The Sentinals

by Evermind

This is dedicated to my friend Chrissie's old pony, Splash, who died this winter. It is based on the true reactions of our other horses, Rangi and Duke, who considered Splash their leader despite the fact that he was half their size and about 35 years old! The horses I have 'invented' are all based on real ones - Arien is my boy, Rangi; the carthorse is Duke; Songhawk is a big showjumper named Tui, and her colt Firefoot is a racer, Count-da-steps. Ashwind is a mare named Anna. Yep... think that's about it!

The Sentinals

It's cold tonight. It's cold, and there are no stars. As the great grey stallion crests the rise, he stands for a moment, head up, scenting the wind. His ears flick, and his breath plumes, foggy, in the frigid air. He tastes blood upon the wind.

Slower now, the stallion steps forward, picking his way fastidiously through the bodies. He walks with a strange, half-hopping gait, one forefoot held off the ground. He lurches forward, and the ungoverned limb swings almost comically. Windfola lifts his head again, nostrils flaring. He is sweating, and he tastes his own fear together with the blood, acrid, cloying. Ahead of him, the citadel looms, pale against the rearing impasse of mountains. He fears to go that way. A malevolent swirl of wind brings the stench of death close to him. It twines itself insidiously about him, masking the night-smell, good-smell of plant and earth and stone. Stricken, shuddering, he stands, troubled by the memory of burning; of winged, of fearful, shadow.

“Death!” Eowyn, standing tall in her stirrups, fearless and deadly, driven by some monstrous, insatiable lust. He rears upon high, fighting with the wind. The black shadow descending, power, and terror and majesty and awe, and end. Then there is only blindness. Running, running wild and witless, heedless over the plain. Only blindness. Only terror. Only death....

The wind tugs at the stallion's torn saddle blanket, slaps the broken reins, stinging, against his fetlock, and he baulks and half-rears. With the fear born of instinct, he wheels, canters a few paces, then halts heavily, the shattered forefoot held high. Trembling, he stands again, but now his questing nostrils disclose a different scent. Horses! The night is cold, and the sheen of sweat upon his flanks is chill, but his ears flicker, hearing from afar off the sweet, rustling breath, the soft stamp of his own kind. Picking cautiously through the reek of bodies, he limps towards the citadel. A little away from the walls, there lies the carcass of a great beast, noisome with the reek of charred flesh. He does not wish to go near it, for it is death, and hatred, and loathing, but they stand beyond it. Ears flat against his skull, he skirts the place with a wide berth.

They are there before him. They stand like sentinals, silent, motionless save for the rush of breath, the nervous twitching of skin. Tall, grey Ashwind is their leader, his silver flanks rent and torn, though his voice rings out in challenge. Watching him, Windfola feels a great sorrow. Ashwind, too, still wears his broken headstall proudly, but his saddle is gone.

Blood. A great press all about, hard-faced Eastern men. A curved scimitar, it's blade too sharp, too bright. He fights. Grimbold upon his back, urging him away. He tries to turn, but he is hemmed in on every side but cold, cruel steel. The scimitar, curving through the air. Fire along his side as his girth is slashed from under him. Grimbold, beneath his hooves now. Cries and terror, black serpent hissing triumph. Blood....

Beside Ashwind, with his back set to the wind, little bright Arien. Lithe, clean-limbed and swift, his eyes bright in the moonlight. His sleek neck pierced with a black orc shaft, yet still arched proudly. Blood dried dark against the flaming gold.

Pain. He runs, swifter than the wind. The good air burning in his chest, fire lancing through his veins. Fast. Faster than the wind. Faster than the hawk. But black shafts are faster. Black shafts, whistling, every way he turns. Where is Eothain? Black shafts biting with wolves' teeth, searing deep inside. Pain...

A little removed from the chargers is a horse whose scent Windfola does not know. Gondor, he senses. A solid, hulking thing; a plough horse, old and wire-haired, grey about the muzzle and ears. His scent is warm and sweet and fat, but also shy, stumbling, afraid.

Confusion. A great line of wains, moving out from the gate. He does not want to leave. The city is safe. His. Home. He breaks away, into a shambling trot, and he is free. Free! Old bones ache, fear-smell on the bad-black-wind. City smells behind him, smoke, and oats, and people. Safe-smell, good-smell. But the gates are locked now, and there is a great host, burning, and chaos, and he is lost. Confusion...

It is only as Windfola steps closer that he recognises the last smell. Away on the outskirts of the herd, the strange, half-wild black mare belonging to Ciaran the minstrel. Big, graceful Songhawk, with the high withers and powerful haunches, and the great, scarred face. Her black mane is tangled with briars, her eyes ringed with white in the darkness. At her side, subdued now, and quiet; Firehawk, her colt. Delicate, spirited, jet-black save for the bright, burnished copper about his muzzle.

Fear. She follows the host at a distance, for her lord is there. Firefoot, their captain, sire of her first and only colt. She follows. The sharp tang of metal. Blood upon the wind. The colt at her side, joined by an invisible thread. There is danger here for him. She calls, but her lord will not hear. Her colt whinnies in terror, and she quells him with a savage bite. Panic, rising in her chest. The wildness, terror. Fear...

They stand silent, the dark dew falling, lying like beads of glass, meshed in black manes, chestnut, white. At their feet lies their dead king. Snowmane, Lightfoot's foal, kinsman of Shadowfax the great. He lies in state, regal, noble, broken. Pearly-white, almost translucent, his body seems to shine like carven marble. He might almost be a statue, but for the wind stirring in the wrapped shroud of moon-silver mane.

Like carven ghosts, like sentinals, they stand above his bones. There are no tears, for horses do not cry. No tears, no words of comfort can still this grieving, bone-deep, herd-deep, the loss of a king and a captain. They should be here, all of them. A tribute, and a pledge. But these few guardians are all that remain, for many, many lie now slain and broken, scattered upon the stricken field.

It is Ashwind who first raises his head to send his cry ringing from river to mountain top; defiance, and longing, and lament, and challenge, and pride. From the citadel, high above the plains, two voices ring in answer. Held in stables not their own, kept behind doors while their lord lay bleeding out his life on the barren earth of a foreign land. Two stallions, restrained, yet unbound, where they have listened the night long for the words of that cry. It is Ashwind who first calls, Windfola who first takes up the cry. And from the citadel, they answer. Firefoot the brave, their king new-made, with blood upon his brow, and Shadowfax, great-heart untamed, their god upon earth. From the citadel, they send their challenge ringing in answer, as Snowmane, Lightfoot's foal steps at last into that green field beyond the rain where Nahar the Sire awaits them all.