A Stranger in a Strange Land
Edoras! Aragorn had already decided that he hated this place. The crowds, the noise and the stench of men and horses threatened to overwhelm him at times. After his upbringing in Rivendell, he had found the Dúnedain villages difficult to become accustomed to, but Edoras was vast by comparison.
Then there were the people; he stuck out like a sore thumb amongst these golden haired, blue- eyed horselords with their almost incomprehensible language. Although, King Thengel and his court spoke Sindarin, the decision was not popular with many of the common folk and Aragorn knew he would win few friends amongst his new comrades unless he learned to speak fluently the tongue of the Riddermark. After all, he would be spending his time with them, not with King Thengel and Queen Morwen, who so far was the only other person he had encountered here with dark hair and grey eyes like his own.
He sometimes wondered, though how much it would benefit him even if he did know the language. His comrades did their best to be welcoming, but he could tell they regarded him almost like some sort of exotic beast. They spent their off duty hours in dubious looking taverns or in the communal steam baths, which appealed to him not at all. He was careful to drink only in moderation and took his baths by swimming in the river, as had been his custom in the North. Then there were neither scrolls nor books to read, apart from the carefully guarded volumes in the royal library. The Rohirrim loved to tell stories, but they did not write them down nor trouble with reading or writing. Maybe if they did, he could have learned the language from a tome in Master Elrond's library before coming here.
Aragorn had a good mind to return home to his own people. Gandalf was wise, but in this matter, the Wizard was sorely mistaken for once in advising him to come here. He was needed far more at home than in this foreign land. He missed his family and friends and he could kill Orcs in the Angle just as well as in Rohan.
A group of horsemen passed, and for a moment, Aragorn forgot his troubles to admire the beautiful creatures that they rode. Their heads were held high, their eyes bright and their coats gleamed from the loving attention their masters lavished upon them. This was the one thing he did love about the Riddermark; the abundance of magnificent horses and the way they were loved and cared for. He had always believed that no horses surpassed those bred by the Elves, but the Rohirric horses were easily their equals.
"Thorongil!" a voice called. "Thorongil!"
It took Aragorn a moment or two to respond. He had chosen the alias carefully, a blend of his father and mother's names, but it still sounded strange to be called by it. He spun around to face Eadmund; the Captain of the Éored that his company was a part of. "Yes, Captain," he replied in halting Rohirric.
"Wake up, Thorongil! Are you deaf? We do not have all day!" snapped Eadmund.
"I am sorry, Captain." Aragorn struggled to appear contrite. He was finding it hard being treated as just another common soldier. Although he had deferred to the Elders advice as Chieftain, they had always treated him with respect.
"Word has come that Orcs have raided a village ten leagues from here," said Eadmund. He changed to the common tongue, obviously unimpressed by his newest Rider's command of his language. "We ride at once to reach our destination ere nightfall."
Aragorn hurried towards the stables, the most lavishly decorated part of the barracks. Beneath a thatched roof, the door to each stall was elaborately carved with the likeness of a horse. He swiftly made his way to where Gildin, his horse, was waiting for him. The grey was looking out of his stall. He whinnied with pleasure to see his master. Since his arrival in Edoras, Aragorn had often sought refuge in the stables, where he spent many an hour talking to Gildin and grooming him until his coat shone. He took a moment to greet the steed and then swiftly saddled him.
Aragorn took his place in the company beside a young man of similar years, whose name was Eadwulf, if he recalled the name correctly. All the names here sounded alike to his unaccustomed ears. Eadwulf rode a fine chestnut. He noted Aragorn's admiring glance at his horse. "Hunfrith's dam was said to have some Mearas ancestry," he said proudly. "He is a prince amongst horses."
"You too ride a fine horse."
Aragorn smiled. He knew this was praise indeed for a Rohir. "You honour me and Gildin. He is of northern stock."
Eadmund gave the command and the Éored rode off, their plumed helmets streaming in the wind. Aragorn heartily disliked wearing his. It was heavy and cumbersome and the plumes blew in his eyes when the wind was in a certain direction.
One of the men began to sing a hearty tune, which his fellow riders swiftly took up. All except Aragorn, that was. He found the melody crude compared to the exquisite music of the Elves that he had been brought up with. The music of the Dúnedain was not unlike Elvish music either. Maybe he would enjoy the song better if he understood the words. On second thoughts, maybe not, if a song he had heard here in a tavern was anything to go by. He had struggled not to blush when one of his comrades had translated it to the Common Tongue for his benefit.
Despite the uncomfortable helmet and raucous song, Aragorn found he was quite enjoying the ride through the sunlit countryside. The wind seemed to sing with them as it blew across the grassy plains.
The company made good progress, but came too late to save the village. Grim faced, Eadmund ordered the men to search the ruins for survivors. Aragorn was glad that few corpses were to be found. It seemed that most of the villagers managed to flee. The Riders dug a grave for what was left of two elderly men.
"They are heroes who remained behind to give their kinsmen time to escape," said Eadmund. "We will long remember them in song and story."
Several of the men were searching the surrounding fields. One of them cried out to his fellows, "Alas!" The rest of the company followed his call and came upon a slain horse, partially eaten by the Orcs.
"The orcish scum will pay for this atrocity in blood!" cried Eadmund. Then he wept, as did his fellows. They then set about digging a grave for the beast.
Aragorn regarded them in bewilderment. Amongst his own people, they held back their tears when burying their dead, but to weep thus for a horse that was not even known to them? The Rohirrim were strange folk indeed.
After the burial was complete, Eadmund ordered half of his men to go and search for survivors in the surrounding hills, while the other half were commanded to pursue the Orcs.
The tracks were easy enough to follow at first until they reached a forest where the track was deep with dead leaves and pine needles. Eadmund reined in his horse as he tried to work out which way the enemy had gone.
"I have experience in tracking," Aragorn volunteered.
"You know little of our forests," Eadmund replied. "Leave it to Thunor, he was born and bred here."
"I could assist him."
"You would only get in the way."
Aragorn bit back an angry retort.
"Peace, friend, Thunor knows what he is doing. He is a man ripe in years," said Eadwulf.
"I was trained in tracking by masters of the craft," Aragorn replied. He could only watch as precious time was wasted following three false trails before they finally sighted the Orcs' track. Eadmund gave the command to follow. The rode in single file, picking their way carefully along the track.
It was starting to grow dark. The horses whinnied uneasily. Aragorn tensed. Something was not right here. He drew his sword.
The attack took them all by surprise. The Orcs swarmed out from their hiding place. Aragorn swung his sword, killing several of the filthy creatures as they swarmed towards him. All around him was the noise of battle as the Rohirrim fought off their attackers.
There was a sudden silence as the clamour of battle ceased. A horse's anguished screams pierced the evening air.
Aragorn looked around. The moon had risen and he could see dead Orcs heaped at his feet and around his comrades. He was uninjured, as was Gildin, though the noble steed was panting heavily. He gently caressed his mane and spoke soothing words to him.
Eadmund gave a shout of triumph. "Death to all slayers of horses!" he cried, or at least that was what Aragorn thought he said. He looked around him. His comrades appeared to have escaped relatively unscathed, but the screaming horse was bleeding profusely. It was Hunfrith.
Aragorn dismounted and tethered Gildin to a tree. Grabbing the satchel of healing supplies he always carried, he hurried over to the injured horse. Eadwulf was holding his reins and trying to calm his steed, but the frightened horse was rearing and kicking wildly, preventing the approach of a Rider whom Aragorn recognised as Ealdred, the man in charge of the horses' welfare.
"Let me help, I have knowledge of the healing arts," said Aragorn.
"Ealdred tends the horses here," said Eadmund. "Go and begin building a pyre to dispose of the dead Orcs. That is your task."
Aragorn did not move.
"Are you deaf? Go man!"
"Your horse won't let me near him," Ealdred said desperately to Eadwulf. "He's going to further injure himself if not tended and he is losing a lot of blood."
Tears were pouring down Eadwulf's cheeks as he addressed Aragorn. "If you believe you can help Hunfrith, Thorongil, please try. I beg of you to let him, Captain!"
Eadmund nodded reluctantly.
Aragorn immediately took command. "Make a fire and boil some water," he ordered. "Eadwulf, stay where you are. Ealdred, prepare to press some cloths against the wound to slow the bleeding. Everyone else, stay back." He moved to stand at Hunfrith's side and began to chant softly in the Elvish tongue. Almost at once, some of the fear left the horse's eyes and Aragorn stroked the great neck.
Seizing his chance, Ealdred firmly pressed a cloth against the wound. Aragorn continued his soft chant. Hunfrith appeared almost mesmerised by the sound. Aragorn continued until one of the riders hesitantly approached with a pan of boiling water. He gestured to the man to place the pan at his feet. After telling Eadwulf to take his place at Hunfrith's side, Aragorn fumbled inside his satchel and brought out two leaves, which he breathed upon then cast them into the boiling water.
The men immediately felt refreshed while Hunfrith's breaths came more easily. Aragorn waited for the water to cool a little then dipped a cloth in it.
"Hold his head," he commanded Eadwulf. He then began to bathe Hunfrith's wound, all the while chanting softly. The horse whinnied but did not struggle, not even when he stitched the gash closed. "We should get him back to his stable as soon as possible," he said, once the task was complete.
"Eadwulf," said Eadmund. "You walk beside your horse for the journey back to Edoras."
"When we are halfway," said Aragorn, "I will walk beside Hunfrith and Eadwulf can ride my horse. He has suffered a shock."
"Will you ever question orders, Thorongil?" said Eadmund. He glared at the Northerner for a moment then smiled. "You fought bravely today, and then showed great skill in tending Hunfrith. Thengel King shall hear of your deeds when I next report to him."
Aragorn returned his smile. "Thank you, sir."
The next morning, Aragorn went early to Hunfrith's stable with more athelas to tend the wound. He found Eadwulf was already in the stable feeding oats to his horse, who devoured them eagerly.
Eadwulf smiled a greeting. "I fear I did not thank you yesterday for saving Hunfrith. How can I ever repay you?"
"It was my pleasure," said Aragorn. "He is a noble steed. I should like to tend him daily until I am certain there is no risk of infection. But why are you laughing?"
"You just told me you would like to wash Hunfrith daily!" said Eadwulf, struggling to contain his mirth.
Aragorn had a sudden idea. "If you wish to repay me, maybe you could teach me to speak your language more fluently?"
"Gladly," said Eadwulf, grasping the other's arms in a warrior's embrace. "Meet me in the tavern tonight and we will begin your lessons."
Aragorn opened his mouth to protest that he disliked the tavern then shut it again. Maybe it would be more agreeable than his tiny room in the barracks.
Eadwulf proved an enthusiastic if not especially skilled teacher, but Aragorn found his mastery of the tongue of Rohan increased by the day. Eadwulf taught him all manner of things, such as it was considered most impolite to enquire after the health of a Rohir's family without including his horses. He told him tales about the fabled Mearas too. The pure- blooded ones allowed only the King of the Mark and his sons to ride upon their backs.
Aragorn no longer struggled to hold a conversation. Maybe it was simply by spending more time with his new comrades. Eadwulf was swiftly becoming a friend, while his other comrades treated him with a newfound respect and friendliness.
One day, about two weeks later, Eadwulf met Aragorn in the tavern and they were soon deep in conversation. Eadwulf was in a nostalgic mood and told his companion that he hailed from the Eastfold and was the youngest of six brothers who had come to Edoras to seek his fortune. He hoped one day he could return home and woo the miller's daughter who had captured his heart. "Have you a sweetheart?" he asked Aragorn.
"I too seek to win the affections of a beautiful maiden from my homeland," Aragorn replied.
"Let us drink to our success!" said Eadwulf. He called the innkeeper to bring drinks.
Aragorn tasted his. It was not ale, but had a delicious sweet flavour.
"It is mead, our national drink," Eadwulf explained, seeing his companion's expression.
"It is good."
"This calls for a drinking song," said Eadwulf. "Mead merits mirth, mighty mouths making, wine of the warrior, weariness slaking. Happy the horn, filled to 0'rflowing, merry the maid, the warrior knowing," he began to sing.
The words made little sense to Aragorn, but the tune was a catchy one and he found himself joining in by humming along to it.
When he later returned to the barracks, he suddenly realised he no longer felt out of place amongst the Rohirrim. Gandalf had been right. It was good to broaden his horizons.
"Goodnight, Thorongil," called several of his comrades as he went to his room.
"Goodnight," he replied without any hesitation. He had become Thorongil now.
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