The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 50: The Muster of Rohan

On the morning that the Rohirrim set out for Gondor the sun rose like a blood-tinged from the mists over the mountains of Mordor. A chill March wind came up and dispelled the fog, but the morning kept a sullen brassy light that glinted on the tips of the spears and the gilded shields.

All around was feverish activity as the men of Rohan prepared for their long ride and the desperate battle waiting at the end of it. They were strangely subdued; gone was the usual bravado and exuberance of the start of a campaign. These were the best of the best, the cream of Rohan’s warriors, who usually took delight in riding to war. But the departure of first Gandalf then Aragorn and his companions had cowed the hopes of the men. They knew, from what their own king had told them, that they rode but to a hopeless fight. The words Lord Elrond had spoken to Aragorn;
‘You ride to war but not to victory..’ had gone round the whole army, for tents have thin walls.

Now horses were saddled, gear stowed and weapons taken up, all in an eerie quiet, broken only by the stamping and neighing of horses, and the shouts of the leaders of the éoreds.

Éowyn emerged from Elfhelm’s tent and made her way through the throng towards the horse picket lines. Men jostled her and shouted in her ear, and Elfhelm made to protect her from the crowd but she whispered to him;
‘Nay, Elfhelm, you must let me make my own way through the Rohirrim. If you seek to escort me everyone will notice and wonder who I am!’

Elfhelm nodded and fell back. All about them men hefted shields and spears and slung saddles onto their mounts. The horses took the nervous, edgy mood of the men and tugged at their bridles and whinnied. Some lashed out with their hooves, and Éowyn nimbly avoided them till she came to the lines of horses. She ducked under the ropes and walked over to her horse, a dark bay with a small fine head and kindly eye, and began to untie him. Suddenly a warrior laid his hand on hers and said;
‘Nay, lad. That is the Lady Éowyn’s horse! You must choose another….’

It was Tiarna. Well was he called Lord of Horses because he never forgot who owned which horse. He had seen this slender young warrior make towards the princess’s mount and moved to prevent him taking it…

But the young man, beardless and with his upper face hidden by his helm, looked up at him in alarm. Before he could speak Líofa stepped forward and laid a hand on Tiarna’s arm and said;
‘Lady Éowyn has sent you for her horse, has she not?’
Éowyn nodded in silence, afraid her voice would betray her. Líofa turned to Tiarna and laughed.
‘All is well, Tiarna, it is only the lady’s squire!’
Tiarna looked doubtful; he could not remember lady Éowyn having a squire. Then Líofa winked at him and his eyes grew wide with understanding. Líofa undid the horse’s lead rope and handed it to Éowyn.
‘Bring the lady her horse….may I know your name?’
‘Dernhelm’ replied Éowyn gruffly. Líofa bowed and said;
‘Líofa the harpist at your service….Dernhelm. May the Lady have good speed home to Edoras…’
And as she led her horse past him Éowyn caught a smile of conspiracy on the Elf’s face. She gave a slight smile of thanks in return, then led her horse away towards the muster, followed by Elfhelm.

‘Was that who I think it was…?’ said Tiarna to Líofa. The Elf put his finger to his lips.
‘Never tell anyone of this, Tiarna. We must mark this warrior in battle, in case he should need our help….’

Just then Callanach walked up, leading the little black horse Réalt. Líofa looked curiously at the animal, remembering it. But he did not mention it, nor Marfach…he turned when Callanach asked, with a smile;
‘Can Elves ride horses, harpist?’
Líofa smiled and noddedd.
‘Well then..’ went on Callanach ‘Choose your mount, from what is left…’

Indeed the horses had been picked over, and the best taken. All that was left was either too big or too small or half wild. Tiarna looked over Líofa’s shoulder at the milling herd and laughed.
‘You won’t even be able to pick one out, they are all wild now…’
Líofa smiled again and looking at the bunch he said;
‘Do you see that tall grey with the brand shaped like a kite on his shoulder?’
The others nodded. The grey was at the far side of the pickets, in the midst of a group of horses herded close together. Tiarna said;
‘It will be impossible to cut him out….’
Líofa smiled and gave a low whistle. At once the grey lifted his head and whinnied. Then he disengaged himself from the other horses and came trotting up to the Elf, who rubbed his nose and spoke to him in Elvish. Tiarna and Callanach were left speechless.
‘We Elves can speak to any creature….’then his face darkened and he added; ‘ except to orcs…..’
‘Don’t speak to them, then’ said Tiarna cheerfully. ‘Smite them!’ He turned to mount his own horse when he saw his father Grimbold approach.

‘Step over here, my son.’ said the lined and grey-haired veteran of the Mark. Tiarna walked over to his father, curiosity in his eyes. Above them flew Grimbold’s banner of the Black Boar. He said to his son;
‘You are in the King’s Éored and I will be on the right flank when the battle charge begins.’ he said;. ‘Here we must say our farewells, for there may be no other chance, and the battle will be a fell one….’
And Grimbold leaned over and embraced his tall rangy son. He held him tightly to his chest for a few moments, then gently let him go. When Tiarna looked, there were tears glinting in the eyes of the old warrior. He said hoaresly;
‘Go then, Master of Horses, to glory….’

Éowyn walked on leading her horse, her heart pounding. She had almost been found out, and the Elf certainly knew! Then she saw, mounting his great white warhorse Snowmane, her uncle King Théoden.

Surrounded by his chieftains and warriors of the Mark Théoden was now a different monarch from the one who had mumbled and dozed for so many months on the throne of the Golden Hall while she had looked helplessly on. Now he spurred his horse forward, looking imperiously about for his captains, giving orders in a stern tone of command. He was bare-headed and his long tawny hair, threaded with silver, streamed behind him in the wind. Then, for a moment in the midst of his preparations for war, Théoden looked round as if seeking someone….Éowyn realised he was looking for her.

A pang struck Éowyn’s heart; she longed to run to her uncle and give him her last farewell and receive his blessing. For she was sure neither of them would ever return to the Mark or see the Golden Hall again. But she could not betray her disguise. She realised that the path she had chosen meant wounding one she loved, and she bent her head in sorrow. Théoden meanwhile, having had a good look about, shrugged and thought to himself that his niece was angry at being left behind. He too had a moment of sadness, but then turned to Éomer, riding on his right, and said;
‘Give the commands, we ride for Gondor…’

And the king and his royal guard set off at a trot. But then Théoden pulled Snowmane up, for standing almost in his horse’s path was the hobbit, Meriadoc. He looked up at Théoden with a stricken face, holding the head of his pony Stybba. Before he could speak, the king said gently;
‘War is no place for little hobbits, Master Meriadoc.’
Merry looked up pleadingly and said;
‘But I want to fight! All my friends are gone to battle. I would be ashamed to be left behind!’

Théoden smiled; the hobbit’s great-heartedness was plain to see. But Théoden would not condemn the little squire to death by bringing him on a long hard ride to a hopeless battle. And yet he could not think what to say to the bitterly disappointed hobbit.
‘I want to fight!’ repeated Merry, but Théoden had need of great haste, and merely replied;
‘I will say no more….’

And turning Snowmane’s head he kicked him into a gallop with Éomer and the other leaders of the Mark behind him.

‘Ride now, ride for Gondor!’ he shouted, and the great body of horsemen broke into a gallop behind him. Merry was left to watch through his tears as the army of the Mark, their lance tips glittering in the morning sun, flowed down the hill to the plain and set off Eastward.

‘I won’t be left behind, I won’t!’ Merry said in desperation. Then suddenly something struck him in the back and grabbed him by the belt. He felt himself hauled up onto the bow of a saddle and set roughly astride a great bay warhorse. The rider crouched over him, partly to conceal him and partly to conceal himself. He whispered;
‘Ride with me, Merry…’

And Merry, understanding at last, said with delight;
‘Yes, my Lady!’