22. Revelation Part II
Revelation Part 2
Minas Tirith FA 18
They had no time to find out any more, because when they reached the start the chestnut and the grey were getting ready to line up. Being closer to horse and rider convinced Elfwine of two things: that the mare definitely owed her conformation to Wingfoot, and that her owner surely had to be from the Mark.
Men clustered together, eager to place their bets. Hands shook on the deals – a proportion of each stake was lodged with a grey-haired old soldier who put the coins into a linen bag to be given to the winner. Listening to talk around him, Elfwine learnt that the chestnut was a fancied favourite, unbeaten up to now. And as most others saw no hope of winning against it, the owner had been bereft of challengers until the lad had come along with his grey. The chestnut reckoned to be fast owing to having a fair amount of Rohirric breeding. Elfwine thought that quite likely. 'One of ours crossed with a carthorse,' he whispered to Ceolwen. Since the Ring-war many of their steeds had been sold to boost Gondor's mounted forces and numerous soldiers had made a bit of extra money by increasing the quality of the local equine population. Riding horses, once rare in Gondor, were now common everywhere.
But he couldn't understand why the money was on the chestnut. In his opinion, even though smaller and lighter and not in her first youth, the mare totally outclassed the bigger horse. And he thought she looked fitter, which would be to her advantage as it seemed this race would be longer than the previous ones. Sensing something special, a large crowd had been attracted to the contest, and with so much coin wagered a heavy purse would go to the winner.
With them about to start, Elfwine led Ceolwen to the side of the track near the finish line. 'This should be interesting. Perhaps I should make a wager.' But he didn't really want to draw attention to himself, so decided to just enjoy the race. The chestnut's rider, a swarthy, much scarred, black-haired man, who Elfwine guessed was a Gondorian soldier, appeared to be goading his opponent with some choice expletives, and a boasting account of his previous annihilation of would be challengers. Probably trying to unnerve him. But as far as Elfwine could see, the young Rohir remained calm, concentrating on settling his mare, who couldn't wait for the off.
The starter dropped his arm and both horses surged forward. Almost immediately Ceolwen gasped as the Gondorian used the chestnut's bulk to try and shove the grey to the side and wrong-foot her. But the lad was too good a rider and swerved away unscathed, although it meant he had to take the long way round at the first corner.
After that he kept pace with the chestnut, shadowing it from a few feet to its left. Twice Elfwine saw the chestnut's rider yank the reins to try to nudge the lighter horse and force his opponent to go even wider, but each time the lad anticipated the move and eased off. Beside him, Ceolwen muttered under her breath. 'He's nothing but a cheat. That would be frowned on at home.'
But they weren't at home, and this was an unofficial race for money, with hardly any rules. By the second circuit the grey lagged a good few strides behind the bigger horse. A safer option. Elfwine agreed with the lad's tactics, sensing the mare still had loads to give. But the Gondorian's lips had twisted into a self-satisfied smirk; he probably thought he had done enough and the grey would not be able to catch him.
Elfwine watched the contest avidly, willing the grey on. Beside him, Ceolwen kept silent, her knuckles stuck in her mouth as she followed the flying hooves. But as the horses neared the last stretch, she clutched his arm. 'I hope he doesn't leave it too late. He's got much farther to run round the outside.'
'Probably stayed out there to save his horse being injured.' Elfwine could understand that – too easy for the Gondorian to side sweep him with his heavier mount.
From the cheering Elfwine guessed that most of the crowd thought the race over, but just before the last corner the lad made his move. He swung the grey wide, and urged her level with the chestnut.
'Go on! Go on!' Ceolwen couldn't contain herself, jumping up and down in excitement. Fearing defeat, the Gondorian wrenched his horse to the left to block the mare, but too late; as if on wings, she flew past him, reaching the line a length in front.
The cheers died away, only a few knowledgeable men who had backed the grey jubilant, as they collected their winnings. The rest stood in groups muttering discontentedly with each other.
Ignoring the angry grumbling going on around them, Elfwine pushed through the crowd towards the place where the lad had dismounted. Already he had started to walk his horse back and forth in the shade cast by the canvas walls of the stalls. The grey nuzzled into him as he spoke close to her ear. She was sweating, but not overly so. It might have been a fast race, but not long for one of the Mark's trained horses. The Gondorian still sat on his chestnut, waving his hands around in disgust and talking fervently to the man who held the prize money. The old soldier shook his head and shrugged, turning his back on the loser to go and hand over the winner's purse.
The lad tucked the coin bag inside his jerkin, sensibly tying it in securely, before giving his attention to his horse again. By the time they got close enough to speak, he had his back to them, concentrating on his mare and paying no attention to the hubbub of disappointment from those still lingering nearby.
'Well done,' Elfwine said in Rohirric. 'You did well not to let the crud intimidate you.'
No immediate verbal response. Instead the lad turned slowly, a frown of inquiry on his face. Elfwine studied him – tall, maybe a couple of years older than himself, and somehow familiar, although he still couldn't place him.
'Are you talking to me?'
Westron with a definite Gondorian accent. Elfwine could hardy keep the surprise from his voice. 'You're not from Rohan?'
Anger tightened the lad's features and intense blue eyes fixed on him. 'Should I be?'
'It's the horse,' Ceolwen interrupted, squeezing Elfwine's arm in warning. 'We thought we recognised the breeding.'
'We recognise his breeding too,' a voice jeered from a group of scruffy louts who had crowded round. 'When those stable-scum went home they left many a swollen belly, and it weren't only the horses.'
'Too true!' Another pushed forward threateningly, and spat on the grass near the lad's feet. The globule glistened on the ground between them, until the mare skittered sideways and obliterated the insult with a black hoof. But more came. 'Gondor's full of their nameless bastards. Don't know what the women saw in them. They all stink of horse-shit.'
Elfwine drew in breath, but with Ceolwen's hand staying him, managed to hold on to his temper and keep his mouth closed. A few more joined the group, hemming them in. Still angered by losing their bets and made brave by numbers, they threw abuse thick and fast.
A big, ill-kempt oaf with a wall-eye shoved his face right next to his victim's ear. 'It was only the ugly ones that could put up with them. Is that what your mother was – an ugly mare who couldn't keep her legs together?'
'Too right.' Another laughed. 'And I bet the horny stallion that covered her bolted home damn quick.'
His lips in a tight line, and hands clenched on his horse's reins, the grey's owner looked murderous. Elfwine sympathised, wanting to thrash the lot of them, but sense prevailed – his priority had to be to get Ceolwen away in case the situation escalated. Jerking his head in the general direction of the open meadows, he spoke quietly and quickly to the older lad. 'Trouble's brewing; it might be a good idea to walk your horse somewhere else. Let's get out of here.'
Some of the group spat out repulsive threats, and the lad hesitated. 'Use the mare to make a path,' Elfwine whispered under his breath.
A sharp nod of agreement and he started to turn his horse around. Still muttering insults, but wary of sharp hooves, the group parted slightly. Elfwine kept pace with him, holding tightly to Ceolwen. He planned to cut through the gap in the stalls to where it looked as though the crowd was slightly more respectable once they were at a safe distance. But when they had only gone a few feet, the wall-eyed oaf grabbed his arm, giving him a knowing wink before he fixed a lecherous gaze on Ceolwen.
'A tasty filly you've got there. I bet you don't need no saddle to ride her...'
The sod! He'd shut his filthy mouth! Elfwine dropped Ceolwen's arm and hit him, hearing a satisfying crunch as his knuckles connected with a stubbly jaw, all sense forgotten in his anger. The dirty louse fell, poleaxed, but immediately another of the gang launched to the attack, intending to head-butt him in the stomach. No chance! He twisted away, and his assailant, too slow to react, went sprawling on the ground. Then someone grabbed him from behind, pinning his arms to his sides; he kicked backwards, hearing a grunt of pain as he found an unprotected shin. Another hit out at him, but he threw himself to the side and the blow only connected with his shoulder. But there were too many of them to come off best. Then his heart leapt – he wasn't alone. The fair-haired lad shoved the reins into Ceolwen's hands and jumped on the clod who was trying to belt him. The lad pulled the clod away, but both fell, right into the back of a stall. One of the wooden poles broke in half, a loud tearing sound warned of ripping canvas, and then the whole thing collapsed.
Angry voices rose above the din, but Elfwine ignored them as the rest of the bunch charged into the fight, fists flailing wildly. They'd have to do better than that! Ducking his head, he went in low, bowling over one clumsy lout. Honed by his warrior training, their blows hurt but didn't put him out of action. Shaking free he struggled upright and laid out another, smashing him onto the canvas that had been trampled to the ground by his new-found partner, who was battling two more. But pulled to the ground by sheer weight of numbers, Elfwine couldn't see how he was faring.
Then came a familiar whoop – Eldarion had arrived. Ignoring any consequences, the Prince of Gondor threw himself into the fray, hurling aside Elfwine's antagonists as if they were no more than fire kindling. But seeing a good fight going on, more joined in.
'The fair-haired one's on my side,' Elfwine yelled as he gained his foothold again. The lad was under attack by three of the blighters now, but Eldarion had his own battle going on and couldn't get near enough to help him. Someone needed to: he was fighting wildly, game but untrained. Making a big effort, Elfwine flung off the last of his opponents and rushed over to assist. Seizing one by the back of his greasy tunic, he swung him around, before slamming his fist straight into his nose.
'Elfwine watch out!'
'Eorl's bones, Elenna. Get out of here!' he shouted, thunderstruck. Too late! She must have grabbed the broken end of the wooden pole and with no hesitation smashed it over the skull of a big blackguard who was trying to get the blond lad onto the ground by hanging on to his long hair. Even wielded by a slip of a girl, the blow made him let go pretty quick. He staggered around until he collapsed into the next stall, bringing the whole structure crashing down.
Suddenly they were covered in feathers and a cacophony of squawking filled the air around them. The door to a wooden chicken crate had been smashed beyond repair. Its former occupants, sensing freedom, scattered in all directions. The feathers came from a sack that had burst open under the impact of a full-grown man. In the midst of the wreckage stood the stall owner, his mouth open, too stunned to even protest.
'Well done, Elenna!' Eldarion had no more time to applaud her, because two oafs jumped on his back. Elfwine launched himself towards another who was trying to get a blow in, but before he reached him, he heard shouting and the rush of many feet.
His arm was grabbed roughly, nearly pulling it from its socket.
'Ouch...' he yelled, trying to swing a defensive punch. But another seized him.
'Stand still, or you'll really be for it.'
Gondorian guards – now he was in trouble. Held by two of them, he couldn't have escaped if he'd wanted to, but the rest of the protagonists took flight faster than the chickens. A few were collared before they got far, and were being dragged back protesting their innocence. Of course, Eldarion hadn't run; Elfwine knew he would never leave a friend in difficulty. He was being held by a harsh looking individual who stood wooden-faced waiting for orders. In contrast Eldarion had a glimmer of a smile on his lips as if he found the whole thing amusing.
Elfwine didn't, not with Ceolwen involved, although she stood a little apart, white-faced, but still holding onto the mare. Its owner had been pulled to his feet by two guards who were taking no notice of his pleas to get back to his horse.
'You're going nowhere,' he heard one say. 'Except to the lock-up until all this damage is paid for. And anyone who can't pay will be seeing the magistrate in the morning.'
'I can pay now.' The lad tried to thrust his hand inside his tunic.
'No, you won't. Our captain's got to find out the cost of the damage first and besides, a few hours in the lockup will cool you all off.'
Elfwine tried to relax, the most important thing being to keep their names out of it. Not for himself, but because he didn't want to embarrass his father. The captain was thankfully a distance away, talking to the stall owners who were gesticulating angrily in their direction. He caught Eldarion's eye – they certainly didn't want any captain over here, being that he was more likely to recognise them. Best to pay up and get away with their names still secret. Trouble was he didn't have much on him, maybe Eldarion did.
The guards herded them together, ready to march them to the lockups, but Elenna had other ideas. His cousin held on to the arm of the guard holding Eldarion, who shook her off none too gently.
'Leave her alone,' Eldarion snapped.
'Then tell her to go away or we'll arrest her as well.'
Elenna's eyes blazed. 'You'll do no such thing. And you'd better be careful; you can't take him anywhere he's...'
'Elenna, no!' Eldarion stopped her mid sentence.
Belatedly realising he wanted to keep his identity quiet, she stuttered out the next words. 'He's a lord. You can't take him to the lockup.'
The man looked the Prince of Gondor up and down with a derisive laugh. Hardly surprising, Eldarion's old tunic was now ripped from shoulder to waist and he must have rolled in mud, or something worse. At least the guard had no idea who he was. 'Is he now?' he snarled. 'Then if he's a lord, he'll have no problem paying the fine, will he, and he'll be out quicker than a fly can find a carcass. Now be off with you, or I'll call the captain and he won't worry you're a woman.'
Elenna's chest heaved in indignation, but before she could say anything else, Elfwine called her, choking back the laugh he felt erupting. He'd have a word with her after this – rising to Eldarion's defence and not his. Didn't that say it all?
For a moment she seemed indecisive, looking from one to the other of them, but Eldarion indicated her to go and she came over. Elfwine dropped his voice. 'Go with Ceolwen, stay together. Take the grey to the stables and then find Eóthain or Déor. Tell them what has happened. The fine will need paying.'
She reluctantly nodded her agreement, just before the guard pulled him away to push him into line next to the mare's owner. The lad was still protesting about leaving his horse.
'Don't worry,' Elfwine whispered. 'Ceolwen will take her to the Royal stables. Your mare will have a much more comfortable few hours than we will.' He gave him a big wink.
The look of astonishment on the lad's face could have stopped an éored. Elfwine stifled his amusement; it wouldn't look good if the guards thought he found the situation funny. 'What's her name, anyway?'
'Greywing,' the lad muttered, still suffused with shock.
Greywing? Elfwine pursed his lips thoughtfully. Too much of a coincidence. It certainly looked like he and Ceolwen had been right about the breeding. 'It seems we both have a bit of explaining to do. But keep quiet now and we'll introduce ourselves later.'
Elfwine kept his head down - being marched by guards and branded as a trouble maker was a new experience. He worried that they would be recognised, but since the guards warned everyone to keep out of the way, they reach the city wall with their identities still intact.
The lockups, wooden structures that had been specially erected for the duration of the festivities, held about a dozen men. As the guards started pushing their prisoners inside, already jeers and taunts were coming from some of the occupied ones. Elfwine certainly didn't want to end up with either him or Eldarion alone amongst a bunch of ruffians, so he swallowed his pride and pretended a bit of fear.
'They picked on us,' he indicated the three of them. 'If you shove us in with that lot, there will be more fighting. And we're outnumbered.'
'There's nothing to damage in there. You can break each others' skulls for all I care,' the wooden-faced guard growled.
'No,' another interrupted, 'we don't want no trouble, put them in here.'
He held a door open and they were thrust in none too gently, bumping together as they catapulted into the cell. Elfwine regained his footing and looked around – a dirt floor and wooden walls. Nothing else except a bucket in the corner, thankfully empty. The heavy wooden door slammed shut and a bolt slid across with a menacing thump. Elfwine pushed down the feeling of panic at being locked in; hopefully it wouldn't be for long. Why hadn't he kept his temper? And he ached all over. With a sigh he put his back to the wall and slid to the ground, looking up at Eldarion. 'Next time you want to escape from the palace, count me out.'
'You don't mean that. I haven't had so much fun for ages.' Eldarion moved away from the door and joined his fellow prisoners on the floor, grinning at the blond lad who was sitting with his head in his hands. 'Have we you to thank for it? I didn't see the start of the ruckus.'
Elfwine couldn't help smiling. Eldarion had joined in without even knowing what it was all about. But that was what you did if you saw a friend, or indeed anyone, outnumbered like that. 'They were disgruntled because he won a race when they were not expecting it. But any fool could see his mare would be fast.' He stopped and turned to the lad, remembering the embarrassment he'd caused. In fact his supposition, followed by his loss of temper, had started the whole thing. 'I am sorry if I jumped to assumptions. Perhaps it would be a good idea if you said who you are and where you're from.'
Stiffening, the lad stared at him for a moment, but after a hard look his shoulders relaxed. 'My name's Halmir, I live in Lamedon.' His mouth froze to a tight line as if expecting more questions but not being prepared to answer them.
Elfwine nodded, realising he was not going to get any more for the time being. 'Fair enough. Then you'd better know who you're talking to, although we'd be obliged if you'd keep it quiet.' Elfwine introduced them both before adding. 'We really would like to get away with this without anyone else knowing what we've been up to.'
'You're jesting. I thought you must work in the Royal Stables,' Halmir exclaimed.
'Promise you we're not.' Elfwine laughed. 'I know it's difficult to believe looking at us, but we wanted to get away from formality for a bit and took care that nobody would recognise us. But if you doubt, it won't be for long. I predict that one of Rohan's Royal Guard will be here pretty soon.'
Halmir flicked his eyes between them, his mouth set into a scornful line. But then he laughed. 'Do I have to get up and bow? It seems an awful exertion, and with you not wanting to be recognised ...'
Elfwine grinned, warming to him. 'I can tell you still don't believe us, and even if you did, I don't think we deserve any deference. Anyway, the last thing we want is for a guard to poke his nose through the grill and catch you bowing. Best to sit here quietly until rescue comes. That will be proof in itself.'
'It might be longer than you think,' Eldarion mused. 'Elenna and Ceolwen will take a time to walk up to the stables.'
'My father intended to be closeted with yours all day, so Eóthain should be around somewhere,' Elfwine put in. 'But you're right, if I know Ceolwen, she'll probably settle the mare before going and finding anyone.' He threw Halmir an enquiring glance. 'Ceolwen and I thought from the beginning your mare was of Wingfoot's line and her name tends to confirm our guess. I am intrigued as to how you came by her.'
Halmir hesitated. A flash of anger, or perhaps pain, crossed his face before he answered. 'My mother was given a Rohirric mare in the war. Aéfre was in foal, and produced a beautiful filly my mother called her Dreamcatcher' He stopped, his mouth twisting into a sneer. 'One day two Rohirrim came riding to our vineyard, one on a beautiful stallion named Wingrider.'
'You know him?'
'I should do, he's the captain of my mother's guard. The Queen of Rohan, that is,' Elfwine made clear, in case Halmir still didn't believe who he was.
Obviously taken aback, Halmir's lips thinned. 'He never said that. He said he came to buy wine for the Courts of Edoras, at least that's the excuse he gave.'
'Déor visited you to buy wine?' That sounded totally unlikely. Elfwine's astonishment must have come over in his voice.
'So you think it strange too. But that's what he did. We send a yearly order to Edoras...' he hesitated, the smouldering anger all too apparent. 'And with the delivery a letter goes to him from my uncle, reporting on my health and achievements.'
'But why...?' Elfwine stopped. No, what he was thinking couldn't be true.
'Too obvious, I'm afraid,' Eldarion said thoughtfully. 'I thought there was something familiar about you.'
'Are you saying Déor is your father?' Elfwine said, trying to make sense of what Halmir was telling them.
Halmir shrugged. 'What would you think? He turns up unexpectedly to buy wine. Demands no payment when his stallion covers my mare, except to ask me to write to him every year as to how any offspring progresses. I have done that, telling him how I broke and trained Greywing and what a magnificent horse she is...' His voice broke with emotion. 'And then I find out that is not the only letter that goes to him, my uncle writes as well.'
Elfwine shook his head. 'I can hardly believe it.'
'Can't you!' he snarled. 'It's pretty obvious I'm a by-blow from the war. You thought I was from Rohan, and those louts soon honed in on it.'
Elfwine raked his fingers through his hair. 'But are you sure it's Déor? What does your mother say about it?'
'Oh, she wouldn't admit it. Not after years of passing me off as her dead husband's. But her silence spoke for her. My mother can be very tight-lipped.'
'What about your uncle? Didn't you say he was writing to Déor?'
Halmir dropped his head, his face reddening. 'I challenged him with that. He started to try and explain, and it was obvious my suspicions were true. But I lost my temper and said things I shouldn't have. Before I knew it, I was riding away with a vague notion of going to Rohan. But when I got here, the fair was on and I desperately need some coin. You know the rest.'
Elfwine felt stunned, he could only think of the trouble ahead. Eldarion glanced at him sympathetically, before he turned to Halmir. 'So what are you going to do now? When we get out of here, that is.'
'Find my father and punch him on the nose!' Halmir's blue eyes darkened and he spat out the next words. 'After that I want to know why he behaved like a stinking rat, leaving my mother to bring me up for ten years, reappearing for a few days, only to go off again.'
'Look,' Elfwine said, wanting desperately to placate him and ward off an ugly scene, 'I agree the evidence is damning, but I think it would be better if you found out for certain before you confront him. I find it difficult to believe that Déor would act dishonourably, so let me talk to my father first. They have been friends since childhood and he will be able to find out the truth quietly.'
'And warn me off!'
'No, I don't mean that. But Déor does have a wife and child here and they don't deserve to be upset if there is any mistake. But be assured, although you don't believe it, my father is the King of Rohan and he would not allow anyone, even a friend, to evade their responsibilities.'
To be continued.
List of original characters appearing or mentioned in this chapter.
Halmir Son of Guleth and Éomer.
Ceolwen Elfhelm's youngest daughter.
Elfwine – born FA1
Eldarion – born TA 3020
Elphir and Meren:
Alphros m – born 3017; Elphin m – born 3020 ; Eldir m – born FA4; plus one girl.
Erchirion and Inayah:
Two daughters and one son.
Amrothos and Devoran:
Elenna f – born FA2; Rosriel f – born FA5; Carafin m – born FA7 (became Lord of Morthond when Devoran was given her inheritance); Baranir m – born FA8; Lindis f born FA11 (married Déor and Byrde's son, Caedda)
Eóthain and Welwyn:
Leofcwen f – born Yule 3020 ; Eadrid m – born FA5; plus three more.
Déor and Byrde:
Caedda m – born FA6 (married Lindis; four children including Osmund)
Elfhelm and Wilflede
Bronwyn – f born 3019
Caedmon – m born 3021
Ceolwen – f born FA 3
Hrodgar – m born FA 5
Æbbe and Godric