It seems your encouraging reviews for "Building a Mystery" awakened my
sleeping (and loudly snoring) muse and I can now proudly present another
story in this universe. And I am again working on a multi-chaptered story for this series, so all's good in my world:)
(And Ana, just grab it for Nectar if you want to!)
Without further ado:
TITLE: Horse and Rider
"Horse and Rider"
"Building a Mystery"
A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse! (Shakespeare, Richard III)
I had not been long in Gondor yet. I remember that the gardens in Minas Tirith were still green and succulent when I arrived and the women tending to them had rolled up their sleeves, baring their arms to the autumn sun. Yet, when our group of soldiers left for our errand, the first coloured leaves had begun to fall and the gardens were reaped, looking empty and forgotten.
It was not that I had tired of Rohan, it was nigh impossible to tire of the rolling plains, the grass weaving in the wind, the sound of horse hooves trampling the ground. In the past thirteen years I had learned to love the Rohirrim, their passion for horses, their hot temper and the plain farmsteads scattered throughout the land. However, I had known my time in Thengel’s court was limited, and when Gandalf had arrived in Edoras with the sole purpose of setting me upon a new path, I had bid farewell to land and people and turned south. Only one thing I had taken when Thengel offered me to ask a boon of him, one thing to remind me of my time amongst the horselords: I had chosen a magnificient yearling, a beautiful horse, and had given it away. I had entrusted the mare into Gandalf’s capable hands so he might take her to my beloved.
I took my time to reach Gondor and used the journey to strip Thorongil’s persona from my bones – even if it was only for a time. I became a ranger once again, an elf-friend once again. In short, I was myself, hunting and sleeping under the stars, enjoying that I had to answer to no one but myself. Gandalf had left me with a stack of letters from my father, my brothers, Arwen. And Lassë, of course. It was his letters I read and re-read night after night, treasuring each word, because I knew I would have to burn the letters before I reached Minas Tirith. I felt close to all of them, like I could still partake in their lives, even if I was hundreds of leagues away from them. It was during this time that my longing for home became a palpable pain in my stomach. Gandalf had told me that the last years had been kind to my family. Rivendell was as tranquil as ever, but that only strenghtened my wish to return there. I missed my family desperately, and I missed Legolas even more. We had seen each other only a year prior, meeting around summer solstice in our cave by the Misty Mountains. However, saying farewell to him and returning to my duties became harder each time I had to do so. I lay awake at night, counting the stars in the sky, and imagined his body stretched out under me, his skin a golden hue from the passion of our lovemaking. I imagined his his lips on me, his mouth speaking secret words in my ear. I imagined his hair flowing through my hands like a cloth of silk. I dreamed with my eyes open of the time when we would be reunited once again. And my heart was heavy, because I knew this day was many years hence.
Those days of dreams and memories and hopes ended when I stepped through Minas Tirith’s gates. I had seen drawings of the city in my father’s library and had trusted the elven artists had captured the magnificence of the city. However, they had not been able to do it justice. The White City sparkled in the midday sun when I first walked towards it, almost blinding me. Something in these rows of white stone called to me, tore at my insides, and the fact that my destiny would await me here one day became not a distant thought, but a reality in my mind.
For now, though, I was a stranger here. Ecthelion agreed to take me into his service, but he did not seem like a man who trusted easily. He was a worthy Steward, his noble character paired with knowledge and wisdom. I felt at once that he was a man I could like and admire and vowed to gain his trust. It would be a challenge, but one I looked forward to fulfilling.
Four weeks into my service in Gondor, Ecthelion sent twenty soldiers to scout the lands south of the city. We were to ride for three days along the Anduin, keeping our eyes open for orc or corsair spies. The chance to discover either was slim at best, as the older soldiers assured me. It would be an enjoyable outing, they said. Well, for my part at least, that was not the case.
On the second day of our scouting mission we made camp early. We had come upon a spot so idyllic that our group agreed to stay there for the night. It was early yet, therefore I decided to take my horse for a little ride away from the river. They had saddled me with a huge gelding, a horse of such phlegmatic temperament that I constantly feared he would simply fall asleep while I was still astride him. He did not care much for anything I did upon his back – whether I urged him to go faster or used the reins to guide him, it was all the same to him. He trotted along while I lamented my sad fate. I had never met a horse so stoic before.
Mouse was his name, and the stable hand (upon my disbelieving look) had explained to me that the newborn foal had been so tiny and frail that the name had fit. When Mouse had grown to his full enormous height it was already to late and the name had stuck, much to the amusement of my fellow soldiers.
I was used to the elegant and proud animals of the elves, who understood your intent before you had even finished the thought. And I had come to love the stout horses of the Rohirrim, fierce and loyal to the end. But Mouse was something else: He was heavily built, showing that he was equally adaptable to a rider or a carriage. He had a ram’s head and together with his small and desinterested eyes it gave him something of an inane look that would have better fit a mule than a horse. I could not decide on his colour, though I had tried to determine it. He might have been a dun, but his coat was flecked with white. The colours interspersed more in some place than in others, which caused him to look as if he had rolled in the dirt, sand sticking to his coat in places. He was by no means a beautiful horse, nor was his character in any way redeeming. He would never be the horse of a king (at that thought I could not suppress a smile) to mirror the splendour and importance of the one he carried. But for now he would do, I guessed.
I had decided on that little ride in the hopes of building a bond between the horse and me. So far, it did not seem to work. While I enjoyed the last warm rays of the October sun and watched the leaves fall to the ground in a rain of colours, Mouse trotted along desinterestedly. I am sure, had he been able he would have sighed, obviously preferring a large sack of grain to our afternoon walk.
Therefore, it was a surprise when the horse suddenly became alive under me. He put his forelegs firmly into the ground and neighed in agitation. For a moment I believed he would even buck, but he obviously decided against it. Instead, he shook his head vehemently. I sat upon him, stunned. Mouse snorted, stamped his feet and swished his tail – all in all it was the liveliest I had ever seen him.
I could not determine what the problem was, though. Had Mouse decided he had enough of our walk? Or was his intent to prove that he did have some spark in him after all? I tried to urge him onwards and when that did not help, I tried to turn him around. It was a fool’s hope. The horse was rooted to the spot. He was agitated, but otherwise refused to take a step in either direction.
I dismounted, admitting defeat. I envied the elves their inborn skill to communicate with animals. Legolas would have simply stroked the horse’s neck, looked into his eyes and then proposed to me what the problem was. I sighed, looking about me in the vain hope that a solution would just spring at me.
When that did not happen, I took Mouse firmly by the reins, trying to urge him forward again. But like a stubborn mule he resisted, putting all his weight into the effort of staying where he was instead of taking another step. I decided to lead by example and walked a few steps in the hope that Mouse might follow me, but the moment I stepped into the high grass I knew why Mouse had so vehemtly opposed to going this way.
From one moment to the next something fierce and painful grabbed my left calf with a snap and I think I cried out at the sudden sharp pain that seized me. I was still standing, putting all my weight on my right leg and looked down to see my left leg in the firm hold of a trap.
Surprised, I let go of Mouse’s reins. Startled by the stream of colourful Rohirric curses that left my mouth, the horse bolted backwards and came to stand at a safe distance from me. Automatically, my hands went to the iron clasps that had trapped my leg in the hope of dislogding them. After the initial shock of the trap closing, the pain had considerably lessened for the moment. I was a good enough healer to realize that the numbness would pass and that I should be free of the trap when that happened to be able to treat the wound. But when I got a closer look at the thing my hopes fell.
The trap was old, the metal rusty. It was a huge and heavy device adorned with metal spikes to pierce the skin. I had seen traps like these before, more often than not they were used to kill wolves that had come to prey upon the livestock of farmers. The trap threatened to crush my leg, and even though I suspected that nothing was yet broken, the pressure upon flesh and bone was immense. At the same time the spikes had cut into my skin causing the leg to bleed freely. And quite excessively, as I noted in alarm.
I needed to get free. The thought seemed vaguely familiar, but time was too precious to determine whether my mind was going in circles. Still standing, I grasped both legs of the trap firmly. And pulled.
That was the moment the pain came back in full force. The metal opened only a fraction, but the trap’s movement within my flesh caused me to grunt in pain. Spots were dancing in my vision and my hands, already slick with blood, lost their grip on the trap. It snapped back into place, one of the spikes grating against bone, and my balance wavered.
When I could finally think past the throbbing pain that crept up my leg and took hold in my body, I found myself sitting on the ground. My breathing was loud in my ears, sounding as if I had run a race. My hands, still clutching at my leg, were unsteady and trembled from the strain. Time ticked by and I just sat there, hands around my bleeding leg and breathing raggedly, mentally preparing myself for the fact that I had to try again. I needed to pry open the trap or I might lose the leg. Or my life, some evil part of my mind supplied. It was early afternoon, the other soldiers would not miss me until sunset. Different scenarios of how I could meet my demise chased through my mind. I imagined my brothers’ raised eyebrows at how the inconvenient end of the Dúnadan would look in Father’s thick tomes of history: Last Heir to the Throne of Gondor found dead with his leg in a wolf trap. Not very impressive. And then I imagined Legolas standing at my grave, his face haunted and his eyes dead. The thought scared me into a new resolve.
It must not come to this, I vowed, but it seemed my brain was stuck on that thought until a horse’s snort alerted me. I had not noticed that my eyes were closed until I opened them again. I was on my back in the high grass and could not remember how I had ended up in that position. Had I not been sitting? I shifted my body and at once a sharp pain travelled from my leg, up my thigh and into my upper body. I gasped as my stomach turned. I breathed slowly and deliberately through the pain, looking up into the clear blue sky overhead.
My leg. It was in a trap and I had tried to free myself. I needed to get free. I clung to that one thought, repeating it to myself out loud.
“I need to get free,” I said into the October afternoon while my hands grasped lower to get a hold of that accursed trap.
Mouse answered me with another snort and only then I finally registered that I was not alone. My gear was strapped to the horse’s saddle as was the pouch with my healing supplies. Clear thought was returning to me, it seemed.
“Come on Mouse, get over here,” I urged the horse and noted how weak and strained my voice already sounded. A quick glance down my body showed an alarmingly large puddle of red. And it was growing.
“Mouse, come here!” I ordered more forceful, because despair threatened to overcome me. The horse in question looked up from the grass he was munching and eyed me cautiously. I waved my hand at the animal in invitation, but he only flicked his ears and went back to his food.
My head fell back to the ground in exhaustion. I could expect no help from the horse. That left me with only one option: Prying the trap open.
There was a part of me that was still capable of clear thought. That part, small as it was, noticed the severity of the situation. It noticed that my body was bathed in sweat. It noticed the harsh and quick breathing I was unable to control. It noticed that I had lost too much blood, that I was already too weak to open the trap. It noticed how my vision swam each time I moved my head. But the larger part of me was set upon one goal alone: Survival. I needed to overcome my body’s growing weakness to free myself.
With effort I sat up as far as possible and my hands went to the trap again. But I had not even started to pull when I felt the ground tilt beneath me while my vision greyed.
I was on my back again, all my strength spent. My body was failing me, I knew. I could not feel my leg, but I was cold everywhere. Distractedly, I wondered how that could be when I saw the sun shining down on me. I turned my head and saw a horse nearby. It had been grazing, but now decided that it should move on. Slowly it trotted away from me and soon I could not make it out anymore between the trees. The world turned darker as the coldness increased. My vision narrowed down until it vanished completely and there was nothing but the mad rush of blood in my ears.
I should have put up a fight, was the last thought running through my mind, but I could not recall who the enemy was. The effort that thought cost me made my heart race and hammer.
And then finally, that stopped as well.
When awareness returned, I felt weightless, floating. Only after a few breaths I noticed that I was lying on a soft mattress. I was on my back, my head resting comfortably on a cushion and my body entangled in a velvety blanket. There was a faint smell on the air, of a forest after rain, of dew on a meadow. It was refreshing, clean – and familiar. Legolas’ smell, my befuddled brain supplied, and I breathed deeply of his scent before I opened my eyes to find myself in his large four-poster bed.
My elf was straddling me, a sight for sore eyes, and his naked body had a warm glow to it that made me reach out instantly to touch every patch of skin I could reach.
“Mhm, Lassë,” I drawled lazily, my hands coming to rest upon his hips. I have always loved the contradictions in him. He was slim and my large hands could nearly reach around his slender waist. He seemed a precious jewel to me, something to hold in my cupped hands and shelter. This was an illusion, of course. He was the stronger of the two of us, and his slender frame held strength and vigor in equal measure. His hands could bring pain and death, but to me they could only ever bring rapture. I gripped him harder, wanting to hold on to him to make certain he was tangible and not just a spectre. I must have shifted, because it was then that I noticed I was not entirely comfortable.
“I think you have been sitting on me for too long. My leg has fallen asleep,” I informed him and he answered with one of his mischievous smiles.
“I guess I have to move then.” And so he did, his hips grinding against me and it felt heavenly to be skin to skin with him once more. His hands came to rest on my chest and I felt their warmth enter and melt every last inch of me while Legolas swayed gracefully above me. He always moved like a cat, every gesture deliberate and beautiful, and I loved to watch the play of muscle under his flawless and pale skin. His hair was longer than I remembered it, unbraided and falling down almost to his waist and when he leaned down to bestow a kiss upon me some strands fell free and tickled my skin. It was pure bliss.
It had been so long since I had held him in my arms, but at the same time it felt like no time at all had passed between this moment and our last lovemaking. Legolas kissed me and we both relished the sensations, neither rushing nor moving towards a certain goal. His hips moved against my naked flesh and his obvious arousal was a promise, not a demand. This was not the mad frenzy of lust, it rarely was between us. This was the steady hum of love, of trust, of security. I needed him, his hands on me and his mouth on my lips. But this need burned steady like a low flame. I did nothing to further it, but instead revelled in the warmth it provided.
My hands roamed aimlessly, marking as much of his body with my touch as they could. My fingertips enjoyed the softness of his skin and the hard muscles beneath and my mouth kissed him back passionately, savouring his taste, his smell, his mere presence.
“I have missed you,” I said when the kiss ended, our mouths staying close. I felt his breath on my skin, envelopping me. I wanted to hear his voice. I had been devoid of it for so very long.
“I missed you more,” he countered and kissed the tip of my nose. My playful elf.
As a punishment, I meant to throw him off, but the movement caused the blood to flow back in my leg. It hurt fiercely.
Legolas noted my predicament and turned. I followed his gaze and could see blood tainting the white blanket. My blood.
My elf looked at me again, and his serious gaze made my hands tighten around his waist. As if it was only my grip that prevented him from slipping through my fingers like quicksand.
“I wish you would never leave me again,” he said and the sadness in his voice bled right into my heart. “But you need to wake up now, Estel.”
“Another moment,” I pleaded, because I knew that our little encounter would have to sustain me for long years to come. I stared at his feline beauty, the blush on his cheeks, the golden hair framing his face. I looked at him, trying to commit to memory how he appeared to me in exactly that moment: Full of love, of sadness, but also with a hint of urgency.
He rested his hand against my cheek, stroking my face and I noted absentmindedly that I had not shaved in a long time.
“No, now. You have to wake up now. Please, meleth.” And he bent down and kissed first my forehead, then my eyes, then my mouth without any of the previous desire. Just like my father had always done when I was still a child and refused to sleep. Legolas’ hand was still resting against my cheek like a promise. The fingers moved almost unconsciously, stroking, reassuring. Coming away wet at last.
“I love you.” And I yielded to my fate.
I woke to someone slapping my cheek. I heard some urgent talking and the usual trampling and snorting that comes with horses and could not help but think that this was a most rude awakening.
“Wake up,” someone said, obviously right into my ear, because the sound seemed much too loud to me.
“All right,” I meant to answer, but in truth it was more a “rght” that came out. Carefully, I blinked one eye open and saw about five or six men looking down at me. That could not mean anything good.
I recognized one face and focused on that. “Aldred?” He was the captain of our group.
“Yes!” He seemed relieved. Maybe he had forgotten his own name and was happy I had provided it for him? It seemed unlikely, but soldiers tended to be a strange sort.
“Thorongil.” That was me. I looked up at him expectantly. “Your leg is trapped. We’re going to pry the thing open to get you free.”
And before I could object that I had tried that approach I felt hands holding me down roughly. A sharp pain erupted in me, everywhere at once, and I would have screamed had not blessed darkness claimed me so swiftly.
They had to built a stretcher for me, because I could not sit a horse. They bandaged the leg, elevated it and left me with two fellow soldiers while the rest of the company went ahead to fulfill our scouting mission.
The two youngsters were not at all happy to be left behind with an invalid, but as soon as I could keep my eyes open for longer than it took to drink a cup of water they provided me with the story of my rescue. Apparently Mouse had trotted back to camp, causing quite a chaos, because the men believed I had been attacked. The soldiers had followed the horse’s tracks back to me (including some bends and circles Mouse had taken in the pursuit of food). They seemed disappointed that it was nothing more than a rusty trap that had incapacitated me (no orc, no pirate, not even a bandit), but in the end graciously clapped me on the shoulder and promised me I’d be on my feet in no time at all.
I re-entered Minas Tirith flat on my back, not quite like I had imagined my homecoming. I had wanted to impress Ecthelion to gain his trust. Now the great Thorongil had literally walked right into a trap.
The Steward lowered himself to visit me in my quarters to inquire after my health. He kept his serious mien through all of the interrogation and in the end he simply asked: “And Thorongil, are you well?”
I replied, “I will be, my lord.” He took my words as permission to laugh loudly and heartily at my mishap. And in the end, I joined in.
For ten years I served in Gondor and during that time, I managed to fulfill my oath and gain the Steward’s trust. I also never forgot Mouse’s timely rescue. An apple out of the Citadel’s kitchen as often as I could snatch one, was the least I could do to thank him. I took him with me when I finally left the White City to turn my steps homewards again. I had managed to sent word ahead to Legolas. If all went well I would meet him in our cave and together we would make the journey to Rivendell. I longed for home, for my family, for Legolas’ presence. I knew other responsibilities and hardships would await me in the future, but with Legolas by my side I always came out stronger in the end. That was what my elf did to me. He made me whole, safeguarded my heart and held out his hand to me whereever I was. I could feel his outstretched arms and their loving embrace even now, so many miles from home.
Sitting astride Mouse, following a trail northward, I remembered one of his letters. I had read those words countless times, until they had burnt themselves into my mind. I whispered them now like an incantation. Maybe they would quicken my steps and bring me nearer to making them true.
My hope, his letter had said, do not despair. I know the years of seperation stretch out long before us. I know I will feel the cold at my back where your body used to embrace me like the pain from an old wound. I know the absence of your breath as it swells and ebbs like the tide against my neck will keep me from sleep. I know I will miss half my soul when you are not near. But it will not always be thus. There will come a time when we do not have to part again. Someday, though it may be far in the future yet, our trials will be over and our seperation only a distant memory. I believe in this, with all my heart.
Someday, my hope...
- The End (November, 2006)