31. Archery and Eating Dirt
Picking up this story after a long hiatus. More to come, hopefully sooner than it took me to post this most recent chapter.
Under the shelter of the royal canopy, Lothíriel had an excellent view of the archers and their targets. The opening of the contest saw the speedy elimination of the majority of the contestants. As she had expected, the field was soon missing most of the bright blue uniforms of the Knights of Dol Amroth. After more than a hour, only a few of the muted greens and browns of the Ithilien rangers remained, along with what seemed to be the entirety of the contingent of silver-grey clad archers of Lothlórien, and a handful of representatives of the black-liveried City Guard of Minas Tirith. At last the preliminary eliminations were complete.
The next round reduced the field to the three finalists: Legolas, Faramir and Ferendir of Lothlórien. The remaining archers waited while the games' attendants cleared the long row of targets and set new ones in place. Legolas, relaxed and untroubled, chatted with an equally sanguine Faramir. The white-haired youth, Ferendir, biting his lower lip and clenching his jaw, could not tear his eyes away from the two older men, revealing to anyone with half a wit that he viewed them as formidable competition.
Éowyn turned to Lothíriel and said, "He certainly is lovely."
"Which one?" Lothíriel asked. "It is impossible to follow what you are talking about."
"I saw you appraising the Elven boy. Faramir's competition for second place." Lothíriel laughed at Éowyn's relentless candor about Faramir's chances, despite her militant partisanship of her betrothed.
Celeborn followed with his own irresistible chortle. "Or Legolas's competition for First."
At her husband's remark, Galadriel made herself heard in a tone of arch assurance. "Éowyn is absolutely right. I have no doubt your favored one might surpass Legolas someday, my love. But today is not that day. He is barely of age. And Faramir is a fully-grown man, an impressive archer, and at the height of his physical capabilities. Neither is Faramir anxious. He'd be pleased to take a third place, while your Ferendir, to the detriment of his nerves, is now determined to best Legolas."
Celeborn snorted, "Young Ferendir has greater natural aptitude than anyone I have ever seen." With that remark, off they went, each presenting further arguments to bolster their own opinion. As much as Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn's bickering ordinarily amused Lothíriel, she had grown tired, hungry, and weary of fretting over Elladan and Éomer.
"I hope they intend to feed us soon," Aragorn said, turning to Arwen, raising his eyebrows and widening his eyes, with a hopeful look. "Didn't you say there would be food?"
"Any moment now," Arwen answered. True to her words, servers approached the pavilion and began passing among its occupants with trays of small sandwich halves, delicate frosted cakes, and fresh fruit.
"From the looks of this fare, we will all heartily appreciate our dinner tonight," Aragorn groused, gaining him a light shove from his lady.
"What is this?" Glorfindel complained, leaning across Celeborn to Arwen, holding a diminutive sandwich in his large hand and examining it with an expression of outraged suspicion.
"Cream cheese with chopped apples, walnuts, and cinnamon," Arwen snapped.
"Seriously, Arwen? Don't any of these have meat in them?"
Arwen snatched two from Aragorn's well-filled plate. "Here, big baby. These are roast beef with horseradish."
"Hey!" Aragorn protested. "You gave him my only ones with meat."
In quick defense, Éowyn rolled her eyes. "Argh! Men! Everything looks absolutely delicious."
Arwen released a light, tinkling laugh. "Can you believe I was willing to wait more than forty years for him?"
Despite her own preoccupations, Lothíriel felt comforted at how well Arwen and Éowyn got along. Any fool could see that Éowyn's enchantment with Faramir had far eclipsed anything she might ever have felt for Aragorn. Both of the younger women had been encouraged to find Arwen to be confident and outspoken with the ancient men of myth and legend who surrounded her, not to mention with Aragorn. While Glorfindel might argue at times, he listened to her opinions. Elrond had a habit of looking to his daughter for approval after he had spoken.
Arwen also shamelessly indulged Éowyn, having noticed how starved she was for feminine frippery. "Éowyn?" Arwen would often ask, with a smile that fell just short of flirtatiousness. "Shall we see what is in this big, old trunk? I still cannot believe the amount of superfluous clothing my handmaidens packed." Éowyn had blossomed under Arwen's interest and Faramir's transparent respect, without any softening of her steely core.
"Attention," Celeborn said. "Faramir is preparing to shoot."
To Lothíriel, Faramir appeared exactly as relaxed as Galadriel had predicted he would be and Legolas could not have looked more at ease.
Faramir took his place, nocked his arrow, raised his bow, and then released it. The arrow landed slightly off center. Faramir smiled, not cocky, but certainly pleased with his form.
He would be permitted three shots, the best of which would be counted. The second hit the bull's eye, although not perfectly centered. His final shot also hit the bull's eye, appearing from a distance to have landed at dead center. The judges approached the target, conferred and made notes. At last, an attendant called out loud and clear: "Nineteen for Prince Faramir." The best possible would have been a twenty. Faramir's supporters cheered. Each of the final three competitors had scored both nineteens and twenties in the qualifying rounds.
Ferendir, nervy as young horse facing its first race, took his place next. Determined to present an outward appearance as self-possessed as that of Faramir, he loosed his three arrows with studied nonchalance. Each of them hit the bull's eye, but noticeably off center, as he first overcorrected to one side and then to the bottom. He could have been awarded a seventeen, but apparently the judges did not intend to be miserly with his score. "Eighteen for Ferendir of Lothlórien," the caller shouted.
Ferendir gave Celeborn an apologetic glance. Celeborn responded with an approving hand signal. Blushing a painful red, Ferendir lifted his chin with some difficulty when the crowd, many of whom had favored him for his obvious youth and skill, bestowed on him a lengthy, if somewhat sedate, round of applause.
The wind had picked up by the time Legolas took his position, causing the flags and banners that surrounded the tourney field to snap and crack sharply and stirring up dust on the field. Legolas licked his finger and held it in the air, before shrugging in mock disappointment in the direction of a group of young ladies of Minas Tirith. They squealed as though on cue, earning them a devastating smile from their hero.
Faramir shook his head good-naturedly at Legolas, forcing the Elven prince to laugh. Playing to the crowd, Legolas, with no apparent pause for preparation, nocked and shot with lighting speed. Almost before his arrow touched the target, he shouted toward the judges, "I'll take that one."
Legolas strolled over to Faramir, who extended his hand and slapped him on the back. The judges carefully examined the target, before speaking to their assistant who then called out: "Twenty for Prince Legolas." The entire crowd broke out in raucous cheering. They would have been pleased with any of the finalists; the top three had been their favorites.
"Well, that was short and predictable," said Éowyn. "I almost wish the Elf-lad had beaten Faramir. The poor boy looked scared enough to piss himself. And he is so gifted."
Lothíriel had to laugh at her language. Arwen said, with great seriousness, "You have a generous heart, Éowyn."
After receiving a quick hug from Faramir, Legolas approached Ferendir. He solemnly shook Ferendir's hand before pulling him into a comradely embrace. Then, keeping hold of the young Elf's shoulders, Legolas continued to speak to him, until the lad smiled and began to respond in an animated manner. Fascinated, Lothíriel continued to watch the two, thinking that she had been the recipient of the same beneficence on Legolas's part numerous times in the past few months herself.
§ § § §
The archery contest distracted Éomer from his problems of the heart. After the first place winner had been announced, he found himself shouting and banging on his helm well after the din of the crowd had died down.
Éomer assumed Erestor had returned to stand next to him again, when he glimpsed from the corner of his eye a silver breastplate reflecting the sun's rays. Éomer had enjoyed the Noldo's wry banter until the archery competition diverted his attention. Erestor had then apparently wandered off to find a more receptive audience.
Éomer laughed and said, "Well done! Legolas makes bow work look like sex. Just as easy and natural, and almost as much fun."
"I'm forced to agree with you on that," Elladan said, his tone arrogant, but not dismissive. "And he is well aware of it also. Quite the entertainer."
"I didn't realize that was you standing there," Éomer answered, making an effort not to sound taken aback. He refused to let the Elf-lord think he intimidated him.
"I have been watching you, Éomer. Curious. We'd probably get along if it weren't for her. Please do not consider me competition for your lady any longer though. I took my chance and she's made her choice. I offered to be her champion today only because of the look on her face when you asked my sister for her favor."
Éomer speculated that he and Elladan might indeed have been friends under different circumstances. Such conjectures never were particularly useful, however. Théodred would have made an exemplary king. For that matter, Théoden had died with at least another ten good years of service in him.
"You looked pleased enough when she accepted your championship!"
"Never mind how I looked," he said, his pale cheeks reddening faintly. "It made her feel better that I leapt into the breach. She is so very young."
"Spare me your rationalization. You play the hero for her. And both of you are well aware that I had no choice. As King of Rohan, it would not have been seemly if I overlooked the new Queen of Gondor."
Elladan gave skeptical shrug, and then a tight smile. "You are not typical. You will serve your people well in a new Age. You may thank your grandfather Thengel and grandmother Morwen for that."
"I can thank them for a lot of things." Éomer failed to hold back a snort. "My height, my brains, my mastery of Elvish grammar!"
"Ah, yes. I've heard it all from Lothíriel, not to mention from Estel. That you are young, smart, multi-lingual, well-read, not fettered by war weariness, and on and on," Elladan said, shaking his head with a self-deprecating chuckle. "Give her a good life with purpose, horse lord. Or I will hold you accountable to me." Elladan clapped him on the shoulder.
"You may count on me to take care of her and give her a purpose. What she does with that is her choice," Éomer said, accepting the gesture and the remark as the peace offering it was, but not without a scowl. It was not easy to look at the unflappable Elf and not feel green and clumsy. "You are insufferable in your presumption. But it is good to clear the air. Jousting is far too dangerous a sport to undertake in anger. And it is too hot for the horses today as well."
"Speak of your own stock. Legend has it that Oromë's horses and the Noldorin mounts from Valinor come from same line, but yours have been bred bulkier than ours."
"Ha! You never stop, do you?" Éomer asked, laughing. "There are many of my countrymen here today who would consider your criticism of our horse breeding practices offensive and call you out on it."
"And I wouldn't say it to them either, would I? You are brighter than they are. As well you should be. Shall we shake on it then?" Elladan extended his hand. "You won't try to kill me today, only to unseat me."
"Aye. I'll agree to that." Éomer squeezed the Peredhil's hand, putting some muscle behind it.
Éomer turned to focus on those who would be participating in the joust. The Rohirrim riders formed a respectable part of the roster, although Éomer had not encouraged them to join. Their riding proficiency surpassed that of the other competitors. Their skill in handling a lance came up lacking compared to the Knights of Dol Amroth and no doubt to that of Erestor and the sons of Elrond as well.
Éomer considered jousting a sport of the privileged. He had some experience himself, although not recent. Théodred had taught him the basics in his youth, in an attempt to forge a bond with his orphaned younger cousin. After that, there had been little time for war as a game.
The sun shone as hot as it had all afternoon. With his helm tucked under his arm, Éomer felt the breeze from the river in his hair and on his face. But he was roasting beneath all the layers of his equipment. Whirlpools of dust swirled at his feet and an occasional gust of wind caused him to narrow his eyes. He could taste the grit in the air. Along the far end of the tournament field most of the riders who were to participate in the joust had already begun to assemble.
A trumpet sounded. Prince Imrahil presented a long parchment scroll to one of his assistants and raised a hand toward the elevated stands for silence. The aide began to read the pairings in the order in which the names had been drawn. More than three-quarters of the way down the list he called out: "Éomer, King of Rohan, will meet Elladan Elronnion of Rivendell." This was the first set of opponents that had matched two of the better-known combatants. Predictably, the crowd exploded into applause and cheers at the noteworthy combination.
Éomer could not help but chuckle and shake his head. He glanced in the direction of the royal enclosure. Lothíriel was also shaking her head as though dismayed and speaking rapidly to Éowyn. He could see Aragorn looking back over his shoulder and mouthing something to the princess. Whatever he had said caused Lothíriel to flip her hair back over her shoulder and respond with spirit, furrowing her eyebrows and flushing. Éowyn nudged the younger woman laughing. The entire royal party began smiling and talking at once. He recalled that someone had mentioned to him, perhaps Aragorn or Legolas, that even the wisest and most ancient of elves loved gossip. No doubt they knew everything there was to know about his lady's dalliance with Lord Elladan. No point in wasting any time feeling awkward. He had to prepare for his joust.
Déor, son of Éothain, the lad that Éomer had asked to act as his squire for the tournament, approached him, leading Firefoot. He knew that had Éothain not fallen in the Eastfold early in March, he surely would have insisted in riding in the joust. It comforted Éomer to give his friend's young son a chance to be a part of the games, if only in a minor role.
"Éomer King!" Déor's grin split his freckled face, as he dipped his head belatedly in a gesture of respect. Éomer had known him since he was an infant and the lad still struggled to bring familiarity into line with the requirements of protocol. "Firefoot is feeling restive. I thought it might calm him to walk forward to meet you." Éomer observed the tall boy, well filled-out for only thirteen years of age, thinking he would be a large man one day, much like his big-boned, ruggedly handsome father had been.
"Restive, you say? I would reckon that is a generous description of Firefoot acting a royal pain in the arse."
"Yes, my king. I don't want to speak ill of him. But you could say that. I don't think he likes this area. It is near where Théoden King fell?"
Éomer gestured generally to the north of them. "Not very close actually."
"Aye, my lord. But Firefoot has a lot of Meara blood in him. They're sensitive to such things."
"You don't have to defend Firefoot to me, lad. I am well aware of his virtues and his faults. I doubt if his behavior is caused by anything other than that he doesn't like the heat and noise, nor care for play that looks far too much like work to him. But he'll be fine when he senses there's competition involved."
Firefoot bumped his nose against Éomer, who 'tsk-tsked' at him in warning, yet patted him on the neck and stroked the great beast's throat soothingly. Normally, the care of their master's horse remained one of a squire's primary tasks. Éomer had never had a squire before he became king. Although, even before he was appointed Marshall of the Eastfold, there had been plenty of youngsters who aspiring to ride with him hovered about wishing to assist him. Éomer had always preferred to attend to Firefoot himself.
The first two competing horsemen took their places at either end of jousting run. The other participants stood by with their squires observing, busily arming themselves, or fiddling with their horses' tack. The ultimate aim was to unseat one's opponent with a lance. Éomer remained confident that he would do well. He had no fear of being unhorsed, which gave him confidence. He had probably eaten as much dirt as any man present. And it was unlikely there was a better-trained horse than Firefoot, and certainly none with reflexes nearly as good. Firefoot seemed anxious to play the game as well, shaking his long arched neck and shooting glances at Éomer with his large expressive eyes, as though he were trying to say, 'What are we waiting for? Let's get on with it.' The Swan knights' elegant white or grey steeds knew what was expected of them, but despite the obvious strain of Rohirric horseflesh in the stock of Dol Amroth, none were a match for Firefoot in the height of their tail carriages or the refinement of their musculature. Firefoot's beautiful concave face showed his Meara blood as well.
The first joust took place between two Swan Knights. The taller man was pushed out of the saddle by his opponent's lance. The victor jumped from his horse and extended a hand to his countryman, who took the proffered hand and stood without difficulty. Removing his helm and bowing in a most chivalrous manner, he conceded his defeat. The rules which had been decided upon stated that each man would joust once only. If neither of a pair conceded, the judges would declare a winner. The jousting seemed to pass more quickly than even the archery had.
Perhaps because the Riders of Rohan were shy of injuring their horses, they were overall faring marginally less well than the Knights of Dol Amroth despite surpassing the Swan Knights in horsemanship. Erestor of Imladris met Prince Erchirion of Dol Amroth, which caused a bit of flurry throughout the crowd, since Erchirion had narrowly beaten Erestor in swordplay.
Erestor's steady lance and his secure seat on his deceptively delicate-looking Elven stallion, enabled him to execute a well-placed solid blow. The crack of his lance resounded throughout the stands as it splintered into hundreds of pieces. Erchirion's impact against his opponent was decently centered as well, but his lance remained unbroken. Erestor withstood the blow, but Erchirion flew off his horse. Pulling his horse up short, Erestor handed him over to the nearest squire and loped back to where Erchirion had hit the ground.
By the time Erestor reached Erchirion, the young prince of Dol Amroth had struggled to his feet. Both combatants removed their helmets. The front of Erestor's helm, crimson-plumed and glittering in the sun, was covered with scrollwork depicting the infamous star of Fëanor. Erchirion's helm was of standard Swan Knight issue, modern and simple but elegant in style, crowned by a non-standard costly blue and white plume. With their helms tucked under their arms and grinning at one another, they pulled off their gauntlets and shook hands. Tall, with ebony hair bound in warrior plaits, high and pale of brow, each presented the refined but handsome masculinity considered Elvish by many. Smiling at one another red-cheeked from the heat, the two competitors could have been mistaken for brothers. Éomer was impressed, not for the first time, by how true the Elven bloodline ran in Imrahil's children.
Liveried squires of the City Guard of Minas Tirith wearing the White Tree on a field of sable scurried from the sidelines to rake out the trampled earth between each joust.
One after another, the jousters met and clashed. Since there were to be no additional rounds, scoring of each winning participant was crucial to determine the final champion. Accustomed to wielding authority, Imrahil ruled quickly on each match, dictating the scores to a scribe standing at his elbow. The encounters proceeded swiftly.
Nonetheless, the waiting made Éomer fidgety and he wished that he had drunk far less the evening before--wretched Lothíriel and her outrageous antics--or chosen to have sat out the contest. He glanced enviously at Lord Glorfindel, relaxed and laughing in the royal pavilion. No point, he thought, in comparing myself to an ancient hero. A warrior of little more than quarter of a century in age might be forgiven for wanting to prove himself, even in such a preposterous manner. This will be my last time, he vowed. A king had no business risking life and limb for entertainment or foolish pride.
A splintering hit from yet another Dol Amroth knight with a polished, graceful style sent a stocky young Rohirric rider rolling head over heels in the dust. The lad sprang to his feet in an instant, seemingly unharmed. Jerking off his dented helmet with a torrent of creatively filthy curses, he freed a half-dozen wild blond braids to whip about in the wind, revealing a baby face. Éomer recalled that his name was Osberht and that he was not yet sixteen years of age. Yet another fatherless boy. Osberht bowed shortly to the Dol Amroth knight in concession, a comic stereotype of youthful disappointment, and stomped over to comfort his snorting, pawing stallion. The revelation of his tender age brought the crowd to their feet in sympathetic applause. Éomer laughed and shook his head in gratitude that blessedly few of the spectators knew the language of the Rohirrim.
Éomer wondered who had the poor judgment to permit Osberht to participate in the joust. There would be time enough to look into that on the ride back to Edoras. He glanced over to where a group of grizzled veteran Rohirric riders, non-participants, leaned against the side of the enclosure watching the scene play out.
"Fastred! Fastred!" Éomer shouted. The man he wanted jogged quickly over to him, although favoring his left leg.
"Yes, Éo . . ." He grinned before reddening in embarrassment. "Er. Yes, sire, I meant!"
"Please see to it that someone examines young Osberht for injuries. I doubt if he has enough sense to do so himself."
"Consider it done, my lord," the older man answered with alacrity.
"That will be all, Fastred." Éomer nodded his head to the veteran. "And, thank you."
Just then Imrahil's herald brought an abrupt end to the clapping and good-natured hooting at the disgruntled young rider by calling out, "For the next joust, King Éomer of Rohan will meet Lord Elladan of Rivendell!"
§ § § §
Lothíriel looked to her side to see Faramir standing at the end of their row of seats and scooted over, leaving room between her and Éowyn.
"Please join us, cousin," Lothíriel said, patting the bench beside her. "May we get you a cool drink?"
Faramir ducked his head and shrugged in a gesture of reluctance. "I'm afraid I am much too hot and sweaty."
Éowyn harrumphed dismissively, pulling her voluminous white skirts to one side. "Sit down!" she ordered.
Lothíriel jerked her head up at the herald's call of, "King Éomer of Rohan will meet Lord Elladan of Rivendell! Please take your places, my lords."
At one end of the jousting lanes, Elladan allowed an Elf of Imladris to give him a leg up onto his steed with the careless conceit of the entitled. At the other entrance, Éomer, despite his armour, vaulted effortlessly onto Firefoot, showing off. Lothíriel could not hold back a smile at the two of them--such boys--while expelling an indulgent sigh.
Frowning, Faramir said. "No wonder it's a rout for the Rohirrim. Unlike the Swan Knights, their saddles do not have high cantles."
"I noticed the cantles and the high pommels as well," Éowyn said, her tone heavy with disapproval.
"The Elven saddles don't have either," Lothíriel remarked. To be perfectly honest, she had not considered those details earlier. "That makes Éomer and Elladan more evenly matched at least."
"And your brother's ignominious fall to Erestor that much worse." Aragorn chuckled.
"I wonder if Erestor will receive additional points for overcoming that?" Arwen asked.
Celeborn answered, "He did. Although, I believe that was a subjective call on the part of the judges. There is nothing in the rules about granting points to acknowledge inequality of tack."
Faramir reached for Lothíriel's hand and squeezed in sympathy, as the two contestants took their places at each end of the list. Firefoot danced in place for a moment as though reluctant to enter the narrow gate. Éomer adjusted and readjusted his helm, its white horsetail crest lifting in the breeze. He positioned his lance and he and Firefoot exploded out of the gate, in a spray of dust and gravel. He dropped his lance across his body toward where he calculated the center of Elladan's shield would be.
Lothíriel turned slightly to get a look at Elladan's position as he hurtled the length of the list. The sound of their mounts' pounding hooves, the dense clouds of dust billowing upward and obscuring her vision, and the speed of it all intensified her anxiety. It seemed the riders had only just left their respective gates when Éomer's lance connected with the center of Elladan's shield, but the hit glanced off and did not dislodge Elladan. Meanwhile, Elladan struck a perfect blow that cracked and shattered his lance and sent Éomer flying off Firefoot and landing flat on his back. He did not move.
As the swirling dust settled on the field, Lothíriel saw Elladan jump from his steed and race to where Éomer had landed, yanking off his helm and shouting as he ran, "Adar! Adar! Elrond!"
Elladan's eyes were wild with panic. Everyone stared down at Éomer stunned. Elrond had all but leapt to his feet, shedding the gleaming maroon robe he wore over his tunic and leggings, as he clambered onto the wooden wall that separated the royal stand from the playing field. Tossing the robe to Glorfindel, who deftly caught it, Elrond dropped the four feet or so to the ground. Faramir followed him, turning to hold his arms up to Lothíriel, who found herself trying to scramble over the side of the enclosure. She ignored the sound of ripping cloth. Éowyn pushed her from behind, two strong hands firmly planted on her buttocks.
"He'll be all right," Faramir said in her ear as he took her weight upon his shoulders, before swinging her the rest of the way down to place her upon her feet. "It would take more than that tumble to seriously hurt him. Elladan is worked up because he has a guilty conscience." He yanked free a good-sized piece of deep blue voile from Lothíriel's train that had caught on the splinters of the newly hewn wood of the enclosure wall. A sudden gust from the river picked up the diaphanous cloth and bore it aloft over the heads of the crowd. As it disappeared behind the royal pavilion, a shiver passed over Lothíriel. The sight felt portentous, as though the wind had blown away forever some flimsy and insubstantial part of herself.
I want to thank the writers of the Lizard Council, especially Kymahalei, Russandol, Pandemonium, Jael, IgnobleBard, Elfscribe, SurgicalSteel, and Indy1776 for reading and picking at this chapter. (If there are any remaining errors after their careful reading, I ought to be ashamed.) Thank you again, friends.
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.