39. Faster, Higher, Stronger
Faster, Higher, Stronger.
With thanks to Raksha and Virtuella.
Aragorn struggled to keep an interested expression on his face. As Éomer's honoured guest for the younger King's birthday celebrations, he needed to look as if he were enjoying the proceedings.
Éomer's idea to mark his birthday by holding a challenge for his Riders, to help them remain strong and alert now that the War was over, was a good one. After watching a seemingly never -ending stream of Rohirrim race past him on horseback or on foot, though, it all became rather tedious. Aragorn had never much enjoyed exercise for its own sake. He preferred to remain supple by practising with sword and bow and if he ran, he did so to reach a destination, not round and round a field.
Éomer's Riders were all strong young men, skilled riders and swift of foot. Their king had promised a fine grey colt as the prize for the victor of this day's games. How his friend and fellow king would choose between them, Aragorn had no idea. He was simply thankful that the task did not fall to him.
Éomer raised his arm for silence as the horses came to a halt. The challenge was taking place on a field by the banks of the Snowbourn. Éomer sat on a makeshift throne, with his Queen, Lothiriel, and Aragorn either side of him. All around the field spectators were gathered, loudly cheering their kinsfolk.
"Riders of the Mark," cried Éomer. "You have proved your skills well today on both horseback and on foot. You have shown yourselves swift and strong: ready to defend our lands in the hour of need. For the final test, I challenge you with is a swimming race. The first man to swim across the river and back again will win the prize!"
Aragorn raised an eyebrow. During his years of service to King Thengel, the Rohirrim had hardly been noted for their swimming skills. He could only surmise that matters had changed over the intervening years.
A few of the men shook their heads dejectedly and walked away from the field. The majority of them, though, made their way down to the riverbank and started to pull off their clothes.
Aragorn looked anxiously at Lothiriel. It did not seem right for such a delicately raised lady as Imrahil's daughter to present. She caught his gaze and flushed slightly before whispering something in her husband's ear and making her way towards a refreshment stall at the far side of the field, accompanied by her Gondorian maid, Alis. The rest of the audience; men and women together, watched as the swimmers entered the water.
"I thought this challenge would help me choose a winner," Éomer informed Aragorn quietly. "I have been encouraging my Riders to learn to swim, but many are reluctant. They say water is only suitable for fish! If they see the prize going to a strong swimmer, it should encourage them to learn not to fear the water."
Many of the Rohirrim had dipped their toes the water then changed their mind about entering it while others had paddled out a little way and were now disconsolately making their way back to shore and pulling their clothes back on. Only about a dozen hardy souls still remained in the race and were purposefully, albeit slowly, making their way across the river, loudly cheered on by their fellows.
"The Snowbourn is excellent for swimming," said Éomer. "I learned to swim myself last summer."
"A wonderful achievement," Aragorn congratulated his friend. "It is not easy to learn past childhood. I was fortunate that the Elves taught me when I was very young." His keen eyes returned to the swimmers and lingered on one man who had become separated from his fellows. The others had already reached the far bank, while the straggler was still in the middle of the broad river. Suddenly he gave a cry and flung his arms in the air. The spectators all started shouting. One of the men, who had turned back before, started to pull off his clothing again. Several of the women screamed and one looked about to enter the water.
"No!" Éomer cried. "No one else must enter the water, or you will all drown!"
"My husband is drowning!" screamed a woman who looked about to dive in."
"Keep Andúril safe for me" Aragorn thrust the precious sword into Éomer's hands.
Swift as an arrow, Aragorn raced down to the riverbank, shrugging off his cloak and tunic as he ran. He paused only to kick off his boots when he reached the water's edge.
All around him people were screaming, "Alas, Thormund will drown!"
Aragorn waded in. The swimmers on the far bank were turning back towards their stricken fellow, but they would never reach him in time. Compared to the Anduin, where Aragorn often swam with Faramir, the Snowbourn felt icy cold. His heavy shirt and breeches made his limbs feel like lead, but Aragorn ignored the discomfort and swam with haste towards Thormund. "Stay calm!" he cried. "I am coming to get you."
Thormund paid no heed to his words and only struggled more frantically. Worst was to follow, though, as the man suddenly ceased flaying his arms and started to sink beneath the water's surface.
His arms aching and his lungs near to bursting, Aragorn managed to reach the drowning man and grab hold of his hand just before he sank beneath the surface. He felt almost as if his arm would be wrenched from its socket, but grimly hung on, drawing him out of the depths and wrapping his other arm around Thormund's chest and raising his head above the water. Thormund coughed, expelling mouthfuls of water from his lungs and started to struggle again, almost dragging Aragorn down with him. He was slippery as a fish and as hard to keep hold of.
"Easy now, I have you," said Aragorn in a tone most often used to control an army, but Thormund was too panicked to heed him. Aragorn wondered just how long he could hold on when he saw a handful of swimmers approaching from the far bank. "Fetch a boat!" he cried. Two of the men helped him support the struggling Thormund, while the others swam in search of a boat.
The wait seemed endless. Aragorn was tiring and wondering just how much longer he could keep his heavy limbs afloat, when an old man appeared rowing a coracle of the type used by fishermen of the Mark. One of Aragorn's helpers clambered into the boat and together they succeeded in dragging Thormund aboard.
"Thank you!" Aragorn gasped as the old man paddled towards where Éomer and a crowd of people were waiting. Thormund collapsed in the bottom of the boat, coughing and spluttering. Aragorn tended him as best he could.
As soon as they reached the shore, willing hands reached to take Thormund. "He needs keeping warm," Aragorn instructed.
"I know, my lord," said a calm voice that Aragorn recognised as belonging to Aethelstan, Éomer's personal Healer, who was ready with a blanket.
"As do you, my friend!" Éomer drew Aragorn against him in a close embrace, oblivious of the older man's saturated condition. The King of Rohan drew his own cloak from about his shoulders and wrapped it around his friend. "I have never seen the like as the haste with which you swam to Thormund's rescue!"
The people cheered, "Hail Elessar King, hail Éomer King!" they cried.
"Come, my friend, let us ride back to the Hall swiftly so you can change into dry clothes," said Éomer, shepherding the exhausted Aragorn towards where horses were waiting. "Lothiriel has gone ahead to order the servants to make up a fire and prepare hot drinks."
"What of Thormund? I should tend to him," Aragorn protested.
"Aethelstan is well able to take care of him," Éomer said firmly. "It is you needs care now, Aragorn. I have brought Roheryn to you."
Aragorn was too exhausted to protest further and scrambled astride the horse's blissfully warm back. They rode with all haste to the Golden Hall.
Lothiriel had ordered a fire prepared in Aragorn's chamber. Despite the older man man's protests, Éomer had insisted in helping him out of his sodden clothes and wrapping him in warmed blankets.
A little while later, Aragorn was feeling much better and wrapped in a robe, was seated by the fire being plied with hot drinks by Éomer and Lothiriel, while he rubbed his hair dry.
"You could have been drowned!" Lothiriel fretted.
"Have no fear, I am a strong swimmer," said Aragorn. "I promised my lady and Faramir that I would return home safely, as neither seemed to think I was safe to be allowed out without them!"
"They were right!" Lothiriel said grimly.
"Eldarion is not very keen to learn to swim so I will tell him what happened today, which might make him more enthusiastic," said Aragorn.
"That is the last swimming race I shall ever hold!" Éomer said grimly.
"I think you should reconsider that decision," said Aragorn, putting down his towel and swallowing a mouthful of comfortingly warm tea. "Swimming is a useful skill for your Riders to have. Make it a rule, though, that only strong swimmers should enter the race and have a boat at hand in case anyone gets into difficulties."
"I will think on your words, friend," said Éomer.
"Who has won the colt?" Aragorn asked.
"By rights it should be yours, my friend," said Éomer, but I have finer colts my far I would give you. I have decided to award it to old Elfmund, the fisherman. I gave another to Gunther who was the first to swim across the river and back again."
Aragorn nodded his approval, suppressing a smile at the thought of the wizened greybeard taking the prize that the young riders coveted so highly.
"Poor Thormund," Éomer added. "The young fool was desperate for a fine horse, though he could hardly swim! Methinks I should give him a boat instead!"
A/N. Although, I am NOT interested in sport, I always find myself glued to the Olympic Games, almost against my will! The story was inspired by the triathlon and Endurance swimming events in 2008 and written for the "Haste" prompt on the AA List and then forgotten until now. The commentator said Endurance Swimming races were held 2,000 years ago in Japan, so I thought why not in M-e?
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