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23
The King and its Falcon

Almost there… bear with me just a little longer!


~~~

CHAPTER 23 – THE KING AND ITS FALCON
(THE TOURNAMENT, DAY SEVEN)


And thus the last day of Lord Forlong’s famous tournament – of which people would speak long afterwards yet, not in Lossarnach alone but in the whole Gondor – has come at last. ‘Twas also the last day of the annual summer fair, on which the horned King of the Fair was to be slain and roasted on a spit, in order to feed its subjects and to ensure the fertility of the soil for another season, and also the wooden falcon, the symbol of its short rule, was to be shot down from the Tower of Rollo.

Those were events no-one wanted to miss, and Derufin son of Duinhir, who happened to be a guest in the Castle, too, came hammering on Faramir’s door long before first meal, eager to go down to the horse fair already and take a closer look at the tents of the King’s Camp, where the archers were waiting for their chance to shoot. They wanted to take the other children with them, which made Lord Húrin decidedly uncomfortable, as he did not want his daughter to see aught that would frighten her too much but was loath to forbid her anything after their most recent clash.

He could not even begin to imagine how Madenn had managed to soften the little girl’s mood, but in any case, they came down to first meal together… well, to be more accurate, Morwen came holding Achren’s hand, who, too, seemed ready and willing to go down to the fair.

“Let us go together,” suggested Achren, taking Húrin’s arm casually. “She cannot see anything bad as long as she is with us. I respect the customs of our people here, yet I can live without seeing certain parts of them.”

Húrin was not going to let the chance of spending more time with his chosen one slip through his gingers, and thus down they went, children and guards and all, to the small lighting near the horse fair, outside the town walls, right at the foot of the Tower of Rollo. There stood the big tent – well, rather stable, actually – of the King of the Fair, and around it, in a great circle, nineteen smaller ones had been pitched, yellow ones with dark red stripes, looking like large flowers in the green grass.

The competing archers, all arrayed in proper Lossarnach green and armed with excellent longbows, were standing before their tents, discussing their chances. Faramir found Anborn among them at once. For not only was the son of Arthod the youngest of all, he was also taller than most, due to the Dúnadan blood of his father. And he seemed happy enough to see he Steward’s younger son, too.

“Well met again, young sir,” he said in a friendly manner. “Have you come to see whether I am as good with my bow as my word?”

“Verily, we have come to see if the Ithilien Rangers are as good as their reputation,” replied Boromir teasingly in Faramir’s stead, his eyes twinkling.

“And to see if the archers of Morthond Vale can come close to the good and honest ones from Lossarnach,” added Herumor with a broad grin.

Anborn took no offence, seeing that all the young lords were doing was having some harmless, albeit to his expense. Besides, he had recognized Boromir at once and thought the future Captain-General would have every right to examine the skills of his men-at-arms.

“Well, good sirs, whether from Morthond Vale or from Lossarnach, a woodman’s mark and at a woodman’s distance I surely can hit,” he answered mildly.

“And a rabbit’s heart at a hundred yards,” said another young man, a few years older than him.

“My good cousin Ruathan flatters me,” said Anborn, “but I shall do my best not to bring shame to the proud name of the Ithilien Rangers – or that of the archers of Morthond Vale.”

“’Tis a shame that only the bowmen of the town are allowed to shoot,” said Princess Idis, a bit scornfully. “The Men of the Mark could teach them a thing or two about archery.”

“The Men of the Mark are welcome to try, at any other occasion but this,” replied Achren. “Shooting at the Falcon is a privilege of our own people.”

The sound of the trumpets interrupted their friendly banter. The gates of the Tower of Rollo opened, and out marched a well-armed troop of twelve Tower guards, in tight formation, led by Lord Nevenaur himself, the Captain of the Tower; a splendid sight of a man in his sable armour, and a knight of his own value.

Having been set apart from the other men-at-arms of the town since the days of King Aldamir (which meant more than five hundred years, after all) the Tower Guard was clad and armed like its namesake in Minas Tirith, rather than in the traditional fashion of Lossarnach. They looked alike as a basket of polished eggs, from the points of their spears to their boots… and an amazing look it was!

They all wore woollen undertunics and trousers, their calves and upper arms protected by applied pieces of chain mail. A short-sleeved upper tunic replaced the usual Lossarnach-style jerkin, above which they wore their breastplate, steel collar and protective shoulder plates, all shining black. The two pieces protecting their backs and chests were fastened together by thin leather straps. The breastplate reached down far enough to protect their stomachs, and a short frock of six or eight steel plates was applied to it. Brightly burnished vambraces upon their forearms and steel-plated leather gauntlets completed their armour. The elegantly-shaped, pointed helmets were decorated with the etched lines of birds’ wings on both sides where they covered the men’s cheeks.

The Guard’s oval-shaped shields were made of wood, covered with black leather and seamed with steal. They were adorned with the painted image of the White tree, just like their breastplates, instead of wearing Lord Forlong’s own coat-of-arms, for they were considered the King’s troops, rather than those of the Lord of Lossarnach. Their mighty swords were twenty-eight inches long, with a cross-piece shaped like the crescent moon, with a bronze spiral symbolizing the seven circles of Minas Tirith replacing the usual pommel stone. Their black scabbards were adorned wit similar symbols, or with long, winding bronze strips standing for the Great River.

As a second weapon they carried eight-foot-long spears, made of the wood of the ash-tree and with long and broad steel heads. These spears were not meant to be thrown; the Guards were supposed to thrust and spar with them. Held erect, as the marching Guards were doing now, the streamers fastened right under the spearheads flattered in the light breeze; and they, too, were black, bearing the image of the White Tree.

In any case, the offered a terrible and beautiful sight, and Boromir’s heart trembled in his breast with joy and pride upon seeing them. ‘Twas good to know that glimpses of Gondor’s fading greatness could still be found in other places than just in the Citadel of Minas Tirith.

The Guards marched out with even strides, and then parted, forming two rows on both sides of the Tower gates. Captain Nevenaur stepped forth, addressing the archers in the King’s Camp in a voice that sounded like a great battle horn.

“Listen to me, brave archers and you, gallant onlookers, for I announce you the beginning of the shooting at the Falcon, so that the rule of the Fair King may be broken and the crop harvest come to an end. Deliver your arrows warrior-like and bravely, for ‘tis up to you to end this year’s summer fair properly and with the blessing of Nurria, the lady of the fields and pastures, who is also called Yavanna in the Grey Tongue of our Lords. The one who hits the Falcon strong enough for it to fall, shall earn himself a large hunting horn, filled with twenty silver pieces from Lord Forlong’s own treasure chambers, to which I add ten silver pieces from the treasury of the Tower.”

That seemed to delight the archers very much, and they all looked eager to give it a try. ‘Twas not an easy task to master, though, Faramir judged. Not only was the wooden bird fastened at a height of almost a hundred yards, it was also on aside of the Tower where the sunlight would bother the archers greatly.

“They will need a steady hand and a keen eye, used to harsh light,” agreed Princess Idis, a passable archer of her own. “Do you believe your Ranger friend there might do it?”

“I cannot tell,” replied Faramir honestly. “I have never seen him shooting before. He seems confident enough about his own skills, though.”

“They all do,” commented the Princess, giving the men a measuring look. “I wonder which one of them is truly worth his bragging.”

“My coin is on the Ranger,” said Boromir, throwing a silver piece up in the air and catching it easily again. “What is your bet?”

“I think his cousin Ruathan will do it,” replied Achren, having seen the young man shooting before, and she pulled a silver pin with a ruby head from her bodice, adding it to Boromir’s coin.

“So do I,” declared Madenn, adding a hair clasp, shaped like a blue-winged golden butterfly, to the heap. Then she looked at Lord Húrin, teasingly. “Who would be your favourite, my Lord?”

Húrin seized up the would-be competitors with the experienced eye of a man used to lead armed troops.

“Him, with the greying beard,” he nodded towards a short, wiry man with the heavy-set shoulders of a long-time bowman, and dropped his own silver piece into Boromir’s palm.

“Master Bowman Joevin,” Madenn supplied the name. “A good choice, my Lord; he certainly has the skills, having served my father for thrice ten years already. But mayhap he does no longer have the strength for a target at such distance. What say you, cousin?”

Herumor shrugged. “I am a swordsman, not a bowman, I have heard good things of the Ithilien Rangers, though, and so I am with Lord Boromir here.” Saying so, he fished three bronze pieces from his belt pouch and added them to the heap, with an embarrassed shrug for not having more to waste(1).

The trumpets sounded again, and – under the watchful eye of Captain Nevenaur, the host of the game – the nineteen archers formed a long line. Three shafts was each of them allowed to shoot, but nit in succession. Once an archer had shot, he had to wait for all the others ere he could have another try. This rule made the game all the more difficult, as their concentration was broken every time, and as the sun had climbed a bit higher between shots, the light was different, too, by each turn.

Faramir squinted and looked up to the Falcon thoughtfully. The target was small and high up, barely visible, even for his exceptionally keen eyes.

“What if no-one can knock the Falcon down?” he asked.

“They must keep trying, as long as they would succeed,” Achren explained. “But when they do not manage in the first three rounds, they lose the promised winnings entirely.”

Faramir nodded in understanding. Thirty silver pieces were a handsome sum of coin for any bowman; they would do their outmost to get the Falcon in the first three rounds. The question remained, however, if their skills would suffice or not. Like Boromir and Herumor, he counted on the Ranger Anborn, and wished that he could bet on the man, too.

The townsfolk had gathered in great numbers to celebrate the skills of their own, each encouraging their favourite with great shouts. And the bowmen of Carvossonn showed excellent skills with the longbow, indeed. Every single one of the first nineteen arrows hit the Tower very close to the Falcon; some even touched the wooden bird. Only three of them hit it directly, albeit without knocking it down: those of Anborn, his cousin Ruathan and Master Bowman Joevin.

“We have all chosen well,” declared Madenn in delight. “Now it will become truly exciting.”

And verily, so it did. In the second round, more arrows went astray, as the archers all tried to make their best shot at first, and many of them were high-strung and worried now. Anborn and Master Bowman Joevin hit the Falcon again, and so did two other archers, while Ruathan barely missed it himself.

Thus all probabilities were still open when the third round began, and the townsfolk were beginning to get truly anxious now. For though everyone knew that the archers would go on ‘til they have shot the Falcon down, not succeeding within the first three rounds counted as a very bad omen; and so far the stubborn wooden bird had resisted the best and hardest shots.

Once again, the archers seemed to have gathered their wits among themselves, for the shots were nearly as good now as in the first round. But only nearly. Not one would actually touch the Falcon, not even that of Ruathan, though his arrow had come very close. The people became very quiet, when, by the lots drawn in advance, Anborn got his last change – right before his greatest adversary.

He envisioned his target carefully and delivered his arrow with a fervour that would have killed a wild boar. The arrow hit the Falcon straight on the breast, making it waver; for a moment, it seemed as if it would fall. But the reluctant bird found its precarious balance again and remained more or less firmly parched upon its high seat.

Anborn murmured something tat sounded suspiciously like a curse in the tongue of the Dunlendings and stepped back, shaking his head in regret.

“It seems, young sir, that I am not as good as my word, after all,” he said to Faramir. “I ask your forgiveness for disappointing you.”

Faramir shrugged. “You did your best; no-one can ask for more. And besides, you very nearly got the Falcon. With just a little more luck, you might have won. You still may, in truth.”

For only Master Bowman Joevin was left from the third round, and even Lord Húrin had quiet doubts that the eldest archer could outdo Anborn’s excellent shot. Joevin himself seemed confident enough, though. He prepared his bow unhurriedly, eyes his target long and hard – then aimed and shot bravely.

“He will miss,” said Faramir, for his experience told him that the trajectory was not quite as correct as Anborn’s had been.

“I doubt it,” replied Húrin, a fairly good bowman himself.

And indeed, the shot was good enough for the arrow to touch the Falcon, even if not to hit it straight. However, still out of balance from Anborn’s previous shot, the wooden bird wavered again, swooning back and forth – and finally stumbled over the edge of its perch and fell like a stone.

The townsfolk cheered, relieved that the bad omen had been fended off, the trumpets sounded joyously, and little Morwen hugged her father in triumph, her anger from the previous day forgotten. There were some people, though, who argued that Anborn had as much part in shooting down the Falcon as the actual winner and wanted him to be rewarded as well.

It turned out that Master Bowman Joevin was if the same mind, for he insisted on sharing at least the thirty silver pieces with the Ranger. Everyone found that a very generous thing to do, and thus the competition ended in general contentment, with the Tower Guard performing a spectacular march back into their private fortress. Joevin and Anborn had been invited to dine with Captain Nevenaur and his officers, which was a rare honour, and everyone else was delighted about the outcome as well.

“Since the winners have shared their winnings, it seems to me that we should do the same,” said Lord Húrin to Boromir and Herumor. “For my part, I would like to keep Lady Achren’s silver pin as my share, if you two are agreeable.”

“And I shall have the butterfly clasp,” said Boromir, ere Herumor could have protested, “As I already know a young lady in whose dark tresses it will be a most beautiful sight.” And with that, he fastened the pretty blue and gold clasp in Morwen’s hair, who seemed happy enough with it.

That left the coin to Herumor, who, truth be told, could use it most, and it was done in a manner that would not embarrass him, nor make it possible for him to refuse. He insisted on saving face by offering to buy the children some sweetmeats, and Prince Elphir was eager to accept the offer, which successfully turned the attention elsewhere, to the young knight’s relief.

“It seems to me, my Lord, said Achren teasingly, “that why you are willing to share your winnings generously with the less fortunate, you show no readiness to ransom my treasure back to me.”

“I could be persuaded,” replied Húrin with dignity, “but the price would be very high indeed. For I would only part with the treasure of silver and ruby if I could call their former owner as mine in exchange.”

“You make a hard bargain, my Lord,” complained Achren, but her eyes were laughing.

“Surely I do, but what other chance do I have?” declared Húrin. “I have made a different offer in the not-so-distant past, and you said no aye, nor nay to it. Now, as I cannot hope to have that which I desire for everything else I own, it seems I must bargain my newly-won treasure for it, and hope that I would have better luck this time.”

“Verily, you must, it seems,” admitted Achren, “and I must give your offer some thought. Mayhap if we could negotiate the ransom in private?”

By then, Herumor and Madenn were laughing so hard they had to lean on each other for support. Boromir was grinning like a fool and rubbed his hand. The children exchanged half-amused, half bewildered looks, depending on their respective ages and on the level they were involved in said negotiations.

“Lady Achren,” said Princess Idis in a royal manner, “I believe ‘tis time for you to cease tormenting this poor man, or else I might consider marrying him myself.”

Morwen glared at her in mortification. “Nay, father, you cannot wed her,” she protested. “She is only four years older than I am!”

Boromir patted her shoulder soothingly. “Worry not, little cousin. I am certain that your father would not change his fancy so quickly. But we truly must let them discuss this between the two of them, must we not?”

Morwen looked at her father with bright, speculative eyes. “I could go with Madenn watch the sacrifice,” she said slyly.

“Nay,” replied her father promptly, “you most certainly can not. Nor do I think it would be a thing Prince Adrahil would like Elphir to witness.”

“’Tis true,” Liahan admitted. “My Lord has forbidden Prince Elphir to go there.”

“And what about you?” asked Madenn. Liahan shrugged.

“He said naught about me,” he answered, “but truly, I do not wish to watch it. I would rather go and see the toy-makers’ booths again.”

“A wise decision,” Húrin gave him a few copper pieces. “Here; go and spend some coin, buy sweetmeats, get a belly-ache… that should be sacrifice enough for all three of you.”

“I can go with them,” offered Madenn. “I have seen this often enough. We can meet again at the time of the evening meal and try the roast goat together.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
That promise comforted the youngest children about not being allowed to watch the sacrifice, and they went with Madenn and the guards willingly. Boromir and Herumor took Faramir and Princess Idis with them, who both wanted to watch the slaying of the Fair King, although Faramir would admit his brother later that the sight had made him rather… queasy. But he could not show weakness before the eyes of the golden Princess, who did not seam the least disturbed by the whole thing.

That left Achren and Húrin alone, strolling through the remains of the fair arm in arm. No-one was witness to their negotiations, but when they returned to the horse fair shortly before evening meal, Achren was wearing her silver pin again. And in the evening, Lord Forlong announced the entire Castle joyfully that his second-born daughter would marry Lord Húrin, the Warden of the Keys, before the end of the year.

They had not named any particular day for the wedding yet, as Húrin needed to speak with his parents first. But there seemed to be a mutual agreement that it should be done as early as possible, for Lord Barahir’s sake, whose fragile health might not allow the customary full year of betrothal. Everyone wished them well and was happy for them, above all little Morwen, who would not let go of Achren’s hand the entire evening.

When finally all the others had retired, Madenn went to her father’s chambers alone, to tell him about her decision that he had feared for a long time. Lord Forlong was understandably saddened but not surprised; he only asked his daughter to stay as long as Achren would be truly gone. That Madenn could and did promise him, and when she returned to her own rooms, she slept deep and well, like she had not done for a long time.

~~~

(1) As the Professor did not give us the exact currency of Middle-earth, I work with copper, bronze, silver and golden coin, respectively. Copper pieces have the least worth and golden pieces the most, obviously.


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