Mother of Horses
TITLE: Mother of Horses
FANDOM: Lord of The Rings
WARNINGS: For content. Mature audience.
DISCLAIMER: Work of fanfiction. Characters property of JRR Tolkien, his estate, Peter Jackson and Wingnut Productions. No profit and no intent to infringe.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Many many thanks to my betas Al, Searose, and Victoria; to cofax for the read through and the encouragement, and again for Victoria. (Vic - a pox on the frelling accent marks.) This is All Vic's Fault. This story is as good as it is because my betas rock, but all errors remain mine, direct your arrows here.
FEEDBACK: Read and re-read until the electrons fade at email@example.com.
STORY NOTES: AU. An answer to the One Ring Challenge. Uses notes from the LoTR appendixes and maps. Title from Judith Tarr.
Eighty leagues north of the Emyn Muil the Limlight joins the Great River under the reach of rolling bluffs. There, where the river from Fangorn Wood meets the current running south, the Eorlingas - the Rohirrim of the Mark - set in ages past a cairn of loose river stone. They raised another stand of rock and gravel on the slopes of the Misty Mountains close on Fangorn Wood, and a third west of Helm's Deep in the White Mountains. In the reign of Aldor, the Riders of the Mark erected a stone hill near Druanan Wood, south of Cair Andros. In Helm's War those stones had been scattered, and a new cairn built south of the Entwash, above the West Road. So the Rohan set the corners of their holding - strange monuments in silent stone for a people whose history was song and who claimed the wind as their dwelling.
It is the custom of the Eorlingas that when a king rises to replace one felled in battle or by age, the new Lord makes a ride of the borders of the Mark to add a stone at each of the monuments. If the king happens to wed after he takes the crown, then he makes the journey again with his chosen wife. This is the Claiming Ride, and it binds again the Lord to the land, the man to his wife, and the Riders of the Mark to the swift steeds that carry them through the ages.
The Rohan call the bride of their king the Mother of Horses.
The eored draws rein high above the dun-sand shores of the Great River, where the wind blows thin and chill, hissing across the ridge crest. The Brown Lands smudge the horizon eastward, while the wold to the west falls away to rolling hills. The Limlight cairn rises above the rim road, its peak a man-height above the gravel trace. A weathered shaft leans aslant over the unmortared stones, a tattered rag clinging against the breeze.
Eowyn checks her horse so that Arod halts apart from the stragglers still scrambling up the grade. The rising gusts off the river tug her hair into elflocks and sting her face to tears. She blinks them away and shifts in the stirrups, easing her aching legs. Every child of the Rohan sits a horse err a month past birthing. None not so raised could have kept the pace set the last seven days; even she, who grew to womanhood in the saddle, has found the forced march wearying.
The men of the king's household are also worn, and their mounts as well. Her eyes still on the wold, Eowyn hears the ragged murmur of tired voices discussing the best place to set the tents, where to tie the horses, whether to dig a fire pit or simply scrape a patch bare. None comes to consult with her as she sits her horse and listens to the wind moan over the cairn stones. Eowyn is content to remain still and silent. It will be time for her soon enough.
Arod's ears flick side to side as her horse listens to the things the breeze tells him.
A sharp whinny and the scattered stamp of hooves on the gravel road interrupts the men's muttering. Eowyn twists in the saddle to watch Eomer curb his stallion, the black beast half-rearing to fight the heavy bar. The riders leading the spare horses back away, pulling the quartet of Ride mares away with them. One, a light grey mare in her second year, hangs back, pulling at the lead and arching her neck. The other Ride mares jerk and startle as she squeals and bounces, tail whipping restlessly. Two horsemen draw the ash-colored mare a little ways apart, so that her agitation will not infect the other horses. As the mare moves off, Eomer's stallion finally quiets. Foam still drips from his jaws and breaststrap as the horse reluctantly settles under his rider's insistent hand. The stud tosses his head and whinnies once, deep and ugly, and then returns to grinding at his bit.
Eowyn realized she is staring at the stallion and turns back to the wold. The men dismount and begin undoing packs. The scrape of iron on stone warns her of Eomer's approach. A firm hand takes her ankle and turns the stirrup so she may dismount.
Looking down at her brother - at Rohan's king - Eowyn forces herself to acknowledge this: the Lord of the Mark, holding her stirrup for her. She swings down, aided more than she cares to admit by Eomer's steady grip. It has been seventeen days since the battle at the Crossing, eight since her marriage, and seven since the beginning of the Ride. When her feet touch earth she clings to Arod's saddle, supported more by her brother's hands on her waist than either her mount or her own shaking legs.
The men's voices grow louder, broken by a heavy thump as a pack falls to the ground. Eowyn shuts her eyes, wishing for rest, for sleep. But the thought of the red Marriage Tent is no comfort. She has no wish to tarry here, at the edge of the Mark, so near to Mordor.
Her brother stands at her back, silent.
"May we -" She breaks off, ashamed of the tremor in her voice. She may as well beg, for all the pride she puts forth. Her lips are dry and split and sting as she swallows. When she continues, her voice is quiet but steady. "Could it be done here? Now? There - there is no need for the tent." None at all in truth - the Claiming Ride had been observed in but a token manner for the last three generations. None of the second line of Kings had seen fit to follow the custom. But Eomer has declared the Mark renewed with his crowning and means to bring the Eorlingas to their old glory.
She thinks her speech low, but her words fall into a break in the voices. The silence that follows thunders in her ears. Even the Ride mare remains dumb. One of the pack horses stamps. A wild hawk cries so distant the horizon nearly swallows the sound.
Eomer's fingers relax on her hips. Her pulse throbs in the marks left by his hands. "Hama. Move down the road to the river. Water the horses."
The men take some moments to reload the pack. The fire scrape is left unlaid, the provisions repacked still in travel wrappings. Eowyn keeps her eyes on the toolwork of Arod's saddle. With her fingertips she follows the lines of the Moonknot as the design loops over and under itself. The other hand holds Arod's reins to the pommel and Eowyn noted how the skin over her bones is pale and taut, even as she keeps the rein slack.
Eomer's hands do not press so hard now on her waist. The broad fingers softly trace the arc of her hipbones, a motion no greater than the shift of her breathing.
Remounted, the company files downhill. Over the curve of Arod's saddle Eowyn watches the helms and high crests nod back and forth as they pass, rocking with each mount's stride. None of them turn eyes to her. The White Horse on Green stands stiff on the wind and snaps as they depart. Arod's head turns to watch the other horses retreat, but he makes no move to follow, only flicks his ears.
Eowyn stands listening to the hoofbeats clomp steadily away.
One hand leaves her side. The retreating creak of saddle leather melds into the muted rattle of mail and the click of buckles as Eomer peels away the outer layer of his jerkin and breeches guard.
When the hoof beats faded out of hearing, he lifts her skirt hem up over her waist. His palms brush over the skin of her back and thighs. His fingers dig into her hips again as he pulls her to him.
Six days ago, the grooms and guards had pitched the Marriage Tent at the White Mountain cairn and spread thick pelts and many-hued rugs on the earth. There, Eomer, heir to Theoden, had borne his bride down on the bedding and took her, in the manner of the old kings, at the boundary of his realm. Eowyn had exhausted herself with tears on her marriage bed in Edoras, and did not struggle overmuch.
The next morning they had broken camp and ridden hard north, for Fangorn Wood, and the cairn there on the slopes of the Misty Mountains.
Now Eowyn cannot keep from gasping as Eomer's feet push hers apart. His thumbs dig painfully into her back and she bends forward under his grip. She is sore and weary in heart and bone. Some days back she ceased hoping he would be gentle.
In this, as before, he does not disappoint. It is the fourth time in eight days. Her breath stutters again as he begins to thrust in earnest.
She shakes under the pounding blows, her hold on Arod's saddle no stronger than her knees. Leather turns slick under her sweating palms. Even as her grip fails, his hands leave her hips and crush down over hers, clenching her fingers as he grinds them against the travel-stained leather.
On his right hand Eomer wears a golden ring. The metal is cold and at its touch Eowyn feels the last embers of heat flow away, leaving her empty and numb.
Numb. Unthinking. Unfeeling. She welcomes it. She has thought too much since the last days of the war against Sauron.
For a handful of days, she had thought herself a hero, a warrior full of honor. She had won victory over the Nazgul king, and the Fields had rung with the shouts of soldiers and Elves alike, heady with triumph.
She had felt too much. The heir of Isildur had fought by her side as she brought down the demon, and had called her name for the foes of Mordor to cheer. For an hour, there, she had been a bright, unquenchable flame.
Pretty words. A child's words. She no longer thinks of those things. Not now, with her face pressing against the sweat-dark leather, her brother's body filling hers, and his breath hot on her neck.
The dark forces had not collapsed with the death of the Nazgul king. The battle, barely slackened as the black beast fell, renewed. The army of orcs and goblins pressed closer. No matter the Nazgul's destruction, no help the strength of the men fighting beside her, they would all die under the next wave of attack. Eowyn had gripped her sword and fought on, begging the Valar for deliverance. When Eomer had appeared on the battlefield, brushing away scores of the foe with every blow, it had seemed an answer to her prayers.
When she prays now, it is not for her brother to come to her.
Eomer's breath burns her nape, the line of her jaw. He sets his teeth in her neck. From the sting, she thinks he has drawn blood.
It was not the first blood he has spilt, but she does not hold that in her mind. She does not think of many things. She does not think of the halfing Merry who dogged her shadow and glared at Eomer with suspicious eyes. She does not think of Gandalf Greyhame, or of the rest of the Ring's fellowship, nor of how they disappeared, one after the other, in the days after Eomer brought them victory.
She does not think of the dwarf Gimli and his kind eyes. Not of the elf prince who had entrusted her with his steed. She does not think of them, bright and laughing in the afternoon sun, and she does not think of scarlet shadows on a white stone floor.
She does not, would not, think of the heir to Isildur. She particularly does not think of him as Eomer presses her against her horse and grunts, jerking as he spills his seed inside her.
The saddle skirt cuts into the side of her face. Eomer's breath hitches and he thrusts again, a final effort that leaves him panting against her back. His breath stirs the sodden hair matted to her cheek and she struggles for her own air. Under their combined weight, Arod sways and shifts his feet. Eomer leans back from her, slipping away, and releasing his grip on the saddle as he does.
Free of his support, Eowyn collapses slowly, trailing down Arod's foreleg. She kneels there, her skirts fallen down around her, cupping the horse's knee with cramped fingers. Behind her, armor straps creak and mail rattles.
The sound of the keening wind stones is unchanged. Again, it is the sharp air that makes tears stand in her eyes.
It seems a very short time before the tattoo of hooves announces the return of the eored. When Hama puts his hand on her elbow and would lift her to her feet, Eowyn waves him away and struggles upright. Nor does she allow him to help her mount.
She adjusts the reins, accepts the proffered canteen and takes a deep swallow of warm river water. Hama gestures for one of the men to bring a leather bucket and he himself holds it for Arod to drink. Eowyn nods thanks and pats Arod's neck. All the while her mind is as empty, as unmarked as the land beyond the river.
Only as the grooms bring forward the young Ride mare does Eowyn allow space for recollection. Rinmer, the grey-bearded stallion handler, takes a grip on the black stud's nose and forces his head down as two others loose the cinch and smoothly strip the tack from the stallion's back. The tall horse throws up his head and squeals, pulling Rinmer up off his feet as he does. The black mane dips and trembles. Eowyn looks down at her hands, clenched on the pommel before her, and remembers dark hair, near black with sweat and ash, tangled in her fingers. The grey mare preens and flags her tail, crouching to release a stream of water before the still-checked stud. He fights the lead, froth flying from his muzzle. Lip curled, he calls to the mare again with a heavy, coarse bugle.
Eowyn turns her eyes aside. She knows her brother watches the horses with parted lips, his fingers running over and over the band on his forefinger. Eowyn looks west, toward Edoras, and thinks of the sun rising over the White City, and how it had lit on the face of Aragorn, still asleep, his heartbeat slow and steady beneath her ear. She thinks of the tremor of Aragorn's eyes beneath the lids, and how the lines about his mouth had tasted still of smoke, long hours after the battle had ended.
He had been as bruised as she, with a mark on his hip as broad as her palm - a relic of an orc hammer at close quarters. She had touched her lips every hurt, every scar, until his sighs changed and he had caught her face in his hands, intent on returning the favor.
Seventeen days. Only seventeen. So much she does not think on. She will not dwell on the knife she still wears, nor of the sword Eomer has taken from her, nor yet of how easily the skin of her wrists might part under a blade.
The stud stands for an instant and is finally released. The mare wheels and bends her haunches to him, eager for his weight and his sex. Eowyn cannot block her ears to the sound of their coupling and her gaze drifts from the far horizon back to the tableau. She sees Eomer watching as the stud takes the grey mare, iron-shod forehooves raking her sides and flanks. The black horse sets his teeth in the mare's mane and savages her, both their bodies shaking as he drives into her.
When the stud has finished and drops away, Eomer turns and steps to Arod. He lays his hand on Eowyn's foot and squeezes, the soft leather bending under his grip. Even through her boot the Ring's touch is ice. Eowyn bends her gaze to his face; half afraid he will pull her down again then and there.
Instead Eomer only holds her eyes, squeezes her foot again and then releases it.
He turns back to his men, waving the tack away from the black stud. "Saddle another mount. We ride to Fenmarch."
The grooms hurry to pull another horse from the remounts. The rest of the eored arrange themselves into traveling order. Hama reins close to Arod and reclaims his canteen.
The horsemen lead the Ride mare to the rear of the column. Eowyn follows it with her eyes and notes the welling blood and marked hide. She has little pity to spare for the horse. She does not think about how the mare has been hard used, that each of the Ride mares has been driven far and taken repeated punishment from the black stud. Eowyn does not allow herself to think that, at least, the grey mare wanted the stallion and his seed.
And she does not think about how her own blood was due four days past, and has yet to come.
They bring the Lord of the Mark a new mount, a red bay with a white blaze. Eomer steps into the saddle and leads the party south. By midafternoon the cairn has fallen beyond the curve of the world.
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