12. Of Mares and Brats
At midday they came to the place where Bádon and Echil were to part with them. No roads led east there, only south. They had hoped to find a path through a small wood; that would have hidden their departure. But there were no woods or even small growths to be seen, except for one, and that proved too dense to travel outside the road. And so they had to cut across the fields. Above a flock of crows flew, circling the patches of tilled land. Corn-crows: they should be safe.
Southwards Éomer rode with the remaining men. The rest had helped a little for Bergil's distress, and he said nothing of the lingering ache behind his eyes. But those that knew him would have noticed that he was more quiet and withdrawn than usual. Fastred noticed, but there was little they could do. Too little time for them to do other than press on. The horses only did they try to spare; they had to hold the whole road, and when – if – they were to succeed, then would start another race. More deadly and demanding than the present one.
A few hours after they had parted with Echil and Bádon, they stopped for a rest. The geldings were hobbled and left to graze, but Éomer insisted that the mares be kept away from Firefoot. Fastred's mare had gone into heat as well, and both the mares were shamelessly lifting their tails to all the males, but Firefoot got the brunt of their attention.
"He is thin enough as it is," Éomer said. "We need to keep him away from the others so that he can rest and eat. The mares are the worst, but the geldings stress him too, if the mares are too close."
Bragloth was sent to watch the mares while Fastred cared for Firefoot. The rest kept an eye on the geldings while they rested and ate.
An hour before nightfall they passed an abandoned inn. The windows were open and empty, but the roof had not yet fallen in, and it had a door. The land around it was barren, and a grave lay north of the house. Éomer pressed on; he hoped to gain a league or two before the day ended. They gained more; the inn was the only house for two hour's ride, and the first farm they passed had closed their doors and windows. Éomer did not want to force their company on anyone, and so they moved on.
At last, when they had thought they would be forced to sleep under the sky, they saw another farm. The doors and windows were locked, but the farmer answered when they knocked, even if he only opened up a crack to peer out at the travellers.
"Good farmer," Borondir said. "We seek shelter for the night, and have seen no inn. If you will let us have a roof over our heads, and a place where our horses can rest, we will be grateful. We will pay you for the trouble, and also for any feed you might be able to spare for the animals."
The farmer did not answer his question at first. He peered at them through the crack, silently counting their numbers.
"What kind of payment do you offer?" he asked at length. "The patrol that passed here four days ago paid me handsomely: they let me live. My chickens and pig were not as lucky."
"We have coin," Aduiar said. He was standing behind Borondir, close enough to signal that Borondir spoke on his behalf. "I am the mayor of the town of Calembel. I travel with the chosen men of that town to be at Minas Tirith for the celebrations, and we have long to travel. We ask only a roof over our heads. Beds if you have them, but the men can easily sleep in the barn."
Fear crept into the farmer's face. "Lord Mayor," he said. "Forgive my words. It is my pleasure to serve, it is. Any help I can offer is yours to take. No payment."
At his words, Éomer wanted to leave. He was about to order the men around when Aduiar spoke again.
"Good farmer," the mayor said. "You need not fear. I have an unusual ailment of my ears; I cannot hear any words spoken against the good Steward's rule or against the soldiers that preserve the peace the Eastern Lord has declared. I turn deaf whenever such words are spoken. It gives me great peace of mind.
"Now, what rooms have you to spare? If you have a bed for myself and my servant, I would be grateful. With me are three more men that represent my town, and three hunters that have agreed to serve as guards."
The farmer opened the door. "Lord," he said. "My bed is broad. Once I shared it, but my wife is dead; it is yours for the night. One more bed I have; it was my son's. He too is gone and needs it no more. Take that too, for whomever of your men you'd choose. For the rest, I can offer the benches and the floor around the fire. There is the barn as well. Room for two or three horses, and a pen outside. There is straw on the loft. That is all; I am a poor man. There is not much room."
"I thank you," Aduiar said. "It will be enough." He turned to Éomer.
"Master Rodhaer," he said. "If two of your men would sleep in the barn, near the horses and the gear? The rest of us, I think, will fit inside."
Éomer nodded, remembering his role. "As you wish. I shall arrange it."
The farmer disappeared soon after he had showed them where to sleep. The farm was small, and the house would not hold him as well as the travellers. Once, they could see, it had been well kept and cared for. But lacking both wife and child the farmer could no longer keep it all in order. On the table they could see fresh stains of blood, and a cut that looked as if a knife had been set into the wood. That, too, looked new.
"See if you can find where he has hid," Éomer told Húrin. "I think he only wishes to keep out of our way, but we cannot risk that he give us away."
"To whom?" Húrin asked. "A patrol or the Faithful, if any abides near?"
"Either," Éomer replied. "And I would know how he truly feels. He feared us, and I do not like that we have taken his house and his bed, even for a night, through fear."
"Very well, I will seek him out. Perhaps he will confide in me, but I cannot promise that I will gain his trust."
"Keep an eye on him, and also keep him away from eavesdropping. I need to speak with Aduiar and it would be tiresome to guard my every word. It is too late at night to play games with words in case of hiding ears."
Húrin nodded and left. Éomer could trust that he would keep them safe for the night, or give some warning that they might be overheard. Still he waited until after the evening meal, when the men prepared such beds that they could make. He left them to it and took Aduiar aside.
"I know it is too late to change," Éomer began, "but why did you accept the farmer's offer? You saw, as well as I, his fear. I do not wish to bully those that are already pushed around, or win my way with fear. We could have made our camp outside by the road."
"Bergil needs the rest," Aduiar replied. "As do the men and the horses. Your stallion could use some rest for his constant wooing of my mare; you said as much this afternoon."
"It is the mare that does the wooing."
"It makes little difference, and that you know. And if we left, the farmer would have been in more fear than now. When I declared my name and station, I also declared that I had won the confidence of those that serve the Enemy. That I serve him myself. No such man would let an insult lie, and refusing hospitality would be an insult most grave. So he would fear that when I reached Linhir, I would send soldiers back. And this time the payment would be his farm, along with his life."
"Very well," Éomer said. "You words are true. But we will leave him payment; on that I will insist."
"Of course," Aduiar said.
They left before the sun rose. The farmer was not there to see them on their way, so Aduiar left a purse on his table with payment for the food and for the bed. Far more, Ingold protested, than he had ever charged a traveller with, but Éomer had nodded his consent. The farmer could at least replace the pig he'd lost, and maybe some of the hens.
They rode off. Húrin in the front with Éomer, Fastred took the rear.
"Did you speak to him?" Éomer asked. The sound of metal shoes hid most of their words from those behind.
"I did," Húrin answered. "He had made a bed in the hay, as far away from where Fastred had put our gear as he could come. He had not touched it. I had put out signs."
"Good. What did he say?"
"He was wary at first. Distrustful, as may be expected, but he has lost much, and I think he does not have much left to loose. His son was taken by the soldiers three years past, and his wife died long before. He hopes that his son will one day come back; five years of service, he was told, and then his son would return. Because of this, he guards his words."
"Five years? Did the son do something to earn such punishment?"
"No. And no accusations were made. The soldiers claimed that it was the duty of each able-bodied man to serve the Enemy for five years."
Éomer could not recall hearing anything about this rule. He fell back to ride abreast with Aduiar. The Mayor looked at him, and the rest kept their distance, fanning out around them.
"I just learned," Éomer said, "that the Enemy demands a five-year service of every man in Gondor. And that this has been the rule at least the past three years. Why have I not learned of this before?"
"It is no rule," Aduiar replied. "Though a law was pasted about that time that made the serfs little more than slaves. The rumour is that the lord Faramir opposed it for so long that he at last was called to the Black Land. When he returned, the law passed within a day."
"The farmer's son was taken three years ago; the soldiers claimed it was his duty to serve for five years." Éomer did not think that it sounded like the same thing.
Neither did Aduiar, but he did not comment on that. "I do not think he will return," he said. "The Enemy does, from time to time, when there are too few rebels caught to serve his need for slaves, draft young men to his service. I have heard of none that return. Worked to death in the Enemy's mines, no doubt. This most likely is what happened to the farmer's son."
Éomer had nothing to say to that; it sounded all too true, and too familiar. Instead he asked: "Are we in danger?"
"Of being drafted? No," Aduiar answered. "You are already serving me; the soldiers would not take someone already serving in some manner; there are enough people to take from."
"I am not sure if that is comforting," Éomer said.
In the evening they reached Linhir. The land around was tilled, and more people travelled there. At the gate, they were asked not just their names and purpose, but of papers to prove that they were allowed to travel more than two days' distance.
These papers Aduiar had made ready for them, and the guards quickly let them in when they learned his rank. That also made them able to secure two rooms at the inn, and stables for their horses. The night was quiet, but in the morning they were delayed, more than Éomer liked.
The soldiers at the gate kept records of all travellers that passed through the town, and the magistrate of the city had been alerted when the mayor of Calembel had arrived. He sent his servant to request the mayor's presence: the magistrate had a few questions that he needed to confer with the mayor about, the servant explained.
"Will it take long?" Aduiar asked. "As the magistrate well should know, the celebrations are only a week off, and Minas Tirith is still a good five days' travel – if nothing happens on the way. The news reached us late."
The servant bowed. "No, lord Mayor, it will not take long. The Magistrate knows well the pressing time. He is himself unable to attend; he has an ailment that prevents him from travel. This is a regret to him, and he would not dream of hindering any that wish to attend this year's celebrations."
"Very well," Aduiar replied. "But my servant is not well; I will bring with me another of the men. Will that be acceptable to the magistrate?"
"Of course," the servant said. "I will escort you there by the shortest road."
Aduiar nodded. He glanced at Éomer and saw that the king would go with him. He said: "Master Rodhaer, have your men make ready to leave; we will meet them here when we return."
Fastred looked as if he wanted to protest, but that would bring more danger than for his king to go with the mayor. Éomer nodded, but he said:
"My advice, lord Mayor, would be that we all meet at the gate. The magistrate's house is closer to the eastern gate; we have to cross the river to reach it. It would save time to have the men await us on the other side rather than to go back and forth."
"Your words are wise; let it be so."
Linhir lay on both sides of the river Gilrain, connected with two bridges, one large and one small. The servant led them through the street along the river-shore until they reached the closest. It was large enough to allow one ox-cart to pass, but nothing else. The wood creaked under the weight whenever a heavy-loaded cart passed. It even creaked when Éomer stepped on it. Underneath the river was too deep to wade. Its waters were dark, and the smell of waste whiffed up on the bridge when the wind was right.
The wind was right, and Éomer wondered whether it had smelled that way before the war.
Linhir was larger and wealthier than Calembel. The houses were all of stone – all but the poorest parts of the town – and tall; two stories high or more at the least. On the east side of the bridge they passed several tall houses before the servant led them up another road, to a square.
It was paved with large slabs of white stone. In the middle a fountain was raised where water was thrown high up into the air and fell in glittering drops back into the basin. In the centre of the fountain there was a statue of a man astride a horse. Tall and imposing. He wore a helmet that covered his head so that his face was not shown and in his hand he gripped a naked sword. Éomer shuddered to see it; he could feel his skin covered by stone, freezing him.
The servant walked past the fountain without a word. On the other side of the square there was a large house. To Éomer the square and buildings seemed to be the same as the Mayor's Mansion in Calembel, only magnified. And more magnificent.
"Who is the magistrate of Linhir now?" Aduiar asked. "News travels too slowly to my small town. Is Lord Medli still in office?"
"He is," the servant said.
"He wishes, then, no doubt to hear news from his old town."
The comment was for Éomer's benefit, and he understood why he was reminded of Calembel; the magistrate was the same that had the Mansion built.
"The magistrate keeps his own counsel," the servant answered. "You will know his wishes soon enough."
If Aduiar was perturbed by the servant's words, he did not show it. "Of course," he said.
In truth he understood well that the magistrate wished to keep him guessing and in doubt. Before he had been able to secure the position of mayor in Calembel, Aduiar had worked in many capacities within the structure of administration the Enemy had put in place, and he had himself used the same tactic many times. He knew better than to worry about it. Worry will make one reveal more than one wants.
The servant showed Aduiar into the hall where the magistrate gave audiences. Having worked his way upward from being a lesser officer among the Corsairs, the magistrate aimed ever higher, and he had assumed all the finery and trappings of power that he could get away with.
The hall resembled the audience-chamber of the Citadel in Minas Tirith with its stone columns and row of statues of great men. On a dais at the far end of the hall the magistrate sat enthroned on a great chair, carved from one whole block of wood, and gilt so that it shone like gold. Behind the chair a mural covered the whole wall, reminiscent of the one in Calembel. It, too, showed an image of Minas Tirith, but its motif was not the Coronation of the King; this mural depicted a moment from the battle of the Pelennor.
The White City towered against a dark sky, and in front was painted a fallen horse, white against the dark earth of the field. So large was the picture that the image was as large as a horse would be in life – or even larger. Underneath the horse lay the body of a man, crushed by the fallen horse. A crown was on his head. Beside him, on the ground, lay a banner trodden into the mud. White Horse on green. A great shadow rose above the Fallen, taller than the towers.
It took Éomer all the self-restraint he had not to react, not even to bat an eye at what he saw. He stayed two steps behind Aduiar, staring straight ahead. He had never thought he would one day owe Wormtongue any thanks, but this day he did. If not for all the times he had had to bow and listen to the Worm's words in his uncle's mouth, and nod, and say nothing, he would not have been able to seem undisturbed now.
Aduiar, who had never seen his sister lying slain on the field, nor knew the truth of the scene that, here, was shown to be a triumph of the shadow, walked calmly up the length of the hall to greet the magistrate. His sharp eyes that ever noticed the small signs that others overlooked, saw – and his mind noted – the Black Fleet coming up the river that the artist had put in the background. Small, and banished into a corner where only those eyes that would not be blinded by the splendour of the central image would see them.
He smiled, and bowed his head in greeting.
"Lord Magistrate," he said. "I am honoured that you still remember me, and that you would so graciously grant me a moment of your time. How may I serve?"
The magistrate did not reply at first. He looked at Aduiar and Éomer with a look that was meant to be intimidating and stern. His head hunched forward, and his shoulders were rounded and slumped. Éomer stayed calm under that stare, and he assumed the stance of a soldier on guard; shoulders straight and relaxed, feet his shoulders' width apart, eyes looking forward without ever meeting anyone's gaze. Not deigning to meet the magistrate's eyes.
But Aduiar met the gaze and held it, and waited until the magistrate would speak. And as the silence grew, it was the other that felt the pressure of it. His eyes began to wander.
"Yes, yes," he said. "Good of you to come, and all that." The magistrate floundered a bit, then he spoke again. "I do not recognise the face of your servant – or guard, or whatever he is…"
"Of course," Aduiar said. "Forgive me: this is the Master Rodhaer. A hunter by trade, but he has graciously agreed to escort me, and the chosen men from Calembel, to the celebrations in the White City, and with him two other men of which he is the leader. Their trade has been slow, and Master Rodhaer himself did me a great favour just a few days ago. It is a profitable arrangement for us both."
"But I sent to you a guard, most loyal and true, this autumn. Why would you need to hire new guards, and strangers at that?"
"A good question indeed and one I would have asked myself," Aduiar replied. "Yes, you did send a guard, and Gwidor was most loyal. I would have trusted him even to watch over Calembel until my return. Alas, that could not be."
The magistrate was taken aback by this reply.
"Yes, if fate had been kinder."
"As you said, my lord; he was a most loyal and true guard."
The magistrate frowned. "I mean: what do you mean by saying 'was' and 'if' and 'it could not be'? If you have not left him in your town, where is he?"
"He is dead."
A mixture of worry and relief washed across the magistrate's face. He did not voice neither relief nor fear, but asked instead: "By whose hand? What was the manner of his death?"
"You know, Lord Magistrate," Aduiar began, "that Gwidor was most eager to serve the Eastern Lord, and to rout out any man or woman that harboured any treacherous thoughts against him, be they great or small. In this work lay all his talents.
"He long suspected that a rebel group, a group of those that call themselves 'the Faithful' – never was a greater lie conceived than this; that they who faithlessly would work against the Benefactor of us all, would claim to be the faithful ones. But I digress; Gwidor thought that one of these groups of rebels that pester our land had taken refuge in my peaceful town. But it proved most difficult for him to sniff them out." The mayor paused to gauge the magistrate's reaction to his words. He only waved him on in a gesture Aduiar knew to be in imitation of the one he himself used when urging someone to continue their speech. He almost smiled.
"My lord," he continued. "Two suspects were arrested since Gwidor came at the falling of the leaves. Both proved innocent, and we could get no lead on any of the rebels. It was as if they had a spy in our midst. A spy most dangerous, we feared.
"We found the spy a day before we left, and he proved most dangerous indeed."
"How so? Where is the spy now?" The magistrate leaned forward, eager to learn the news. "Why have you not brought him here to be interrogated?"
"Lord, Gwidor was killed by the same spy that he revealed; this man, Master Rodhaer, witnessed it, and helped us stop the danger to us all."
At that the magistrate turned to Éomer. "Step forward," he said. "I would see the eyes of those I speak to."
Éomer complied. He stepped forward and met the magistrate's eyes. "My lord," he said.
"Tell me what happened; who was the spy?"
"Lord Magistrate," Éomer said. "It was revealed that one close to the Lord Mayor has in all these years been one of those that call themselves Faithful. I came to witness the fight between this man and the guard, Gwidor, by sheer chance, unless fate played a part. The faithless traitor had captured one of my men, a young man hardly grown, and threatened him. There was a fight, and Gwidor was killed, but not before he stabbed his opponent. The man died the same night. He bled out from the wound that Gwidor inflicted."
"And who was this rebel that you did not know, Aduiar?" the magistrate asked. His voice was filled with glee. "This rebel close to you that you did not detect?"
"My servant, Targon," Aduiar said. His voice did not shift, but the mirth that had lingered at the edge of his words was gone. "I learned from him that he had been a rebel since before our Lord took this land of Gondor underneath his wing to protect her, even against herself. He was among those that held the gate against the Lieutenant of Barad-dûr before the Steward surrendered. He never accepted his Lord's rule."
"He has been with you for many years." The glee grew stronger with each word. Taunting. Mocking.
"He has, my lord. And I considered him to be most loyal and true; no doubt he has learned much in my service. I have not learned how he passed the information on, but I think his contacts do not live in Calembel. I cannot say for certain, but it seemed from what little he said before he died, that he would relay his tidings to rebels that passed through my town in the disguise of travellers." Aduiar stayed calm. His voice was even, but his head was bent a little, as if in shame.
"No doubt, my lord, I will be reprimanded for my trust in one so little deserving. I can only hope the damage is not too severe, and that my mistake will not reflect on those that appointed me to my position, and whose approval of my servant was one of the reasons that I gave him my trust."
The magistrate grew pale at those words.
"I do not think that you are much to blame; the man was clever, and a skilled deceiver. And even less should those that did not work beside him daily, be blamed." All glee was gone from his voice, and Éomer looked at him and thought: A coward, fearing for his skin where he at first rejoiced in the misfortune of those under him in rank. He did not pity him.
"How very true, my lord," Aduiar replied, as if he had seen or heard no change. "I hope the authorities in Minas Tirith feel the same. But one thing has puzzled me, and perhaps you can shed some light on that mystery. When first he arrived, Gwidor seemed content to watch and listen, and to slowly try to gain his suspects' trust. But then it changed, and it changed suddenly as if he overnight had been made aware of a constraint; that he had a date before which he had to catch the spy. This haste, I fear, made him reckless and led to his demise."
"When was this?" the magistrate asked.
"In the spring, just before the month of March began."
The magistrate sat up in his chair. "Leave us," he told Éomer. "You can wait outside; I must speak with you master alone."
He knows something. Éomer bowed and left.
The distance from the far wall and the door made it impossible to hear what the two talked about, and Éomer resigned himself to wait. Aduiar would tell him all that he needed to know, both of what the magistrate had said, and what he had not said.
Time passes slowly when all to be done is to wait, and even more slowly when one knows not how long the waiting will take. There were no chairs to sit in, and little to do. Not even many ornaments or images to study. The thick stone walls made the hallway seem narrower than it was, but light fell in from large, open windows. From the windows Éomer could see the square outside, and quite a far way down the streets. People moved around, and on occasion a clerk or servant would cross the square, going from one door to the next. Éomer traced the time by watching the sun's movement across the sky, and how the shadows moved over the walls and floor. After an hour's time he gave up, and climbed into the niche of the window that faced the door. It was, at least, somewhere to sit.
"I am not allowed to sit there."
Éomer scolded himself; he had allowed his thoughts to drift and had not paid attention to his surroundings. Húrin would have had something to say to that. And this time he had none around to keep watch in his stead.
"Why do you sit there?"
It was a small boy, no more than ten years of age, if Éomer guessed right. Perhaps less.
"Who are you?" Éomer asked the boy. "And what are you doing in this place? Is this a place for children to play?"
"I live here," the boy said. "And my father sometimes lets me stay with him when he works. I am big enough, he says." And in the manner of children, the boy did not let his question lie until it had been answered. "Why do you sit there?"
"Because, little boy who lives here," Éomer replied, "there are no chairs to sit on, and this windowsill is much better than to sit on the floor."
"Oh," the boy said. "I did not think of that. But why do you not go somewhere else? There are lots of chairs in the rooms."
"Ah, but I am waiting for a man. He is inside that room to talk with the magistrate."
"The magistrate wanted to speak to him."
"No," the boy said, patient with this grown-up that did not understand. "Why do you wait for him here? There is not much to do here."
"True," Éomer said. "There is not much to do here."
"I would be bored. Are you bored? Is that why you climbed the window? I like to climb, but my father says that I am not allowed to climb the windows. Or to climb at all. He says that only commonbrats climb anywhere. Do you know what a commonbrat is?"
Éomer did have some experience with children – his sister-son was nine this winter – but where to begin with so many questions?
"What?" The boy thought him strange?
"Why does your hair look funny?"
By the mearas, what was wrong with his hair?
"Why is the colour all wrong?"
"What do you mean 'wrong'?" Éomer frowned. Asteth had ensured him that the colour covered all and that no part was left blonde.
"I don't know," the boy said. "It looks all wrong, as if it was not yours."
"It is," Éomer said. "It is all mine – look!" he took a fistful of his hair and pulled on it, "it is stuck to my head."
The boy looked down. He fiddled with his shirt and rocked a little on his feet.
"What!" Éomer said.
"My nanny says not to be rude."
He could not remember his nephew being like this.
"I am sorry," the boy continued. "Sometimes, in the streets, there are people that look all wrong; they have no legs, or no arms, or something else. Nanny says I must not tell them so; it makes them sad. I forgot. I am sorry I said your hair was wrong. Don't be sad."
Éomer vowed that if ever he had children of his own – and he knew he should get some as soon as he could to pacify Elfhelm – they would learn how to keep their thoughts straight in their heads as soon as they could talk.
"Listen," he told the boy. "I did not choose my hair, it just is that way. Why don't you run along and find some other boys to play with?"
The boy shook his head. "My father does not want me to play with them. They are commonbrats."
"Yes. My father says: 'Don't run around like those commonbrats; you are far better than them. Don't climb the trees; don't play in the pond – that is for commonbrats, not the mag'strate's son.' What is a commonbrat? He never told me."
"Common brats, you mean?"
"I don't know. My father always says commonbrats, but he don't tell me what it is." The boy seemed to think. "Are you one?"
"Neither common nor brat, not anymore," Éomer said. "Why did you think so?"
"I just thought," the boy said. He picked at a scab on his nose. "My father says they climb, and you must have climbed up into the window." He looked sad. "I am not allowed."
"Wait a moment," Éomer said. His ears must be slow, only now did the boy's words connect. "You are the magistrate's son?"
The boy nodded. He looked at Éomer with big, brown eyes, not unlike a puppy begging for a treat.
"Do you want to see what the square looks like from up here?"
He lit up. "You'd let me?"
Éomer jumped down. He lifted up the boy in his arms. He was small and light, far lighter than his nephew; perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps the boy was much younger than he thought.
"You see," he said, "a boy should listen to his father." The boy nodded and worried his lip. He would not be allowed upon the windowsill after all!
"And what did your father say?"
"Not to sit in the window?"
"Whas that what he said?" Éomer asked. "Was it not something else? Something about common brats?"
"Only commonbrats climb."
"Exactly," Éomer said. "And so we will not." And with those words he lifted the boy up to the niche so that he could sit there safely. "And now it is my turn." He jumped and heaved himself up beside the boy. "See, now we are here, and no climbing was involved."
The boy laughed. "I can see the whole town!"
He chattered on about all he saw, naming servants that he knew, pointing at the streets and houses and the animals he saw. Éomer listened with half an ear and kept his arm around the boy, lest he should fall. And time went faster when they were two.
A bell rang. A little later a voice called: "Angur! Where are you?"
"That was nanny," the boy said.
"Is she looking for you?" Éomer asked.
"Probably. Wait until she can see me up here!"
"I do not think that is wise," Éomer said. "We should go down. Nannies always worry far too much." He pulled the boy close and then: "Hang on." He jumped back to the ground with the boy in his arms.
"That was fun," the boy said. "Thanks." He grinned, and Éomer grinned back. The door opened behind his back, and he turned quickly.
Aduiar stood there. He was alone.
"Now, Master Hunter," he said. "I hope you were not bored; it took far longer than I had suspected, and now we must hurry."
"I was most graciously entertained by this young man," Éomer replied. He turned back to the boy. "I must leave now, my friend. I thank you for the company and bid you farewell. Remember to listen to your father, just like we did today." He winked at the boy, and the boy giggled.
"Bye!" And with no more talk, the boy turned and ran along the hallway, towards the calling voice.
"We have to run ourselves," Aduiar said. "Or close to it. The magistrate kept me long, and would gladly have kept me longer, I think. We should have left two hours ago."
"Fastred will be beside himself," Éomer said. "He has picked up the bad habit of worrying about me; he did not do that when he rode with me before. He left all the worrying to..."
Aduiar cut him off. "We better go." In a voice so low that Éomer almost missed it, he added: "Some people are better not named inside where other ears can hear."
"Yes, lord Mayor," Éomer replied. Aduiar was right: he needed to be more careful. "As you wish."
Fastred had worried; as had all the men, but there would be time enough to tell what had happened later. They needed to be on their way.
They rode faster than the day before, but at the middle of the day, they were forced to halt and rest. They had not come as far as Aduiar and Ingold had hoped, but Éomer would not tire the horses overmuch. They found a spot where they would see any travellers approach on either side, long before they came close enough to hear them talk. And while they rested Aduiar told what he had learned.
The messenger who had been sent from Minas Tirith with a copy of the Steward's letter had been caught close to the border. He had tried to cross at Halfirien, using the cover of the wood, but the patrol had found him.
"He managed to destroy the copied letter before he was caught; he must have known that his chances to escape were small once the border-guard was alerted to his presence. His horse was hit, and though he evaded them for a while on foot, they managed to surround him in the end," Aduiar told them. "The magistrate did not know what message he had carried, and I think the Enemy did not learn much from him before he died. They gleaned enough to suspect that news passed between Gondor and Fangorn, and that somewhere along the White Mountains the Faithful met to exchange news. Calembel was one of the towns along the mountains where they thought there could be rebels gathering. It did not matter that no arrests had been made in a long time. It was not seen as sufficient proof that the Faithful met elsewhere.
"A message was sent to Gwidor at the end of April. The magistrate did not say how much Gwidor was told, but I think I can even guess at the day; he went to Ethring on the twenty-ninth. When he returned, he pressed much harder to look for spies, and there was a fever in his eyes, as if he knew his time was short. I think he had a contact in Ethring whom he reported to and from whom he got his news and orders. But no report has been sent the last two weeks, and the magistrate had expected to talk with him when we passed through Linhir. The magistrate was concerned about the loss of his spy. He fears to be overlooked, or worse – lose his position. That he will not be in Minas Tirith for the celebrations will be held against him. He hoped that Gwidor would find him some important members of the Faithful. That would secure his position, and even buy him more influence if he caught someone important enough."
"But why does he not go to the celebrations?" Ingold would know. "That would at least help him keep his position."
"He cannot; he is too ill to travel," Aduiar replied. "He sits in his chair because he can no longer walk around for longer stretches without aid. He does not want anyone to know it. He thinks that I do not."
There was little else said for a while. They ate in silence, and then prepared the horses to leave. Húrin kept an eye on Bergil to see if his headache had grown better. If not, the hit had to have been more serious than he had thought and Bergil might need more rest than they had time to take. But luck was with them; Bergil was much better, just a lingering pain behind the eyes that he was sure would disappear the next day.
"Tell me if does not," Húrin said.
They did not find any inn along the road that night, and no farm. Éomer would not look for any. He would rather camp outside, and not have to worry about listening ears.
They struck camp after dark. The horses were a problem; the two mares were still in heat and Firefoot was getting distracted by their swishing tails.
"Let him run with Isnod, my lord," Fastred said at last. "I had not planned to breed her, but it might calm them both down and he is a good match for her."
Éomer nodded. It might be for the best. "You can pay the fee later," was all he said.
"Of course, my lord," Fastred replied. "If it is a stallion, I will give him to you, if it is a mare, she is mine. Will that do?"
The answer made Éomer laugh. "You and your mares," he said. "Go let her have what she wants. I could never understand why you would ride one, troublesome as they are."
"She does, at least, take his mind of the geldings," Fastred replied. "I am sure Bereth is relieved. He would not bear as good a foal as Isnod will."
"Leave my horse out of this," Húrin said. "It is not his fault that stallion does not know a gelding from a mare."
"He does now."
The two horses had spared no time when they at last were let together. In the dark they mostly heard the noises, but those made it clear that the mare was more than willing.
"Remember to rest; you will still have to go a long way tomorrow," Éomer called to the dark. If Firefoot listened at all, the horse gave no heed. "I just hope he will eat a bit afterwards."
They tended to their own needs: a warm fire. Food. Rest. In that order. Éomer assigned the watches, and those that could found their rest.
Fastred shared the first watch with Aduiar. He did not know why Éomer had put the two together, but the Mayor might have had something to do with it. Fastred had not talked much with him since they left Calembel and their first conversation had left him uncomfortable. He did not know what to say now, so he stayed silent.
"There is a matter that puzzles me," Aduiar said. "Perhaps you could help me by answering a question?"
Fastred nodded; how else could he respond?
"Why does your lord comment on your horse being a mare?"
"They are not usually ridden, not by the men. And not in war. Stallions are preferred, and geldings may be used too; mares are used for breeding."
"Yet you ride a mare, and by choice, it seems to me. Why is that?"
"It is a rather long story," Fastred replied.
"We have time," was all Aduiar said. He waited, and the silence stretched out, inviting Fastred to fill it.
"It was a long time ago," he said. "And the story is not as exciting as you seem to think."
"I do not need exciting. I only wish to pass the time."
Fastred sighed. He stared into the flames a moment to gather his thoughts and to find the memories of a happier time.
"It was many years ago," he began. "In my sixth summer. My father was a horseherder and after the snowmelt he would be gone, months at a time, herding the horses. We would not see him from snowmelt until well after midsummer, but in my sixth summer he came home late in May. He brought with him a mare, heavy with foal. All the other mares had foaled, but this one had taken late the year before and the foal had not yet come. She was lame, and the herders did not know what had happened, so my father took her home to care for her until she foaled.
"My father was never home in the early summer.
"That spring I had finally been allowed to learn to care for the horses, and I wanted to show my father how much I had learned. How good, or so I thought, I had become. So I asked if I could care for the mare.
"'No,' my father said. 'She is not like the horses on the farm. She is young and has never seen anything but the Great Plains, the herd and the herders. She is half wild, like many of the brood-mares, and her foals will become war-horses for the king's men.'
"I only nodded and said: 'Yes, father.' I never dared argue with him, but in my pride I thought that he was wrong. I could handle any horse, even a wild mare, heavy with foal.
"For many days I watched the pen she had been put in. She stood alone, and she was restless. Every night my father would watch over her, to see if the foal would come, but every morning the mare would be alone in her pen, and my father would sleep to midday.
"On the sixteenth day of waiting, my father was so tired that he stumbled when he came in to break his fast. We all sat at the table, and my mother helped him to his chair. He said nothing, too tired to speak.
"'Has the foal come?' my mother asked. She sat the bowl of gruel before him on the table, and he picked up the spoon to eat, but all he did was to stir around in the gruel with it. He shook his head.
"'She will not foal,' he said. 'She is not used to pens, and so many people so close. If not for her injury, I would have taken her back, but the plains are dangerous.'
"He let the spoon fall back into the bowl, his food untouched.
"'Go sleep,' my mother said. He nodded.
"'Wake me at midday.'
"'I will wake you when you are rested,' she replied. 'You have slept too little for too long.' He did not answer, but rose, and stumbled off to bed.
"My chance had come.
"That day I stood outside the pen, watching the mare. She stayed away, but I fetched hay, and grains, and tried to lure her closer. Nothing worked. She had grass enough, and no interest in a small boy's antics. She would pace along the fence, as far from me as she could get, swishing her tail. She was more beautiful, I thought, than any of the horses we had at home. A bay, with coat almost as dark as the tarred timber of our home. Unusual among the greys.
"I failed to see the sweat that darkened her colour so. I failed to see the twitches and the jerky turns of her head. When she as last stood still – the sun had reached her midday-height by then – I thought she had at last grown used to my presence, and full of joy I pressed between the planks that made the fence. I ran, all lessons I had learned forgotten, the short distance – far for six-year-long legs – that separated me from her. Ran right into blackness.
"I woke inside. They had put me on the kitchen floor, the only place where fire burned all days and nights. My father stood above me, taller than I ever saw him before, or after. My mother held me, pressing lightly on my chest to see if I was hurt.
"I could not see my father's face.
"The summer-sun shone through the open door, lighting up behind my father's form, and I, I feared what I would see, what I would hear, when he moved and spoke.
"'He is awake,' my mother said.
"He bent down.
"'You scared us, son.' My father's voice was soft. He spoke to foals and frightened colts thus; with that same calm, soft voice. 'Are you well?'
"I tried to nod, but my head was sore and when I moved, the room moved more than I. He said no more to me, but rose and turned, and walked out the door.
'Three days, the healer said, I had to lay inside and rest. No lights, no loud noises and no talk. I waited, bored as boys would be, until I could come out. At breakfast that first day that I could go out, my father fell asleep over his food.
"'You cannot go on like this,' my mother said. 'Let me fetch the neighbours; they can help.'
"'It is one day's ride,' my father answered. He did not say anything more. Even I, at six years, knew it was too far.
"'Please,' I said. 'Can I help?'
"'Do you know how to make a mare foal?'
"'No,' I answered. I hung my head; he had not spoken of my foolishness, but now I feared it would come.
"'She should have foaled three days ago; all the signs were there. If she waits any longer, I fear for the foal, and for her.'
"'Can you not make her foal?' I asked. In my childishness I thought my father could make horses fly, if he so wanted.
"He smiled. 'A mare has her own mind,' he said. 'A gelding, or even a stallion, may be forced to do your bidding, but not a mare. The mare has her own mind, and must be gently asked. If she consents, she will grant your wish, and then she will give you all ask and more, but if you try to take, you will get nothing. It is nowhere clearer seen than when she is to foal. She'll choose her own time, and even stop her labours if she is disturbed.'
"I did not know then, as I do now, that with my foolish wish to touch her, I had stopped her labours. But still I knew that I had done her some injustice when I tried to force my presence on her.
"'I want to help,' I said. 'I don't know how. I thought I did, but I did not.'
"'There might be one thing,' my father said.
"'Yes! I will do it!'
"'You have not heard what it is.' But my father smiled, as parents will do to an overeager child.
"'It does not matter. I will do it. Please. Please let me.'
"'I need to sleep,' my father said. 'If you will promise me that you will not go in to the mare, and that you will come and get me and your mother if the mare begins to foal, then you can help me watch her.'
"'I'll do it!'
"'It is dull work,' my father warned. 'But not hard.'
"He taught me, then, what signs to look for in the mare, and when to fetch him out to help. And while he slept at day, I watched the mare, and when she at last, five days later, in the middle of the day, decided that her foal should come, I was there. I ran, and called my parents out, and hurried back to see; and when I came back, the foal was almost out.
"It was so small, so thin. A mare that bore her mother's colour, and no marks. And though my people favour stallions to ride, for work or war, I have, from that day, preferred the mares."
Aduiar did not reply to the story, and Fastred did not need it. Telling it had been enough, a gift that he was grateful for. They sat in silence until their watch was done. Before they found their makeshift beds, Aduiar spoke.
"My father's people always ride the mares to battle and it is considered a great fault in a man to be unable to handle the mares. They are the most loyal mounts when they give their trust."
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.