38. Claiming Wergild
Léod found his son in the stable, once again brushing the coat of his new stallion into copper brilliance. At fifteen Eorl considered himself to be already a Man grown, and the steed he'd chosen from the royal herd was intended to support that perception. "You would shine out as brightly as the Sun herself, my son?" the father asked, a fond smile on his face.
The youth shrugged, glancing briefly at his father before returning his attention to his steed. "Wildefyr shall serve me well, Father. And when we must take the field against our foes, our men shall easily see where I am within the press."
Léod shook his head. "What attracts the eye of one's followers is also capable of drawing the eye of one's enemy."
Eorl gave another shrug as he finished with his task and set his brushes aside. "That is true. But I shall never be accounted a coward who hides in the midst of his men."
"Never that," agreed his father.
"When will you choose a new mount?" Eorl asked as he brought a light blanket to strap over Wildefyr's back against possible chill in the autumn night. "Windstar grows old now, and cannot run as fast as once he did."
"I have chosen, but as yet the horse has refused to answer to my mastery," Léod answered.
The youth snorted. "Whitmane is of the Mearas. Yea, you captured him as a foal and gave him the Royal Herd as his own when he grew to maturity, and he may lead our horse herds but will allow none to ride him. For all it is said that Lord Béma may have given the Mearas into our protection, although they may tolerate our presence among them and might suffer our taking from amongst their sons and daughters by our mares steeds for our riding, yet they will not allow any Man to take mastery over themselves. Whitmane allows none to approach him or to lay hand upon him, not even to groom him. How is it that you think to convince him to accept saddle or bridle?"
Léod flushed, but kept his temper. "I will keep at it until he has no choice but to submit to my will."
"One who is forced to accept the mastery of another is rarely a willing partner," Eorl answered, quoting one of the proverbs of their people.
"Then how would you bring the likes of Whitmane to bear you?" his father asked, only a trace of his impatience to be heard in his voice.
Eorl shrugged, staring out the door to the stable to watch the horse herds far down the draw toward the river, Whitmane clear to be seen amongst his mares and their colts in the darkening twilight. He was quiet for a time before he finally said, "I would woo him, I think. He is not one to be won by force, but by persistent courtesy."
Léod shook his head and threw his hands up into the air, exclaiming, "Courtesy? To a horse?"
Eorl did not respond, instead filling Wildefyr's manger. Léod sighed. In his heart he knew that his son was right. There was none in all of their lands that was a better one for training the younger horses to bridle and saddle than Eorl, after all. Why, the youth appeared able to speak in the tongue of the horse itself, and it was murmured behind hands by many that Lord Béma himself had touched him as an infant to give him that gift. But rather than being frustrated that his son outstripped him when it came to the taming of horses, Léod was instead proud of Eorl, and was certain that great deeds lay in store for his son and heir.
"Do ye ken ye the Holbytla with the hair on his feet?" Eorl began singing under his breath a song that was commonly sung among children of their people, and as he finished his own rounds checking on the other horses housed within the stable, Léod joined with him. Windesmare appeared to be comfortable, there within her stall, her belly swollen with the young she bore within her. He judged that within the next four days she would be ready to deliver. As they finished their song, he paused to watch her mouthing at her grain daintily. Nay, no gorging for this one, so close to her time!
Finished at last with his own chores, Eorl joined his father, smiling at the mare. "She will drop her get within the next few days," Eorl assured him.
Léod pretended offense. "And do ye think me ignorant of the ways of horseflesh, my son?" he protested. "I can see that with my own two eyes, you know! You with your songs of the Holbytla and all!" He took up the shuttered lantern and they headed for the door, where he blew out the lantern and hung it upon its proper peg.
"Are there indeed Holbytla in this world of ours?" asked Eorl as the young man pushed the door shut and swung the bar across it to keep the cold off of the expectant mother and her fellows.
His father shrugged, pulling his cloak more tightly about himself as they moved up the hill to the mead hall upon its peak. "It is said that they lived in the valley of the great river and along the banks of its tributaries back in the days when we lived further south, before the evil creatures from the darkling woods and from the mountains beyond the golden ones swarmed over the grasslands to drive all who dwelt in those lands away. As to whether the Holbytla remain anywhere along the valley of the great river—who could say? Reports are that in the years of great fires and no rain most went west, up into the passes of the mountains, or south toward the lands held by the Lords of Stone and Sea.
"It is said that we once lived near to the Lords of Stone and Sea, also, and that we have kindred amongst them, and that one of their Kings married the daughter to one of ours, so that we are kindred from afar. If one can imagine any of our people reaching out to those who ply the Sea."
"Have you ever seen the Sea?" Eorl asked as they reached the doors of the hall and their guards pulled them open to allow the entrance of their Lord and his son.
Léod gave a great shrug. "And how am I to have done such a thing? I have been only as far as the Iron Hills to treat with the Dwarves there for steel and bronze, although they told me that their far kindred west of the mountains dwell sufficiently close to the Sea to come there within a day or two's journey further westward. They are a strange people, the Dwarves, and they do not love us overmuch since the days of Fram, who insulted them by sending them the teeth of Scatha the Worm as a necklace when they sought to claim Scatha's hoard as having been stolen from their treasuries." He had his cloak off by now, and one of his brother's daughters reached to take it, along with that Eorl had just shed as well. No cloak was needed here, with the fire in the central pit roaring high above its logs.
Hands of their warriors reached out companionably from the tables to touch them as they went by, and there were greetings on all sides. It was not until they reached the high table and all of the company was risen to stand with them that Eorl could ask any more questions. Once his father had sat and all others within the hall followed suit, Eorl asked, "And why are there two woods, one darkling and one golden?"
"What can I say?" his father responded. "Have I ever seen either of them? The Dwarves of the Iron Hills tell of them, but speak of them with disgust. There is no great love either between the folk of the hills and those of the forests, after all. They tell that some of their kind were once friendly with the King of the Elves Over-mountains, but that said King allowed the Lord of the Dark into his counsels until he at last betrayed the Elves of that land. Since that day there has been but little commerce between the two peoples, and perhaps that is as it should be. She who is accounted the Lady of the Golden Wood is uncanny and the mistress of many unwholesome magics as is told in all of the stories of her that I have ever heard. Little good can be found in seeking word of the Fair Folk, or so it has long been said. Those who do not die of age have but little to teach those of us who hope to know little more than three score and ten years upon this Middle Earth, after all."
And Eorl took these words to heart, repeating them oft to others even after he became King in his own right and led his people to new lands given them by others.
Three days later Léod was awakened by a pounding upon the door to his bedchamber, he and his wife rousing to full awareness with a degree of alarm. "My Lord!" cried a voice Léod recognized as that of one of those who kept watch in the stables overnight. "My Lord! Windesmare, she has come to her time, and struggles even now to drop her foal!"
"Summon Eorl as well!" Léod called back, already rising from his bed and drawing on his breeks.
"But he is not here, my Lord! He went out, called by one of the herdsmen who brought word of wolves being seen to the west!"
This news left the King disheartened, for if there was none better amongst his people for taming young steeds, so Eorl was equally gifted in calming a straining mare. Well, he could not fault Eorl for being abroad seeing to the welfare of their horse herds when wolves were reported! He would have to do what he could with the help of his stablemen.
But it was soon plain that this was to be no simple birth, for it appeared that Windesmare bore not a single foal but twins, and that the two creatures each impeded the birth of the other. All of the morning and much of the afternoon Léod and his men labored over the struggling mare before Eorl, himself weary with many hours riding and tracking after but little sleep, returned bearing three wolf skins to show for his efforts. Hearing the news, he took but a little time to wash before joining his father in Windesmare's stall. He managed to sort out hooves, and soon one of the colts was born, but they could not coax it to take a breath. As for the mare, well, it was not good with her. Realizing they were losing her, Eorl shook his head at his father, and he took his dagger to open the womb to draw forth the second foal. Léod himself gave Windesmare the mercy stroke before turning his attention to the struggle over the second foal, who at last shuddered and took breath, raised its weary head, and sneezed out of its nose the last of the birth fluid. Carefully they rubbed at it with rough but absorbent sacking, and soon it was struggling to its feet. One of the other mares who'd recently given birth was coaxed to accept this second foal, although they'd have to watch her to make certain that she continued her reluctant welcome; and at last Léod and Eorl returned to the hall, both exhausted.
Eorl was concerned, for his father's response to the loss of the mare was not good. Léod had helped in Windesmare's own birth, and had held her in special regard since the day she was foaled. To lose her so not only caused him great grief, but made him angry against the fates. That night Léod ate little, even at his wife's urging, and drank far too much. Eorl at last gave up trying to reassure his father that all that could have been done for the mare had been given her, for his head swam with weariness and his own measure of grief. At last he bade his father a farewell he doubted the older Man heard, and he sought his own bed.
When he awoke shortly after dawn, it was to find that a few of his father's closer companions were huddled together out of the draft from the doors to the hall, drinking watered ale and eating bread smeared with honey, discussing the fact that their Lord, obviously drunken, had gone forth in the night intending to find Whitmane and to force himself upon the stallion.
"And you sought not to dissuade him?" chided the King's son.
"What were we to do?" asked the oldest of the four of them. "Were we to bar our King from going out by holding him bodily? You know how Léod would be likely to respond to that!"
"Then why did you not go with him?" Eorl demanded.
"He forbade it!"
A second added, "Indeed, we sought to follow after him, but he turned upon us and threatened to show us the flat of his blade if we did not leave him to his own devices."
One of the doorwards confirmed this, and Eorl sighed, rubbing wearily at his temple. Finally he called out for someone to bring him his sword and riding cloak, and once he was suitably attired for the grey weather to be seen outside the hall he went out in search of his father.
He spotted Whitmane at midmorning leading his herd southward, the stallion's eyes wide with fury as he nipped at the flanks of an older colt to force it to keep up with its dam. The young Man watched after the horses with concern before turning Wyldefyr to follow the herd's back trail, hoping against hope to find his father sitting upon the ground in an undignified manner, cursing perhaps a broken arm or cracked rib. Instead, about an hour after he last saw Whitmane he heard a wail of grief that caused him to spur his steed onward. He topped a slight rise, and found below him in a steep-sided gulley one of the herders kneeling over a broken shape lying in the shallows of one of the streams that watered their lands.
The King had been found, and it was obvious that he'd suffered more than a broken bone and wounded pride. The scarred turf told its own tale. It appeared that Léod had tried to take Whitmane by force without the benefit of saddle or bridle, and that he'd at last been thrown, striking his head against a water-scoured rock along the stream's bed as he fell. No longer would Léod rule as the King of the Éothéod in their current lands in the headwaters of the Anduin. As young as he was, Eorl now must follow his father as Lord of their people and its horse herds!
Eorl's mother and cousins cried out in grief and loss when the King's body was brought back to his mead hall, borne folded over the back of a young gelding that in turn was led by Eorl riding Wyldefyr. The herdsman that Eorl had found huddled over Léod's broken form told his tale of being rousted from his rest by the King and set to find the whereabouts of the Royal Herd. They'd searched through the night, and had as the sky began to grey found Whitmane and those mares and colts he kept closest to himself running north, down in a gulley along the stream's bed. The herdsman was sent by Léod to head off Whitmane before he reached the next turn, where there was a place where the horses could climb up onto the flats; while the King dismounted, slithering down into the gulley to face the herd should it turn back along the way it had come.
Whitmane stopped the herd's career at the sight of the herder, and turned his mares and colts with an imperious neigh of challenge. But the sight of Léod in their path, a looped rope in his hands, before they'd gone a full furlong back along their path appeared to infuriate the stallion.
Whitmane and Léod faced one another while the rest of the herd drew back, sidling and snorting, caught between the two Men. Finally Whitmane sought to push past the King, who managed to get his loop of rope around the stallion's neck and set his feet.
According to the herder, the struggle had been arduous indeed, but finally the King had the horse almost wedged between a great boulder and the gulley's wall, at which time he clambered swiftly atop the rock and from it leapt onto the stallion's back.
Whitmane had screamed his fury, and had bucked and kicked before taking off at a run, Léod crying out in triumph as he clung to the great animal's back as tightly as a burr. Down the course of the gulley the stallion fled, his eyes wide and his mouth foaming. At last the horse sought to scrape the Man off his back by running close to an outcrop, and Léod quickly moved his leg up where it could not be caught on the rock. Feeling the shift in the hated rider's posture, Whitmane had suddenly begun again to buck, and this time he was successful in ridding himself of his burden. Thrown sideways, Léod had fallen headfirst, and he'd not survived the fall.
Eorl pondered the tale he was told, and he watched as the women of the Royal Dun prepared the old King's body for burial.
Three weeks after Léod's body was sealed into its tomb the new King of the Éothéod stood up after finishing hearing disputes throughout the morning and indicated that he would be riding out that night with seven of his Men, and that they would be gone for perhaps two to three weeks.
"And where do you go?" demanded the eldest of his advisors.
"To claim wergild," Eorl answered.
The Men of his Council looked questioningly from one to another for several minutes before the eldest asked, "And from whom would you demand wergild? And for whose loss?"
Their young King examined the old Man's face consideringly before at last answering, "I go to demand wergild for my father's death."
"And from whom would you demand such payment? In what kind?"
Eorl's expression did not change as again he considered the one questioning him, finally responding, "I will demand it from the one who killed him, of course. As for what kind of payment I will demand—well, if you would learn that perhaps you should follow so that you can see for yourself."
In the end it seemed half the royal household followed Eorl and his Men out into the pasturelands where the horse herds roamed, where three herders awaited them to lead them to the area where Whitmane had led his mares and foals. It took two days to catch up to the Royal Herd, at which time Eorl ordered the observers to stay well back and not to interfere, and then set his chosen companions to circle the herd at a distance that would not make the horses uncomfortable enough to bolt but to keep it from moving from its current feeding ground. Once that was done, he began his slow but relentless wooing of the herd stallion, riding a mare among the horses but doing so slowly and in such a manner it was obvious that he had no intentions of molesting any of them, but always keeping within fifty rods of Whitmane. After three days the mares and yearlings tolerated his presence, merely sidling out of his path as he cut through them. He closed the distance between himself and the stallion to forty rods, and then thirty, and then twenty-five. Within ten days he was riding at Whitmane's shoulder, constantly speaking softly and gently to the great steed; on the twelfth day he suddenly dismounted and approached the stallion directly.
He stood now some paces in front of the great white horse, and staring directly at its eyes he called in a voice of command, "Come hither, Mansbane, and get a new name!"
The horse snorted and the muscles rippled under his hide, but then, to the surprise of all, he slowly approached the young Man, stopping only just beyond Eorl's reach.
Eorl gave but the slightest of nods, and said, "Felaróf I name you. You have loved your freedom, and I do not blame you for that. But now you owe me a great wergild, and you shall surrender your freedom to me until your life's end." With that he stepped forward and laid his hand upon the great steed's neck, and the newly renamed Felaróf bowed his head as if in surrender. A strange smile on his face, the young King twined his hands in the horse's mane, gave a great leap and then a scramble, and was astride.
For a moment the horse appeared startled, but only took a few steps backwards before settling under Eorl's weight. At a slight kick to the ribs, Felaróf stepped forward, tentatively at first, and then more confidently, as Eorl directed the horse to the camp.
Watching among those who'd accompanied their new ruler out into the horse runs was one that Eorl did not recognize—a tall, older Man with a long grey beard and clothed in grey robes with a tall hat upon his head. Eorl slid off his mount and faced it, indicating one of his grooms. "This is Belarus, who serves those horses that dwell in the royal stable. When you must be near to me, he will serve you, too. Go with him, and he will give you a hot mash and fresh water, and show you where you will spend the night. Tomorrow you shall bear me home to the Royal Dun. You will be allowed most times to continue to run with your mares, but there will be times when I will require that you bear me on trips about my lands, and perhaps on long journeys. I shall never force you to wear bridle or saddle, but you shall bear me because you know that you owe me this service. Do you understand?"
The horse gave a deep nod of his great head, and thrust his muzzle hard against the Man's chest, almost knocking him down. But Eorl held his ground and fondled the great ears, then sent the horse on its way with a gentle slap to his shoulder.
He was tired, for the wooing of his new mount had taken a good deal of concentration. Food and drink were being thrust into his hands, and he realized that his belly was almost hollow. He allowed himself to be led to the tent set up for his own use, and folded himself upon a highly carved stool to eat the meal prepared for him. About him were the seven riders who'd accompanied him as well as one of his male cousins and two of his late father's oldest Councilors. "Who is that?" he asked around a mouthful of grouse, nodding his head toward the grey-clad stranger.
One of the older Men gave the newcomer a sideways glance. "I had not seen him for many years, but once he visited our people regularly, back before your father ruled us. Gandalf Greyhame is he called. It is said that he is a Wizard of great power, but mostly he is one who watches to see what we do, and he will oft tell us of news of other lands and offer counsel that usually has proved wise to consider. It was told me by my grandsire that he delights to move Men to meet his will, but I have never seen him attempt to do so. But, then I was still quite young when last he came amongst us."
Eorl examined the Wizard as well as he could in the fading daylight, considering the distance between them. What did he know of the nature of such folk? he wondered. Well, there was nothing he saw that he needed to do about the visitor this night. No, this night he would sleep, and sleep deeply. He had succeeded in winning the loyalty of the very horse that had been the death of his father, and he knew that the story would be told and retold—with suitable embellishments, of course—around their fires from now on, wherever their people found themselves. He was happily tired when he finally thrust his now empty drinking horn and wooden trencher at his kinsman and went into the tent, falling onto his bedroll and into a deep sleep almost immediately.
The following day Gandalf accompanied the party back to the Royal Dun, and took part in the feast thrown to celebrate Eorl's first great victory as King of the people of the Éothéod. He watched the young King intently. His manner of winning the trust of his new mount had been of great interest to the Wizard, and he saw that he did similarly with his people, always listening, showing he paid attention, talking softly and to the point, and making it plain that he watched all and that he cared for each person who came into his presence. Each one with whom he spoke received a gentle touch to the shoulder and a personal smile or a witty comment, and each gave his heart to the young Man in return.
"Now," Gandalf commented softly to himself, "I would say that this people will be well, well served by their new King, and he will be well served by them. Good---very, very good!"
As the evening progressed, he heard one of those who'd accompanied the King out to tame the horse who'd been known as Whitmane but who was now known as Felaróf telling the story to some of the children who'd attended the feast. "Oh, the King and his fellows trailed the great steed for many, many days. Long they sought him, and long he avoided him. But at last they came even with him, and the King called him forth, saying, 'Come hither, Mansbane, and get a new name!"
The children listened, entranced by the pictures painted in their imaginations by the tale they heard, and when the warrior told them of how the King then rode the horse back to his stronghold without benefit of saddle or bridle, all the children squealed with delight. At last, the tale done, the children answered the calls of their parents to retire to their own places.
Gandalf stood over the storyteller until the Man raised his brows inquiringly. "That wasn't precisely how it happened," the Wizard said, carefully making certain that there was no tone of condemnation in his voice.
The Man smiled. "Perhaps not, but this makes for a better story, don't you think? You know, I think that I could do with another horn of mead!"
And so the Grey Wizard joined Eorl's warriors as they drank and competed for who could tell the most thrilling tale of their own or their forebears' adventures.
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.