21. ... Under the Burden of Your Grief
A handful of mounted soldiers waited in the yard when Fastred returned. The boy, Échen, had not found a healer. He had been found by the soldiers instead.
"Are you the one called Thorongil?" one of the soldiers asked. Their leader: A corporal by the look of him.
I know no such man. The words were on his lips, ready to leap out. He caught them in time, remembering that it was the name he had given at the Gate. Húrin had given him a strange look, and Fastred admitted later that it might not have been the best name to choose, but it was the only name Fastred could think of at the time that could fit a man of Gondor. The only other name that popped into his mind had been 'Eorl', and he was not that stupid. So 'Thorongil' it became. The scribe had not commented.
Besides, Fastred had heard the stories from his father, and the name stuck, and it was not as if anyone would believe he was the captain. The man was dead years ago, of old age if nothing else.
"Are you Thorongil?" the guard asked again.
"Yes," Fastred replied. "At your service."
"And your father's name?"
"Ingold." That name was common enough.
The soldier did not comment on any of the names either; he had other concerns. "The condition for your release from the City was that you would not leave the stable and its grounds," he said. "You have broken the restrictions laid on you, and have thus forfeited your freedom. You will dismount and surrender yourself."
"I was merely recapturing this mare," Fastred explained. "The property of the Mayor of Calembel. He would be most displeased should she be lost. I feared injury to her – my fear proved correct, as you can see – and I was the only one here that stood a chance to catch her."
"You will dismount and surrender yourself," the soldier repeated.
"Look, I came straight back here as soon as I had caught her. If I wanted to leave, I would not have come back at all."
"Your reasons are not our concern. Dismount."
Fastred hesitated. He saw no good way out of this, but he was not sure what would be less evil.
Luck, again, helped him by sending a most unexpected saviour: the Nazgûl descended on the great Gate, and its cry sent the horses into a panic for the second time that day.
Somehow, and to the end of his days he did not know how, Fastred managed to stay seated. The mare was bound to the gelding's tail and had no choice but to follow him around and around in small circles in the yard. Fastred could only hope none came too near before both calmed. Until then, all he could do was try to stay seated, and steer the horse in circles to stop it from carrying him away.
The soldiers were less fortunate – or less skilled. Three of them kept their seat, but they were carried off when their horses bolted. The remaining soldiers did not. Their horses followed their companions, leaving their riders on the ground. By the time the corporal had climbed back to his feet, they were out of sight, gone across the fields.
His left arm hung useless by his side, and he limped. His companion did not even rise, but lay groaning on the ground, trying to roll out of reach of the mare's hooves. It was the stable-master who managed to drag him away before she kicked him. It took some time before Fastred got the horses calmed. It was not until the dwimmerlaik had once more returned to the sky, that he had enough control to dismount.
The stable-master had by then summoned the healer to look after the soldiers. The corporal sat on an upturned bucket while the healer prodded at his shoulder. He rose before the healer had quite finished, clearly about to speak. The stable-master spoke quickly, before the soldier could.
"Corporal," he said. "You can see now why I need this man. I noticed his skill with horses and was able to persuade him to work for me. Until the Servant of the Great Lord departs from the City, the horses will be restless at best, and you have experienced yourself the fear of the animals whenever he draws too near. Horses care not for a man's standing – they will throw beggar and lord alike – and so those with the gift of their touch are rare and valuable. Since the Rohirrim refused the protection and gifts of the Great Lord, there are even less with that skill among us. Until the celebrations are over, and the Lord's servant returns, I need this man."
The corporal glared at Fastred, but he nodded to the stable-master. "Very well," he said. "I will drop the matter for now, but if I get into trouble over this, you both shall regret it."
"I thank you," the stable-master said. "And I will of course make sure you suffer no loss from this.
"Thorongil! Go tend to the mare. Your former master will be displeased to see her injured, and your horsemanship will not save you if she is not well cared for now." He turned back to the corporal. "Let us see if we cannot come to an agreement."
It was the last of the conversation Fastred heard. The corporal sat down again to let the healer finish, and the stable-master spoke with him in low voices.
Glad that he did not have to fight his way out and leave the rest of the horses behind, Fastred took the horses to the stables. He left Ingold's gelding to the care of one of the boys, and began tending Aduiar's mare.
She had several small wounds on her forelegs from the splintered wood. Mostly scraped skin, but a few were shallow cuts and one or two of the injuries looked like they were deeper. He would have to wash off the blood before he could tell how serious they were. He turned his attention to her shoulders and flanks next. She had one long but shallow scrape on her left shoulder that bled a little, and on her right flank a small cut, but he found no other injuries.
"How is she?"
Échen put down a bucket of water beside the stall. Clean cloth and bandages, too, and soap to clean the wounds.
"It looks worse than it is, I think," Fastred answered. "I will have to clean the bleeding wounds to know how deep they are, but she showed no sign of lameness when I brought her in, and from what I can see, the wounds are shallow. They may scar, but I do not think she will suffer any damage."
"That is good to hear," the stable-master said. He had entered the stable while Fastred spoke. "Though mayor Aduiar will not be happy to have her scarred. She is his pride and the apple of his eye. His people favour the mares, I have heard."
Fastred only nodded.
"How long before she will heal?" the master asked. "I must be prepared to pay him some compensation for the time she is injured, and I do not think I will be able to charge him for the extra stabling until she is healed."
"I do not think any box-rest is needed," Fastred replied. "I do not know how long it will take for the cuts to grow until I know how deep the cuts are, but she was not lame earlier. She has no cuts where the saddle will lie and I see no serious swelling. If he wanted, the mayor could take her home as soon as she has been cleaned."
"She is bleeding."
"Yes, but horses are not disabled by a little blood. I will bind the cuts if the bleeding does not stop by the time I have cleaned them, and I will probably bind them before the mayor comes for her, though I do not think it will be necessary. It will be more for his benefit than the mare's. In the wild horses suffer worse wounds than these without anyone to tend them, and they are fine."
"Well, I did hire you for your horsemanship," the stable-master said. "But make sure it can be seen that she has been cared for; my reputation hangs in the balance. I will not hesitate to leave you to the soldiers the next time, if you ruin it. The owners expect to see that something is done, should their horses need care."
Fastred nodded. Even in the Mark there were at times disagreements on the best way to keep the horses, and on what measures to take with bleeding wounds. The Faithful had little supplies at the best of times, and so they had learned to spare what they had. They rarely bandaged, or treated a wound beyond a simple cleaning, unless it was truly needed. Not so with those of power in Gondor, he guessed.
Both Échen and the master stayed outside the box while Fastred cleaned the wounds. The mare was restless and it took longer than Fastred had thought to calm her. And she would not let him clean the right leg. After several tries, he gave up.
"Could you go somewhere else, please?" he asked. "Both of you. You are making her more anxious by staring at her. This is difficult enough as it is."
Échen ducked his head and left at once. The stable-master looked at Fastred for a moment before he said: "Two of the soldiers came back horseless; the third was last seen on his horse, being carried further away. They took the corporal and the wounded soldier with them, back to the Gate, but guards will come by regularly. Do not leave the stables again, even to recapture a loose horse. I will stay outside and deal with any loose horses; there will be no need for you to do so." He paused. "You have been useful to me, but today you cost me much. I hope I will have no more trouble for your sake."
"I am sorry," Fastred said. "I…" He did not know what to say: 'I will cause much more before next sunrise'? Or: 'You will not have to worry about me after tonight'? Neither would be well received.
"Just stay inside and do what I hired you to do. The horses in the pens seem less scared; you are needed more here."
"As you wish," Fastred replied. He hoped Echil would find some excuse to enter the stable and find him, or he and Bádon would have to go in blind later. The stable-master left him to finish tending the mare.
The cuts bled more than he had hoped, but he thought she would be able to keep up with the rest. He wrapped both legs to make sure the bleeding stopped, and that the wounds stayed clean as long as possible.
The rest of the day was quiet in comparison. The horses were restless, and one more time the thing came close enough to worry the horses further, but without the panic of the first two times. Fastred did not leave the stable again, but the boys would come and go.
The boy Échen stood a few feet away, watching Fastred clean up the mess where the mare had broken through the wall. Fastred watched him in turn, out of the corner of one eye. The other he kept on the task of rebuilding the wall without making it too sturdy. They might need the way out later. If he could just cover up the hole without actually repairing it…
"I ran really fast."
Yes, I could see. Fastred did not turn to the boy, but he nodded.
"I ran as fast as I could, but the soldiers saw me before I found the healer. They caught me and would not listen." I tried; I really tried. The words were there, unspoken at the edge of his voice.
"It was not your fault." It was mine. If anyone's, it was mine. Fastred still did not turn from his work and Échen fell silent. Shortly after, he left, and another boy took his place. Fastred patched the wall with thin planks, pausing only to make rounds to see to the horses. The mare had stopped bleeding, but he left the bandages on. It would make the stable-master feel better.
"The City is all quiet," Échen said next time he came in. Fastred did not answer. "I thought I heard drums, but Rodhir says I am imagining it."
"There are drums," Fastred answered. "You can feel them through the soles of your feet."
The boy nodded.
Fastred was not sure when the drums had stopped, not sure how the day had come to an end. He knew, at one point, that the dwimmerlaik had left, withdrawn far enough to let the horses calm down. He could see the tension leave them; saw how they began to eat again. How they stopped pacing. The stable-master let him out then, to see to the other horses, but he did not let Fastred out of his sight. Two soldiers came by while he checked Bereth for wounds – one of the boys had seen him almost break through the fence trying to get away from Firefoot. The fence had held, though, and he saw no marks.
The soldiers spoke with the stable-master, and glared at Fastred. Fastred kept his head down and his tongue quiet. They did not speak to him, but they watched him until the master ordered him inside again.
The hours left until nightfall were long and full of rumours. Fastred could not speak with Echil, or any of the men that had been at the Gate, but the boys whispered while they worked, asked him while they ate. As if he knew better than they what had happened in the City. The stable-master watched him, and so he worked and ate and said little.
"The King was whipped," Rodhir, one of the older boys, said. "One of the men said so. They tied him to the Gate an' whipped him 'til he bled."
Échen stopped eating. He carefully put his bread down and stared at it. "Why?" he asked.
"What do you mean 'why'? They did. They are the Great Lord's trusted servants. He must have deserved it." Rodhir spoke with the conviction of youth.
"But he's the King." The King could not do wrong. How could anyone do wrong when they were the King?
The stable-master ended all further debate on the question. "It was the fault of the rebels," he said. "And of the Steward; it was announced by the Prince Imrahil himself. Now eat or get back to work, and don't speak of things you don't understand."
They went back to work shortly after.
Échen worked with Fastred in the stables again. He was sweeping the floor and did his best to stay away from the horses. Especially the mare. He watched while Fastred fed the horses, and stared when he went in to the mare with her food. She danced with impatience and lunged for the hay when he opened the door, but Fastred shooed her of.
"She killed Ingold."
"I know," Fastred answered.
"What if she kills you?"
"It was not her fault," Fastred explained. "The nazgûl scared her. Those things are hard enough for us to bear, but animals – all good animals – fear them. Even the horses of the soldiers fled in panic."
"What if it comes back?" What if she kills again?
Fastred closed the door and turned to the boy. "Listen," he said. "Horses are big, powerful animals. Much stronger than we. But they are also gentle, most of the time, and loyal and brave. They will do anything for you if you win their hearts. If you treat them right.
"They cannot be bribed or bullied; their trust must be earned, and they see through all deceit. You cannot fool them.
"They love freedom and the wide, open skies where the eye sees far and where they can run for days. But when fear takes over their reason, they will flee heedlessly, and if they can't, then wish yourself far away. Do not stand in their way then. I have seen bears and wolves flee and fall before their hooves. But learn to read them right, and you will not be harmed.
"Most of the time."
He only muttered the last, unable – like his king – to lie if he could avoid it. But Échen heard. Of course that was what he heard. Fastred sighed.
"Look," he said. "Horses can be dangerous. Unless they are one of the mearas, the great steeds of the sons of Eorl, they will not understand the speech of Men, which is a language of sounds. Therefore, we must learn the language of horses, which is a language of the body. Learning it, we can most times understand them and know what to do so that neither we, nor the horse, are hurt."
"Have you ever feared them?" Échen looked, if possible, smaller than his build.
Fastred saw why men would lie. "No," he answered. "But I know many that do, or have done so. Many of them are good horsemen too."
"How can they be, if they are afraid?"
"Fear is not always a bad thing. There are things that should be feared, should be avoided if possible. Fear can keep you alive. But fear must be controlled, and sometimes conquered. There might be times where risks must be taken. There may even be times when we must be prepared to die.
"But soon or late, death comes to us all. I would rather live right, despite my fear and despite danger; I would rather live short, and know I lived well. The horses have taught me this, have taught me to live strong and true. How can any that work with them, not love them despite fear?
"How can I fear them, when they have taught me to live?"
Échen looked at him and said nothing for a long time. At last he spoke:
"Then why do you lie?"
Fastred had no answer.
The stable-master stood by the door. Two soldiers flanked him, blocking the opening.
Oh, yes: that was him.
"I am sorry, Master." Fastred gave a bow for good measure. "I fear my mind was occupied; so much to do, horse dung to shovel… But if you but tell me which horses these good soldiers own, I will fetch them at once."
The stable-master shook his head. Damnation! He knew there would be trouble. Soldiers always were.
"I am sorry," the stable-master said. "The corporal did not trust you to keep your word. This was the only way."
Of course Fastred had not intended to stay, still he could not help but to feel offended that the Enemy's men thought him a liar.
Then why do you lie? Échen's voice whispered in his mind. "What do you mean?" he asked, but the stable-master shook his head again.
The two soldiers stepped forward and grabbed Fastred, and a third stepped into the doorway, taking their place there. Chains swung from his good hand, curling and looping between his fingers.
"There is only one way to keep a stray dog in place," the corporal said.
Nightfall came, and Fastred had still not found any answer to Échen's question.
It might have been because he had so many other questions on his mind. Like whether Bádon and Echil would come soon. Or what they would have to do to overpower the stable-master and the boys. How they would avoid detection by the guards before the rebels drew them off. Whether they might be here soon. And how in the name of Béma he would get free from the collar that kept him chained like a dog!
That last question was, he had to admit, the most pressing.
Éomer followed behind Aduiar. He kept his head down, and hoped to luck. Both Húrin and Fastred had been right; it was too risky for him to accompany Aduiar. Húrin should have been here, or Bergil. Probably Húrin. The only one that could recognize Húrin was in no condition to do so. At least Éomer did not think so. He risked a glance.
Several people stood between them and the Master of Isengard. He was not the greatest threat though. Ten years ago, he had not paid attention to Éomer. Ten years ago, Éomer had been deemed of little consequence. Ten years ago, the Eye had not been on him.
Éomer hoped that little would change in that now.
The other two were partly hidden by the throng of people. He could catch a glimpse of them every once and again, but it was not until Aduiar was close enough to greet Isengard that Éomer could see them clearer.
Faramir's face showed nothing, but his eyes… his eyes…
Whatever shall I tell Éowyn, Éomer thought. Not this. Not this…
His eyes were broken.
"I do not believe you."
"What is it that you do not believe?"
"You do not lie well enough, Lord of horses."
Was it amusement that crossed King Éomer's face? Húrin shook his head. "You should not have gone. How could you think you would not be recognised in that crowd?"
"Ah, but I was not," Éomer answered. And, yes, that was amusement in his face. Húrin sighed.
"What makes you so sure that the Steward did not know you?"
That turned Éomer grave.
"I am not," he answered. "But if he did, he did not give me away. I would not sit here if he had."
"You saw him close. You said he was broken. How do you know he will not strike later? Have us all taken together to win the favour of his Master?"
"It is possible," Aduiar pointed out. "Such games are not uncommon. The Faithful have suffered before, thinking themselves to be safe because some lord would rather wait until they could benefit better from their arrest."
"We must leave this house now," he said. "Before Faramir strikes."
"If he means to strike. I do not think he will." Éomer held up his hand before Húrin could speak. "I know your concern, Húrin. You have voiced it clearly enough."
"You said he was broken."
"Like a horse can be broken by a harsh hand. It will make it obey, but not make it faithful to the one that broke it."
Húrin hesitated. "You know the Steward better than me."
"He is the father of my sister-son."
"Do not let it blind you! A broken horse may turn on all men, not just his Master."
"What would you have us do? Abandon our plans? Stay hidden here until the celebrations are over and he is taken back to the Dark Land?"
That silenced Húrin. He bowed his head. They had few options left but to abandon their plan, or follow it with all the risks. He did not need to answer; Éomer knew too well what he would say. Húrin said it anyway.
They rested the last, few hours before sunset. The company that had come with Éomer king fell asleep quickly. The last ten years had taught them that; to fall asleep quickly and lightly at need. Some of them had mastered the art even earlier. Only Ingold had trouble falling asleep.
The City was still holding its breath, unnaturally quiet and tense. Ingold could feel the silence walk through the streets, move up the levels of the City: a shadow of the procession that had walked there earlier. A ghostly memory on the very stones. The more he listened, the more he could feel it, hear the un-sound of the wheels and feel the vibrations of the soundless beat of drums, the silence of them thrown between the walls and facades of the houses. Building in agitation as it crept closer.
It brought memories in its wake, images burned into the mind. They would not be wiped out.
The King's face in that short, fleeting moment he had seen it; pale, thin, his eyes closed in pain, or against the light. He had coughed, once, as the cart rocked, deep from the lungs, and it had brought up blood to stain his lips.
Outside, the shadows lengthened and the ghostly silence crept into the minds, and dreams, of the sleepers too.
Éomer lay on the bench, muttering sounds that could have been words. Seeing cold, snow-clad fields. Feeling cold, mute stone steal across flesh.
Somewhere a string twanged and broke. Startled, Éomer sat up.
"He could not speak."