50. Dances with Horses
It was good to be back on Mithril's back. It was good to be on the road again! When I passed through the Forannest, excitement swept through me. A feeling of freedom and exhilaration was in my heart as we left the bare, desolate fields of the Pelennor behind us and rode on the Great West Road into Anórien.
Anórien, or Sunlending as it was called in Rohirric, was a stretch of fertile farmlands between the wetlands of the Mouths of the Entwash and the Ered Nimrais. It was approximately fifty miles wide and stretched some two hundred miles from the Anduin in the east to Mering Stream in the west.
It was a beautiful country to ride through. The road was well-maintained and level. It kept just shy of the foothills of the Ered Nimrais, leading due westwards some fifteen to twenty miles north of the mountain range. Thus you had the most wonderful view of the jagged slopes and the white peaks of the Ered Nimrais, the forests of oaks and beeches at their feet to one side, and the wide green fields of corn, wheat and barley to the other side.
The first day we passed Amon Dîn and made camp within sight of Druadan Forest, a great stretch of wild woodlands north-west of Minas Tirith. It is a dark forest of fir trees mingled with oaks and beeches. This is the forest where the tribes of the Wild Men of the Woods or Woses dwell, the tribes which aided the forces of the Rohirrim on their way to Minas Tirith during the war. The next night we had to spend actually in Druadan Forest, or rather the outskirts of it. We lit many watch fires and stayed to the northern side of the road. The night passed uneventfully. No animal or wild man showed itself to any of the guards.
Nevertheless I was happy to move on in the morning.
On the third day of the journey we reached the beacon of Erelas, the fourth beacon tower between Minas Tirith and Rohan. These beacon towers are round towers that have been built on the summits of the foothills of the Ered Nimrais to pass on messages and alarms with signal fires. There were altogether seven of these towers between Minas Tirith and the border to Rohan, spaced at regular intervals of about thirty miles. On the western banks of Mering Stream a base of Rohirric courier riders was situated. Any message that was flashed from beacon tower to beacon tower would be carried from there to Edoras on horseback. The courier riders were one of the three elite forces of the Riders, I was informed, the other two being the border guard and the Royal guard. And only they were allowed to ride horses of Mearan ancestry. They needed them, too: we needed four days to travel from Mering Stream to Edoras. The courier riders could – and in time of need had to – cover the same distance in two days.
The fourth day of our journey took us halfway between the beacon tower of Minrimmon and Calenhad. On the fifth day we reached the great oak woods of Firien Forest. The horses were getting restless. Perhaps they could already smell the grassy plains of Rohan. The hunters killed a wild sow and her piglets. The meat was roasted on the open fire. There was only bread to go with the roast, but it still tasted great. Éowyn was sitting in silence, staring into the red and golden flames of the fire, lost in thought. I sat next to her, my legs crossed, my chin cupped in my hands, watching the fire just as she was, lost in some dreams of my own.
I started when I was unexpectedly addressed in a dark, mellow voice. Éomer had returned from his round of visiting the watch fires of the different companies. He did that every night, talking to the officers and to the common soldiers as well. "Tomorrow we will reach Rohan," he was telling me. "I'm sorry, did I scare you?"
I smiled up at him and shook my head. "No, I just did not hear you coming. I guess I have been dreaming the time away."
Éomer smiled back at me, a swift smile. "There's nothing wrong with having a dream or two." In a graceful movement he sat down next to me. "Will you tell me what it was that you've been dreaming of?"
I had been thinking about what Éomer would look like naked. "Nothing special. Just… thinking… dreaming…" I felt heat rise to my cheeks. I hoped that I was not actually blushing. An amber gleam lit up in Éomer's eyes. I guess I was blushing.
"Tell me about Rohan, please." A distraction.
"What do you want to know?" Éomer asked. He looked a little tired but content. He was obviously looking forward to returning to his home.
"Everything… I don't know. What does it mean to be Rohirrim?"
He laughed softly. "You do ask the most difficult questions, my lady. We call ourselves Eorlingas, the sons of Eorl. Rohan has been a kingdom of its own for a little over five hundred years. Before Eorl the Young won the Great Battle of the Fields of the Celebrant, Rohan was called Calenardhon and was only a province of the realm of Gondor. In reward for the victory at the Celebrant, Cirion of Gondor enfeoffed Eorl with the lands we now call Rohan. Eorl swore eternal fealty to Gondor and became the first King of Rohan.
Now Rohan has five provinces. The Eastfold, through which we will pass tomorrow, the Westfold, where Edoras lies, East Emnet and West Emnet and the Wold. Our largest city is Edoras, but around the keeps in the mountains some towns have grown, which have become quite prosperous. The wide plains of the Mark are only sparsely populated, there are quite a number of small villages scattered throughout the plains, but mainly the plains belong to the horses and the wild black cattle of the Emnet. In the hills of the Wold people live in isolated farms. They breed sheep there rather than cattle or horses. Rohan is a harsh land, wide and lonely."
"But you love it."
He smiled. "Yes. With all my heart. It is my home."
"Tell me about the horses," I asked him. "Are all of them wild? Or do you breed them? I noticed that only very few are actually white or grey like Mithril or Hiswa. Most horses among the companies seem to be more or less brown or perhaps dun."
Éomer's eyes lit up. It was obvious that he loved talking about horses.
I was surprised when he told me that actually only the Mearas were truly wild horses. The dun coloured horses were the ordinary horses of the Riddermark, which were kept in large herds in East and West Emnet and bred for use as war or work horses. Only the highest lords and the best warriors of the Eorlingas were permitted to raise a trueblooded Meara; in fact only those nobles who could claim kinship with the line of kings. Of the three elite forces of the Riders, only the Royal Guard rode trueblooded Mearas; the border guard as well as the courier riders had to make do with the not quite as noble half-breeds of Mearan ancestry. But even those halfbreeds were still far beyond the level of excellence found among the still swift-footed and hardy dun horses of the steppes of Rohan, and were a breed apart, showing the white and grey colours of true Mearas, if not their full height and power. Indeed, the Royal Guard and their Mearas were considered to be the most deadly cavalry troop in all of Middle-earth, even beyond the skills of the Variags of Khand. In the war each company of the Rohirrim fighters had been led by a captain on a Meara.
The white and grey Mearas, which were said to have been brought from Aman by Oromë himself, could not be bred like just any other horses. They lived in small wild herds which were carefully watched by the Rohirrim to prevent them from mingling their blood with lesser horses. Only the most promising foals were taken from their mothers right after their birth and nurtured by their future rider like a human baby. The relationship between a horse with Mearan ancestry and its rider was said to be closer than the relationship between husband and wife. Indeed, many riders of the border guard or the courier riders never married at all, but lived only with their horse and their company.
Mithril had been Éowyn's horse. Only now did I begin to understand just what an honour had been bestowed upon me when Mithril had been given to me to carry that message to Prince Imrahil. Éowyn had never explained that to me in so many words.
Éowyn herself was now riding the Meara of her dead cousin, Théodred. It was a steel grey stallion called Brego. Sometimes a Meara would not accept a new rider when the old one had died and it had to be set free or killed. But Brego had carried Éowyn in the Battle of the Pelennor. Although Éowyn had told me that he still missed his old rider, he seemed to be quite content with his new mistress.
"But we also breed dogs," Éomer added, interrupting my musings.
"Those huge grey dogs you had with you in the hall of Meduseld?" I asked Éowyn.
She nodded. "Yes, they are bred for running with the horses. They are used to watch the herds. We call them windspiele, or wind hounds. My Gwirith will have pups soon. I will let you have one if you want to. But I warn you, they are a lot of work to train well."
"Thank you. I think I would like that. But I don't have a lot of experience with dogs. At home we had cats," I answered. I had liked those dogs.
Éowyn shrugged. "We have cats, too. I like one on my lap when it's cold outside. But you can't take them riding. Although my brother tried that when he was a boy. I think he actually prefers cats to dogs."
Éomer raised his eyebrows and objected. "I like the dogs just fine, sis. And it was an interesting experiment."
Éowyn grinned. "This 'scientific' experiment did not work very well. The cat jumped from the back of the horse in a mighty leap. The horse jumped even higher. Éomer went flying, and the cat never allowed Éomer to touch it again."
"I was only ten. I thought it might look good. A white horse with a black cat on its back."
Brother and sister smiled at one another.
Although Éomer and Éowyn were so different in character and appearance, there was no mistaking the depth of affection between them. Family can be a wonderful thing. For the first time in weeks I thought about my own family back on earth. My eccentric mother. My conservative step-father. I had never known my real father. I guess my mother had not been sure about his identity. I had been so utterly embarrassed when she had explained this delicate difficulty to me that I had never asked about my parentage again.
I was gone for nine months now. I hoped that my mother and my step-father were moving on with their lives by now, that they were not grieving too much over my disappearance.
I was pretty sure that they would. My mother had her strange friends and her exotic hobbies to occupy her. My step-father had his work and his books. And they did have each other. They would be alright.
"Now, could my dear brother explain to you what it means to be Rohirrim?" Éowyn asked me. Éomer winked at me. He would not be angry if I told the truth.
Laughing I shook my head. "It answered some questions, yes. But not really. I think I have only more questions than before."
"I will show you every one of our five provinces. We will ride with the herds and climb the Ered Nimrais. We will visit the Wold and the keeps of the Eastfold and the Westfold. We will hunt with our wind hounds and I will sing you our songs. Then you will know what it means to be Rohirrim," Éomer promised. His gleaming, dark eyes and his deep voice had an almost hypnotic quality to them.
My heart was beating like a drum, and I felt as if liquid fire was flowing through my veins when I finally answered, "I would love that, my lord Éomer."
He smiled at me then, a soft, touching smile that was only meant for me. "My lady Lothíriel."
At noon the next day we reached the Ford of Rohan across Mering Stream. Mering Stream is not a great river, but a small, clear mountains stream flowing down from the Ered Nimrais through the Fenmarch until it joins the Entwash some sixty or seventy miles to the north-east of its spring up in the rocks of the White Mountains.
The Ford was easy to cross. The riverbed had been filled up with gravel so that the water was not even knee-high in the ford. There were huge smiles on the faces of Éomer and Éowyn as we crossed the ford, and the faces of the riders of the Rohirrim mirrored their happiness exactly. Everyone was happy to come home after so many weeks on the road, in the war, in a foreign, if friendly, country, and on the road again.
Crossing the border into Rohan, the landscape changed. The rich fields of Anórien gave way to the fertile plains of the Fenmarch. Fields and orchards now appeared in fenced circles around small villages of twenty of thirty thatched houses. Two companies parted from the main host that day, one rode away to the north, to the villages of the Fenmarch, the other made towards the hills and the mountain keeps of the Eastfold. The other companies would ride with us to Edoras and then go on to their own homes.
It was another beautiful day in May. Although the weather was not as warm as it had been in Minas Tirith and the soft winds blowing to us across the plains were cool, there was hardly any cloud in the sky. The sun was bright and the sky was blue, and the happiness of homecoming lifted the hearts.
We stopped only when the sun was already setting at the edge of the Ered Nimrais. The western sky and the snow of the glaciers shimmered in brilliant hues of violet, red and fiery gold. A soft wind blew towards us from the plains of the Fenmarch, carrying the fragrance of earth and grass and horse. The first stars of the night were glittering in the darkening eastern sky.
I felt light of heart and carefree as I dismounted and carefully cleaned Mithril's hooves and brushed her soft coat until it gleamed like the precious metal she was named for. Éowyn who was a lot faster in her care of Brego was watching me with a smile on her face. "We'll make a horse-woman of you yet, Lothíriel. And Mithril really adores you."
"I adore her, too," I whispered and snorted softly at the horse, whereupon Mithril blew her warm, humid horse's breath at my neck. I giggled and patted her. "That's it for tonight. Go and find some nice grass for supper." Mithril flicked her ears, then promptly turned around and walked off towards Brego, who was already grazing.
Éowyn stood motionlessly, watching the horses. For riding she wore her long hair braided tightly. Nevertheless, some tendrils had worked free and drifted now around her face. Her profile was outlined by the setting sun. The last rays of sunlight made her hair gleam like gold. She was very beautiful, the way she stood there and looked at the horses. Tall and slender, dressed in the leather uniform of the riders, sword and dagger at her hip, her face clear and her eyes like grey stars. She was a heroine who would inspire many myths and legends, of that there was no doubt. And she was my friend.
I hesitated to approach her and disturb her. But after last night's conversation, there was something that I wanted to say to her. When she turned away from the horses, I walked up to her. "Éowyn, I did not really understand what it meant that you allowed me to ride Mithril. I want to thank you for this honour," I said timidly.
"As you brought Mithril back in one piece, that's alright," she answered lightly. But a softness to her smile told me louder than words that she appreciated my gratitude.
"It's good to be home again," Éowyn said with a sigh. "Let's go to the fire and have some dinner, before the men and that hobbit have eaten everything."
She looked up at the sky for a moment. As we had spoken, the bright blue above us had darkened to a deep, inky blue sparkling with myriads of silver stars. Éowyn inhaled deeply. "Oh, yes, it's good to be back. Come, Lothíriel, this will be a wonderful night. Perhaps I can persuade Éomer to dance for us."
"Dance?" I asked, bewildered. Not that I did not appreciate his prowess as a dancer, but this sounded strange.
"A horse dance," Éowyn explained.
This did not make any more sense to me.
"He's one of the best. I remember when I was a child, my father said once that if he did not know it better, he would say that it was a horse who had fathered Éomer, and not a man at all.
It's part of the training of the horses, but it's more than that. It's beautiful. And it requires great skill." She laughed at my uncomprehending look. "Wait and see, Lothíriel. Wait and see. I promise that you will know more about what it means to be Rohirrim afterwards."
Tonight Merry had cooked a great pot of stew. When Éowyn and I took our places around the fire, there was indeed not a large amount of the stew left anymore. Elladan and Elrohir were just going for seconds and Merry was probably spooning up his fourth helping. Éomer's squire, Frohwein, served us.
As the last light of the sun faded behind the white peaks of the Ered Nimrais, we enjoyed the rich, hot stew and a beaker of dark beer from a small barrel that had been purchased at the base of the courier riders at Mering Stream. Éomer sat with Elrond's sons on the other side of the fire, but now and again he would raise his head and look at me, his dark eyes gleaming. Every time he did this, my heart thumped heavily in my chest and my stomach tightened.
Gods, how I wished to be alone with him and no concerns of realms, politics and marriages to be in our way!
"Would you dance for us, brother?" Éowyn's voice penetrated my fantasies. "It's a beautiful night, and we have returned home victorious. It would be fitting, surely."
Then she winked at me and continued, "And Lothíriel has never seen anything like a Rohirric horse dance before. It would help her understand our ways."
Again those intense eyes sought mine. My heartbeat quickened. He seemed to notice what his look could do to me because a slight smile tugged at the corners of his lips.
"Very well, I will do it," he agreed. "Frohwein, would you get Hiswa? Aelfriv, Éowyn, will you take the drums?"
Frohwein bowed and went off to the horses. Aelfriv was already on his feet and disappeared into the darkness, only to return with two sets of joined lap drums, one a little larger than the other. He gave one set to Éowyn, the other he kept himself. Elladan and Elrohir rose to their feet and came over to our side of the fire, so that we sat in half a circle looking towards the wide plains of the Fenmarch.
Éowyn and Aelfriv started beating the drums. They began in a low irregular beat that sounded like an approaching herd of horses, perhaps. The beats increased in volume and in speed, only to slow down and become gentle again. Then they joined in a slow, regular rhythm.
Suddenly Éomer rode out of the darkness on the other side of the fire. There was no saddle and no reins. There was only the grey stallion and his rider.
There he halted.
The drums stopped for a moment.
Then Éowyn and Aelfriv started beating the drums again, in a complicated, irregular beat that was just off the rhythm of the heart. It was a tense and strangely exciting rhythm, reminding me of the sound of hooves on the plains or on the road.
Hiswa started moving in time to the rhythm. The great horse walked on the spot to the beat of the drums. Swaying from hind legs to fore legs, from the left to the right, in smooth, gliding movements, reacting to unnoticeable directions Éomer gave to his horse. In tune to the rhythm of the drum, the horse danced, increasing the speed of its movements or slowing down, as the drums rolled through the night.
Suddenly Éowyn started singing in Rohirric to the sound of the drums. It was a strangely disharmonic song, lilting, but melancholy, a song of horses and riders and of wind on the plains. To her song, Hiswa rose on his hind legs, and balancing on his hind legs he turned around to the rhythm of the song, lowering or striking with his front legs in tune with the melody. I could not have said where Éomer's body ended and where the horse began. Éomer was one with his horse.
The flickering flames of the fire accentuated the beautiful lines of the Meara, the proud head, the long, sculpted neck, the gleaming coat on his sides, the strength and dexterity of his legs. The fire made the eyes of his rider gleam like dark jewels. Éomer was holding onto Hiswa only with his legs. I could not see how he was directing his horse at all. He was holding his arms freely to his sides, he did not use spoken commands, and yet Hiswa danced, and Éomer danced with him, swaying with the strength of his horse, to the deep, mesmerizing rolls of the drums.
When Éowyn ended her song and it was only the sound of the drums that gave the music to the dance, Hiswa dropped on all fours, taking up the rhythm of the drums again in complicated steps moving on the spot, swaying, gliding, dancing, as if he and his rider were made of liquid and not of muscles and bones.
With a last flourish the drums stopped.
Hiswa bent his neck in a deep, graceful bow. Éomer slid down from his back. In a long, loving caress he stroked Hiswa's neck in appreciation for his efforts. Then Éomer turned towards us. He smiled at me and bowed, too.
Suddenly many rough voices were raised in cheers and all around us the sounds of clapping disturbed the quiet of the night. I had been so immersed in the dance of horse and rider that I had not noticed that almost the entire host had drifted up to our fire, to watch their King dance with his horse.
The dance had been exhausting for horse and rider. A slight sheen of sweat covered Éomer's face, and Hiswa's coat gleamed wetly, too. Obviously a great deal of strength and control was needed for the delicate movements necessary for the dance. Frohwein walked up to Éomer and bowed to him, then led Hiswa away into the darkness to take care of the horse.
Éomer slumped down on the ground next to the fire and gratefully accepted a mug of beer from Aelfriv. He drained the beaker in one gulp. Aelfriv refilled Éomer's beaker, and then sat down again, a few feet away, ready to be at his lord's service when needed.
Éomer exhaled deeply, then dried his forehead on the sleeve of his shirt. "I haven't done that in a long time. I had forgotten how draining it is."
"It was beautiful," I said, awe in my voice.
Éomer smiled at me. His eyes were flecked with the amber of happiness and full of warmth.
"And do you understand now what it means to be Rohirrim?"
The drum beats still echoed in my veins, quickening and disturbing the pace of my heart.
My stomach did a flip, and for a moment my breath caught in the fading vision of gleaming silvery-grey strength moving so smoothly, so delicately to song and drums.
My voice sounded breathless and trembling when I finally answered.
"A little. More than before."
And I did.
To be Rohirrim means freedom.
To be Rohirrim means faithfulness.
To be Rohirrim means friendship of horse and of rider.
Before the kingdom of Rohan was established, and its people were called Rohirrim, or Eorlingas, as they call themselves, the people of the Mark had another name. Their name of old is "Éothéod". "Éothéod" means horse-folk.
But it can also be translated as "Dances with horses".
A/N: The horse dance is an ancient ritual among the nomads and horse-lords of northern Africa, the Bedouins. They have a long history of breeding horses and excellent horsemanship. They traditionally care deeply about their horses and treat them almost like members of their family. I thought the horse dance would fit in well with the Rohirrim and illustrate their culture and their relationship with their horses in an interesting way.
The literal translation of "Éothéod" however is only "horse-folk"; I humbly beg you to grant me some poetic license there.
In the books, Éowyn rode a horse called "Windfola" to the battle of the Pelennor. As I added so much detail to the horse culture of the Rohirrim, it seemed more fitting to me to have her ride a "royal" horse. Therefore I exchanged Windfola and Brego. I think Théodred would have liked Éowyn to have Brego.
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