29. Riding with the Dúnedain
"You won't fall down," Éowyn told me, her voice tinged with exasperation. "It's a shame to have to put a saddle on poor Mithril. – Don't clutch at the pommel like that! I told you, she likes you. She will never let you fall down!"
Éowyn stood at the centre of a dusty courtyard, looking very small from way up here on Mithril's back. Aragorn and the Dúnedain would be back any day now, perhaps even tonight.
I had to know at least some basics about riding and horse-care by the time they arrived.
I had been reassured by a thoroughly bad-tempered equerry and an irritated Éowyn, horse-woman by birth, that Mithril liked me and that I would be perfectly safe on her back.
I believed that Mithril liked me.
I liked her, too.
What I did not like was the fact that I was so very far away from the ground on her back.
Who could look at Mithril and not be instantly in love with her?
But the horse was so very, very big.
Sitting on her back meant being so very far, far away from the ground.
When I looked down at the ground and at Éowyn, suddenly so small and far away, I experienced a dizzying sense of vertigo.
I forced myself to breathe slowly, easily.
Relax. Relax. Relax!
"This is no good, my lady," the equerry told Éowyn in a gruff voice. "As long as she is that afraid of falling down she will never relax sufficiently to learn how to ride Mithril. And even Mithril has to be shown where to go and at what pace."
"Do you really think so?" Éowyn asked.
I did not really listen to this exchange. I was too busy clinging to the saddle and trying not to look down at the ground so very far below me.
Suddenly Éowyn shouted a command.
I felt myself lose my grip on the saddle.
I slid backwards.
I flew through the air!
I hit the ground with a thump and a scream, landing with my bottom in the middle of the manure heap.
I sat in the manure and blinked stupidly.
I coughed a couple of times. The fall had knocked the breath out of my lungs, leaving me completely winded.
I was still alive.
When I could make sense of my surroundings again, I found that Mithril lowered her big white head to me and nuzzled me softly. Mithril seemed to be both sorry and embarrassed. When Éowyn approached, Mithril laid her ears flat and spat a copious amount of slobber at the woman, hitting her precisely at her cleavage. Instead of throwing a fit, Éowyn only sighed and proceeded to rub at the mess with a kerchief.
Standing in front of me she extended a hand towards me.
Why was Mithril mad at Éowyn?
What kind of command had Éowyn shouted before Mithril had reared?
Had Éowyn commanded Mithril to throw me off?
"Did you just tell my horse to throw me off?" I asked Éowyn, my voice dangerously soft.
"I just told MY horse to throw you off," Éowyn said, her voice cool.
"Why, for heaven's sake? I could be dead! Wouldn't that defeat the purpose of teaching me how to ride?" I asked, torn between confusion and anger.
"Well, you were so very much afraid of falling off that you were much too tense to learn anything. Least of all how to ride, even a Meara." Éowyn told me. "Now you have fallen off. So you don't have to be afraid of it anymore. Simple, isn't it?"
What kind of warped logic was that?
I stared at her extended hand, feeling mad like hell.
"Now, do you still want to learn how to ride?" Éowyn asked, grinning unrepentantly.
"Yes," I said finally. "I do. I have to."
"Then take my hand and get back up on Mithril," Éowyn commanded.
I took her hand and let her draw me back up on my feet.
Halfway on my feet I suddenly lunged with my right foot, curling it between her legs, then letting me fall backwards again, using the whole weight of my body.
Glorfindel would have been proud of me.
With a great thump and splash both of us landed in the manure heap.
Completely covered with mud, dirt and horse manure, bits of straw sticking from her hair, Éowyn sat in front of me and gasped for air.
She stared at me.
I felt a slimy bit of mud dripping slowly down my face.
I stared at her.
Somehow she had managed to keep most of her face clean. But on her nose was a big brown spot of dirt, making her look like a clown.
Suddenly I lost my composure and simply collapsed with laughter.
Éowyn kept staring at me for another moment.
Then her lips started twitching.
Her eyes crinkled.
She started laughing, too.
We laughed so hard that we cried, sitting in the middle of mud and manure, covered completely in mud and manure.
Before we could continue my riding lessons we had to go and wash up.
On the one hand this incident had been a complete waste of time.
On the other hand I guess Éowyn and I had become friends – somewhere between the mud, the horse and a shared bath.
The world is a weird place.
An hour later I was back up on Mithril's back. And I cursed silently. Éowyn's warped logic had somehow been valid. I was not as afraid as I had been before. Though that might also be because I was not frightened of Éowyn anymore. It's hard to stay in breathless awe of a woman with whom you have rolled around in a manure heap.
"You hold on with your legs. Grip tightly. No, Mithril won't break. She's used to that. Now take up the reins. Yes, like I showed you, thread them between the fingers and up, so you don't let them slip accidentally. Now, basically you give a tug to the right if you want to go right, and left if you want to go left. You draw the reins if you want a horse to stop. You get her to speed up by touching her sides with your heels until she is fast enough. Stop! Don't do anything yet! I am not finished! BUT Mithril is a Meara, not just any odd horse. She understands what you say to her. Hm?"
"I don't speak Rohirric," I reminded her.
Éowyn raised her eyebrows at me. "I know that. But you did say that you speak Sindarin, didn't you? Well, I'm told that all creatures react well to Sindarin. And Mithril was even inclined to listen to you yesterday when you used plain Westron. So, please, don't drag her reins. That will only hurt her tender mouth. TELL HER, where you want to go! In simple terms, but tell her! Keep the reins up only for emergencies. And don't kick her. That's completely unnecessary with a Meara. You simply tell her the speed you want. She is trained to recognize the words. Now. The paces of a horse are: 'walk', 'trot', 'canter' and 'gallop'. Remember, just TELL her. Now try and walk her around the courtyard. In a circle."
Éowyn looked at me as you would look at a slightly dumb five-year-old.
I sighed. Yesterday it had seemed entirely natural to me to talk to Mithril. Now, under Éowyn's censorious glare, I felt silly.
I reached forward and softly touched Mithril's warm neck. The mare snorted encouragingly, encouragingly. I decided to try Sindarin. After all, Gandalf had also implied that Sindarin would work well. And he should know, as the one who had tamed Shadowfax.
"Alright, Mithril, Show me just how smart you are," I whispered to the horse. Mithril flicked her ears and slightly shook her head.
"Idhel, nedh-rind. Walk, in a circle. Idhel, nedh-rind. "
With slow, easy steps she walked in a perfect circle around Éowyn. Éowyn looked as if she did not know whether to be angry because her favourite horse listened to a stranger who knew nothing about horses or whether to be relieved, because after all I had to be able to ride if I was to bear Gandalf's message to Prince Imrahil.
"Very good, Lothíriel. You are very patient, Mithril," Éowyn called out to us. "Now, tell her to trot. Your centre of gravity is still far too high. You have to sink it towards the back of the horse, into you belly, deep down. You should become part of the horse, sharing one centre of gravity. The trot will bounce you about, but don't worry… she won't let you fall."
"If you don't tell her to, you want to say…" I called back. Centre of gravity. Where is my centre of gravity? O.K., I think of my lower belly. Concentrate. Lower belly. Sit straight. Right. Trot. In Sindarin. I sighed, "Padol, Mithril. Padol, nedh-rind. Padol!"
Obligingly Mithril increased her speed.
But I did not bounce as badly as I had expected.
Éowyn kept me bouncing for quite some time, shouting commands about my centre of gravity and sitting up straight – no round shoulders, Lothíriel!
Even though Éowyn was not the most patient teacher, she was a born horse-woman as a member of the royal family of Rohan. She knew everything about horses.
She took me through all paces and back during a long, long afternoon. In the end, when the sun was already setting in a beautiful red sunset, she ordered me to jump across a beam of wood.
For a moment I simply stared at her, my heart beating frantically.
Jump! Me! On a horse!
Then I moistened my lips and told Mithril to walk back to the other end of the courtyard.
"Cabo, Mithril! Cabo thar-thelch! Jump across the beam!"
Mithril trotted obediently towards the beam and jumped across it easily.
I held my balance, although I bounced hard when she landed again.
She snorted at my clumsiness. I patted her softly. "I'm sorry, Mithril. But I'm doing my best!"
Mithril gave a low neigh as if she agreed and wanted to comfort me.
"That's it for today," Éowyn said, taking Mithril's reins from me. "Now dismount and I will show you how to care for your horse after a long ride."
I should be proud.
I was able to dismount by myself.
O.K., when I was on the ground my knees buckled and Éowyn had to support me to the bench in front of the stable. But I did dismount by myself.
I was completely exhausted by the time I had learned how to clean Mithril's hooves and how to brush her soft, gleaming coat. When I finally left the stable, stumbling with weariness, I had the feeling that Mithril was watching me with pity in her beautiful dark eyes.
That horse was smarter and kinder than most human beings I had ever met.
Éowyn took me straight to the baths. Apparently she had ordered to have another round of baths readied for us. We showered, we used the sauna and we soaked, long and blissfully in hot water with lots of fragrant foam.
When we were ready to leave, Éowyn smiled at me, "Do you know that I cannot remember the last time I had so much fun?"
I smiled right back at her. "Me neither. Perhaps we can do it again some time."
I did not think so the next morning. I was stiff and sore and I thought that I would never be able to spread my legs again. But Éowyn had apparently decided to make as much a horse-woman of me as possible in the short time we had.
After breakfast I was back in the saddle.
This time Éowyn was mounted, too, on a beautiful silver-grey Meara with a regal bearing. "This is Brego," Éowyn told me. "He was the horse of my cousin, Théodred. Aragorn said that he should not be given to a warrior again, so I have taken him as my own horse, for as long as we are here, in peace."
She looked towards the west, in the direction of the Gap of Rohan. But today, just like any other day, nothing could be seen of the battle against Isengard. And there had been no further message since Gandalf's letter.
"We will keep to the plains to the north-east of the river. You have to get comfortable with Mithril's paces in the country side and do some more easy jumps. We have to work on your balance and your confidence," Éowyn explained.
I nodded meekly.
My legs felt like jelly. But by now I trusted Mithril. I knew the horse would not let me fall.
The Horse Gates were opened for us. We left Edoras on a narrow, muddy lane that soon disappeared in the grassy plains.
"Now, let's gallop! Nothing like a little bit of freedom to start the day!" Éowyn called to me. Then she was off, streaking across the plains like a silver and golden shadow, slim and strong and beautiful. The guards followed her at a slower pace on their great dark destriers.
I patted Mithril's neck. "What about us, Mithril? Do you feel up to chase Brego?"
Mithril snorted impatiently and pawed at the earth. "Celeg, celeg, Mithril!" I called. "Fast, fast!"
Mithril sped away as swiftly as the wind on the grass.
Suddenly I realized that I was shouting for joy. The speed made my eyes tear up and my legs hurt like hell, but I felt exhilarated beyond almost anything I had ever experienced.
I was free as a bird, wild and free and strong!
In the evening I soaked my weary muscles in a tub with hot water and some herbs again to help with the soreness of my body. Éowyn had only showered quickly. Shower: not a real shower, but stepping under a construction that involves a string and something very like a bucket filled with cold water – if you pull the string, the stopper lifts and cold water is all over you. That's a shower in Rohan. Cold, quick and cruel.
But Éowyn told me that she had neglected her duties to teach me the rudiments of riding and horse-care and there were a number of decisions that could not be put off any longer.
When I returned to my room, I noticed that my old clothes had been returned to me, washed and mended. My backpack had been cleaned, too. Food, some maps and other gear necessary for travelling had been neatly stacked on the small table in the corner.
I looked at the worn and faded clothing, the backpack and the gear.
The holiday was over. I might as well do the packing right away. Aragorn would be here tomorrow at the latest if I was not very much mistaken. Or perhaps even tonight. I frowned, trying in vain to remember when Aragorn and the Grey Company had returned to Edoras.
I dressed again in my Rohirric clothes and carefully stowed my old clothes along with the food and the maps and the rope and stuff in my backpack. I had even some lembas left.
Would Mithril like lembas?
I was packed and ready to go within half an hour.
I had to admit that I was getting jittery.
Aragorn, where the hell are you?
They came to Edoras on the next day, the sixth of March, early in the afternoon.
I was in my room, putting salve on my wrists and ankles and bandaging the wounds again, when Alina – the maid-servant – came for me. "They are here, my lady. The lady Éowyn bids you to come to the terrace. Food and drink is being prepared for the company. They want to leave first thing in the morning. If you will allow me to take your gear, I shall take it to the stables so that Mithril will be ready for you come dawn tomorrow."
I nodded at Alina and went to retrieve my backpack from the chest.
My heart started pounding like a drum, my breath lodging at the top of my lungs with excitement. The Grey Company! And I would ride with them!
I hurried to the terrace.
Éowyn was offering Aragorn a drink of welcome in a golden goblet. Her hands were shaking as she offered him the goblet, and her eyes were full of pain and longing. I felt sorry for her.
Aragorn's gaze was full of veiled pain, too. I realized that he did in fact like Éowyn. Had his heart not been given already, he might perhaps even have returned her feelings.
Behind Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas waited. Gimli was obviously impatient with the ceremony. When he saw me, he hurried towards me at once. Suddenly I felt myself drawn down into a hairy, hearty embrace.
"Caramba, it's good to see you, Lothy! And up and about, too." Gimli let me go and smiled at me happily.
"Caramba indeed," I returned our joke. "And I have to admit it is good to see you, too. Up and about…"
Then I found myself in an elvish embrace and my heart sped up, my stomach giving a weird flip. There just is something about elves that touches you somewhere deep inside, an enchantment you just cannot escape…
"To see you well, and unbroken…" Legolas whispered, his voice deep with emotion.
I blushed hotly, feeling shivery all over.
"The same, Legolas. The same! After all you went to war, whereas I just lazed about here in comfort and safety," I said, myself relieved to see my friends well and unharmed.
Then a servant came up to us.
"My lord, my lady," he said politely, bowing deeply. "A table with refreshments has been readied for you. If you will follow me?"
A long table had been prepared on the lawn of the terrace below Meduseld. Thirty-one grim faced human warriors were already seated and eating and drinking. They did not talk much, and only in low voices. It was obvious that they wanted to be on their way. Éowyn was at the head of the table, next to her sat Aragorn. At Aragorn's side a place was left empty for me and two seats on the other side of the table waited for Gimli and Legolas. But at the far end of the table were two elvish warriors whom I recognized at once.
They were Elrohir and Elladan, Elrond's sons. I had seen them once or twice in Rivendell. But then they had been dressed like rangers, in drab colours, to blend in with wood and wilderness. Now they were about to ride to war. They were dressed as the elvish warriors of old as I had seen them in the paintings in the Hall of Kings at Rivendell. Splendid they were, tall and fierce, beautiful and deadly at the same time. Their armour shone like mithril and their eyes blazed with the same starry light. Their long dark hair was braided at the back of their necks, revealing their clear elvish faces in all their immortal beauty.
I bowed to them and then sat down next to Aragorn.
He turned to me and gave me a weary smile. Aragorn looked older than the last time we met, weary and grim. The days of the battle at Helm's Deep had obviously not been easy.
"My lord Aragorn," I said softly. There was an air of command to the ranger that had not been there at Amon Hen. "I have to thank you for my life."
He inclined his head. "I am only happy that I could save you, Lothíriel."
"Did Gandalf tell you that I am to ride with you?" I asked, hoping that the wizard had done as he promised.
"Yes, he did," Aragorn replied. "Although I am not happy about it, I have to admit that it will be safer for you at Tarnost or Dol Amroth than even here in Rohan. And in a way I am responsible for you. Have you been given a horse?"
It was Éowyn who answered. "Indeed she has. Mithril is her steed, daughter of Shadowfax, lord of all horses."
Aragorn looked back at me and there was impressed amazement in his eyes. I narrowed my eyes at Éowyn, thinking: don't you remember what I told you?
Aloud I said, "It is a great honour. And Mithril only throws me off her back if told to do so by the Lady Éowyn, so I should be quite safe as soon as we leave Edoras."
Aragorn gave a confused look, Éowyn frowned at me.
I sighed and shook my head. No more meddling, Lothíriel. It won't help anyway.
I turned my attention away from Aragorn and Éowyn and was soon deep in talk with Gimli and Legolas. They had much to tell me: of the hobbits' rescue, ents, huorns and the host of elvish archers from Lórien that had arrived just in time to help defend Helm's Deep.
The last bit of news left me utterly confounded. That had not been in the books. That had only been in the movies!
I was absolutely certain that this had not happened in the stories.
I sat and stared at Legolas, gaping. But luckily both Legolas and Gimli expected me to be suitably amazed by this tale.
"Ai," Legolas said and there was a dreamy expression on his face. "It was a great moment, to hear Haldir announce the renewal of our alliance of old. If not all our friendships of old have been forgotten, there may yet be hope for the free peoples of Middle-earth."
"Indeed," Gimli agreed. "As long as not all our strength and courage fails, there is still hope."
"Yes," I said. "There is still hope."
I looked around the table, at the grim faces of the Dúnedain, at the unmarred clarity of the three elvish faces, at the pale face of Éowyn with her eyes like grey stars and at the reckless grin of the dwarf.
There was still hope.
Hope and determination. Thirty-eight hearts not yet defeated. Thirty-eight men, women, elves and dwarf, determined to go on.
To strive, to seek, to fight and not to yield…
Just the way Tennyson put it in that poem about Ulysses.
As long as Frodo and Sam are still somewhere out there, leagues and leagues away, slowly, laboriously making their way towards that evil mountain, there is still hope, I thought.
There is still hope…
But I did not dare to speak their names out loud. I only folded my hands under the table and tried to remember a prayer to bless their steps on their way into the darkness.
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.