Set Me Free

by Varda

The Muster of Rohan was complete; the lords and warriors of the Mark were gathered in the early spring sunshine, awaiting the command to move off on their long ride to the beleaguered city of Minas Tirith. Banners fluttered in the cold wind, galloping horses on fields of green silk, a golden sun on an azure sky and pennants emblazoned with the symbols of every éored and company of Rohan.

Aragorn sat quietly on Brego as King Théoden gave his last orders to his captains. Several ranks behind him Merry sat as still as he possibly could with Dernhelm’s cloak pulled across his face. This mysterious warrior who had taken the hobbit up on his horse seemed, strangely, to also wish to avoid drawing attention to himself. Merry gripped the bow of the saddle and prayed silently that he would not fall off and reveal himself to all the army of Rohan. Long golden tresses brushed his cheek and he wondered that Dernhelm must be a very young warrior to be beardless. And then there was that faint scent of lavender…..

‘What’s keeping us now?’ grumbled Gimli, fidgeting as he sat behind Legolas on Hasufel, worrying like Merry about his ability to stay on horseback during a swift ride over rough terrain. The king’s guard, Gamling, heard him and leaned over and said;
‘It is the custom of the King of Rohan and his lords to release their hawks before riding to war. We are waiting for the falcons to be brought out….’

Gimli raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Behind them Éowyn, still trying to avoid catching the eye of the leaders, craned to look as several warriors rode up to the King bearing hooded hawks on their gauntleted wrists. A pang of memory and grief smote her, as she saw that among them was Théodred’s falcon, called Aiteall, Sunshower.

Seeing Aragorn’s surprised look, Théoden said to him with a smile;
‘This will not delay us long, Lord Aragorn. It is the custom of the leaders of my people to free their hawks before a great battle. It shows we have turned our backs on the pleasures of peace and have hardened our hearts for war, and will not return unless victorious.’
Aragorn nodded solemnly; he knew little of falconry. Théoden whispered;
‘It also deprives our conquerors of good hunting, should they win!’

Merry, overhearing what was said, looked up at Dernhelm and asked in a low voice;
‘Have you seen this done before, Dernhelm?’

Éowyn was struggling with her tears; never in her young life had she seen a freeing of the hawks. She only knew that it was a sign of the end of many things, perhaps even of her world and all the people she held dear ….she shook her head and replied;
‘No, Master Holbytla. We have been harried by orcs for many years, but never in my memory have we mustered so many of our people for such a desperate battle as this, nor had we cause to set free that we held dear..…’

The first hawks were handed to the lords as they sat before their éoreds; Erkenbrand, Grimbold and the others. As their warriors looked on, they took off the birds’ hoods and let them grow accustomed to the light. Then they threw them into the sky and watched them circle, then fly off as if to hunt. The men of Rohan watched closely, as the bird’s flight was seen as boding well or ill for the coming campaign…

When it came to Éomer’s turn a peregrine was brought up, befitting his rank as a lord of the noble house of Éorl. Éomer took the hawk on his wrist and gently unhooded it. The great bird clasped the glove and gazed around him and at Éomer with its fierce black and amber eye. Éomer reached down and took from his saddle-bag a morsel of meat. He placed it between his teeth and bent down towards the hawk, who reached up and tugged at the meat then gulped it down. As his men laughed, it seemed that Éomer was kissing the hawk. King Théodred chuckled and said;
‘You will lose your nose with that trick one day, Éomer’ Then he grew solemn and said;
‘If Éowyn were here I would give her the honour of releasing Théodred’s hawk, Aiteall. But in her stead, Éomer, I ask you to let my son’s falcon go free….’

At these words Merry heard Dernhelm draw in his breath sharply with what could have been a sob. Then Éomer took Aiteall on his wrist and after unhooding her and stroking her gently he let her go. Éowyn gazed through tears into the blue as the black silhouette grew smaller and smaller, then bent her head with a sigh. Merry wanted to say something in sympathy, but could not think of the words….

At last a peregrine falcon was brought up, Ruathar, the Attacker, King Théoden’s hawk. The king gazed for a moment at it as it shifted uneasily on the handler’s wrist, then suddenly turned to Aragorn and said;
‘My Lord Aragorn, will you do me the honour of setting my hawk free?’ you have set me free, the king thought to himself.

Aragorn had been watching but without paying much attention; his mind was far away, on the endangered city of Minas Tirith, or further away, in the North, among the Elves of Rivendell and their fair Princess…... Théoden’s words brought him back with a start and he straightened up in alarm. He knew nothing of hawks and falconry; Rangers of the North lived hard lives, hunted men themselves, and had no time for courtly pursuits such as hawking. But he could see he was being given a great honour; all the host of Rohan was watching in approval and expectation…he urged Brego forward and held out his arm in trepidation for the attendant to set Ruathar on his wrist. In the ranks behind them Merry heard Dernhelm exclaim in astonishment….

The hawk was placed on Aragorn’s hand and sank its talons into his archer’s glove. Close up the bird seemed large, but weighed little. For a moment Aragorn forgot his alarm and was lost in admiration of the beauty of the black and dun and white barred feathers of its chest and the livery of its wings and sleek head. It shifted from foot to foot, as if aware it was in the keeping of a stranger….Théoden called out;
‘Take off her hood, Lord Aragorn; let her see the light….’

Taking the hood in his fingers Aragorn removed it, and at once fell under the scrutiny of a great unblinking eye. It stared right into his as if questioning him, then turned sideways to get a better look. Its gaze seemed to penetrate his inmost thoughts. Aragorn could only stare back as if mesmerised. But Éowyn held her breath, and heard the men round her whisper;
‘See how tame she is with him? You would think it was the King who held her….’
‘It is’ thought Merry.

For some seconds time seemed to stand still. Then Aragorn, entranced by the beauty of the falcon’s plumage raised his hand and gently stroked the feathers of its chest. The host of Rohan watched anxiously; should the hawk bite Aragorn it would be a bad omen….but Ruather seemed calmed by the Ranger’s hard hand and sat motionless under his touch. Éowyn watched with an ache of longing ….

The attendants walked away and mounted their own horses; the time to ride to war had come. Théoden said to Aragorn;
‘Set her free, my lord..….’

And Aragorn threw out his arm as he had seen the other lords do, and the great falcon lifted off, flapping slowly at first, gazing about at the host of men. Then she beat her wings more vigorously and began to ascend the sky, rising higher and higher into the blue till she was but a black speck, boldly climbing to view the whole earth below, searching for quarry, free at last. The host of Rohan breathed a sigh of relief; the hawk flew bravely straight into the sun; it was a good sign…

Éowyn stared at the hawk till it could be seen no more, then whispered in a voice so low even Merry could not hear it..
‘Would that I too could be set free, Lord Aragorn...'

'The Viking invaders were firmly in position when Byhrthnoth arrived to do battle. The Saxon prince gave instructions to his noble followers to release their hawks and drive away their horses. Beasts were free to depart the place of slaughter but men, bound by honour and obligation, must remain...'

The Battle Of Maldon; anonymous 10th English century poem.
'Viking Hersir 793 - 1066 AD' Mark Harrison and Gerry Embleton