4. Steelsheen's Foal
Steelsheen's Foal: or, A Very Different Night in Emyn Arnen
19 Urimë/10th August F.A.4, Ithilien
Dôr Ararych, the Steward's stud farm, slumbered in the warmth of a summer evening. Rowanna was making her habitual round of her herds in the meadows, checking the salt licks and the water troughs, when she heard her name called from the edge of the trees. Shading her eyes against the last slanting rays of the sun she looked up, and recognised Halvir, Faramir and Éowyn's stable-lad from Emyn Arnen, astride a dun pony at the end of the path.
"Halvir! What can I do for you?"
"Can you come, mistress?" He looked down at her anxiously, hair a tousled mess and his shirt, Rowanna noticed with a smile, laced up wrong as usual. "It's Steelsheen…"
Rowanna was alert at once; the blue roan mare was Éowyn's favourite. "What's troubling you, Halvir? She's not due to foal for a fortnight or so yet, is she?"
"We didn't think so." Halvir ran a hand through his tangled dark mop. "Otherwise my lady would never have gone to Minas Tirith with the Steward – not with Raedmund still laid up with his leg-bone knitting after Eilenach threw him! Steelsheen's udder's hardly bagged up at all yet, but the last day or two she's been hiding away in a corner of the paddock; I tried to look this afternoon to see if the udder was dripping anything yet, but she wouldn't let me near her, and she was stamping and starting to kick at her belly…"
"That does sound as though she might be starting." Rowanna cast an eye over the last water trough and nodded, satisfied. "Did you tell Raedmund?"
"Yes – and he said the same; but he's not on a crutch yet, he can't get up from his bed. So he told me to leave Dirhael keeping an eye on Steelsheen, and get over here as quick as I could and ask you if you could –"
"I'll come," Rowanna assured him. "Bring the pony up to the yard for a drink, while I get a cloak and tell Malgalad where I'm going; I'll be as swift as may be."
Striding back into the yard, she called for one of the lads to saddle Forodhél, her bay gelding, and sent another running to warn her head groom of her departure. Ducking through the door of the simple wooden house Faramir had insisted on building for her before her first winter in Ithilien – "for you can't spend all your nights sleeping in the stables or on a talan!" she reached for a plain grey cloak from a hook on the wall; then changed her mind, and caught up the embroidered green one beside it instead.
Best not take the Lorien cloak, she reflected; in the twilight I'd probably fade from poor Halvir's view entirely, and he's fretting enough already! She bundled a spare shirt, breeches and linen into a saddlebag; took two coils of slender white rope down from a shelf and wrapped them in a bit of cloth; found her knife in its sheath, fastened the cloak over her shoulders with its enamelled leaf brooch, and pulled her door closed behind her.
"Back tomorrow morning, I hope, Malgalad," she assured the groom as she leant down from Forodhél's saddle. "Later, perhaps, if Steelsheen hasn't really started yet and Raedmund wants me to stay and watch her – in that case, I'll send word…"
Malgalad nodded and reached up to clasp her hand.
"Fear not, we'll be well enough here. Here, take this –" he passed a small lantern up to her – "the moon doesn't rise for a while yet, and it may be full dark under the trees before you're there. Good luck, mistress!"
I hope I won't need luck, Rowanna mused, as she and Halvir set off southwards into the gloaming, but he may be right. Éowyn dotes on Steelsheen – if she'd thought she was about to foal she'd never have left her, even at Aragorn's personal invitation. Still, Powers willing, it will all be straightforward enough – it's only because Raedmund can't keep an eye himself that he wants me there…
As their path led them away from the farm buildings, and began to pass under the trees, Rowanna reined in.
"Just a moment, Halvir." Leaning over from the saddle, she laid a hand gently on the trunk of the nearest holm oak and looked up into the foliage. "I'm going to Emyn Arnen," she said clearly, picturing in her mind the white house nestling in the shelter of the hills, with the laurel trees about it. Above her the leaves rustled gently. Stars know what Halvir will make of that, she reflected; fortunately I'm long past caring if the folk of Ithilien think me cracked for talking to trees!
Malgalad had been right about the lantern; it was nearly fully dark by the time Rowanna and Halvir reached Emyn Arnen, and bats wheeled and dived in front of them as they emerged from the trees and crossed the clearing in front of the house. They walked their mounts around to the stables; Halvir set about making Forodhél and his own pony comfortable, while Rowanna set off to the paddock. Sure enough, the flickering of another small lantern away in the far corner of the field showed her where to find the second stable-lad, Dirhael, watching over Éowyn's precious mare.
Steelsheen was still on her feet, but pacing to and fro; as Rowanna cautiously approached she turned her head to one side and then the other, biting at her flanks. Dirhael slipped quietly down from the fence where he was sitting.
"She took to this corner in the late afternoon and hasn't stirred from it," he said softly. "Should we move her indoors? I scrubbed the biggest stall clean, as Raedwald said, and put fresh straw down…"
"That was well done, in case we have a thunderstorm tonight and want her inside," Rowanna assured him. "But it's clear for now, and warm enough; if she wants to stay beneath the stars then we'll let her be. How long has she been looking and biting at her sides like that?"
"Since a little after sundown…"
"Then my guess is you and Halvir were right; she'll be starting soon. Wrap her tail and wash her hindparts – did you ask Frideswide to get plenty of water hot? – and then just sit quiet and let her be. I'm going to go up and see Raedwald; if she lies down, come and tell me!"
Rowanna knew she had found Raedwald's room before she entered, thanks to the pungent smell of the comfrey decoction soaking his bandages. Éowyn's groom was propped up in bed, on the ground floor of the house, his splinted leg resting on a cushion.
"Ferthu hal!" he greeted her gruffly. "Sorry about the smell of the knitbone – I barely notice it any more but I'm told 'tis foul…"
They talked for a few minutes about Steelsheen; then Rowanna made her way back to the paddock. She passed through the kitchens for a brief word with Frideswide the housekeeper, who as promised had a cauldron of water on the fire, and supplied Rowanna with clean linen rags and lye soap as well as a parcel of bread and cheese.
"For I know you of old, mistress," she warned, "you could be hours down there yet and you'll be hungry soon enough!"
"You could be right," Rowanna chuckled, remembering she had missed the evening meal back at Dôr Ararych. "I'll send Dirhael up if we're running short of anything!"
Some hours later, with the moon high overhead, the three of them were still waiting as Steelsheen paced and pawed the ground. Dirhael had dozed off; "Leave him," Rowanna urged Halvir, "for if we're up all night then you might be glad to let him take the later watch!" She unstoppered the earthenware flask the housekeeper had sent down a little while before. "I'm glad Frideswide thought of this coffee of Faramir's!"
"Do you think we're wrong after all and she's too early?" Halvir murmured.
Rowanna shook her head. "I doubt it. She's a little short of the eleven-month, true, but summer foals are often carried shorter than spring ones, and it's her first…" Suddenly, she sat bolt upright.
"Look – yes, there, she's lying down! Bring the lantern over here, Halvir…"
Steelsheen did lie down, but almost at once got up again; after several unsuccessful attempts, she finally settled on her side, legs stretched out. Looking closely in the lantern-light, Rowanna nodded.
"That's good – see, her hind legs are wet? Her waters have broken – so at least I don't need my knife for now!" She moved away again, glanced up at the moon, and sat down.
"What do we do now?" Halvir whispered.
"Nothing, I hope!" Rowanna murmured back. "Birthing mares don't like to be crowded or fussed – we stay well back out of her line of sight, let her be, and watch."
As time passed, however, and the mare continued to strain, Rowanna became uneasy, looking from Steelsheen up to the moon's passage across the sky and back again.
"This is taking too long; I don't like it. Run up to the house – fast as you can! – and tell whoever's in the kitchen that I need water, really hot, right away – and olive oil, a big jar…" As Halvir dashed off, Rowanna bit her lip.
"Come on, girl," she said softly in Rohirric to the mare. "You can do this. What's the trouble?"
Intent on Steelsheen, she did not notice a tall slender figure, shimmering faintly in the darkness, dropping from a tree at the paddock's edge; but she felt a sudden wave of familiar warmth bathing her, and turned with a sigh of relief.
"How did you know I wanted you?"
"The trees told me you'd gone to 'the-place-of-the-laurels'," Legolas said softly, dropping into a crouch beside her, "and I guessed that only a foaling would bring you down to Emyn Arnen at nightfall; so I thought you might wish for company, if you had a long wait. But something's amiss?"
Rowanna nodded tensely. "She's been straining hard since the moon crossed below the Archer's shoulder – and that's too long. Perhaps just a leg back, or she needs help to turn the foal a little – or if I'm really out of luck, then it's hind-first…"
She broke off as Halvir returned, not daring to run with his steaming covered bucket, but managing a rapid stiff-legged walk; he put the water down for her, panting hard, and tried not to stare at the Elf who was hunkered down at the mare's side.
"My thanks, Halvir," she said softly, "but move away now; the fewer of us about her, the happier she'll be." She knelt down by Legolas.
"I don't want to reach in if I don't have to; the less I meddle, the better, but if needs must… Can you tell which way the foal lies?"
Legolas closed his eyes for a moment, stilling his breathing, resting one hand on Steelsheen's heaving flank.
"Sidh, sidh, emmig ," he murmured. "Tiriatham..." He moved both hands slowly over the mare's side, his bow-callused fingertips gently brushing her sweating hide. At last he sat back.
"You were right, melethen," he said softly. "The head is here –" he gestured towards the middle of Steelsheen's belly – "and here, the hindquarters. Hindmost-first."
Rowanna grimaced, rolling up her shirtsleeves, unstoppered the jar of olive oil and took the lid off the steaming bucket. "Then I need to wash! Halvir, quickly, wake Dirhael, I'm going to need all of you. Then reach into my saddlebag – there's a little cloth packet there with some fine white rope in it. Bring it here, and don't drop it on the ground, it's clean – now make two half hitches in each piece, a few inches apart."
Legolas was still murmuring to the distressed mare. "Do you want me to –"
"No, I can do it – my hands are smaller than yours. Though your arm's longer, so if I find I can't reach…" She finished scrubbing her hands, rinsed them, and dipped one hand into the jar of oil, spreading the golden liquid up to her elbow. Legolas shifted up towards Steelsheen's head, making room, as Rowanna took a deep breath and carefully slid her hand inside the mare.
"I've got the legs – there's the hocks and, yes, I can feel the soles of the hooves. Hind-first all right, but not breech, thank heavens. I'm going to need more oil…" Legolas was at her side at once with the jar. Rowanna dipped into it several times. "That should make things easier… Legolas, lift Steelsheen for me, can you? I need to get these ropes on the hind legs." She slid one loop of rope inside, then the other. "Got it – one over each fetlock. Halvir, Dirhael, over here, pull with me. Come on, Steelsheen, push…" As the mare strained, Rowanna and the stable-lads braced and pulled.
"That's – better – moved a little…" Several more pushes. Rowanna was now panting almost as hard as Steelsheen. "Keep pulling on my mark, even when she's not pushing – she's tiring now and if we don't get this foal out it'll suffocate. Ready – pull!"
Suddenly, with one last heave, it was over; the pale slimy sac slithering into Rowanna's waiting arms. She pulled away the membrane, found the foal's head, wiped its nostrils.
"Blast, not breathing. Dirhael, hold the lantern up – higher! Halvir, that muslin, quickly –" As Halvir passed her the fine cloth she placed it across the foal's nostrils and sucked, hard. "Come on, little one, breathe!" She turned the foal upside down – "It's a filly!" she observed – slapping its ribs while pale fluid drained from its nose. After a seemingly-endless pause, there was a tiny snort and the foal's chest heaved. Rowanna let out a long breath.
"That's it!" Gently she laid the wet, scruffy bundle by its mother's head, watching closely. Steelsheen whuffed softly and sniffed at her foal.
"Move back, everyone," Rowanna said softly. "They both need to rest now."
"What about – the cord?" Halvir asked hesitantly.
"She'll break that when she's ready, when she gets up and starts cleaning the foal off," Rowanna assured him. "Which is why I'm going to sit and watch her, to make sure she's not too exhausted. Dirhael, can you go and make her a warm bran mash? She'll need it – make it good and wet. Halvir, I could use another flask of drink – coffee, posset, anything as long as it's hot. Then you two can both get to your beds!"
Elf-prince and mortal woman sat with their backs to a tree-trunk, talking softly as they watched Steelsheen and her foal. The mare was on her feet now, sniffing and licking all over her new arrival; the afterbirth had passed cleanly, and Rowanna had inspected it minutely, with Legolas holding up the lantern, and pronounced it intact and the delivery complete.
"It may be her first time, but she knows what to do!" Rowanna observed with relief. "I was worried she'd be so exhausted she'd reject the foal… Poor Éowyn will be so furious she missed this!"
"Do you wish she'd been here?" Legolas enquired. Rowanna shook her head.
"I know she's seen plenty of foalings, but she dotes so on Steelsheen – she would have fretted, especially once she knew the foal was hindfirst, and if the mare didn't sense her anxiety then I certainly would have done!" She heaved a sigh of relief and leant back against Legolas' chest. "I'm just glad that when Aragorn decided to honour her and Faramir – and Theoden King's memory – six years on from their handfasting and the King's funeral, he settled on doing it with a dinner private enough that you and I didn't have to go!"
"He did extend the invitation, in fact," Legolas murmured. "But I convinced him that he and Arwen, Faramir and Éowyn, and Éomer King and Queen Lothíriel were all the guests he required; I knew you would not want to leave Ithilien while you had mares yet foaling..."
"So you saved me the trouble of having to refuse!" Rowanna chuckled, and turned her head to plant a kiss on Legolas' chin. "Hannon le, meleth nin…"
"Look, the sun's coming up," Legolas said softly. "Steelsheen will be well enough now until Halvir and Dirhael are awake, beloved. Come back to the house and let Frideswide find you a bed; I can get Taurlaegel or Falastir to take word back to Dôr Ararych that all's well..."
"That's a very good idea," Rowanna yawned as Legolas drew her to her feet. He slid a supporting arm around her waist; they cast one more look at the mare and her newborn foal, and wandered back up to the house as the new day dawned.
Dôr Ararych – Place of Noble Horses (the stud farm Rowanna runs for Faramir between Cormallen and Emyn Arnen)
Forodhél – Northern Star
sidh - peace
emmig = little mother
tiriatham – we shall see
Hannon le, meleth nin– Thank you, my love
melethen – beloved ("My" in Sindarin can be expressed either by nin or by the suffix en – I've always had Legolas use the latter form and the Rivendell Elves, and Rowanna who learnt her Sindarin in Rivendell, use the former.)
Blue roan horses are a beautiful blue-grey colour rather like tempered steel (try looking on Google Images!) so I decided blue roan would be a good colour for a mare called Steelsheen (and I hope Éowyn's grandmother Morwen of Lossarnach, known as Steelsheen, would not be offended at Éowyn wishing to name a favourite horse after her...
Sources of information about foaling I used included:
I am by no means an expert on any aspect of equines (so my choosing to create an OFC who's a horse-breeder can only be a strange form of masochism!) - if any horsey aspect of this story strikes the more knowledgeable as unlikely for Fourth Age Ithilien (with Rohirric and Elven horse-lore brought to bear as well) then do let me know.
Comfrey was known as knit-bone in the Middle Ages, since it was believed to have bone-healing properties. Famously, however, comfrey decoctions smell foul.
Faramir and Éowyn were troth-plighted on 10th August 3019 at Theoden's funeral feast, so this story takes place on the sixth anniversary. Since Tolkien indicates in LoTR Appendix D that the Eldar (and therefore, I presume, the Númenorians and later the Dúnedain) tended to reckon in sixes and twelves, I've always assumed that sixth and twelfth anniversaries would be significant rather than the multiples of five or ten which we tend to mark.
And lastly (but by no means least) many thanks to Curiouswombat for the beta!
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.