1. By Strength of Hounds
It is a fine thing to harbour a beast and take it by strength of hounds and by craft, and to see the sense and knowledge which God gave to the good hounds.
--Gaston Phoebus, Livre de Chasse
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"Rîniel!" Erestor checked his mount, but their fair guest from Mirkwood continued to canter after her ill-matched hounds, away from the rest of the hunt and towards one of the hidden, steep-brinked vales. He had thought the odd-looking dogs gazehounds, since they took little interest in the scent of the splendid hart of full sixteen that was their quarry, but the one in the lead was running with his nose down. Had they crossed the scent of buck or roebuck? Those were the more usual game, he believed, in the Greenwood.
Urging Ithildin to catch her, Erestor gave a sigh of regret, fearing this diversion would cheat him of the best part of a glorious chase. The hart was a truly noble quarry, grown old in cunning: last sun-round, he had escaped them with a prodigious leap across one of the deep gullies that cut the heath, too wide for horse or hound to follow, and by the time they found a place to cross and worked back, the scent had grown confused. From respect, the Master had declared that he could be chased but once in the season, and all the folk of Imladris that cared for hunting had come to the assembly, to see if he could cheat them again.
Yet they also had a duty to their guests, no matter how uncouth. He could not let her ride at random. It was easy to lose one's way, near the Valley.
Still, what strange notions Rîniel had of hunting! Her rustic Silvan manners had a kind of charm, at board and in hall, a pleasing simplicity. As soon as she had heard, yestereve, of the plans for today's hunt, she had begged the favor of joining the company, professing devotion to horse and hound. While women, to preserve their powers of healing and creation, rarely took part in the mort, more than a few delighted in riding to the hounds, and she was assured of her welcome.
But how she had come to the assembly, as Vása's rising splendor pearled the morning mists mountainward! Lindir had laughed merrily at the spectacle. Rîniel's mount was the palfrey that had brought her here: an easy-gaited, amiable mare, but lacking the barrel and bone for a long day's run across the rough heath behind Feredir's fleet pack. A natural enough mistake; yet she had also brought her own hounds, a strangely matched couple that looked as if someone had been putting alaunts to their mastiffs, or mastiffs to their alaunts. That had not endeared her to Feredir, who looked askance at such coarse dogs, especially after they had quarreled with his sleek, red-eared raches.
And then there was the bow. A bow, to the hunting of a hart! The more particular, already contemptuous, grew colder at the insult to their quarry; others rolled their eyes when she could not see and made witty remarks about hunters who must wait in trees for their game to come to them; most were greatly amused, considering her peculiarities likely to add spice to the day's entertainment.
Once the kingly hart had been unharboured and the chase begun, there was little leisure for comments, snide or otherwise--but Erestor, who took care to keep her in sight, thought she did well enough, and was impressed that she was able to keep her hounds by her. Her mount began to flag, as expected, once Vása passed the zenith and began to descend, the hart leading them a very pretty dance, his ruses at brook and bog baffling even such knowing hounds as theirs and necessitating repeated gallops to catch him up.
"Rîniel!" Erestor called again, as her hounds plunged down the least precipitous slope into the small vale, and her mare paused on the brink. She must have heard him, but she put her mount after the dogs and vanished from sight.
Heedless woman! It was easier to get down into those dells than to get out again. If he went after her, he would certainly miss the mort . . . but how could he leave her?
Ithildin slid down the slope, almost on his hocks; the brook at the bottom chuckled complacently in its stony bed, and Erestor caught a glimpse of golden tresses under the eaves of the little wood of stunted beeches. By the time he and his mount reached the floor of the vale, however, she had vanished into the grove's shadows--and there came the deep-throated baying of a hound that sights his quarry.
There was no cantering amid the low, twining arms of the beeches, no, even a trot would have been folly, so Erestor slipped from Ithildin's back and bid him wait. He could seek among the trees more swiftly afoot. What was Rîniel about? What prey had her hounds brought to a stand?
He had not closed half the distance before he heard a terrific din: both hounds giving tongue, a deep grunt of rage, the mare's shriek of frighted pain--
Erestor drew his sword as he ran, wishing himself better armed. This must be bear or boar; nothing of deer-kind made such a furious noise. Leaping a fallen tree-trunk, he burst into a glade to find the mare down, thrashing and crying out dreadfully. Rîniel stood back several paces, hate in her eyes as she watched a great, hideous boar, its tusks already red, stamp and snap, held at bay by the snarling menace of her hounds. Fitting an arrow to her bow, she drew and loosed.
The feathered shaft plunged into the beast's bristling shoulder, and the boar gave a piercing squeal of enraged pain, but that did not hinder its charge at the larger of her hounds, bloodshot eyes as mad as any Orc's. The big, smooth-coated dog was not nimble, yelping as the boar's razor-edged tusk grazed him in the nearness of its passage, saved only from the swiftness of its turn by the courage of his rough-coated fellow, who sank his fangs into the boar's haunch.
Catching Rîniel--who dared not loose another shaft, her hounds so tangled with their quarry--by the shoulder, Erestor thrust her towards the nearest tree of goodly girth. "Climb!" he commanded, watching the fray as best he could, studying the boar for weakness. He had seen Elrohir slay a boar with a sword, once; but Elrohir had been ahorse, and gave it a blow that would have felled an Uruk. A spear, with a stout crossbar, was the weapon for boar.
"My dogs!" Rîniel objected, resisting.
"Get out of our way," Erestor snapped, finally losing patience with her. "Shoot from above, if you would do any good!"
Their squabble caught the boar's attention. It shook off the shaggy hound, dropped its ugly head, and charged.
Erestor thrust Rîniel aside and dropped to one knee to brace against the beast's onset, blade angled to--hopefully--split its tenacious heart. It ran onto the point, heedless in its fury, but impalement did not halt its rush; reluctant to leave go and be disarmed, he twisted as it fell on him, hooves gouging at his belly, hot breath and slaver about his ears, drenched by its gore. Rîniel was screaming; at least one hound was tearing at the shrieking boar--Erestor writhed again and pressed himself to its back, an arm about its throat, where it could not tear at him.
A yén passed, it seemed, before the hard-dying thing stopped thrashing and snapping, its blood pooling on the torn green moss of the glade. Shakily, Erestor let go and rose, more than a little surprised to find all his limbs whole.
"Oh!" Rîniel cried, and would have thrown herself into his arms, had he not held her off. "Are you sorely wounded?"
"No, not at all. The blood is not mine--keep off, if you do not wish your dress ruined!"
She professed herself uncaring of such trifles, and found a comparatively undaubed patch of his shoulder to cry upon, until her smooth-coated hound came up and whimpered piteously, holding up a lightly scored foreleg as if it had been broken. As she bent to examine the wound, and receive the anxious yet proud nuzzlings of the more gallant dog, Erestor went over to her steed: the suffering mare, who had heaved herself to her feet, rolled her eye at his approach, but after a little soothing, she suffered him to handle the leg the boar had torn in his onrush.
If it were bound, she ought to be able to get herself back to the Valley . . . but she could not bear a rider, and would not for some moons.
Going back to Rîniel, he asked, "How is your hound?"
She was already tearing a strip from her hem to bind his wound. "Not too bad. Do you have any salve?"
He did not keep hounds himself, and so did not carry balm for their wounds. "I am sorry I do not. Your mare is also somewhat mauled. Yet there is a patch of comfrey there, by that rivulet. Can you tend your beasts? If we are to ride double, I must make myself less hideous."
Rîniel looked up at him and smiled. "I do not think you are hideous."
Looking down at his blood-drenched state, Erestor sniffed. "You have strange tastes, lady."
He recovered his sword from the carcass of the boar and studied it for a moment, wondering if they could take any home. Ithildin would already be heavily burdened, carrying two; the mare might be able to take the weight of the hams, at least, but would probably refuse to bear the scent of her attacker, and the blood. Gutting the boar, he called the shaggy hound over to eat his fill as the reward for his valour, then took himself off to the brook to cleanse himself.
As he remembered, there was a pretty cascade where the grove met the sheer wall of the vale, a rill dropping down by stages into a shallow pool. Erestor stuck his head into the falling water, scrubbing at the clotting froth and gore in his hair, then began stripping off his clothes, dropping them into the cool water so the blood might soak out. Piece by piece, he beat and wrung them until they were no longer gruesome, setting them on a sun-heated rock in hopes of rendering them less clammy.
His jacket had taken the worst of it, and he was rinsing it for the third time, determined that it should not seep pinkly onto Ríniel's pale green dress as she rode pillion behind him, when he heard a faint scrabble of claws on the rocks. Turning sharply, he saw Rîniel's shaggy hound standing over his shirt and breeches. Erestor breathed in relief, and smiled at the dog . . . which gave him a rascal grin in return, and seized his clothes.
"Hai!" Erestor shouted, lunging towards him. "Drop that!"
But the shaggy beast bounded gleefully off, making for the grove--and his mistress.
Erestor halted, cast a glance back at the jacket he had dropped into the pool, and cursed himself for falling in with the fashion for such short garments. How was he to salvage his dignity now?
The merry laugh and "Good dog!" that pealed from the beeches did nothing to lessen the heat of his blush. It seemed he was the one who had been unmade, by the strength and cunning of hounds.
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