1. A Final Polish
Swords and blades come in different sizes, different materials and even shapes; some have shorter handles, some are studded with gems and glittering stones; some are as old as the land itself and have seen so many battles that the stench of blood and flesh will never leave them, while others still smell of the forge in which they were made. But, what makes them so dear to those who wield them are the stories behind them, for there is no sword without a story in the Riddermark; and, most often, there is no story without a sword.
The tale behind this sword is not very ancient, for it does not have a grand past like the one belonging to Eorl the Young, or Helm Hammerhand. The man who should have been the latest owner of this blade despised it so that he fled home even before the appointed time of receiving it for he deemed it dishonored and scorned. His father had never honored his blade, nor his family, and he hated him for it and refused to lead a life that would ultimately bring him to be that kind of man. Fengel was a king but understood not what it meant to be one. Wallowing in self-indulgence and conceit, he quickly forgot his obligations; and, living in dishonor, his glorious blade quickly fell into disgrace and disuse, covered in rust, the precious gems plundered and lost. Afraid, but certain that he could no longer endure such humiliation, Thengel, his son, abandoned his old life and settled in Stoningland, which is called Gondor by those who dwell there. There he earned a name for himself, with a new blade, not the one appointed for him through the ties of his forefathers.
Once in Gondor, he met Morwen, a lady from Lossarnach, who captured his heart and kept it with her, and the lord Thengel was wed to her, for he no longer would dwell alone. So, he thought that he had found a land to love, the freedom to maintain his family safely, and a new sword with which to keep his honor; but fate is not something to be tampered with, for it cannot be escaped.
King Fengel had at last died, an event very much hoped for, although secretly, for no one would dare insult the king openly, nor desecrate the memory of the dead. His son, Thengel, had been sent for in Lossarnach, where he now dwelt, and where he had lived for long years of self-imposed exile. Thus, the designs of fate had been met, for once again was Thengel to return to the Mark, although unwillingly, and not as the boy who had left but as King of the Eorlingas. And, he did not come alone, for with him came Morwen and their three children who had never seen the deep blue skies of the Mark, nor the green fields that were so vast and endless they seemed to join the heavens, nor the mountains that held its mysteries and secrets, nor the rivers and running streams that were its life. Théoden, their second child and only son, had never even seen one of the Mearas! Now, Morwen came, a stranger, a queen come from Stoningland who knew naught of the past of this land, nor of its stories and lore. And, as queen, she was charged with a grave task, for it would be her duty to raise a Rohirrim –a son of Eorl- for her small son would be the King of the Mark when his father was no more... in her hands she held the future of her husband’s people. It was on one of those days soon after their arrival at Edoras, that the lady Morwen learned for the first time about the ritual of the sword.
The morning breeze was just a bit too strong for her, blowing hard against her cheeks and arms. She wrapped herself tighter with her woolen shawl, and brushed one or two locks aside from her face, raven black in contrast with the pale of her hand. “Théoden!”she cried, cupping her hands over her mouth so that the sounds would reach further. “Théoden, do not run off like that!” There was her son, running like wild cattle again, and preventing everyone from going about their business with his hollering and yammering. “Théoden! Didn’t you hear a word I said? Come here this instant! You may not go ahead with another game unless you have picked up all the cavalry and soldiers you have scattered here! Come, now, if you don’t want the wind to blow them away!” She rose, putting her hands to her hips, just as Théoden turned around. Upon seeing her, he stopped running, and she had to wonder whether it had been because of his fear of losing his toys, or because she had put her hands to her hips. At any rate, it had worked, for the lad came back immediately.
“Naneth,” he yelled, as he gasped for air, “why is it so cold here? I can’t run around in these clothes!”
“And thank the Valar for that!” she laughed. Théoden looked rather comical with all those heavy clothes on, quite chubby and his legs seemed to have shortened somehow. It seemed to her that he had not been pleased by her comment, for a wide scowl met her from behind his tousle of golden hair. “What I meant,” she explained, “was that it is better if you do not go around running so much, at least not so early and not so soon after we’ve arrived! You see, everyone is rather busy, and if you run and make so much noise, you will keep them from their chores. Papa would not be happy if that happened.” The child nodded vigorously and resumed his game; he appeared satisfied with her explanation. But, she felt a pang, sort of butterflies in her stomach, whenever she thought about her husband’s new responsibilities, and her own inadequacy in helping him. Then, a few moments afterwards, she would make light of her own silliness and childish thoughts while she laughed and rubbed her eyes.
The wind blew hard against her face again, blowing with it one or two tears, nothing much. Looking down to where her son played, she could plainly see how much he had grown, and wondered just when had it happened, for it seemed to her as though she had not noticed. How old he already looked, and how beautiful! He took after his father, as she had always said, even though Thengel was always bent on denying it. But, there was no denying the delightfully bright eyes, or the dimples on his cheeks when he smiled, or the quick wit, or the gold of his hair... A son of Rohan, no doubt. What was left to her?
“But, why is everyone so busy?” after a while he lifted his eyes to her, frowning. “It’s no fun!” he declared, and sneezed. Morwen wiped his nose and, well, the rest of his face, with a handkerchief, and tightened the scarf around his neck. The wind had turned much too chill for their comfort over the past two days, and the child seemed to have caught a cold.
“They are all busy because there are many things to be done before we are settled in, my clever lad. Do you remember all those boxes we packed before we traveled here? All those boxes with our things in them? These kind people are helping us get it all out so we can feel comfortable and happy.” Théoden looked squarely at her. “Do you understand now, why we ought to let them do their job?”
“But, naneth, if they take everything out we will not be able to go back home!” The words came as a bitter slap. Nothing had prepared her to hear such observations from her little boy.
“And, why would you wish for that, Théoden? Surely you are happy to be at last in papa’s homeland. The land of the horses, do you remember?”
“But, there is no one to play with here,” he sighed, his ruddy cheeks bright as two red apples.
Morwen looked around her, feeling suddenly very small in the middle of that vast plain, the shadow of the mountains looming over her, ready to fall... She heard voices, many people around her and children running, playing, laughing, their hair whirling in the air. So alike they were to Théoden, the same sturdy build, the wide eyes and hearty laugh, the same hair... and yet so different! She had to fight back her tears when she said, “I see what you mean, son; you cannot understand the manner of their speech, can you?” Théoden nodded his assent. Just then, they heard a horn blowing, and the clip-clap-clip-clap-clap of horses hooves. At once, a great gathering of children and young people assembled themselves to see a rider pass.
“Oh, naneth, can we go?” Théoden asked without breathing, eyes wide with excitement. But even before he had finished speaking, he was already running toward the rider. Morwen ran after him and grabbed his small hand tightly so that he would not slip away as they approached. Off they went, running against the wind, Théoden squealing in delight; but, nothing prepared them for what they beheld next.
Before their eyes appeared the most handsome youth that she had ever seen: blonde and tall, his broad shoulders very straight and his legs high in the stirrups of the white steed; even his horse’s gait was regal. The rider’s silver armor shone as if it were studded with pearls and diamonds, but the most amazing thing he carried was the sword that hung on his belt. She fancied it was a bit too heavy for him, but it shone so bright! The brilliance of the gems dazzled her, and the metal glimmered like waves, or like the foam in the rivers that bathed the soils of her home. She heard Théoden’s breath catch inside his throat as he gaped at the rider, and realized that she had been holding her breath as well. Just as she had begun to take in the details of the young man’s attire, he rode away, vanishing, as though he had been only a vision.
“Who is he?” her son was tugging at her skirt. “Who is he, naneth?”
“What, love?” she shook her head as though she was trying to wake from a spell, only to realize that she had no answer.
“Who was that great rider?” Théoden asked again.
“That, young master,” a tall man said, leaning over Théoden, “is Oswulf, son of Olfwine.” Sensing Morwen’s uneasiness, or perhaps because it was the proper thing to do, he introduced himself, “My name is Eadwulf, son of Ceolwulf, at your service. Oswulf is my sister’s-son.”
“And you speak like we do!” the boy cried in a fit of excitement. Morwen tightened her hold on his arm and murmured a scold, but Eadwulf laughed.
“Indeed, I do, for I have been to Stoningland -Gondor, that is- many times; I have even been to Mundburg! I find it a delightful speech, although I cannot speak it as clearly as you do.”
“I could teach you, if you wished,” he said, and sneezed again. “It’s not that hard!”
“Are you sure?” Eadwulf asked, rather doubtfully, and then broke into laughter. “If you say so, then I will believe it. Now, what did you think of my nephew?”
“He is the grandest rider I have ever seen, isn’t he mama?”
“Yes, indeed,” Morwen said, looking where the horse had gone. She was, however, forced to turn abruptly when she heard the stranger say ‘You will look like that in a few years,’ and then came her son’s cheerful clapping.
“Once you are old enough,” he continued, “and your mother gives you your father’s sword, as the ritual goes, you will be a full son of the Mark! And ready to do your duty by your people.”
“Oh, I will!” the boy cried, straightening himself as if to assume a solemn manner.
“Sir, what ritual? His father’s sword?” her thoughts strayed to the day when she had seen Thengel for the first time and how she had been impressed by the shining sword that he wore, hung on a belt around his waist. “But, it is his fighting blade...” she whispered to herself, but Eadwulf caught her words.
“Oh, no, m’lady. Not that sword,” he stated, but then his eyes melted into something that she construed as pity, once he realized that she knew nothing of the ritual that was so important to the sons of Eorl. He smiled kindly, clearly trying to show his sympathy, and continued, “The King’s wife is to give her son the sword of his forefathers, the one that his father gave to the King and has been in his family for many generations. Once this young boy rides the leader of the Mearas, he will be ready, and a full man,” his eyes flickered. “Then, and only then, will he be accepted as a King, and be able to ride to war like a man.” He curled his lips rather contemptuously, but when he turned to Théoden, he smiled. “Ten years or so from now, young master, and it will be your time.”
She felt an unexpected pain in her chest, and the butterflies in her stomach again. She gave Théoden a worried glance, for her son was still but a babe! To be thinking about war and nonsense was more than she could bear. “Lord, ten years is too short a time to-” she turned to say, but found that the man was gone. A feeling of emptiness filled her heart, and for the first time she utterly understood that she would forever be a foreigner in this land of many mysteries.
That night, Morwen searched intently for her husband’s sword. He had clearly left Rohan before taking the ritual, for he had no other blade but the one he wore to war. She knew it had to be in the palace, for since Thengel had come to manhood, it had no longer belonged to old Fengel, but to him. She looked in old rooms and chests, in boxes and desks; all rooms she had turned upside-down, but the old King’s bedchamber.
The place still smelled of herbs and smoke, and she fancied that the King could see her still and wave his disapproval amid derisive words; but, she had to do this for her son. Breathing deep, and gathering her courage, she went in, and her steps directed her to a very old and beaten chest. She slowly opened it, and the hinges creaked as though the lid had not been lifted in years. It was a noise so sad and ominous that she had to close her eyes hard to keep from crying. But, once it was opened, she found what she sought inside. The heavy sword lay inside a leather scabbard which was wrapped in a white cloth, more carefully and tightly than she would’ve thought. It was clearly a very valuable heirloom; she never thought the old King would have kept it so... dearly, for she could find no better word to describe it. Although the sword felt heavy on her hands, she managed to lift it, and slowly took it out of its sheath.
“It is beautiful!” she gasped, and almost let it fall. It appeared to be a very fine blade, made by a highly skilled crafsman. Glittering veins of gold crossed the handle, making patterns and intricate designs of leaves, flowers, horses and suns. But, in spite of its solemn beauty, it was also very old, and very beaten. Rust had covered it on some parts; perhaps, where it had touched blood that had not been cleaned away. The handle was a perfect fit for her hand, although, at its upper part there were empty holes where, she fancied, bright gems had once been. It certainly did not look as shining as Oswulf’s, or as Thengel’s new sword, but there was an air of ancestry about it, of mysteries and stories concealed and all forged together on that single blade. She held it high with both her hands and, for a glimpse of a moment, she savoured what power truly was.
That night, even though nobody else knew it, Morwen began the long and loving labor of polishing the sword, of making it beautiful and grand as it had surely been, as it could be, awaiting the day when it would become Théoden’s. That night, also, she tucked away all her childish fears and anxieties (away with the old cloths that covered her husband’s –her son’s blade) for, who could have time for such things? She replaced them with courage and hope for the future, for if she was not to raise a good man to be King, then who would? She also replaced the old pieces of clothing that covered the sword with a new silken fabric of a deep green, for the fields of the Mark. As for the blade itself, she was determined to make it shine.
Many years passed, and the Lady’s small son grew into a fine, handsome youth. No one who looked upon him could deny that he had the makings of a fine warrior, and a true Son of Eorl, even if the land of his birth lay many miles hence; but, even Eorl himself had not been born in the Mark, and he had become the Father of them all. According to the laws of their people, Théoden was now accounted a full man, both by age and by his own prowess. He had become a regal man whose skill, courage and kindness were admired and known to all. At last, he was ready to step into his duties as a soldier of the Mark, to defend his land and keep his people safe.
The night his boy had ridden the horse-prince, King Thengel roamed about the palace, seeking for his wife. She had disappeared shortly after the evening meal, and though he suspected what she would be about, he really knew not where to find her. He searched her sitting-room and bedroom, opened the door to the girls’ rooms, but she was not there. He searched many rooms and halls, but she was not to be found. Everywhere he had looked, except the old king’s bedchamber. Straightening his back in the way he used to do whenever close to his father, Thengel turned the bolt open. Upon looking in, he found whom he sought: his wife sat on the floor, bent over the old chest with a shining sword laid across her lap.
“I knew you would be doing this tonight, Morwen,” he remarked, gently, as he walked closer to her. She smiled, and lifted her face briefly to meet his. “Seriously, woman, do you never tire of looking at that thing?”
“Ah,” she said, giving him an amused look, “but I am not just looking at it. Tonight, I am giving it a final polish.”
“I can scarcely believe it,” he said, taking the sword on his hands. He lifted it carefully, almost solemnly, and the metal reflected the candlelight, sending a dazzling flash of silver and gold. He gasped. “This is not my father’s sword. His was worn and beaten, covered in rust. It did not shine; it was a disgrace,” he lowered his eyes, and sighed.
“No more,” she said, decidedly, “for there is now a true King of the Mark. The sword shines again.”
The next morning, the sun shone bright. Théoden would leave on his first mission to the West-Mark, and all things had been made ready for his departure: his horse was on the square, already waiting for him; his armor had been fitted to ensure that it was comfortable for him to wear; a supply of food and water for the ride had also been provided, and was already packed in his traveling bag. A small company of men had also been assembled, each of them with a task that would take them away from Edoras and who would be traveling with the King’s son. Thengel waited in the courtyard, issuing orders and seeing to any last-minute preparations, many of which were only fancies of his, or things to occupy himself with, for everything had been checked before, and some things even twice!
Théoden glanced briefly out of the window, down into the square where his horse and men awaited him. His eyes wandered briefly through the distant plain, and thence to the green and purple hills that slowly became white-crested mountains, before they turned back to his own reflection in the full-length mirror. His apparel was spotless: his boots tied after the manner of warriors, his shirt carefully pressed to make sure it bore no wrinkles, although that would not have shown, for his mail and armor concealed almost every trace of the clothing he wore underneath it. He was ready. He knew he was ready, at last. He adjusted his cloak, tightened his belt, and turned for a final look at his bedroom and things. Just as he was about to depart, there was a gentle tap; with a very firm grasp, he opened the door.
“Mother!” he said, and smiled, looking at her with that certain excitement that edged in awe whenever he was in her presence.
“Here you are, my lord; ready to ride off,” she bit her lip, and swallowed hard, and there was a dancing twinkle in her eyes as she bestowed an appraisal look at her son. “You look handsome, beautiful! You are your father’s son.”
“Oh, I hope to be,” he said, and leaned down to kiss her brow. “I very much hope to be. Seriously, mother, I have been waiting for this day for so long! I know I am ready to do this. I know I can. I have trained long and hard, and I am sure I can do it. But...” there was a pause where Théoden leaned slightly forward in eagerness, “until I prove myself, no one else will be sure. I suppose I am-”
“Anxious?” she eyed him keenly, and realized, not without a tinge of pride, that there was nothing wrong for her to see. She had done a nice job of polishing, after all. “It is only natural that you feel like that, Théoden, but you will see that you grow into your duties as you have grown into this armor, or this helmet. You will be King, my son; and, as you realize it, everybody else will.”
“You always have a way of making me feel better,” he grinned, and shrugged his shoulders. “I shall miss you very much.”
“As shall I. We will all miss you... even your sisters.”
“Oh, I wonder how will you manage them without my help.” His voice was full of mirth, but his eyes became distant for a brief moment. Then, grasping his mother’s shoulder, he said, “Well, I suppose it is time for me to leave.”
“Ah,” she raised her hand, “not so fast! A part of your gear is still missing.” He gave her a troubled stare, looking around him to see what could possibly be missing. He had taken great care in seeing that his helmet and shield had been made ready, and his spear awaited him downstairs. Morwen could not help but smile, noticing his distress, and swiftly strode out of the room. When she entered it again, she carried a bundle, wrapped in a very soft fabric of a deep green color. Théoden stretched his arms to take it, but there was something in her manner that forbade him to do as he wished. Carefully, although with trembling fingers, she removed the cloth to expose a leather scabbard, traced with one or two patterns of exquisite skill, inside of which had been kept the most shining, sharp, luxurious, astonishing blade that Théoden had ever seen. Her hand gripped the silver hilt with ease, though her delicate fingers looked somewhat foreign as they wielded such a weapon. He gasped, and looked at her squarely.
“What is this?” he slowly asked, as though speech had suddenly become difficult.
“This, Théoden, is your sword.”
“But how? Mine, you say? It is too fine.”
“A fine blade for a fine man,” she said, her eyes becoming livelier and her cheeks blushing. “It has been here all these years, waiting for you to wield it. Now, you shall receive it as is the custom, from mother to eldest son.” His eyes widened and his mouth opened slightly as he looked at her in wonder, or so it seemed to her.
Morwen smiled, for she knew that her son had not anticipated he would receive the blade of his forefathers. He could not have known the old king had kept it hidden, or that she had found it; and he probably knew naught of the many nights of polishing, or of the many times she had struggled to master her tongue and bend it to the sounds of her husband’s language, so that she would be able to properly pronounce the words that she would have to say as she gifted him with it.
Taking a deep breath, he stretched his hands in front of him, while she lifted the sword one last time, feeling its power and strength run through her body as if it were a living thing; perhaps it was. “Hereby I gift you with the sword of your fathers. It is an ancient heirloom of our house, and it has been kept with honor, wielded in honor, and in honor it is given to you, Théoden, son of Thengel, to defend your family and your people, until it is time that the sword pass to other hands.”
She paused to take a shallow breath, trying to steady her emotions and relieved to have managed to say half of the memorized speech in spite of her throbbing heart, or perhaps preparing herself for the hardest part of it. At last, in a very slow, stressed, yet melodious Rohirric, she recited the final words, “Mæg þonne fela missera þæt sweord scinan. Mæg hit arweorð to unc sele gebringan.”
Théoden’s eyes widened even more. How his mother learned this ritual, he knew not. Swallowing hard, he took the blade offered to him and gripped the hilt, almost fearfully, running his hand with great care along the blade, pausing to touch the sharp and pointed tip. His fingers solemnly trailed over the designs patterned on the hilt, slowly tracing the leaves, the rising suns, lingering on the few gems that adorned its upper part. It was the finest sword he had ever held, perfectly polished and bright. It felt almost wrong of him to wield it, to even touch it. He chewed on his lower lip; then, as if driven by an outside force, he lifted it high in the air. The blade felt at ease in his hand, light, as if it had been made for him. Gripping the hilt tightly, he cleared his throat and breathed deep, “I, Théoden, son of Thengel, take this sword with an oath to protect my family, freedom, and honor, to the end of my days. Mæg þonne fela missera þæt sweord scinan. Mæg seo freo Ridermearc beon ece.”
“It is done,” Morwen whispered, withdrawing her own hands. The blade was no longer under her care; it had a new master. “Keep it polished, son.”
“I shall live to keep this blade bright,” he said as he unfastened his belt to remove his training sword, only to replace it with his rightful blade. The horn called them down: it was time to leave. He smiled once more, and Morwen thought she was still able to see the dimples in his cheeks; a faint trace of the child she had loved, standing in front of her. Suddenly, she felt strong arms wrapping around her, making her feel so very small in that embrace! “Thanks, naneth, for doing this for me, for taking the time to polish this sword, for keeping it in your care. I will do my best to bring honor to it and to you and father. May the Mark ever be free, and may our swords shine forever!”
Moments later, she watched her son depart. His golden hair whirled in the wind, his silver armor shone in the sun, the green cloak floated as a banner, even the horse’s gait was regal. She felt that burning sensation in her eyes and knew that she cried, but let her tears stream down unheeded, for she knew not how to stop them. Strong arms wrapped around her again, more tenderly this time: her husband’s. Snuggling closer to him, she was about to whisper something in his ear, when a blinding flash of light dazzled them. A few minutes passed and they saw the column of riders turn one last time and disappear in the distance. It was then that she understood what the light had been and let out a sigh.
“What is it, Morwen?” Thengel asked as his hands gripped her shoulders.
“But, Thengel, it is his sword! The sword... it glitters!” He knew not what to say, and so brought her closer to him. Thus they stood, the wind in their hair and the sun bright and high over them. And, although tears welled down her eyes, Morwen smiled. “It glitters,” she said, “It glitters... at last!”
Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising
he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended;
over death, over dread, over doom lifted
out of loss, out of life, unto long glory.
I have used Old English in place of Rohirric. Thanks very much to the people at the Languages of Arda forum, and thanks also go to H.F. for providing the translation, respectively: “May the sword then shine for many half-years. May it bring honor to our hall.” “May the Mark ever be free.”
Deep thanks, also, to Chris and Tay for doing beta work and improving not only the grammar, flow of ideas and the arrangement of the pieces, but for bringing out to me new meanings that I had not recognized before. Thanks!
The poem at the end is the Burial Song of Théoden (Many Partings, RotK, The Lord of the Rings).
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.