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22
Of Horses and Brides

Hanky alert. It gets a bit… emotional in this chapter.


~~~

CHAPTER 22 – OF HORSES AND BRIDES
(THE TOURNAMENT, DAY SIX)


Regardless of the brave face they had put on the previous eve, neither of Forlong’s daughters slept well on that night. After a while Madenn gave up on trying entirely and got dressed again. There was always so much to do; with her grandmother and the Lady Almaren preoccupied with their private little war, the burden of running the household had been on her shoulders for years. Admittedly, Achren did help wherever she could, but the servants liked dealing with Madenn better, as her mother had been one of their own.

As she made a thorough inspection in the buttery to make sure her father’s butler had not overdone with tasting the Lord’s best vintage, Madenn wondered briefly how Achren would manage Lord Húrin’s household, should she choose to marry the man, after all. But perhaps it was easier to deal with servants who had not known one from the cradle on, she decided. And Achren was no weakling. If she could only make up her mind!

Madenn counted the precious drinking cups and tankards, too. Not that she would not trust the servants of their guests as a rule, but when so many strangers were going in and out of the house, one could never be careful enough. She had no concerns how things would be dealt with once she had left the Castle. Mistress Tynellas, whatever she or Achren might think of her, was a competent (and heavy-handed) housekeeper. She had managed to run things smoothly before. She would be able to do so again.

Done in the buttery and other adjacent rooms of the Great Hall, she crossed the courtyard to the kitchens to see if everything was laid out for first meal properly. The cooks were reliable, as a rule, but with so many high-ranking guests in the house, she did not want to overlook anything.

She was so deep in her thoughts that she had not seen the man coming from the stables. To be fair to her, though, the man was moving very quietly, like a shadow among shadows, despite his large frame. Thus it was only understandable that she got a bad fright, when, all of a sudden, she heard a deep voice speaking behind her back.

“Still abroad, so late in the night?” asked the Prince of Rohan in Westron, yet with the slow, rolling accent of the people of the Mark.

Madenn pressed both fists to her breast to stop the wild hammering of her heart, caused by more than just the fright alone.

“Théodred,” she scolded him, “you will be the death of me one day! What were you thinking, sneaking up to me like that?”

“I wanted to see you… alone,” Théodred took her shoulders and pulled her closer to him; she went willingly. “For nearly a week we have been here, and I barely saw you; certainly never without a crowd around us.”

“And that was good so,” she said but made no attempt to free herself from his embrace. “What is there left to say between the two of us? You belong to her now, and what we had is in the past already. We must not see each other again. Never.”

“I know that,” Théodred sighed, burying his face in the fragrant silk of her hair. “Yet I could not leave you without a parting word – without feeling your warmth against me one last time. If only for this one moment.”

“Verily, my champion, there will be naught else between us than what we have in this moment,” she replied, breathing in his scent deeply, creating a memory that would have to last for the rest of her life. “You have never been truly mine, and now I shall have to give up what little of you I was allowed to have. Go, my heart, and leave me, I beg you. ‘Tis hard enough as it is; do not torment me with a fleeting taste of what I can never have again.”

She kissed him on the lips with all the despair and wasted passion that threatened to choke her – then she laid both palms upon his board chest and gently pushed him away. For a moment, she looked at him, drinking in the sight of his face, his entire being, before whirling around and fleeing like a deer with a whole pack of hounds on its heels.

It seemed, though, that this was one sleepless night not meant to be spent alone with her thoughts and troubled feelings. For barely had she finished her inspection in the kitchens, she saw the tall, slender shadow of another woman waiting for her patiently on the gallery that led to the women’s wing.

It was the Lady Aud, fully clothed, just as Madenn herself, her long, hair flowing down her back like dark water. Apparently, there were more people having trouble sleeping this night.

“Lady Madenn,” the shieldmaiden inclined her dark head ceremoniously, “well met indeed. I have been desirous to speak with you – and alone – ever since we come here. Join me, if it pleases you.”

It did not please Madenn at all, but there was naught she could do without insulting an honoured guest, and she was not doing that. The hospitality of Forlong’s house was legendary; personal feelings had naught to do with it. Thus she nodded mutely and did as she had been asked.

“First of all, I want you to know that Théodred has told me about you and himself,” began the Lady Aud slowly, thoughtfully. “Blame him not for that. ‘Twas his wish to begin our betrothal openly and honestly. We have promised not to keep any secrets from each other. I am to become his Queen; I can only help and support him if I know everything that is there to know.”

“You are very… calm about this,” said Madenn carefully.

The shieldmaiden shrugged.

“What other choice do I have? Ours is a match forged by our fathers years ago, and while I have no objections – which woman who knows Théodred would have? – neither of us has been asked if ‘tis truly our wish to get bonded. Every son and daughter of the Mark is allowed to follow his or her heat when seeking out their true match – every one but the son of the King. Only he is bound to serve the best interests of the throne.”

“Are you bound to do the same?” asked Madenn.

“The King and my father have decided that this match would serve the Mark best,” replied the Lady Aud, “and I trust their wisdom in this matter. I have known Théodred all my life. I know his likes and dislikes, his joys and sorrows, his plans, his ambitions – we had been friends from early childhood on. That makes things easier, for both of us. And he does not demand from me to lay down my sword, save the times when I would be with child, which is more than I could hope from any other husband.”

Madenn smiled, despite her private sorrows. The Lady Aud certainly was a woman who knew what she wanted – and made sure that she got it,

“You two shall be a good match,” she said, “with you being not his wife only but his greatest champion, too.”

“Mayhap so,” answered the Lady Aud thoughtfully. “There is something I cannot give him, though. Not now, not for a long time… mayhap never.”

“Oh?” Madenn raised a golden eyebrow. The shieldmaiden nodded.

“I cannot give him what he had with you,” she admitted. “We like each other well enough, but he loves you; he truly does. ‘Tis a wound I cannot heal. I am a shieldmaiden, and I have no healing hands. I shall do my best to make him content with his life, yet he has known happiness with you, and that is something I might not be able to compete with.”

“Why are you telling me this?” asked Madenn. “Knowing that he will yearn for me for years to come does not make our parting any easier.”

“I know that,” said the Lady Aud gravely, “But I had been wrong about you, ere we came here, and I wish to ask your forgiveness. I truly expected you to try keeping him with all your might. And I know what power you had over his heart… what power you still have. I,” she hesitated for a moment before continuing, “I was willing to look the other way, for his sake. I am glad that would not be needed.”

For a moment, Madenn felt thoroughly wronged by the assumption that she might be ready to remain the Prince’s secret mistress. But then the true meaning of Aud’s words suddenly became clear to her.

“You… you love him!” she said tonelessly. The Lady Aud nodded.

“I always have… since I have learned what love means, and mayhap even before. He never noticed, though.”

“By the Old Gods,” Madenn breathed, “that is…”

“A twisted thing, is it not?” finished the Lady Aud with a sorrowful little smile. “I shall have everything a woman could hope for. I shall share his life, his power and his bed, be called his Queen. But part of him – the very part I would give up everything for – will always belong to you. Oh, he will eventually learn to love me, in a way – genuine fondness and shared duty can lead to that, and it is good so. He will never feel the same for me that he felt – what he still feels – for you, though.”

“Which is sad, for all three of us, for it only leads to sorrow, with little to nothing being gained in exchange,” said Madenn slowly. “I shall not stand in your way, though. I have told him that we must never see each other again, and we shall not. I am leaving my father’s town, soon, and thus the chance for us to run into each other unexpectedly will be very slim.”

“Where will you go?” asked the Lady Aud.

“To my mother, to Imloth Melui,” Madenn gave her a warning look. “You must not tell him. I want a clean and honest end to this.”

“And I shall respect your wish,” said the Lady Aud. “I wish I had the chance to know you better. You are a brave and honourable woman, and I regret to be the cause of your loss.”

“I always knew I would have to get out of his way one day,” replied Madenn simply. “I was prepared… even if I had hoped for a little more time. ‘Tis of no importance now. What is done is done, and we both need to go our separate ways.”

“You are a healer, are you not?” asked the Lady Aud. “I wish we had someone like you in Edoras, instead of those wicked old witches who call themselves herbmistresses.”

Madenn could not help but laugh, realizing to her own surprise that she liked the Lady Aud. They could have become friends, under different circumstances. She regretted that it could never happen.

“Well, it would be a little awkward, having me there,” she said. “But I can let you know where I can be found, in case you should need me. Only you, though. Not him.”

She meant it. She would help the Lady Aud in any need possible; Aud was meant to be Théodred’s wife and his Queen, after all. But seeing him on her side would be more than she could bear.

“I thank you for the offer,” replied the Lady Aud, “and if needs must be, I shall come back to it… without telling him aught. You have my word.”

“Then I am content,” said Madenn, for the word of a shieldmaiden was as good as that of any knight. “I wish you happiness, my Lady; make him happy, for both of us.”

“I shall try my best,” promised the Lady Aud.

They did not embrace or exchange the kiss of friendship; they were not that close and would never be. Instead, they bowed formally and parted ways, for a long time to come.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Achren had not gone with the others to watch the horse racing after first meal. She liked such races just fine, but she was troubled still from the unexpectedly harsh encounter on the previous eve, and longed to be alone for a while. It seemed to be and idle wish, though, for barely had the others left the Castle when someone knocked on her door – and not too shyly.

With a resigned sigh, she got up and went to open to door. She expected to find one of the servants with some household trouble, as Madenn had gone with Herumor to the races, but to her surprise, it was little Morwen, as bright and attentive as ever, standing on her threshold.

“I thought you had gone to watch the horse racing with the other children,” she said.

Morwen shook her head fervently, making her black curls fly around her face.

“Horses are fun, but when there are so many Rohirrim, they will win anyway,” she replied. “And I wanted to talk to you while everyone else is gone and they cannot listen.” Apparently, the child had already figured out how things worked in the women’s wing of Forlong’s Castle.

“Oh?” Achren suppressed a smile. “Is it a secret, then?”

“Father thinks so, but I believe ‘tis no secret anymore,” answered Morwen with a mischievous grin. “I have found out, and the others will, too, soon enough, even though they are adults.” And thus slow, apparently. “So I thought I would come and talk to you before everyone finds out and they start asking daft questions.”

“’Twould be better so, indeed,” Achren agreed, fighting back a laughter that wanted to get our very much. “What is it you wanted to talk with me about?”

“Father,” replied Morwen promptly. “I think he likes you very much… nay, I know he likes you very much. I asked him, and he said so.”

“Does he now?” Achren could not keep the smile suppressed any longer, and Morwen nodded energetically.

“Aye, he does,” she gave Achren a studious look. “Do you like him? He is very nice, you know. And a very important man in Minas Tirith.”

“So I am told,” replied Achren gravely. “And I like him just fine, indeed.”

“Then why would you not wed him?” asked Morwen. “If he likes you, and you like him, and our families are sut… suit… if they match each other, what is wrong?”

“There is nothing wrong,” said Achren. “I just wish to know your father better, ere I would decide to become his wife… or not.”

“You would have plenty of time to know him better when you marry him,” pointed out Morwen practically. “You would be together, all the time. That is what married people do.”

“Aye, but what if I find out that I do not like him enough to spend my life with him after I have already married him?” asked Achren.

“’Twould be not so good,” agreed Morwen. “But you would like him even more if you lived with us, I am sure about hat. When you are with us, he is always smiling. I have never seen him smile so much before. You are good for him.”

“Not even while your mother was still with you?” asked Achren. Morwen shrugged.

“I cannot remember. I was very little when she died. But Father does not smile much at home. He is with the Lord Steward a lot since Grandfather has been ailing, and Grandmother is always so grim, too… I wish you would come to live with us, so that I could have someone to laugh with. My lady tutor is nice, but she is too old to play with, and Grandmother scares her to death anyway. If Faramir goes to Dol Amroth, I shall have no-one left.”

She said it matter-of-factly, without complaining or trying to make Achren feel sorry for her. Nonetheless, Achren’s heart went out to her. Such a brave little girl she was, living with grieving and ailing adults in a grim, old house, and still able to keep her high spirits. She truly deserved some joy in her life, an ally who would help her to cope with that all loneliness.

And her father, that grave and hones young man with the noble face and gentle eyes, he deserved someone who would love him and support him as well. Achren felt sure that with a little effort, she could be that someone. Was it right to hold back, just because she did not want to please her grandmother and the unpleasant wife of her father?

“I tell you what,” she said to the little girl. “I shall give you father an answer ere you leave for Minas Tirith again. Would that suffice?”

And Morwen nodded in delight, apparently more certain about the nature of that answer than Achren could hope for herself.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The others came back from the horse racing shortly before midday meal, talking excitedly about the great horses and the excellent competition they had seen. Princess Idis had indeed managed to win the race, beating even her own landsmen easily, as she had not only the advantage of a particularly fast horse (although not a meara, they were forbidden) but also that of a lighter, more slender build and thus being a lesser burden for her steed than the others.

“She was incredible,” declared Faramir in awe. “I have never seen anyone ride like that!”

“You should visit the Mark one day,” the Princess, her face rosy with delight, her golden hair cascading down her back like a wild mane, laughed. “You would see that there are many who are every bit as good as I am. I just have the best horses, being the daughter of the King and all that. Had the rules allowed me to ride a meara, no-one would even come near me.”

“Oh, but that had not been just,” said Boromir. “No-one else would have stood a fair chance. No horse is as fast as the mearas – unless the Elven steeds of Uncle Imrahil’s friend would be here, too.”

Elven horses?” the ears of the Princess perked up with interest. “You have ridden Elven horses?”

“Nay,” laughed Boromir, “Lord Gildor would not suffer any mortals in Edhellond, save the Princes of Dol Amroth, and I am not one. I have seen their horses from afar, though, long ago, during a stay in Dol Amroth.”

“You have? What are they like?” asked the Princess eagerly.

“They seem to be a bit fragile in our eyes,” admitted Boromir, “although they are certainly beautiful and very swift; also, Uncle says that they are a lot hardier than they look. The ones I was were all white or pale silver; they prefer that colour, albeit they must have other kinds, too.”

“I wish I could see them, just once,” sighed little Morwen dreamily. Lord Húrin smiled down at his little daughter.

“You should have come with us today,” he said. “There were lots of beautiful horses, even though no Elven ones. I cannot fathom why you stayed at home anyway, knowing how much you love horses.”

“Verily, I love them a lot,” replied Morwen, then she added with falsely innocent eyes. “Even if they are just ponies… and old.”

Húrin shook his head in mild exasperation. “Morwen, we have spoken about this before; you are too young for a big horse.”

Liahan rides a big horse, and he is even younger than I am!” protested Morwen.

“Liahan is in training to become a Swan Knight one day,” pointed out her father. “Do you wish to become a Swan Knight?”

Morwen shot him a long-suffering look. “Of course not, Father, why must you always ask such…” she was about to say daft questions but changed her mind wisely in the last moment, “such strange things? I just want a proper horse ere my pony falls over dead from old age under me.”

“We shall discuss this later,” said Húrin patiently, but Morwen was not easily placated today.

“That is what you always say,” she pouted. “Fine! See if I ever help you to find a wife again!”

At that, Lord Húrin, the second most powerful man in Minas Tirith after the Steward himself, became deathly pale with shock and gave a strangled cry.

“Morwen! What have you done?”

“We shall discuss it later,” riposted Morwen and ran back to the Castle, terribly upset and angry.

Húrin stared after her helplessly. He could deal with arrogant Haradric ambassadors, annoyed Gondorian noblemen, he could outsmart intrigant courtiers and command the troops of the White Tower if needed. But sometimes his own little girl was too much for him to handle.

“’Tis not easy to be a father of strong-minded daughters,” commented Lord Forlong with heartfelt sympathy, while Madenn patted the poor young man’s arm encouragingly.

“Well, let us hope that strong-minded daughters can handle each other better,” she said and hurried after the little girl.

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