Author's Note: many, many thanks to Cressida and Astara for their enormous help and support! And equally many thanks to my incredible source of inspiration for this one, a lovely and most...interesting horse named Losk. He is also the source of my own bumpiest rides to date.
The Steward and his wife, engrossed in a thick volume of sketches on Elven building crafts – a magnificent book loaned to them by the Queen – both looked up and then at each other with knowing smiles. Before either of them had time to comment on the exclamation that had drifted in through the open window, little Helmir said with conviction, barely looking up from his colored wooden blocks, "Stoo-pid horse."
Éowyn shook her head, amused.
"The child spoke those words before he ever learned to call for his mother or father. Ithilwen will one day make a perfect teacher of languages of far-off lands, should she choose so."
As if to confirm her words, Helmir looked up, nodded and said, "Il'wen. Stoo-pid horse."
Faramir laughed and went to the open window.
"Ithilwen!" he called. "Come here, child, I want a word with you."
The window faced the large orchard, which already boasted a rich harvest of sweet cherries. That was the chief reason why it had looked such a pleasant retreat for Elboron, Ithilwen, five or six other children of the household, and Prince Eldarion, who was accompanying his mother during her stay at the Steward's abode. The Queen was expecting a child and had chosen to spend the last weeks of her pregnancy away from the constant hustle and bustle of the White City.
Some of the children could be seen sitting comfortably on the ground, lazily chewing on the large, juicy, yellow-pink cherries and participating in a somewhat half-hearted contest of who could shoot their stones the farthest; others, judging by the rustling up in the tree crowns, were either replenishing their supplies or finding treetops a much more interesting place for eating.
Ithilwen alone was sitting aside and looking more ruffled than a child should after picking cherries. Her hair was tousled and full of grass, with one braid undone, her dress rumpled and stained with green, and her face a very angry shade of red. Several yards away, a light chestnut horse was standing, eyeing the girl carefully.
The stout, short-legged gelding was not one of Éowyn's splendid breed mounts; his appearance was that of a farmer's trusty helpmate, equally good for drawing wheat-loaded carts and for carrying his owner a mile or two to the neighbouring village for a nice mug of ale with an old friend. Those were in fact the tasks he had been purchased for, and he had been not been at Emyn Arnen for even half a year. Still, he was not completely devoid of a certain grace and held up his head in a truly regal fashion and with not a little smugness – especially as he was looking at the huffing Ithilwen.
Meanwhile, the girl took great care to shake the blades of grass and small twigs out of her skirt and hair; Faramir waited patiently, smiling to himself. Indeed, all children acted alike when trying to postpone a rightful scolding. At last, Ithilwen slowly walked toward the window.
"Am I right in assuming that you have tried to mount Chestnut, and he has thrown you again?" Faramir asked.
"Yes, Father," Ithilwen replied sulkily and viciously kicked an innocent molehill. "But…but I really thought he would let me ride him this time!"
A head appeared from the thick tree crown nearest to the house. Upon closer examination, it turned out to be Eldarion's.
"Lord Faramir," he started with vigour, ever-loyal to his unfortunate friend, "it did look like he would! He followed Ithilwen here, and ate all the cabbage leaves she gave him, and kept nuzzling and licking her…"
Faramir raised a hand, and the heir to the throne of Gondor thought it better to hide his head in the foliage again.
"That is not what I would like to discuss," the Steward said. "The last time this happened, not a week ago, Ithilwen promised her mother and myself not to attempt to ride Chestnut unless supervised by a grown person. Is that not so?"
Ithilwen merely sighed, hanging her head. Faramir beckoned her inside.
"It is very clear that you cannot yet control this horse on your own, Ithilwen, and this makes you riding Chestnut very dangerous," said Éowyn when the girl entered the room. "You have only had lucky falls so far, but what if you break a bone? 'Tis not the time for you yet to ride that animal."
"But Mother!" Ithilwen jumped up in protest. "I am not a little baby like Helmir and I can ride well!"
"Not so well in this case," Éowyn pointed out. "With horses, it is not always a matter of mere skill. You have to learn to make the animal obey, too."
Ithilwen looked quite indignant.
"So…so I must just stop trying with Chestnut? Mother, you would never have done that when you were little!"
Faramir looked at his lady with a smirk. Their daughter had found a good argument. Éowyn, however, was undaunted.
"You are wrong, Ithilwen," she said calmly. "If a more experienced rider had tried to dissuade me from dealing with a particular horse, I should have listened. Do you know the reason, child? 'Tis because I had been taught at a very early age that it is not enough to learn to sit on top of a horse as it walks under you. Riding means discipline; for the mount and for the rider alike."
"I am not undisciplined!" the child cried, stomping her foot angrily. Her parents sneaked a quick glance at each other and smiled.
"Not keeping promises is undisciplined enough, child," Faramir said. "Please understand, we are simply concerned for your safety. And neither your mother not I mean that you are a poor rider. 'Tis just that Chestnut, for now, needs a stronger and bigger person to ride him on his own. But, most likely, once you spend enough time riding him under supervision, he will learn to see authority in you too."
"Your father is right, Ithilwen. You know what? Helmir is ready for his nap now, so I shall go and put him to bed, and then I will go with you and we can do some nice riding. I daresay Chestnut will not dare to show his antics in my company!"
Ithilwen gave an uncertain smile.
"All right, Mother," she said. "And have a good nap, Helmir!"
The little boy, now in his mother's arms, flashed her a smile and said, "Stoo-pid horse!"
As it turned out, the riding lesson with her mother succeeded in mollifying Ithilwen a little. Chestnut did indeed think twice before he would attempt any of his tricks in front of the Steward's lady, who, much as she loved his kind, did not hesitate to deal out hearty smacks to his much-valued rear end while making him gallop for what felt miles and miles. For that reason, he seemed to reconcile himself to carrying her little daughter too, albeit grudgingly, although he looked and acted as affectionate as the most loyal of puppies once she produced a cut-up apple as his reward. The horse licked and nuzzled the child, the child laughed and petted the horse's soft nose, the Lady Éowyn chuckled, and life looked full of peace and joy again.
The idyll lasted for nearly a week, with the Steward, his lady, and occasionally young Bergil (whom Ithilwen had secretly but firmly resolved to marry when she grew up, and therefore especially welcomed as her riding teacher) finding the time to assist her in mastering the "Stoopid Horse." For times when none of them was unoccupied, Éowyn suggested to her daughter a small grey mare. The creature was wonderfully docile, but sturdy and fast, and had once been named Wind Cloud. However, Bergil had once said, by way of jesting, that a name like Lump would suit a horse of her size much better, and that very instant the younger inhabitants of Emyn Arnen had unanimously declared that they preferred it too, for such were their ways with any opinion of Beregond's brave young son.
And then one day, as Ithilwen was proudly walking Lump through the back garden, with Beregond's youngest daughter Lindisse mounted behind her, she heard from afar the soft rustling of the grass under the hooves of another horse, and soon Chestnut appeared beside her, also carrying two.
The two were her brother and Prince Eldarion, and Ithilwen felt a pang of jealousy mixed with annoyance. Both boys eyed her a trifle uneasily, plainly wishing they had ridden another way and saved everyone the unpleasantness. However, Ithilwen's weakness lasted but a moment. She straightened herself up proudly and gave the newcomers an almost defiant smile.
"Riding out, you two?" she asked conversationally.
"We are!" Eldarion replied with an enthusiastic nod. "The cook says there are ever so many wild strawberries on the edge of the forest, so we want to gather some and ask him to bake some pies for supper."
"Oooh!" little Lindisse exclaimed. "Can we come too?"
"Hmm, I don't see why not," Elboron said. "That way, we shall pick more berries, and more quickly, too."
Lindisse's mind immediately turned to practical matters, as was her wont.
"We must get some baskets, then," she announced.
"What for?" Elboron said. "Chestnut is carrying saddlebags, in case you have not noticed!"
The girl laughed.
"But you cannot carry strawberries in saddlebags, silly! They will be all squashed! Wait, let me run to the house and find some…hmm, jars will be best – those we can put in the bags!"
The rest all agreed with her, and some ten minutes later the two horses were carrying a merrily chattering company away toward the edge of the nearby forest.
After a short while, Ithilwen's jealousy returned. Elboron rode Chestnut almost indifferently, hardly even having to dig his heels into the horse's rich golden-brown sides, and yet the gelding trotted cheerfully on without as much as a hint at any of the antics he played with Ithilwen.
Elboron eventually noticed his sister's distress.
"Don't you worry about the stupid beast," he said encouragingly. "When you are a little bigger and stronger, you will show him which one of you is the master. 'Tis just that he needs a heavy hand at times."
Ithilwen sighed miserably.
"Mother says the same," she said. "But he doesn't seem to like me very much."
"Oh, he likes you all right," Elboron laughed. "He simply doesn't see a rider in you yet. But he will – mark my words, he will!"
The edge of the forest with its promised patch of strawberries proved a big disappointment. It was indeed covered in bright indented leaves, but the berries were few and far between. Apparently, the boys had not been the first to think of a strawberry pie.
Eldarion heaved a sigh of frustration.
"There is barely enough for us to get a good taste," he grumbled. "You should not have worried that the strawberries would be squashed in saddlebags, Lindisse: there is nothing to squash!"
"That is because this spot is so close to the house," Elboron pointed out. "If we rode a little further around there," he said, indicating a distant clump of bushes to his left, "we should definitely find more."
"But that is too far!" Lindisse protested. "It looks close, but it isn't, just like always when you are in the open. We shall not be able to see the house, and no one will see us, and…and we are not allowed to wander out of sight on our own."
"Oh, but we are not wandering. We are riding," he said. "Besides, what dangers could be there this close to the household at this time of the day?"
"There could be…wolves or something," Eldarion said warily.
The other three children all giggled.
"Wolves, in the middle of a hot day and right next to where people live? Do they not teach you anything in that White City?" Ithilwen said with a sniff.
Eldarion blushed. Now that she said that, he remembered his father telling him about wolves' ways…the truth was, he had simply forgotten, but even so, could there not be just one wolf who did not hunt like the rest of them?
"There could be snakes," Lindisse said with a shudder. "Sometimes they just like to lie in the sun. I nearly stepped on one last summer."
"Snakes are easy," Eldarion said confidently. "All you have to do is look where you are going. They don't bite someone who is bigger than them unless they feel scared."
Feeling his reputation was restored by this proof of his competence as a woodsman, he then hastened to support his older friend.
"Maybe Elboron is right, and we should look there," he said. "After all, we are riding indeed, and it isn't that far. The four of us will gather enough berries very quickly, and we shall return in no time!"
For a while, they stood looking at each other, each one's mind already three quarters set on agreeing. After all, the rule about not going out of sight had been introduced the previous year, and had they not become older, stronger and smarter since then? Perhaps if they had asked their parents, they would have got the permission at once?
Ithilwen resolutely collected Lump's reins.
"All right, we are riding!" she announced. "Will someone help me mount?"
Little Lindisse proved right: the distance to their goal was longer than it had seemed. By the time they had ridden around the clump of thick thorn and hazel bushes, all the four were sweating profusely from the midday heat, as well as thirsty, for they had not thought of bringing any water with them. That, however, was all forgotten once they saw a delightful carpet of light green leaves, with a tiny flash of red here and there.
Elboron turned around to look at the girls, a wide grin on his face.
"See?" he said triumphantly. "I told you there were plenty!"
Ithilwen was bouncing with excitement, despite being seated on Lump's back.
"Let's find where we can leave the horses then!" she said. "That old hazel bush looks good – the branches are thick enough to tie them to, and it gives such nice shade."
All seemed to agree with her, and they urged the horses on; so excited were they that no one noticed three furry grey creatures hiding in the high grass. The creatures, no other than plain wild rabbits, however, did notice the newcomers and thought it better to make themselves scarce. Swift as a flash of lightning, they shot from under the bush and sped toward the protective thicket of the forest.
Neither Lump nor Chestnut appreciated that much. The mare gave a panicked neigh, rearing up and causing her two riders to tumble down with a shriek. Her companion gave a startled leap to the side, which had the same effect on Elboron and Eldarion, and then both horses broke into a gallop, probably in search of some haven with humans in it, where they would be completely safe from the horrible dangers of the wilderness.
"Stupid horses!" Ithilwen cried indignantly, sitting up and shaking her fist at them. Behind her, Lindisse produced a groan of frustration as she examined the large green stains on her yellow skirt.
"Mother will be so cross with me," she said with a sigh.
Ithilwen was prepared to point out to her that hers was most probably not the only mother with an unfavourable opinion of her child's pastime, and turned to the boys to include them in her audience, but what she saw made the words die on her lips.
Elboron, who had lost his left boot during the fall, was still lying on the ground, propped up on his elbows, his eyes wide and his face white as a sheet, making strange whimpering noises. Eldarion was sitting next to him, his face almost as ashen as that of his friend, staring mutely at Elboron's leg, which was bent strangely several inches above the ankle, and swelling even as they looked.
For some time, they all simply stared. Ithilwen was the first to shake off her stupor as she knelt down next to her brother, never able to take her eyes off his injured limb.
"I think…I think it's broken," Eldarion breathed out from behind her.
"I think it is," Elboron hissed through clenched teeth. "And…and it seems the bone is not in place, either."
"Oh, this is very bad," she said.
Elboron threw her a sour look, as if to say, You think I am not aware of that? He then tried to sit straighter, but gave a loud moan as the injured leg moved, and fell back.
Ithilwen turned around and looked helplessly at Eldarion.
"What do we do?" she asked, her eyes uncharacteristically pleading.
"I…I do not know…" the little prince said, looking as lost as she did.
Both were brought back to their senses by a loud snort from the ever-practical Lindisse.
"Listen to yourselves, you two! Have you never seen the Lady Éowyn helping someone with something like this? The King as well, I suppose – they say he is a healer too!" she said.
Ithilwen's eyes lit up.
"But of course, I have seen Mother set broken bones! But…but I don't think we should try to set it ourselves," she added hastily. "Only try to make it hurt less. We need to put it in a splint!"
"Yes, and I know how to do it!" Eldarion announced, his confidence returning. "My father once showed me."
"Our father showed us too," Elboron said weakly, interested in spite of the pain. "He said every Ranger ought to know these things."
Eldarion jumped to his feet.
"Then let us go and find some good branches in the forest," he said.
"Yes," Ithilwen said, rising, "and after we splint Elboron's leg, someone will have to go and fetch help."
Thus agreeing, the children busied themselves with the search and soon found two sturdy, more or less straight branches. Next came the task that they all dreaded, for none was willing to be the one to cause Elboron any further pain by moving his poor leg.
"But we must," Ithilwen said apologetically, more to herself than to her brother.
"What healers do often hurts, but 'tis for the better," Elboron reassured her. "Remember, when we were in the City last Mettare, Eldarion cut himself on the arm, and the wound got inflamed, and the King had to cut it open and clean it?"
"I do remember," Eldarion muttered, shuddering.
"We have to do it quickly, too," Lindisse said. "'Tis a long way home from here, and our horses are gone…silly cowards! To be startled like that by rabbits!"
And then all of a sudden, they heard a rustle from the hazel bush. Eldarion resolutely snatched the small knife that he had been using to remove little twigs from the branches they had found for the splint; of course, it could be mere rabbits again, but he was still not excluding the possibility of a rogue wolf that did not live by the rules. However, Lindisse, who had sprung to her feet at the sound, gave a cry of delight.
"Look!" she exclaimed, pointing excitedly to the hazel bush. "Look who came back!"
And from behind it, with a most nonchalant air, as if such event-packed afternoons were something completely habitual to him, walked Chestnut – sides glossy, mane blown about elegantly by the wind, and eyes expressing something akin to polite interest. He took three more paces forward, surveyed the scene, picked a leaf off the bush, and started chewing, as if waiting for any further development.
"Chestnut!" Eldarion cried out. "Oh, you clever lad! I can now ride back to the house and get help much more quickly!"
He ran toward the animal and took hold of the reins, with an intention to throw them over the horse's neck. Chestnut, however, failed to appreciate it, and took two tiny but very graceful skips to the side, then cocked his head at the boy. Eldarion repeated the attempt, hoping to fool the horse by approaching from the right, but to no avail.
After six more attempts, the sweaty Eldarion gave the thoroughly amused Chestnut a dirty look.
"This is hopeless!" he said. "It seems he only allowed me to ride him with Elboron on his back as well! This means we shall indeed have to walk."
Ithilwen, busy with trying to tear a wide strip from the bottom of her skirt, shrugged.
"I would not even try," she said. "That stupid horse is no use here."
Eldarion and Lindisse both sighed and returned to preparing the splint, Beregond's daughter following Ithilwen's example, and the prince working at the branches, now almost reduced to two smooth rods.
So engrossed in her task was Ithilwen that she failed to feel at once a pull on one of her braids. First it was gentle, then it grew more insistent, and just as she was going to scold Eldarion for acting so light-hearted, her braid was jerked sharply back, and she fell.
"Hey!" she cried out and was immediately silent, for instead of the clear summer sky or the heads of her companions, she saw a copper-colored head of a horse above her.
"Chestnut, go away," she said angrily, sitting up. "Go home! You know the way. 'Tis no time for play."
Chestnut, however, would not be dismissed. He whinnied and pulled Ithilwen's other braid.
"I think he wants you to do something," Elboron said. "Maybe he is hurt?"
But before anyone had time to start looking into the matter, Chestnut suddenly bent his forelegs and dropped to his knees. He then gave Ithilwen another gentle pull, whinnied again, and turned his head about, his nose unmistakably pointing to the saddle.
Elboron produced an unbelieving gasp. Ithilwen slowly turned her head to him, her eyes as big as the horse's.
"Does…does he…?" she breathed out, stunned.
"I think he does!" her brother exclaimed. "He wants you and no one else to ride him back home!"
Eldarion sprang to his feet – even though he did feel just a trifle jealous, he also realized they had better not lose any time.
"Quickly, get into that saddle!" he urged. "Lindisse and I can finish with the splint while you are gone!"
After a short while of bustling activity – for they had to untangle the reins from the mane, get the horse back on his feet and adjust the stirrups for Ithilwen – the Steward's daughter was firmly mounted on Chestnut, a slight wariness in her expression mingling with a much greater deal of determination.
"All right, I am going!" she announced, but was stopped by the sound of her name.
"Ithilwen?" Elboron said with a weak smile. "I told you he liked you."
The events that followed all seemed to pass in a blur. Chestnut trotting gently but fast toward the Steward's household; servants looking at her first with surprise and then with alarm; someone helping her dismount and asking something; herself wriggling out of the person's arms and demanding urgently where her parents were…
All was suddenly calmer after she found her mother and Queen Arwen chatting amiably in the rose garden. She had seen other mothers make a frightful fuss when their children were hurt, but her own was not like that. Mother squatted down in front of her, listened to her frantic and breathless report, then kissed the top of her head as she got to her feet, remarking that Ithilwen had done everything correctly. She then left to give orders for a cart to be prepared to bring Elboron and the rest back, and the Queen offered to take Ithilwen inside.
To Ithilwen's surprise, there was another guest there: the King himself. He and her father had obviously been informed about Elboron's misfortune, for they were both standing in the hallway with concern written on their faces as Éowyn was putting her bag with emergency healing supplies over her shoulder.
"I think I should ride a horse, not use the same cart," Faramir said. "It will have enough passengers as it is, what with three children and you, dearest, for I imagine you would like to be with Elboron."
"A wise decision," the King said. "Meanwhile, I should probably make some preparations for when you bring the poor lad here. From what Ithilwen has said, it sounds like that bone will have to be set."
"Thank you," Éowyn said, wincing. "I do not look forward to that…"
"I can work on it myself, if you permit me," the King offered. "After all, you are the child's mother, and…"
Éowyn flashed him a somewhat irritated look.
"I am a healer too, Sire. Pray think of me as one, as well as a mother."
And then they were gone, and Queen Arwen took Ithilwen to the nursery, where she summoned a maid; the latter brought warm water, sponges, hairbrushes and clean clothes, and very soon the Steward's daughter looked much less dishevelled. The Queen then settled on the couch with Ithilwen and reached for a book full of colourful pictures of animals and their young, as well as stories written by travellers who had encountered them. She herself had brought it for the Steward's children among other gifts, and Ithilwen especially had been taken with it in no time.
That evening, however, Ithilwen's mind seemed to wander. The Queen closed the book and put it aside.
"You do not want to read anymore, do you?" she asked gently.
Ithilwen looked up at her apologetically.
"This is such an interesting book," she said, "but…but not today."
"I understand," Arwen said. "Would you like it more if we just sat here quietly for a while?"
As the girl nodded, she put an arm around her. Ithilwen settled more comfortably against her; her eyes wandered around the room and rested on the Queen's well-rounded figure once more. Arwen smiled.
"Yes, soon your friend Eldarion is going to have a little brother or sister as well."
"Yes, and that's good," Ithilwen said thoughtfully. "'Tis nice having a brother or a sister…even if they sometimes make you worry so much!"
The Queen laughed softly.
"Well said, my dear," she said. "I have always thought the same about my own brothers. But come! I think I hear something outside. Your parents must have returned, and the rest of your merry company with them."
Ithilwen wandered aimlessly about the stable yard as the day drew to its close. Now that everything was over and Elboron was safe, she was suddenly left with nothing to do, and too excited to be able to read or sleep. Bergil had come and taken Lindisse home, treating her to a honey cake and a heartfelt lecture. Eldarion had gone to have a bath and to change, his mother with him. As for Elboron, he had been carried swiftly into his room by their father, their mother following closely behind and with the King already waiting inside. Ithilwen had made to follow them, but Éowyn stopped her.
"Not now, dear," she had said firmly. "The King and I are going to set the broken bone now, and this is not something nice to watch. You can talk to your brother in the morning."
Elboron, very pale, but resolute, had waved at her from the bed, managing a weak smile, and then the door had closed, leaving her alone in the hallway. Not completely alone; occasionally, a servant would hurry past her, but all had seemed to be too occupied to pay her much heed.
Ithilwen walked about, dragging her feet and kicking a pebble now and then. All was quieter now, most animals having already called it a day, and the air was filled with the chirping of crickets and the sweet smells of the garden. The Steward's daughter looked up; the darkening sky was full of bright stars, promising another fine day to come.
She kicked another pebble and followed it as it skidded across the yard, all the way to the large wooden stable door. Ithilwen stood looking at it for a while, then walked in the pebble's wake; and then, with an effort, she pulled the door open and went in.
The all-too familiar scent of horses hit her nostrils as she proceeded along the stalls. Most of the animals were munching on something; several had settled comfortably on the floor, blinking in surprise as Ithilwen passed them.
She did not, however, stop to greet all of her good friends. She proceeded to the stall at the far end and stopped when a golden-brown head appeared over her, a wisp of hay in the horse's mouth.
"Hello, Chestnut," Ithilwen said as she opened the door of the stall and went in.
Chestnut eyed her with curiosity mingled with hope as he did the best "nice horse" expression he could manage: he lowered his head and cocked it to one side a little. Ithilwen chuckled.
"I'm sorry, Chestnut, I haven't brought you anything," she said. "Everyone is so busy because Elboron has been hurt, you know."
She looked around the stall; in one corner, there was the remainder of hay that Chestnut had not finished eating. Ithilwen walked there and plopped down on it, then drew up her knees and put her arms around them.
"You know, Mother, and Father, and the King, and the Queen, and some servants too, they all tell me that I was so…reasonable and brave, and that I did everything right after Elboron broke his leg," she said thoughtfully, looking down. Chestnut snorted quietly.
Ithilwen looked up.
"Yes, you are right! You were very brave too – I shall make sure they all know and give you something nice to eat tomorrow. But you know something else?" she continued, her voice lowering almost to a whisper. "I don't think I was very reasonable before Elboron was hurt. None of us were, to ride so far away and not tell anyone. That was very stupid."
She sighed. Chestnut eyed her closely for a while, and then bent down his neck– in his usual dignified manner, of course – and licked her arm several times. Ithilwen looked up at him and petted his velvety nose, smiling.
"You really are not a stupid horse," she informed Chestnut, and the horse snorted again, as if to say, Is that such a surprise?
"There she is, Lord Faramir!" a boyish voice exclaimed, and an excited Eldarion burst into the stall, startling both Ithilwen and Chestnut; the latter took two involuntary steps back and then eyed the newcomer with a great deal of disapproval. Behind him stood the Steward, smiling at the scene in front of him.
Eldarion surveyed it too, and in an instant was sitting next to his friend on top of Chestnut's unfinished supper. Ithilwen looked at her father expectantly; the latter nodded to her reassuringly.
"Elboron is sleeping," he said. "The bone has been set properly by your mother and the King, and he should be able to walk in a few weeks."
Ithilwen swallowed before asking, "Did…did it hurt much?"
Faramir walked over and joined the two children on their soft seat of hay.
"I fear it did," he said, putting an arm around Ithilwen's shoulders. "Not as much as it could have, as your mother gave him some herbs that dulled the pain, but it certainly was not pleasant, and he is probably going to be in pain tomorrow."
"We must come and sit with him – maybe read or sing or play," Eldarion said. "That usually helps me when I am ill!"
The Steward smiled.
"You are a loyal friend, Eldarion," he said. "And not only you; your whole little company acted very bravely and reasonably today, and I hope I shall see Lindisse on the morrow to tell her that too."
"You are not angry that we rode off to the woods on our own?" Ithilwen said, looking slightly taken aback.
Faramir was silent for a while; then, he looked her straight in the eye.
"I will admit, Ithilwen, that to scold you was the first thing on my mind when your mother informed me about your…adventure, and also to forbid you from this day on ever to leave the bounds of the household unless accompanied by fifty armed guards," he said.
Ithilwen and Elldarion gave an indignant loud gasp each, but were stalled by the Steward's quiet chuckle.
"Peace, I am but jesting," he said. "Perish the thought that my children – and their guests – should feel as prisoners in our home. However, the events of today prove that you were not yet ready for a greater freedom."
"Yes – and that got Elboron hurt," Ithilwen said, sighing miserably.
"That is not what I meant," Faramir said. "Accidents do happen, within doors as well as in the open, and there is often no one to blame for them. Those rabbits happened to be there and startle the horses, and it was not your fault. However, you riding away without telling anyone most certainly was, and I know you are old and clever enough to understand how dangerous it could have been, had Chestnut not returned to you."
Ithilwen looked up to where Chestnut was chewing on a wisp of hay, and a smile lit up her face.
"Chestnut was so brave," she said. "He came back for us, even though he had been frightened! Mother says that horses often feel like…like they should take care of their riders, but I didn't think Chestnut was like that."
"Indeed," Faramir said pensively. "What of the rider?"
Ithilwen blinked in confusion.
"Should the rider feel responsible for the horse as well, Ithilwen?" her father went on.
"Why, yes…" she said, still not understanding the reason for his question.
"If you think so, then why did you not even inquire about the other horse? The one that you rode to the woods?"
Ithilwen's mouth fell open. "Lump!" she cried out. "Has she not come back? Oh, Father, then we must find her! It's dangerous for a horse to be alone in the woods at night!"
"She is fine," Eldarion said quietly. "She was grazing in the back garden when we returned. Lindisse told me."
"And we saw her lying comfortably in her stall on our way here," Faramir added. "She is probably asleep by now, so you can make your amends tomorrow, preferably with a large carrot."
Ithilwen chuckled in spite of herself, then looked at Faramir gravely.
"I think…I think you are right, Father, and 'tis too early for us to ride away on our own," she admitted reluctantly.
Faramir smiled and stroked her hair. "We shall have to see about that. If you have indeed learned the lesson of today, then perhaps you are ready. One thing I can safely promise, though: you will be allowed to ride Chestnut on your own."
Ithilwen bounced up on the hay and was at the horse's side in an instant, beaming up at him and reaching to pet his neck. Chestnut gave her an appraising look, as if trying to think of a best way to act with an affectionate human who, however, did not bring a treat.
Still, being in a good mood, he lowered his glossy head down and gave Ithilwen several enormous licks. He had a feeling that with that particular human, a treat would follow sooner or later anyway.
In the days that followed, the Steward's household regained its customary peace. Elboron's leg was healing nicely, and although he had objected vehemently to the crutches he was to use until the bone knitted firmly, he eventually came to see them as one of the necessary evils, and once even offered a race to Eldarion, the latter using a pair of sticks found around the stables. Both Lady Éowyn and the King, who happened to be visiting, acted predictably not amused; Eldarion, however, would swear that there was a hint of a smile on his father's face as he recounted the tale to Lord Faramir.
Ithilwen, as well as Eldarion and Lindisse, would go to great lengths to see her older brother as comfortable as his state would allow. She would read to him, play with him, bring him treats from the kitchen and the garden. The best was the jar of wild strawberries she had picked herself after a ride to the woods accompanied by her mother; true, Elboron's smile at the sight of those was a little wry at first, but the taste of the berries soon remedied that.
And, naturally, the Steward's daughter dedicated almost all the time she could spare to Chestnut. The horse was behaving in an exemplary way, hardly needing any disciplining; Éowyn had supervised her daughter's riding sessions the first four or five times and agreed that Ithilwen was capable of handling him alone. She could now often be seen trotting along garden paths and field roads, proud and erect, hands closed firmly on the reins, and sometimes a strange frown marring her pretty childlike face.
It was still with that frown that the Steward found his daughter one day, sitting on the desk in his study and staring moodily in front of her.
"Is something wrong, Ithilwen?" he asked gently.
The child sighed.
"Nothing. Nothing is wrong, Father…all is just as I wanted it to be!"
Catching a note of exasperation in her voice, Faramir pulled a chair to the desk and sat opposite her.
"Then I cannot help thinking that what you wanted does not now appear as good as you thought?"
Ithilwen continued staring pensively ahead.
"Perhaps," she said with another sigh. "You know, Father, Chestnut has been so nice lately. He obeys me even better than Lump does, he never bites, and he always nuzzles and licks me even when I come without a treat."
A smile tugged at the corners of Faramir's lips.
"I recall your mother, and not only her, telling you that this would happen sooner or later, though," he said. "He has grown to respect you more as his rider. Just as your adventure in the woods has made you wiser, it has also had its effect on Chestnut. Perhaps he has matured a little because of it."
Ithilwen pressed her lips firmly together and gave one of the desk's legs a vicious kick.
"But Father!" she finally cried. "He…he doesn't play anymore! Not ever! And you know what he did today?"
"What?" said a voice from the doorway. Father and daughter turned to see Éowyn listening to the conversation with utmost interest on her face.
"Mother, you know how I always had to ask a groom to put the bridle on him for me?" Ithilwen said. "But not today! Today, he just lowered his head as soon as he saw me with it, and waited until I fastened everything!"
With that, she slid off the desk and stormed out of the room. Faramir and Éowyn exchanged glances. The Steward was the first to burst out laughing.
"Indeed, our daughter has the blood of Rohan in her veins," he said.
"From what I know of the people of Gondor, they are not exactly fond of riding docile carthorses themselves!" Éowyn retorted, laughing too. "The poor child! Beware of your wishes coming true, they say…"
"You needn't worry, my love," Faramir said, still chuckling. "If I know anything of horses and little children, things will soon take a turn for the better for our daughter."
It was a fine, sunny morning that followed a stormy night. The remaining raindrops were still sparkling on the leaves, and a few puddles reflected the clear blue sky as Chestnut, with Ithilwen on his back, was strolling casually along the house. On the bench nearby, Queen Arwen and the Steward were engrossed in a game of chess; Eldarion and Elboron were observing the game, one hopping about, the other in a chair specially adjusted to keep his injured leg up. For some curious reason, each took the side of the other's parent, and the air around them was filled with friendly bickering, unnecessary advice to the players, and, occasionally, yet another admonishment from the latter, followed by yet another threat to send both lads to the house if they continue to meddle. A little aside, Éowyn and her youngest were taking their morning promenade, mainly consisting of little Helmir's exploration of flowers, bugs and the depth of the nearby puddle.
Ithilwen gave Chestnut a sharp jab in the ribs, urging the horse to a trot. Chestnut splashed merrily along the wet path, circled around the large flowerbed, and came to a standstill in front of a large puddle. Éowyn laughed.
"Ithilwen, looks like your noble steed really objects to dirty water!" she called to her daughter.
"A little mud on his hooves won't hurt him!" she said. "Go on, Chestnut, we have barely started!"
There was no response from the horse. Ithilwen turned about and gave him a hearty slap on the rump with her hand. Éowyn frowned.
"Careful, Ithilwen," she warned. "Look how he is swishing his tail."
"Oh, Mother, that was just a fly. Go, you slowpoke!"
And with those words, she turned again and slapped Chestnut's backside again, with more force.
And then it happened. Chestnut gave an indignant snort, which was followed immediately by an elegant leap to the side. Ithilwen, completely unprepared, lost her balance and dropped off the saddle; still trying to hold the horse back, she held tightly to the reins, but was easily outmatched. Chestnut skipped sideways again, dragging his unfortunate rider through that same muddy puddle he had been so loath to cross, and finally broke free. With a jubilant kick, he shot off to the garden and was gone.
When Ithilwen rose to her knees, she was greeted by silence. Some corner of her mind registered the scattered chess pieces; Queen Arwen's wide eyes; little Helmir, unperturbed by the accident, chasing a dragonfly; Elboron's and Eldarion's identical shocked expressions. Finally, she was able to single out two pairs of eyes: her parents', and in both, deep down, there were sparkles of laughter just making their way to the surface.
For she indeed was quite a sight! Her dress was soaked, as was her hair, and her face was a muddy mask on which there shone two bright eyes and a row of teeth bared in a wide smile.
She turned to where a splash of chestnut colour was prancing happily among the trees, and her smile grew even wider as her jubilant cry rang clear and loud through the morning air.