11. A ride on the wild side
Lyftfætsceadu, or Sceadu as I mostly called her, helped with my integration into Rohan society, but I still had to prove myself. The burgeoning relationship between my husband and myself must have been evident to those who lived in the hall. Our compatibility could not be denied. Of course, we had to make a few adjustments in those first few weeks, mostly because of our very different upbringing, but so it would be in most marriages. My feelings were rapidly growing for this warrior king, whose true heart and clear mind earned him the love of his people and had gained him the trust and admiration of my kin. I know that he appreciated my counsel, and together, at the close of long working days, we would often sit sipping wine and talking over the problems of ruling a loyal but scattered people, who deserved to live in peace.
Elfgyuu I know reserved her judgment of me, but, strangely, the more I stood up to her, the more I could detect grudging admiration in her steely eyes. There were others also. Lord Cereth found it difficult to hide the fact that he thought the Rohírrim were ill-served by having a Gondorian for a Queen, but for every antagonist there were many more supporters, both of me and Éomer. Lord Bertwald, a softly spoken intelligent man whom Éomer respected greatly, advised me to bide my time and to be myself. ‘Remember, it is you who are our Queen. No one else’, he told me. ‘Make your decisions and stick to them.’ I was grateful for his support, but the chance to really assert my authority did not come until about five weeks after my marriage– when Éomer kept his promise and took me to the Fords of Isen.
October stayed fine, which decided him not to put the trip off to the spring. Anyway, we planned to go to Dol Amroth then. In reality, I thought he could not wait to get away from the restrictions of his office and spend some time in the wild. For myself, I found that I became as excited as Aerin had been when anticipating her trip to Rohan. However much I had enjoyed the scenery and the traveling then, my anxiety about the future had spoilt my own enjoyment of it.
Aerin would accompany me, but because neither she nor I were experienced in camp life, one of Eomer’s guards would be bringing his wife. A young widow had also been added to the party, so that my maid would not have to sleep on her own. However, the men organized everything - from the food to the bedding. Lady Byrhtwyn had laughingly explained that the Rohírrim traveled in one of two ways – setting off with a bed roll, a few strips of dried meat and some oats or taking every luxury a packhorse could carry. I had learnt that a portion of the population of the Riddermark were still slightly nomadic and, winter and summer, followed the herds that traditionally grazed the Eastemnet. Understandable then, that they would make their camps homely and comfortable. I had to say that the thought of a little luxury pleased me, because although the weather kept fine, the nights were cold, and sleeping on hard ground wrapped in a blanket had no appeal to a delicately bred Gondorian!
On the morning of our departure I tripped gaily down the steps and briskly walked along the back path to the stables. I felt a bit strange – wearing mail for the first time - but Éomer had insisted. When I reached the yard it was evident which of the two ways we were traveling – the place bustled with activity. Men scurried around, finishing the loading; strapping everything down tightly. In Rohan, packhorses were expected to gallop. Some of Éomer’s guards had already led out their horses and stable lads ran to and fro with armfuls of spare tack. All looked purposeful. Sceadu had caught the excitement for she whickered loudly and pawed the ground when she saw me coming. As usual, my heart leapt at the sight of her. She had been well named, for her grey-shaded coat changed its hue from the softest dove to the darkest pewter, shimmering in the differing lights. I had fallen in love with the mare the moment she had been presented to me. As ordered, she had arrived just before nightfall the day after the wedding and her acceptance of me as her mistress had increased my standing in the eyes of a good number. I rode most days, sometimes with Éomer, sometimes with Aerin and an escort. Once Éomer had satisfied himself she would remain reliable in all situations and I had learnt the necessary commands, then I could go out even if he could not find the time to come with me.
The lad holding her grinned hugely as he handed me the reins. “Good morning, my lady. Be careful now. She’s even more lively than usual.”
“I will,” I assured him, “she won’t misbehave with all the warhorses around.” Wanting a little time alone with my horse, I waved him away to lead her to a mounting block. Sceadu might be lively but she had no vices, and Eomer’s presence on the journey would make certain she conducted herself creditably. I searched the crowd for him, but he was nowhere in sight. He had left our bedchamber that morning just as my eyes were opening, eager to supervise the preparations.
I could mount myself, using the block, but before I did so I put my lips to Sceadu’s soft velvet muzzle: she smelt of sweet hay. The piece of apple saved from breakfast was accepted with pleasure and crunched with delicacy. Slipping one arm around her strong neck I reveled in her warm body, for the early morning air held a biting chill. Sceadu nuzzled into me, blowing gently through quivering nostrils as I murmured into a silky ear, “You’re a beautiful lady, aren’t you?”
“Yes, you are. Very beautiful,” a deep voice whispered behind me, “but you’re not sleeping in my tent if you smell too much of horse.”
I jumped and turned around, too newly married for the pleasure of his presence not to bring warmth to my cheeks.
“Or perhaps you would prefer to kiss a horse?”
He moved so close to me that I initially contemplated the top of the sun design on his leather cuirass. Lifting my eyes slowly, my gaze traveled upward - over the collar of his wool tunic, catching a glimpse of a burnished hauberk. It passed a determined chin, taking in the newly trimmed beard; lingered longingly on the firm mouth; swept a strong straight nose, until finally encountering vivid blue eyes that were alight with laughter.
“No,” I said softly. “I would prefer to kiss you. But not here.”
“That’s reassuring, for I have no intention of taking second place to a horse.”
“That’s very unlikely, and you know it,” I chided gently, “but how you have the audacity to suggest that I might smell of horse when…”
“If you are going to cast aspersions on me, my lady wife,” he interrupted grinning from ear to ear, “then I would remind you that I am always more than willing to take a bath.”
I glared at him indignantly. “That I know… ever since you discovered that we can both fit into the same tub!”
“Shush…!” He moved even closer so that his lips were in contact with my hair, “You will embarrass Lyftfætsceadu. She’s still a maiden.”
The giggles rose in my throat. “Oh, stop this nonsense and lift me up,” I gurgled. Then, suddenly conscious that we were surrounded by his men and that I was likely to betray my ardent response to his closeness and teasing words, I inched back and looked around. “They are all starting to line up,” I unnecessarily informed him.
“I doubt if they will go without me!”
I refrained from answering and just slanted him a wry look, before turning to gather up the reins. He did not move, so I glanced back over my shoulder to see him watching me with his arms folded.
“You want me to lift you?” he asked with a twitch of his lips
“Of course I do, but if you do not want to, then I will manage,” I tossed my head in pretended nonchalance and started to maneuver Sceadu to the side of the block.
“It’s just that I do not want one of your haughty looks. Like the first time I tried it.”
“Éomer…,” I let out a long breath, exasperated. “Will you please just lift me onto my horse!”
“If you put it like that…” He grasped me around my waist but did not pick me up. “Oh, that’s a shame.” He sounded crestfallen. “It’s not so much fun with you wearing this mail.”
“You virtually gave me an order to wear it!” I relaxed on the reins and half turned towards him. His arms were still around my waist. “Do you really think there is any danger?” I said more softly.
“Within our borders, no I don’t. But we have lived with threat and conflict for so long that I find it difficult to believe we are completely safe, even close to Edoras. Since Gimli gave you it, and it is so light to wear, then I would prefer you to be protected. I know it pleased Faramir when Gimli gave Éowyn one for a wedding present, Dwarf made mail is unsurpassed.”
I nodded, seeing the sense of it and fully understanding that he preferred not to take any chances, especially as the long mail shirt was so wonderfully supple and light that I hardly noticed it under my tunic. I had given up wearing elaborate riding dresses for informal occasions about the same time as the last Gondorian wedding guest had headed back down the hill! However, he could not really be concerned that the Riddermark might still hold adversaries because he had chosen not to wear his full battle amour.
“You were at the briefing last night, Lothíriel,” suddenly sounding very serious. “You heard me detail six of my men who would be responsible for surrounding you in the unlikely event of anything untoward happening. I would personally need to keep focused on command.”
“Yes, I understand. You were very thorough. There is no need to worry about me. I am not one for heroics and would just obey orders.”
“Good! Now let’s go and enjoy ourselves.” A kiss dropped on my forehead and in one fluid movement my super-strong husband lifted me effortlessly into the saddle.
Tendrils of autumn mist swirled around us as we crossed the Snowbourne, the grass heavy-wet as we headed out onto the plain. I shivered in the cold, sharp air, glad of the thick woollen cloak that I had tucked tightly around myself: my gloved hands and booted feet, the only parts of me other that my face not protected by its warmth. Our road skirted the foothills of the Ered Nimrais. It led to the Hornburg - the fortress of Lord Erkenbrand, Marshall of the Westfold - and then on to the Fords of Isen, the Gap of Rohan, and eventually, so Éomer told me, ending at Fornost, the seat of ancient kings. It was the way to the North which he wished to be opened again for trade.
Gradually the sun gained some warmth, encouraging me to push back my hood and take more interest in the scenery. The road between Edoras and the Fords appeared well used, at least the part we were travelling that first day. As in Harrowdale, the valleys and coombes that sliced green swathes high up into the mountains were intensively cultivated. Here and there I would catch a glimpse of the thatched roofs of cottages, defiantly climbing the steep sides, and occasionally a larger meeting hall or barn could be seen. Éomer confirmed that those villages near to Edoras had come through the war relatively unscathed, the settlements farther to the West having borne the brunt of Saruman’s malevolence.
Early in the day we passed many villagers, most making for Edoras with carts loaded with vegetables and cheeses to be sold in the markets of the city. Some were carrying pigs or had goats tethered to the back, pretty little brown and white creatures who bleated continually. In many places sheep were grazing along the side of the road, watched over by young boys and big rangy dogs. Their constant nibbling must have accounted for the wide green sward on which we were able to keep up a comfortable fast pace. But when we encountered them, or met a cart lumbering along the dirt road, Éomer raised his hand and slowed to a walk, not wanting to spook the flocks or cover any travellers with dust. Those we passed waved or bowed, and sometimes pointed. The extended fingers were aimed at me. Riding by their King’s side my identity must have been obvious. Used now to Rohan informality, I waved and smiled and received a grin or a slight bow of the head in exchange.
We stopped to rest the horses and take some refreshment just before midday, noticing, when we continued on our journey, that signs of habitation were becoming less frequent. Permanent settlements, so Éomer told me, tended to cluster within a days ride of the fortresses of the Riddermark – places to which the people could flee. The next villages we would come across would be those of the Westfold which we would the next morning. The beaten way continued: crossing many streams by means of stony fords. It rose gently up and down as it followed the contours of almost empty terrain, and along the roadside, with less sheep grazing, the sward grew long Beyond it, to the east, the plain stretched out - a waving sea of tall grasses with yellowing seed heads glowing in the westering sun. Ahead: the dark smudge of Fangorn and the ridge of the Misty Mountains, a purple spine of hard rock marching north to hidden lands.
Dusk came early this side of the Ered Nimrais; the October sun a beaten copper ball sinking behind darkened peaks. The pine trees that clothed the lower slopes, stood menacingly tall, gradually merging into one black mass. We set camp before the light had completely gone from the cloud-streaked sky. Éomer chose a place, not only where a stream came plummeting down from the mountain, spreading itself into a silver sheet as it hit the plain, but where long ago jagged rocks had tumbled from the high cliffs and embedded themselves into the soft earth of the grasslands. Whether fate or some other more magical force had lent a hand, it was not possible to say, but they had formed a large, crudely drawn circle that provided a natural stone stockade.
The tents, round structures of lightweight canvas, were erected with military precision. Ours, Éomer’s and mine - his threat of excluding me from it given little credence by me and probably none at all by him - had been cosily lined by colourful hangings and the floor strewn with skins. I watched with unfeigned interest as pieces of carved wood were slotted together to form solid cot-beds suitable for royalty to sleep in.
We ate well, the fresh air and energetic ride giving all an appetite. Those not concerned with putting up the tents and tending to the horses had soon started fires and unpacked the iron cauldrons that had been slung one each side of an uncomplaining equine porter. Into one vessel went the makings of vegetable soup, but the other boiled water for washing – a concession to the ladies on the trip. Aerin took the opportunity to glean all the knowledge she could from the Rohírric women. She had, from the moment of her arrival, embraced her new culture with pleasure and determination, and took satisfaction in learning to cook over a camp fire. Once the tents were up and the soup made, all except the sentries sat around together. There were plenty of us: Éomer had doubled his usual guard and with Léod and another to tend the horse lines; the two Rohírric women; Eadric to supervise the catering; Aerin and me, it was a merry party that tucked into the evening meal. Besides the soup, there were meat pies brought from the Meduseld kitchens wrapped in muslin; fruits, cheese, bread and oat biscuits, all washed down with rich red wine and water brought from the stream. Finally, the last remnants of daylight left even the open plain, chased away by the coming of the huge waxing moon. Stars twinkled: a thousand jewels peeping between the wispy clouds, and a creeping cold stole down the mountainside. I wrapped my cloak tightly, snuggling up to Éomer who put his arm around me and pulled me close against him. No one showed any disapproval or even took much notice and I reflected how my life had changed in a few short weeks. Out here in the wild, listening to the quiet singing of men around a campfire, secure in my husband’s protective embrace, I felt at peace. So at peace that my eyes were closing.
“Come to bed.” The soft words woke me from my dozing.
“You mean go to bed,” I murmured under my breath, “there is not room for two.” The cots were only designed for single occupancy.
“No, I didn’t. I am sure that since we can fit into a bath tub together…” Even without looking up I could tell by his voice that he must be grinning.
In spite of my tiredness I lay awake for some time, the only noise the soft sound of my husband’s breathing, the occasional snuffle or cough of a horse and the far away bleating of wild goats as they traversed the high-mountain tracks. I was in Rohan, and it was my home.
Early the next morning we reached the first of the Westfold villages. As those we had passed the day before, the dwellings reached far into the deep valleys. Mostly the houses were thatched, but some were being re-roofed with wooden shingles cut from the nearby pine-forests. It became apparent that the land was becoming more thickly populated again. Great trenches cut through the grasslands and piles of drying peat stood in castellated mounds. Horses grazed in vast stockades and long haired cattle chewed contently on abundant pasture.
Many greetings were called but we did not stop until the sun reached its zenith, when we came upon the place where the road to the Hornburg wound slowly upwards, delving far into the rocky heart of Mt. Thrihyrne. We had come to the way that led to the Fastness of Helm’s Deep. I craned my neck to try and glimpse that fearsome fortress, for it had been there, on the massive stone walls, that an enduring friendship had been formed between two future kings. But now we had to leave. The Fords beckoned, and I would see the site of that famous battle on our return journey, when we planned to spend a few days with Lord Erkenbrand.
By late afternoon we came out of the shadow of the mountains and the River Isen lay before us. The road carved its way down to the crossing through a series of grassy terraces until finally reaching a wide, flat expanse of chattering water. Three lines of stepping-stones thrust out from each bank and fording places ran between these lines, meeting on a small island that sat in the centre of the river. From our raised vantage point, we could see that a large mound stood on the island. The remains of a ring of spears stood atop the mound and in the centre - a stone cairn had been built. I turned to Éomer and found him staring at the site, mesmerised, his thoughts far away.
“Shall we go across to the eyot?” I asked quietly.
He did not answer for a moment, but then seem to gather himself, “No, the sun is sinking. We will make our camp and perhaps you and I will go alone at dawn.”
I nodded, pleased that he felt prepared to share such a poignant moment with me.
Very soon the tents were arranged in a double row along one of the green terraces, facing the water. I stood in the doorway of ours, my eyes focused on the Isen which had been turned into a streak of liquid gold by the molten globe of the sinking sun. Éomer had been right: the whole place gave the aura of peace and serenity, even after all that had gone on here. Entranced, I gazed west, but decided that it could only be my imagination that made me think that far away, I could glimpse the sea.
“It’s beautiful,” I remarked softly as he came out of the tent behind me, putting his chin on my head and slipping muscular arms each side of me, to cross them around my waist. No words were said; he just squeezed me gently, pulling me back against a hard chest. For a few moments we stood as statues, lost in the wonder of a world not at war, but then suddenly, I felt him stiffen. Abruptly, his chin left my head and I looked up and followed his gaze. One of the scouts, who had been despatched along the banks immediately we had started to pitch camp, had returned. He was talking avidly to Éothain and pointing down stream. Even from this distance I could tell there appeared to be some trouble.
Éomer dropped his hands from my waist, “Stay here!” he ordered gruffly and strode off towards the two men. His arrival was the signal for much gesticulating and discussion and others joined the conference in the middle of the camp. I sighed, reflecting ruefully that peace could only ever be considered a transient state. I stared back out through the Gap of Rohan, reluctant to relinquish the enjoyment of the moment until eventually it looked as if some decision had been made and Éomer started to walk back to me.
“What is it?” I asked as soon as he came near enough to hear me. He frowned, as though he did not want to answer. For the first time since our marriage I could sense the tension in him: his warrior’s instinct palpably aroused.
“Swidhelm has found animal tracks in the soft mud farther downstream…”he hesitated, expelling his breath, “…they were made by wargs.”
“Wargs? Is he sure?” I shuddered involuntarily, wondering if Éomer should not go and check himself, but his next words dissuaded me from suggesting it.
“He would not make a mistake; Swidhelm is one of the Riddermark’s best trackers. If he says they are wargs, then that is what they are.”
“We are in danger?”
“No, not us, the tracks were made two days ago. If wargs were in the vicinity the horses would let us know. They have a natural fear of them. Swidhelm tracked them for a while; they are following a goat path up into the mountains.” He cast his eyes up to the peaks of the Ered Nimrais as if looking for some movement, some evidence of where they had gone.”
“So,” I said, thinking hard and trying to recall the features of the area. “They can either come down by way of the Westfold valleys, or cross into Gondor before they get that far. But that part of Gondor is unpopulated, there would be nothing there for them.”
“Exactly, and it is a large pack. They are much more likely to come down on our side. The mountain goats will not be enough for them; it will be the sheep that graze the high pastures they will head for, if we are lucky. If we are not… then it will be those who farm the Westfold.”
“Do they normally cause trouble?” I asked.
“They have done, when evil stalked this land, but I thought we were rid of them. Our patrols have seen no signs all year. They must have come down from farther north.”
“I am slightly surprised that the Fords do not have a permanent garrison. You have not thought it necessary?”
Éomer absently ran his hand through his long hair before he answered, “We discussed it at great length. We should be safe from that direction. The Ents control Isengard. Our treaty with the Dunlendings means that they have extended their land and now guard the North-South road, but they are not permitted to come this side of the Fords. We patrol this area regularly, but if I kept a force here continually it would appear that I do not trust them to keep their word. I did not wish them to think that. If we intend to have future peace with them then they must believe we have faith in their honour.” He smiled ruefully, “At any rate, the Dunlendings probably were unaware of the wargs traveling through their land. They are depraved but cunning creatures and if they were aiming for the valleys of the Riddermark then they would have kept to the high passes in the Misty Mountains, where men seldom go. If we had not been here, and Swidhelm not been so keen eyed, then we would not have had this warning.”
“I see…have you decided what to do?”
“They have to be eliminated. Wargs are a danger we cannot ignore. Swidhelm and Oeric are going back to warn Erkenbrand tonight - as soon as they have eaten. They will be there by midnight. If there is any sign of the creatures or they have already made any kills, then tracking can start at first light. I am afraid we will have to go back tomorrow; I will not feel happy sojourning here for another night when there is a threat to our people. We will have to find those vile beasts.”
The look on his face gave doubt that the ‘we’ was metaphoric, but I decided not to pursue that notion at that moment. Instead, I took hold of his hand. “I would not expect you to; we must go back first thing.”
Strong arms pulled me roughly into a tight embrace, “We will keep our tryst tomorrow at dawn, then we will go.”
Sinking my head into his shoulder, I nodded. “It was worth the journey, just to come here for so short a time. And last night was perfect, the songs, the campfire… everything.”
“Mmm…” the words were murmured into my hair, “you’re right - just perfect, and it’s my turn tonight.”
“Your turn for what?” I queried my voice hesitant, having learnt to be wary of such innocent sounding statements.
“To sleep on top of you.”
I pushed him playfully away, “I don’t think so! I would never recover from being squashed in the bottom of that cot.”
“Yes, perhaps you are right,” he dropped kiss on my head, his sense of fun dispelling the gloom for a moment. “Come on, I think the meal is ready.”
By the time we sat down around the fire everyone had been told about the wargs. Éomer explained what had been decided and nobody queried his decision. Aerin moved a little closer to Léod, but showed no other anxiety. Thankfully, like me, she had had no personal experience of wargs and knew them only by reputation. I could only feel for the two Riders who, having been in the saddle all day, faced a dark, cold ride back to the Hornburg.
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.