27. Bonding Night
"To the stables." The king repeated his statement, then demanded sternly, "Give him to me." He took the whimpering infant from her arms saying more softly, "You know I would not let our son come to harm, Lothíriel. This must be done or they will not bond properly." Éomer searched his wife's face for acceptance, but received only an angry glare--clearly she would have fought him if she had been physically able. Sighing, he carried his son from the birthing room. It was not the first time their customs had clashed, and surely it would not be the last.
Éomer did wonder briefly about the wisdom of his errand when the cold rain lashed his face as he stepped out into the night. He wrapped the swaddling cloths more tightly around his son and cuddled the baby tightly to his chest, protecting him from the freezing needles of rain. The baby, perhaps sensing the strength and security of his father's embrace, ceased his fussy crying and concentrated instead on gnawing intently on his tiny fist.
Thankfully, the path to the stables was short and Éomer was barely damp when he pushed open the huge double doors and stepped inside. The stable was warm and smelled comfortingly of hay and leather and horses. He passed the long line of stalls where the horses of the King's guard placidly chewed their feed, unaware of the storm outside. He passed the larger stalls where the work horses shifted from one huge feathered foot to the other, seeking comfort after their long day in the fields.
Finally, Éomer came to the largest group of stalls where the mares and new foals were kept. He walked to the very end of the row, pushed open the gate and went inside. The baby began to whimper again and Éomer made soft soothing noises, as much to calm his son as the nervous mare who placed herself between Éomer and her foal, whickering uneasily.
"There now, my lady," Éomer soothed. "I'm only bringing my son to become acquainted with yours. We mean you no harm." He whispered and stroked the horse until she felt comfortable enough to move away from her foal and graze quietly at her feed tray. Quietly, he approached the spindly-legged foal that stood in the corner of the stall. "There's a fine, strong lad," he said, stroking its silky mane. "I've brought someone I would like you to meet." Cradling the infant in his hands--was I ever so small? Éomer wondered--he held his son out to meet the colt he would grow up with; the animal who would be like the child's very own brother.
The baby horse sniffed the baby human expectantly. What was it? Not sugar. It didn't smell like carrots, either. Carefully, the colt extended his nose and nuzzled the baby's face, puzzled. What was inside the strange bundle of cloths?
The infant, for his part, looked wide-eyed at the little horse. He waved his arms, unable to coordinate his baby reflexes to reach out to the animal. When the colt nuzzled him, he screwed up his face into a remarkable scowl.
Éomer's rich laughter filled the stable. "You look like your mother when you do that, lad." The colt nuzzled the infant again, making him sneeze loudly. The mare looked up from her feed, ears pricked up, and Éomer knew it was time to leave.
He left the secure warmth of the stables and braved the freezing night once more. He was all the way up the stairs and approaching Lothíriel's chamber before he realized that he hadn't made the speech he had practiced. Surely, the occasion of his son's first meeting with his horse deserved the most profound words. What had Éomund said when he presented his son to Firefoot? What words had Théoden spoken over Théodred and his mount? Custom did not dictate what words should be spoken, only that a male child should meet his mount before the first day of his life was ended.
Éomer held his son and heir tightly, wondering if he had failed the boy in some crucial way; failed him before he was even a day old. A fear deeper than any he had ever known engulfed him as he realized that the tiny life was literally in his hands and he had to sit down in Lothíriel's sitting room to catch his breath.
As he cradled his now-sleeping child and tried to breathe deeply he wondered if his own father had felt such crushing fear. Had Éomund sat clutching him tightly, vowing to protect him against any danger that might ever threaten him, even as he knew deep in his heart that he could not keep such a vow forever? As Éomer pondered that question, it became clear to him that the bond between child and horse was only a part of the ritual he had just completed. The greater meaning was perhaps only known to him, and to all the fathers who had gone with their sons to the stables of Rohan.
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