times our people were called on for assistance, not the other way around.” A defensive note could be heard in the King’s voice.
“I did not come here to offer assistance, Théoden of Rohan,” Hîthuldir calmly replied. “That the Lady sees evil webs being spun that may affect you is the only message I have to bear. What you choose to do with that news is, of course, up to you as King.”
A sound almost like a snort came from Éomer’s direction but quickly became a cough as he took a mouthful of ale.
“Most Elves prefer to remain among their own kind, especially those of Lórien,” Gandalf spoke up after a small swan-formed ring wafted over Éomer’s chair. “Hîthuldir is uncommon in that he wished to accompany me to see a bit more... adventure.”
Dark hair flowed across his back as Hîthuldir turned his head toward the wizard, then seeing the obvious mirth on Gandalf’s face, he gracefully shrugged his shoulders. “Of course I have been to this region before, but it would have been many lifetimes ago for your kind. The mallorns of Lórien are the fairest things to behold on all of this earth, but your grassy plains are lovely in their own way.”
Théoden could see that his nephew was contemplating what would probably be a diplomatically incorrect comment and spoke instead. “We are grateful for your news, Hîthuldir of Dwimordene. We shall, as always, be ready to protect our people. Gandalf, you have not given us many clues as to who it is that you search, and from this I take it that none are forthcoming. Still, you both are welcome to lodgings here in Meduseld for the night. Théodred, will you show them to their rooms?”
There was a sound of chairs scuffing the floor as all at the table stood. “Thank you for a most pleasant evening, King Théoden,” the Elf said, bowing his head and gesturing over the table.
Gandalf tapped out his pipe, and with a smile aimed at Éomer, said, “Yes, a most pleasant and tactful evening.” Looking at Théoden, he continued, “Éowyn is a most compelling young woman. Charming, intelligent and quite handy with a sword if what I hear is true.”
The King nodded in the affirmative, then said, “While we have suffered much in the loss of Elfhild, Théodwyn and Éomund, I am fortunate indeed to have Théodred, Éomer and Éowyn in my household. The line of Eorl is a thriving one.”
Hîthuldir soundlessly followed Théodred, Gandalf finishing out the small group, his long robes dragging on the stone floor. As they crossed the room, Théodred’s question to the Elf carried over to the King and Éomer. “Pardon my ignorance of your kind, but tales are told that Elves live in trees. Is this indeed true?”
Théoden could have sworn he heard a sigh, but then the entourage had moved beyond the Golden Hall.
Hîthuldir= mist/fog - man; 'Man of the Mist' (Sindarin)
gimmer= female sheep that has been sheared once but not twice
shearing= male sheep that has been sheared once but not twice
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.