1. Silver-Grey to Moon-Shadow
Silver-Grey to Moon-Shadow
They didn't really take the request from the ragged grey-clad old man seriously. Let him take himself a horse – if he could.
"Take any horse, but be gone before tomorrow is old," Théoden had said - his eyes not quite connecting with the irritation in his voice, or anything else, behind their cloudy stare.
The once proud king Théoden had been relegated, his former self locked up in hidden chamber while a stranger held court.
Gandalf hadn't expected that, hadn't expected the net Saruman spun to have reached so wide, so fast. He had so little time, but the task ahead of him could not be forced.
"...be gone before tomorrow is old".
Gandalf knew that was not in his hands. The horse he needed would agree to carry him in its own time, or not. There could be no other.
There was a horse running on the other side of his memory. He knew the cadence of its hoof-beats, remembered their echo from a dream he had once had or a place he had once been. Its shadow flickering over windswept grass in the moonlight; a horse no-one could ride.
And now that echo had returned, tapping in unison with another.
But when Gandalf had followed the echoes to the end and tracked Shadowfax down in a valley not far from Edoras as dark purple shadows rolled off the mountains, he found the horse baulking at his appearance and his attempts to reach out to it.
Shadowfax reared his head and circled him in an unfriendly fashion as darkness fell and its silver faded into slate-black. Gandalf hung on to its angry, whirling mind however, and refused to let go. And just before night hid the horse from him completely and it turned and galloped off, it softened a little, stood still for a second and left a challenge hovering between them. A challenge to follow - faint but unmistakeable.
Gandalf followed for two days, through sun and shadow, past small farms sheltering under the forehead of the mountains.
In one of them lived a young girl with an overactive imagination that often kept her awake at night. She earned herself looks both incredulous and worried when she claimed to have seen an old beggar with flowing grey hair floating by on the nearby path towards morning.
Shadowfax finally slowed his speed when they reached a vast plateau of pale grass and scattered stones, and where the distant border of Mordor protruded like broken teeth into the endless sky. The wind sent ripples through the grass, making it sway like the manes of a thousand horses.
Gandalf lit a fire and his pipe, gathered his cloak around him and waited.
Sometimes to go forward you have to hold yourself absolutely still....
He didn't really mind this small space of stillness. It was the first time since his escape from Ortanc that he had time to look inwards. But with it came a new anguish.
He had always believed in the nobility of his kind, their immunity to evil, but Saruman's treachery had torn that faith into little pieces.
Were any of them safe? Was he?
He shivered and felt very exposed all of a sudden. The air around him thinned - swayed and shook like gossamers on the wind.
Then, as he looked into the fire his mouth was filled with a sour tang of blood and metal. He had never before felt that taste but knew what it was - the taste of naked fear. His hand clenched around his pipe as he fought to master it.
The strange horses came the next evening. There was a distant tapping, the clang of hooves on stone and they emerged from the dusk, silver to mica, their manes pale like the grass under their feet. They looked at him and his fire with gentle curiosity, but kept their distance. Their silhouettes formed a wave perfectly poised against the horizon, with a crushing strength hovering beneath the stillness.
...so perfectly self-contained in their wild beauty, and not primarily for man to delight in or make use of...
When they left Gandalf followed them with his eyes until the long train of shadows had disappeared into a dry, shuffling sound of hooves.
Shadowfax came the day after, a surge of power and grace just past sunset as its slate-silver melted into moon-grey.
The old man and the horse eyed each-other. Gandalf sensed its worry. Even to him the shadow stretched by Shadowfax into the fire and beyond seemed longer than it should be. Behind them a crimson band of sky was pushing against, and being slowly smothered by, a shadow in the east, as it had the night previously.
Gandalf knew that he horse was unlikely to be persuaded to let him ride by informing him of his urgent need to reach some hobbits now hopefully together with a certain unkempt ranger.
He needed to strip back the layers, down to the fabric that sustained them all in the end.
He went as close to Shadowfax as he dared and attempted to reach him by speaking the oldest of languages, the language of stone, water, earth and grass. He wanted Shadowfax to help him more out of love and concern for what united and upheld them rather than fear. But as he spoke his mouth was again coated with the numbing, cold film of fear, and he felt his narrative slip and spin out of control...
Instead of the calm incantation he had intended came a shivering rush of images; of blood-stained rivers and the famished bodies of horses and men by the river-bank, carcasses with protruding bones covered in grey ash.
Gandalf at last managed to stem the flow of his thoughts, but they were out and fluttered between him and the horse like moths.
Shadowfax whinnied and threw his head back. He circled the fire a few times in great agitation before he turned abruptly and sped away.
Gandalf felt the other horse retreat to the outer edges of his mind, in step with Shadowfax's receding hoof-beats. He sat down and clung on to his own circumference.
The shadow was growing behind him and he was running out of time.
He didn't put more wood to the fire that night, but watched the embers fall in on themselves and go out.
He thought of the immensity of his task. He employed a fool's hope - concealing the trickster.
For both Sauron and Saruman, power was visible mass and hard surfaces; fists, shields, swords, massive armies, But he knew something about disappearing into the hairline cracks, playing the fool, acting the beggar and the scarecrow, hiding his weapons, concealing a hard surface beneath a soft. And in that he saw a kind of hope – by employing weapons that to the minds of his enemies weren't weapons at all, he could influence the outcome of the final battle, far away from the battlefield. Because there would inevitably be a last battle; two sides colliding, metal hurled against metal with soft bodies underneath, a red sun setting over blood-drenched earth...
But now it all hovered on the thin edge of a stone...
When the shadows pushed long thin fingers into another evening Gandalf felt his hope extinguish like the fire in front him.
Then there was a rising cadence of hooves and Shadowfax arrived with the twilight
Silver-grey to moon-shadow...
The horse walked up to him with slow steps, shook its mane, and then stood absolutely still. Gandalf waited a second and put a tentative hand on its flank - and let it stay there. Shadowfax still didn't move. He knew then that he had his answer.
For a moment he felt stripped utterly bare. He knew that his attempts at persuasion had failed. It was his loss of control that had won him the horse's trust in the end. Shadowfax had shared the acid taste of his fear.
As so often before he pondered the strange accumulative effect of small unforeseen events. His breath on a moth's wing that carried him away in the end, the king of horses letting him ride him because a brief shattering of his defences.
The horse from the other side of his memory closed in and put its head on his shoulder and two ancient beings looked at each other in silence.
An echo of hooves reverberated between the mountains and between animal and ground, like thunder.
Behind them the crimson band of sky was still pressing against and being swallowed by shadow, but horse and rider pushed their foreheads against the dark and rode on.
And the girl with the overactive imagination earned herself more incredulous looks the next morning, when she claimed to have seen a horse and rider silhouetted against the moon.
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.