4. Honour and Diplomacy
They made their way down the steep hill through the winding ways of the town, pausing frequently so as not to startle the colt, who flicked his ears nervously and occasionally shied a little, at a dog or child in his path. But when they left the town behind them the black began visibly to relax. Out here all was familiar, from the springy turf to the sounds of the river. He looked about him, seeking the mearas or even the Eastfold herd. But the Snowbourn valley, bright with spring sunshine, was empty of creatures bigger than the many rabbits, while the air carried no sound louder than the calls of the lapwings, that rose en masse and wheeled over head at the sight of the approaching horses.
Aragorn glanced over his shoulder at his followers, amused. He knew already that he and the black were bonded. The mearas were akin to the horses of Rivendell; that much was plain from the ease with which he had calmed the colt the day before. You remind me of Elenya, he thought. She has your long stride and your head too. He felt suddenly more at home with this wild young mearh than he had for a very long time.
In the valley bottom there was space enough for the black to show what he was made of. Gently Aragorn eased him forward, into a trot, then a brisk canter and seconds later the black was at full stretch, head and tail high, relishing the pace and open terrain and surefooted as a mountain goat. The horses of Gálmód and Ælfhere had no chance of keeping pace with him, so that at the head of the valley Aragorn had to work hard to pull him up, lest the others lose sight of him entirely. The black halted at last, scarcely blowing from the half-mile gallop, but overwrought and nervous from his first experience of bearing a rider. He had much to learn.
Presently the other horses caught up. Gálmód smiled grimly.
‘You make a fine pair, Marshal of Westfold. But who was in charge, I wonder?’
‘He is headstrong, it is true,’ said Aragorn. ‘It will take some time to learn his mind, but he is bold and swift as an arrow.’ The black backed away as Gálmód approached, and Aragorn had to turn him two or three times before he would stand. Gálmód laughed.
‘You’ll have your work cut out teaching him to run with the men.’
‘Give the beast a chance, Gálmód. He is not six years old and he doesn’t yet have even a name. ‘
They climbed higher, following the ridge, which tapered gently upwards before curving north away from the line of mountains to their left. It was a favourite path with the Edoras folk, as much for the beauty of its views as for any practical advantage. The black tossed his head and stepped out boldly, impatient to run once more, but Aragorn held him close with voice and hand, teaching him his first lessons in caution. Slowly the path fell back down into the valley, returning to the softer turf near the river.
Gálmód stopped abruptly, just as Aragorn was beginning to turn towards home. His roan gelding was favouring his nearside foreleg.
‘It is very likely a stone. Go on ahead and I’ll catch you up.’ He dismounted and stooped to examine his hoof.
Aragorn, some yards ahead of Ælfhere, drew near the rocky outcrop that stood twenty feet or more high and marked the main thoroughfare leading towards the gates. It was a natural lookout across the valley. Just where the path ran beside the jutting cliff the black suddenly shied and lunged forwards, head down. In the moment that he rounded the bend Aragorn glimpsed a small figure in front of them, which seemed instantly to disappear beneath the horse’s forelegs. Then he had to brace himself as he felt the black rise upon his hindquarters and spring forward in a great leap that must have been the length of a man at least. And almost before the colt had landed, much less slowed down, Aragorn had swung himself to the ground and was running back to the place where he had seen the figure. There it lay, in a crumpled heap on the path. It was a child, a young girl of perhaps six or seven. Quiet sobs could be heard from deep within the disarray of folds that made up her dress.
Very gently Aragorn turned her over and moved the shock of sandy curls from her face. As he cradled her head, she opened her eyes and stared at him in surprise, forgetting her tears. Apart from some cuts and bruises on her knees and hands, she appeared quite unharmed and presently Aragorn raised her to her feet. At that moment Ælfhere came round the side of the cliff and stopped amazed as he beheld the tall soldier holding the child.
He stared at her face for a moment.
‘That is Garulf’s daughter,’ he said.
‘I saw her fall across the path, but the horse could not stop in time, so he leapt over her. She was fortunate that he did so.’
Gálmód rounded the corner at that moment and his sharp eyes widened when he saw the scene.
‘Picking up passengers now are we?’ he intoned. ‘Might I remind the Marshal that it is his task to return to the fountain without leaving the mearh’s back?’
Aragorn shrugged. It seemed hardly necessary to answer. But then Ælfhere stepped forward, and, looking Gálmód straight in the eye, said;
‘I fear he fell, Gálmód. The mearh reared at the child and Thorongil could not hold him, and he fell. I saw it happen.’
Aragorn turned on the king’s nephew, eyes suddenly blazing. This man of Westfold, who must soon entrust me with his life, would tell a falsehood rather than admit his envy. Yet if I challenge him I risk driving a wedge between myself and half of the Westemnet. Must I always choose between diplomacy and my desire? He gathered himself, shrouding his fury with the mask that so often these days had to face the world, and then said simply, ‘It was as Ælfhere describes.’
There was a pause. Gálmód surveyed the foreigner shrewdly. ‘So be it,’ he said slowly. ‘Then you must forfeit the mearh.’
Aragorn merely nodded. Then he turned and with a sideways glance at Ælfhere began to walk up the slope towards the town. The black followed close behind and, after a moment’s hesitation, the girl too. They looked an odd company as they walked in single file, man, horse and child.
Gálmód eyed Ælfhere with disdain. ‘That is a waste of a fine animal, but a man may sacrifice much to keep the peace,’ he muttered. Ælfhere said nothing.
The party returned to Meduseld in straggling fashion. Ælfhere hung back. He had no desire to walk with the foreigner, for he had seen the look on Thorongil’s face, and it had unnerved him. It had also occurred to him, a little late, that the new Marshal might find ways of making life difficult when he joined his éored that autumn, king’s nephew or not.
They were making slow progress up to the gate when Théoden came upon them and fell in quietly beside Ælfhere’s horse. The cousins nodded to one another and then the prince spoke in barely more than a whisper.
‘I advise you to tell Gálmód that you were mistaken, if you do not wish my father to hear what you have just done.’
Ælfhere looked first startled and then alarmed as he comprehended what he had heard. But he answered coolly;
‘What do you mean, my lord?’
‘I was on the Mount. Must I go on?’ The young man’s face grew hard. ‘You are my oldest friend as well as my cousin. You have always had a jealous streak, but I did not believe that you would dishonour another to salvage your own pride’
‘No man not of the royal line can ride a mearh. It is our law.’
‘You heard what the king said, or would you dishonour him also? Besides, even that child could see that the black is bonded with the Wanderer. He will let no other man touch him.’
‘So you would have this stranger, this Thorongil, worm his way into your father’s counsel until he commands not just Westfold but Meduseld? You would do nothing until one day you wake up and find that the Mark is ruled by another and the emblems of your house are in tatters?’
There was a silence. ‘I do not think you believe that any more than do I, cousin.’ Théoden almost spat out the words, so that they were audible to Gálmód, some yards ahead.
‘Indeed? Is it not strange that this fellow leaves his own people to seek his fortune with another? Does anyone know why he came here? He may be a hunted man in his own land, a traitor or a common thief.‘
‘I have never asked him. But my father trusts him, Ælfhere, and that is enough reason for me to trust him also, aye, and for the Riddermark. You would do well to do the same.’
Ælfhere had heard enough. He broke away abruptly, a look somewhere between humiliation and disgust on his face, and cantered up the hill into the town.
Presently Gálmód joined Théoden. He did not speak, but rested his pale eyes on the prince, satisfaction on his face.
‘Thorongil no more fell from that horse than would he fall from an ass,’ said Théoden curtly, refusing to meet his gaze. ‘Why did you believe that he did?’
‘I did not,’ countered Gálmód. ‘Thorongil shall not forfeit the horse. But affairs of state rarely follow the straight road, my lord, and resentment oft leads to thoughts of revenge. The foreigner knows that well. He may face more opposition than orcs and Dunlendings at the Gap of Rohan.’
Théoden looked troubled. ‘Perhaps,’ he conceded. ‘But I have lost a friend today, for Ælfhere does not forget when he is slighted. Was I then wrong to speak out?’
‘You have outgrown your cousin, son of Thengel. You should look to new friends, and find them perhaps where you least expect it.’
‘Meaning yourself, I suppose?’ The question was moot. Théoden had not troubled to hide from Gálmód his dislike of him. His youthful morality had ever judged his father’s councillor as lecher and drunkard, though it was apparent that his mother tolerated Gálmód’s attentions, seeing no harm in them and enjoying his sardonic wit. And the king knew it well, but he was secure in the love of the Lady of Lossarnach and took vicarious pleasure in her popularity.
Gálmód laughed out loud. ‘I would be a fool to hope for that, my lord! But a time will come when you will need captains of war that you can trust; men swift both in mind and at arms. Today they may be young, even as you are, but, like you, there are some that show great promise. Mark them now and make them your allies and they will never desert you. For even a king must needs be mindful of the enemy at his own court.’
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