The Spotted Mare
The Spotted Mare
Every child in Mirkwood was perched on the fence, and in that small woodland kingdom of the Elves, that did not require much fence. That mostly empty fence wove through the tree-boles in graceful birdswoops, tall as the tallest Elf, woven of branch and twig and living vine, anchored every few strides by a deeply sunken post or a living tree. Outside the fence the great trees of Mirkwood sprawled into the green distance, ever darker and more tangled. Inside the fence, deep golden sand lay like winter snow, like a misplaced beach with the roar of the Forest River as its backdrop instead of the sighing breath of waves. At the far end, nearest the Elvenking's halls, tree and flet and woven vine formed shelters for horse and horseman, and small enclosures for a horse or three. Bright dark eyes and pointed ears peered over the closed gates, curious about what was going on in the center of the Great Corral, the Belegad on this bright spring day.
A spotted mare stood there, legs braced, head high, ears focused on the small girl in front of her. A white mare, with a splattering of chestnut spots the shape of bird eggs from her freckled nose to her wispy white tail. A red-spotted mare with wild white eyes. Eyes the pale blue color of high clouds, of the spray on the wild forest river.
The girl, long dark hair pulled back in a wild horse tail, might have been able to reach halfway to the mare's high withers with her hand. If she could have got close enough. She crouched now, small, a horse length away, singing soft words even her keen-eared friends on the fence could hardly make out. She had been doing this for three days, ever since the Men of the Eotheod had left their handful of half-wild horses in trade for Elvish weaving and swords and bows.
The spotted mare dropped her head, and snuffed a great whoosh of air at the girl. She laughed softly and kept on singing. The mare stepped forward, one cautious step.
And another. She snoofed in the girl's face, blowing a tangle of long dark hair from the small girl's eyes. The girl giggled.
From the fence came a loud noise, like six squirrels being spider-strangled at once. The mare leapt straight up, spun in mid-air and retreated to the far side of the Belegad in a thunder of hooves and a spray of sand. The girl leapt up and stormed to the fence on silent feet that barely dented the sand, she reached like a striking cat for the nearest of the three boys perched there and yanked him off into the sand. Then she proceeded to try to bury him in it, shouting loud enough to be heard in the deepest depths of King Thranduil's halls that he was nastier than stinkbugs and slimier than spider-spit and she hoped he would get eaten by orcs and she didn't care if he was the bloody Prince of Mirkwood.
The bloody-nosed Prince of Mirkwood was trying, at the moment, to explain that it wasn't he who'd made the noise, but he was having some trouble with that...it was hard to talk with one's face squashed into the sand.
The two dark-haired boys didn't help much, they were doubled over with laughter and therefore incapable of coming to the rescue. Or defending themselves from being pulled into the sand as well. Soon their ears and noses were as full of it as the young Prince's.
At last a tall pale-haired girl leapt down from the fence and caught the smaller girl's arm, "Hold, Nariel, I think you've taught them enough manners for one day." Her face was as composed as a hawk on the hunt, but her eyes glinted with amusement. "Though they might need a repeat of the lesson one day, their heads are often thicker a Dwarf's helm."
"Stupid boys." Nariel snapped, still pulling at the older girl's grip.
"They only startled her."
"Sul, they ruined all my work!" she fumed.
"She'll be startled many times in her training. So will you. She'll come back. She's starting to like you."
Nariel's stormcloud face softened, her grey eyes widened, "Really? I can only tell what she's saying sometimes. And it seemed like all fear."
Sul smiled gently, "Keep working on it." she glared down at the three boys shaking sand out of their tunics and boots. "I suppose you three think you could do better?"
The two dark-haired brothers exchanged glances, "I..."
"I thought so." Sul turned to the smallest boy, his sunlit hair still skewed and full of sand. She knelt and began to wipe his face.
He frowned and tried to push her away, to no avail. He cast a sidelong glance at the other two, slunk back to their places on the fence.
"Legolas, haven't you figured those two out by now?" Sul said.
Sul met the eyes of the young Prince, her own eyes had the look of the hawk who can see the smallest mouse-twitch half a league away, "Of course, you are not entirely without blame, it would seem."
"Perhaps you would like to see how well you could do in Nariel's place?"
It was not exactly a polite request. Sul Vi'finnel had won her name because no-one could outride her. And she was close kin to the King himself. She was not someone to be ignored, even by a prince. Legolas sighed and shoved a scraggled braid back behind one leaf-shaped ear. It fell forward again, into his face. He straightened himself like a young tree, pulling together as much dignity as he could. The only horses he had ridden so far were ones who already knew the speech of leg and weight and gentle Sindarin tongue. He had played with young, curious foals, and watched the Horsemasters teaching the older ones. Sometimes he could understand their thought. But these half-wild horses of the Eotheod were something altogether new.
Still, a young prince of the Sindarin line should be able to do better than a wisp of an Avari girl. He stepped forward into the Belegad, speaking soft words of encouragement to the spotted mare. She stood at the far end of the arena, stiff and tall as a statue, ears following his every move. Legolas was keenly aware of Nariel on the fence behind him, twitchy as a cat wanting to pounce. Of Sul, hawk-eyed, beside her. Of Regorn and Ferion huddled like scolded pups as far from Sul as they could be and still be near the action. Of the eyes of the rest of the children; Avari and Silvan and Sindarin.
It felt like the air before a summer storm.
He shook it off. He was the son of Kings and had been taught by the finest Horsemasters, male and female, of the land. He drew himself up to his full height, not nearly as tall as the mare's high-held nose, and walked toward her.
She watched him, eagle-eyed, till he was ten strides away, then spun in a spray of sand and thundered to the other side of the Belegad.
A chorus of giggles, like the chatter of morning birds, broke out behind him. Legolas tightened his jaw and ignored it. Well, the same had happened to Nariel yesterday. He had seen it. For now, he would forget that he had been one of those giggling. Resolutely he walked toward the mare, soft boots making no sound, and barely an imprint in the deep sand. He sang one of the songs the Horsemasters had taught him, one that spoke of tall grass and gentle breezes. The mare's fine-tipped ears stayed focused on him, her head stayed well above the reach of the small prince. He got within ten strides of her, she turned lightly on her well-muscled haunches and trotted off along the fence in long floating strides, as if she scorned the ground.
He let out a huff of frustrated breath. He turned his head just enough to see Sul, wondering if she would offer any advice. Hoping she would. Hoping harder that she wouldn't.
The mare swung around in a swooping hawk circle and stopped, watching.
Legolas walked toward her, singing.
She watched till he was ten strides away, rolled back gracefully over her haunches and trotted away, tail flagged in a comment on the horsemanship skills of young Elves.
He walked and sang.
She spun and trotted off.
It became a dance. Walk, sing, spin, trot, walk, sing, spin, trot, walk, sing, spin, trot; punctuated with sprays of sand and snorts of derision from the mare, and low mutterings that weren't song from one very frustrated small princeling.
The sun wheeled across the sky, the grey-brown shadows of the trees shifted across the pale gold sand of the Belegad. Birds went on about their spring business in the wood, singing out their territories and carrying twigs and grass and bits of shedded horsehair for nests. A fox came out of the shadows, watched the Elf-children curiously for a moment, then continued on the rabbit trail she'd been following. Children on the fence wandered off and returned. Regorn and Ferion vanished, bored. Nariel stayed, as she had for the last three days. Sul was not visible, but Legolas knew she was there, somewhere, ready to swoop in like a mother hawk guarding her nest, whether he wanted her to or not. But she did not show herself, and offered no advice.
Good. He would do this himself. He plugged along after the mare, ignoring an offer of waybread and water from one of the children on the fence. He watched the mare, and saw now the pattern in her movements. A pattern he could use.
Walk, spin, trot, walk spin, trot. His own movements had become a pattern, one the mare expected.
So he changed it. A moment's hesitation, a quiet shift to the left at the right moment.
The mare stood still.
Legolas smiled, then grinned from the mare's broad warm back. On the fence, looks of amazement broke out, then a soft chatter of approval, mostly from the youngest. On the older children, an expectant silence fell.
Legolas raised a hand to acknowledge the approval from the fence, and the world exploded beneath him.
The spotted mare's shock gave way to instinct, a predator had lodged on her back and needed to be removed.
It didn't take much to dislodge it. A few chaotic leaps and one twist and Legolas found himself with his face full of sand again.
He sat up and looked into the worried grey eyes of Sul Vi'finnel. She reached out a hand to brush the sandy hair from his eyes. He pushed it away and ran to the fence, he swung over it light as a deer, and vanished into the treeshadow.
The birdsong trailed off into the peeping chorus of little spring frogs in the dark. Through the airy branches Legolas could see the stars kindle in the deep sky. He huddled with his back against the mighty bole of Hirbrethil, the Lord of All Beeches, his tree, the one he went to when nothing in the wide world seemed right. Hirbrethil was older than he was, probably older than Adda even, with roots that reached deep into Amar the earth, and branches that nearly reached Elbereth's stars. But even Hirbrethil had no answers tonight.
There was a crashing of twig and leaf, as if a herd of elk had stampeded through Hirbrethil's canopy. A dark shadow whisked past on a branch, and Legolas almost smiled. One of the great black squirrels of Mirkwood, noisier than a whole army of Dwarves. He stirred, peered down from his branch, wondering what could have disturbed the squirrel. Here, so close to Adda's halls, there were no giant spiders, no orcs. The lights of tree-lamps and fires twinkled in the woods, and on the tree-flets. Singing and laughter came from no few of them on this fine spring night. But his tree was dark, and he was silent, and few knew that he came here.
It was probably Sul. If it was, he could climb silently around the other side of the tree, like a squirrel avoiding a hawk.
She would probably find him anyway.
He stood up, "Go away." he called down the tree-bole.
There was no answer, just the night-song of the spring peepers, the distant music of a Lay being sung, the crackle of campfires, the call of an owl.
He frowned, his hand went to his side, but he had left his knife in his room. Besides, the orcs were all to the south. Far to the south. "Go away!" he said, louder, much louder. Loud enough to be heard at the next campfire.
A huge shadow dropped from the branch above him, it landed silently as an owl, barely disturbing Legolas' branch.
"Go away? Well, I suppose someone else could eat your supper. Falas and Sirith followed me all through the halls with big sad puppy-eyes. You know how Gilion starves them."
"Adda!" Even in the near-dark Legolas could see the star-twinkle in his father's eyes, as he spoke of the two fat old greyhounds, and the devoted houndmaster.
"Well, fileg, I thought perhaps you might be as hungry as that spotted mare who was kept from her hay by a persistant and annoying two-legged colt." The King of All the Elves of Northern Mirkwood straddled the tree branch as if it were a quietly grazing horse. His golden hair was a loose, dark mane of treeshadow, and his simple hunting tunic blended with treebark and leaf till even the eyes of Legolas were challenged to see him clearly. It was however, easy enough to see the glint in his deep grey eyes, and the gentle smile on his face. He held out a flask and bundle to his small son. Legolas took the flask and drank deeply, then began to yank apart the waxed cloth wrappings of the bundle.
"Annoying?" he said through a mouthful of fresh bread and venison, "Sul is annoying. Nariel is annoying. I didn't do anything." He chewed for awhile longer, glad of the reassuring presence of his adda, and hoping Adda didn't ask any questions about what had happened at the Belegad. Especially about Nariel stomping him into the sand.
"Sul is young, and doesn't always know what to do, but she cares a great deal about you, and watches out for you."
"She told you I was here." the tone of his words was somewhat accusing.
"Many people know you are here, and they all watch out for you." Thranduil was silent for a long moment, then, "Nariel was worried too."
"But she...nevermind." Legolas watched his adda's face, wondering how much Nariel had told him. But Thranduil was silent, sharing some of the generous portion of excellent leftovers, leaning back on the branch to look up at the glittering stars, turning briefly toward the distant wavering call of a small owl.
Legolas took another long draught of the cool fruit concoction in the flask and stared up at the stars.
Thranduil's voice came soft from the dark, "Sul said you had a small discussion..."
"Nariel started it!"
"...with the horse." Thranduil continued as if he had not heard. "And the horse won the argument."
Legolas sat up straight and hard. The long day's frustration exploded in one great burst of sharp words, "What was wrong with that stupid horse anyway?"
"First," the Elvenking said gently, "she is far brighter than some who go on two legs. She is old and wise because she ran with the Eotheod's herds in the Wilderland for many years. She knows where to find sweet water and good grass, shade in the summer and shelter in the winter. She can avoid the wolves of the wild, and the wargs of the dark. And she can teach the young ones her wisdom. But she does not know the ways of Men very well, and of our folk even less. Nariel spent several days trying to understand her thought. And that has born fruit; the mare follows her like a lost puppy and not an hour ago, allowed Nariel upon her back. We will gift her with the horse."
"But Adda! She is only a little girl! And a dark elf!" How could she accomplish that which a prince of the Sindar could not!
"The horse cares not whether you are the son of kings, or Sindar or Avari or Edain. Nor how many summers you have seen. And this little girl seems to have shown more patience than one small impetuous princeling." He reached out with a strong, fine-chiseled hand, and wiggled the toe of Legolas' small boot. "The horse only cares what is in your heart." He laid his fingertips on the boy's chest. "And that they see truer than many who go on two legs."
"But...I wished her no harm. I only wanted to ride her."
"You wanted to feel the wind and the power and the thunder of hooves. To make that power your own. But that power belongs to the horse, and they will only gift you with it if they wish. Ai, there are those who claim that power with fear, who force the horse to their will. But one day it will lash back at them, like a strong bow with a string that suddenly breaks."
Legolas leaned back against the cool bark of the great tree, in deep frowning thought. It was too late to go back and try again with the spotted mare. And the wild ones who had come with her had been paired off with other riders. All that were left in the stables and the clearings and in the Belegad were the horses who knew the speech of leg and weight and gentle Sindarin tongue. And the heart of this one small boy desired something wild and dark and full of wind and night and thunder. Something he had seen a glimpse of in the spotted mare's pale eyes.
"Adda, could I not have my own horse now?"
Thranduil reached out and stroked a wild-colt lock of straggled hair back from his son's face. "You can ride any in the stables."
"It's not the same." Not the same as Nariel and the Spotted Mare.
"Ah, I see, you want one that is all yours, like your own dragon hoard." Even in the deep treeshadow, Legolas could see the cocked eyebrow, the subtle expression that meant dragon hoards, and the wanting of them could be dangerous.
"Well, no. I mean." he scrunched up his face and tried to think what he did mean. He wanted to be like Nariel. No, he didn't want to be like that annoying girl. Ai...yes...he did. He wanted to sing to his horse and have it answer, and to be the First, the first to teach it the speech of leg and weight and elvish tongue.
"First," his father said softly, so softly he almost didn't hear it above the tree-whisper and frog-song, "you must listen."