3. On Trial
Sitting on the steps by the horsehead fountain, he watched the last vestiges of red as they stained the western sky, as red as the gifts of wine that guests brought from Mundburg, he thought. The sound of hooves made him look down and in the fading light he made out Thorongil coming up the path, leading a horse. He decided to speak to the foreigner, whose company he was to join in the autumn, and followed him casually into the stables. It was then that Théoden recognised the black colt.
‘How did you catch the black mearh?’ he asked in surprise.
‘I came upon him down river. He was tired and a little hurt, but he came to me easily enough.’
‘I do not understand. He was wild this afternoon, like an otter in a trap. No man has ever handled him.’
Thorongil smiled enigmatically. ‘I think he was waiting to be found.’ He hung a haynet in the stall and gently began to rub the colt’s coat, taking care where he had been bitten.
Théoden cautiously held his hand under the animal’s muzzle and, seeing no reaction, rubbed his nose. But the black instantly pulled away at his touch and moved to the corner of his stall, watching him guardedly. The yearling eyed them from his own stall nearby.
‘I never thought the mearas would challenge each other like that,’ said Théoden.
‘They may be remarkable beasts, but they are still horses and they live the ways of other horses,’ answered Thorongil. ‘This one learned his lesson today. He is growing up fast, but he will not try the strength of Shadowfax again, I think.’
‘They say you ride well for a stranger. Where did you learn?’
Thorongil frowned. ‘The Eorlingas are not the only folk who love their horses, my lord. I learned to ride in the north. The customs of my people are different from yours and our horses must tread the mountain paths and the cold heath, but we cherish them next to our children.’
They regarded one other, the king’s son with clear blue eyes in his fair, open face and the tall soldier, dishevelled from the long day’s toil, the mane of dark hair falling half across his face, but not concealing his penetrating gaze, which disconcerted Théoden, though he knew not why. For a moment he recalled a great stone hall filled with statues and tall, stern men like kings, with noble faces and eyes of grey; but it was a memory from distant childhood that he could not place and he put it from his mind.
‘I shall stay here with the horses tonight,’ said Thorongil, pulling hay from his tousled hair and wrapping a discarded horse blanket round his shoulders. ‘Tomorrow we shall hear what the king has to say.’
‘I hear strange news this morning, Eardstapa.’ Thengel tore some fresh bread and placed on it a piece of blue veined cheese. ‘They tell me that the black colt was brought in last night as calm as an ass. What would you say caused such a change in him, I wonder?’
Aragorn studied the king’s face. He sometimes found Thengel’s wry humour difficult to read when added to the burden of translating his Rohirric. He had never dared confess that he knew the speech of Gondor, which Thengel habitually used at court in deference to his queen.
Then Gálmód broke in. ‘I think you know, captain, that it is unlawful for any man not of the royal line to ride one of the mearas.’
Aragorn ignored him and addressed the king. ‘I found the colt down river and brought him to the stables, lord, but I have not ridden him. He followed me of his own accord.’
‘There is none here who can lawfully tame him, now that my son has bonded with the grey yearling. But, if he remains riderless at Edoras, a time will come when he will have to leave the Mark. He cannot go back to the herd for Shadowfax will not permit it. So how is this matter to be resolved?’
‘My lord,’ said Aragorn softly. ‘As to who may ride the children of Felaróf, there are no rules, but the king’s rules. Therefore the king is at liberty to change them without the leave of others, be they the dead or the living. It seems to me that the fate of the black colt is yours alone to determine.’
‘You would do well to remember it.’ The king inclined his head and eyed Aragorn as though he were a magpie examining a newfound treasure. ‘You say that you have not tried to mount this animal?’
‘No, lord. I have not.’
‘Then let us make trial of you. Yesterday I appointed you Marshal. Today you shall aspire to a much loftier distinction. You shall attempt to ride a mearh. Ælfhere and Gálmód shall bear witness. You shall mount the black at the fountain and ride out of the town. Then you shall try him for one hour. If at the end of the hour you are still astride him and he has done your bidding, you may show yourself worthy of the horse, and I shall give him to you and you will be bonded, as I am bonded to Shadowfax.’
It was a little after noon and Ælfhere and Gálmód could be seen by the horsehead fountain, already mounted. The misshapen foot that had hampered Gálmód since his birth troubled him not at all on horseback. Soft rain was falling, brought down from the Misty Mountains by the north wind.
‘Isn’t it enough that he is made marshal of Westfold?’ Ælfhere’s Westemnet burr was laced with resentment. He was of an age with the foreigner and, as Gálmód predicted, had taken the news ill.
Gálmód smirked behind his hand. Uniquely among the king’s men, he enjoyed the privilege of the freedom to speak his mind without fear of reprimand. And as ever he made the most of it.
‘He may not have your blood, but he has twice your brains when it comes to leadership, young man. If my own son of just nine summers can best you at chess I would not give much for your chances against Thorongil.’
Ælfhere squirmed, for he knew that Gálmód was right. Outstanding archer as he was, he had no head for strategy and lacked authority when it came to the decisions of battle.
Suddenly the subject of Ælfhere’s discontent appeared before them, leading the black and moving so quietly that they had not noticed him arrive. The horse bore no harness, as was the way of the mearas except when they were going to war, but instead wore a soft headstall with a long rope. He followed the man without question, though he was watchful and regarded the townsfolk suspiciously. Off duty now, Aragorn was attired loosely in dark breeches and a soft grey tunic, quite unadorned except for the ornate silver ring that never left his hand. The effect was to make him appear taller and more a stranger even than usual amidst the warm colours favoured by the folk of the Mark, accentuating his pale features and lending him an air both exotic and oddly remote.
He paused by the fountain and nodded in casual greeting to Gálmód and Ælfhere. Facing the black colt head on, he murmured to him words that no one else could understand, all the while caressing his face and ears. Then quicker than sight he was on the animal’s back. The black sidestepped and for a moment his ears tilted backwards, but presently he grew quiet and stood still, confusion in his face. But Aragorn placed gentle hands on his neck and whispered again and this time the black took a few hesitant steps down the slope.
Then Aragorn turned to the others and smiled broadly. ‘Shall we start, my lords?’
They permitted him to lead the way through the town. The colt looked ill at ease, but his rider whispered to him softly as they went, with the occasional light touch of hand or foot to guide him towards the gates.
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.