"Their horses were of great stature, strong and clean-limbed; their grey coats glistened, their long tails flowed in the wind, their manes were braided on their proud necks."
J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings; The Two Towers
Firefoot gave a heartfelt snort of disapproval and shook his mane while walking along the sandy path in single file behind five foreign horses. There was so much wrong with this picture! First of all, he never walked at the rear, and second, paths should not be made of sand. His hooves kept sinking in and he was forced to either drag his legs like a common plough horse or stilt like a stork, as the other horses did. He could not decide which was more humiliating. He was a proud war steed of the Riddermark, not a fancy Gondorian palfrey with spindly legs and ribbons in his mane!
He thought of the solid rocks and the rich green pastures of his homeland. Not only was it much more agreeable to tread the paths of the Mark, the grass tasted infinitely better there, too. Here it was dry and chewy and he had not enjoyed a single decent leaf of dandelion in weeks. Besides, the gnats were at least twice the size they were at home. The most unsettling difference, however, was the air, always warm and smelling salty, just like the huge bluish-green water nearby. All in all, this was the strangest country Firefoot had ever laid eyes on. He had given up on figuring out what might have possessed his two-leg to come here.
Although, when he came to consider it, there was one plausible explanation. His rider spent a lot of time with the foreign two-legs. Those delicate, dark-headed, excitable creatures were nothing like the sturdy, yellow-maned, calm specimens Firefoot was used to from home. For some reason, however, one of these peculiar beings seemed to have caught his rider's particular interest – a female one.
Indeed, Firefoot would recognise the signs from miles away: nervous prancing, sweaty skin, and of course the constant desire to be near her. His two-leg was unmistakably in heat. Granted, coming all the way from the Riddermark to this foreign land in pursuit of a female might be a slight exaggeration, but who was Firefoot to judge him? He remembered all too well chasing mares across the wide plains himself in his day, driven nearly insane by their scent.
Having courted many mares and sired many of the Mark's most prized foals, he considered himself an authority in these matters. His two-leg, however, seemed a little lost. The stallion made no effort to hide his contempt whenever his rider missed another opportunity to socialise with the target of his affection, but being the loyal comrade that he was, he also felt sympathetic.
Ever since he had chosen his two-leg, Firefoot had been the one to help him through the adversities of life. Two-legs were so fragile, so clumsy and inconsiderate, they simply needed a horse of common sense to take care of them. In a long and arduous process Firefoot had trained his two-leg to ride him properly. Countless times he had carried him home safely after his imprudence had manoeuvred them into turmoil, mostly involving sharp steel, screams and the smell of blood. Truth be told, life would be much calmer without this constant responsibility, but how should his two-leg even get by on his own?
Besides, no one could pet his neck and scratch his ears the way his rider could, and no other voice soothed him when scary thunder giants roared in the sky or treacherous rope snakes tried to entangle his legs. So it was a relationship of give and take – 'friendship' was what the two-legs called it and friends stood in for each other in times of need.
Currently the need was apparent, so Firefoot decided to take action. When the company halted in the shade of some puny trees near the big water, he took the opportunity to investigate the female in question. He observed her for a while as she was speaking to the other two-legs of her herd. She kept throwing glances at his rider but whenever he caught her look he went quiet and uncomfortable. By Nahar, how was it even possible that two-legs had not gone extinct yet, Firefoot mused, as hopeless as they were when it came to courting. He nickered in exhaustion, making the foreign horses eye him sceptically.
Just when he started pondering his further course of action, fortune smiled at him. The female two-leg separated from her herd and approached the horses. She walked up to the gelding who had carried her before, fiddled around in the saddle bag and produced a bundle smelling of bread. Naturally all six horses observed her every movement with great interest. She acknowledged them with a grin and mumbled, "What a greedy bunch you are! Fine, you may all have a treat, but don't tell the stableman." She unwrapped the loaf of bread and tore off a generous piece, which she divided into six small portions. Every horse received one, with Firefoot being the last in line, but he graciously overlooked the slight.
The bread tasted strange but not bad at all. When he had snatched his bit off the two-leg's palm, he nudged her gently with his nose. "That's all I have for you," she murmured and stroked his forehead. She had a nice voice and smelled friendly, so he closed his eyes and produced sounds of approval while he allowed her to ruffle his mane. "You are a sweet one, aren't you?" she said. "Certainly more sociable than your master – he doesn't talk much, does he? What a shame…" She threw a regretful glance at the rest of her herd. Firefoot snorted in calm indifference, as he usually did when two-legs spoke to him.
The next moment, however, the tone of her voice changed and she started murmuring the most hauntingly beautiful words he had ever heard in his ear. "Gi suilon," she whispered. „Man i eneth gîn? Ech Mithmaethor estathon." Somehow the words resounded in the deepest, most hidden corner of his soul and made him feel all warm and safe.
"Lothíriel!" the voice of the two-leg with the white beard sliced through Firefoot's contemplations. He shook his mane in displeasure as the female patted his neck once more and turned around to leave him.
"Coming, Father!" she answered, and off she went.
It had been one thing to examine this female for his rider's sake, but now the matter involved Firefoot himself just as much as his two-leg. In that moment he vowed solemnly that he would do anything in his power to make this wondrous creature with her enchanting words follow them to the Mark and stay there forever, so he could listen to her voice for the rest of his life. High stakes demanded drastic measures, so he did not hesitate another second and darted forward. She had not yet walked five steps when the stallion's teeth caught her sleeve.
"Hey! Let go!" she giggled and tried to twist her arm out of his reach.
Simultaneously his two-leg, who had been observing the whole scene, jumped to his feet and sprinted towards them, gesturing wildly. "Firefoot, no! Stop it, you blasted…!" he roared while the other four two-legs cold hardly retain their laughter.
A rough jerk on his bridle delivered by his rider made Firefoot release the sleeve. 'Ungrateful moron!' the stallion thought and flattened his ears.
"Stop it I say!" his two-leg hissed before he turned to the female and said in a much softer tone, "I'm so sorry, my lady. He has never done that before and I swear I don't know…"
"It's quite alright," she interrupted him, resting her hand soothingly on Firefoot's neck, "I take it as a sign of affection. Wasn't it, Mithmaethor, mellon nín?" The last words were directed at the horse and sent the same warm shiver down his spine.
"You're probably right," his rider conceded, turning red as a poppy. "He has yet to learn how to behave in the presence of a lady. His name is Firefoot, by the way." He loosened his grip around the bridle and the stallion let out a forgiving snort.
"How poetic for a war horse," the female remarked and gave Firefoot's two-leg a smile as sweet as honey. The stallion could not blame him for reciprocating it immediately.
"The story behind it is rather prosaic," he admitted, looking straight into her face without blinking hectically for the very first time. "You see, the horses of the Mark run free during their first year. When I started taming him he had never felt the hand of a man and he took every opportunity to kick me. My sister suggested I name him Donkey, but in honour of his heritage I went with something a bit more heroic. Although I admit that Grey Warrior also suits him very well."
The female's eyes widened. "You speak Sindarin?"
"If I have to. But only a little, just enough to impress the Gondorians, you know," came the immediate response. Firefoot wiggled his ears contently when the female burst out chuckling.
"You certainly succeeded with this one," she stated and after a short pause she added more seriously, "I should very much like to hear some of your native language, too."
At that Firefoot's two-leg frowned for a split second. "I have heard it called unpleasant to southern ears," he pointed out. "It is said to be as hard and stern as the mountain land where it is spoken." The stallion had no idea what they were talking about, but he sensed his two-leg's objection and did not approve, so he pawed the ground impatiently.
Fortunately the female would not be deterred and opposed, "I have heard it called as rich and rolling as the green hills and wide plains of Rohan." Firefoot was no expert on the mating habits of two-legs, but not even he failed to understand that she was now teasing his rider with unmistakable motives.
"As you wish," he gave back, making a grave face as if he were pondering a most crucial decision. Finally he suggested, "Then let us make a bargain: I will, to the best of my ability, teach you some of the language of the Eorlingas, and in turn you shall help me improve my knowledge of the elven tongue. Could you agree to that… min hlæfdige?"
"I gladly accept your terms – hir nín," she answered and both two-legs shared a smile. Firefoot exhaled in contentment and nudged his rider gently with his nose to let him know how proud he was of him.
However, a glance at the other members of her herd – who were making an effort to pretend they were not blatantly gaping at the little spectacle – made the female hesitate. "My father and brothers have never been linguistically inclined," she considered, a subtle smirk playing around the corners of her mouth. "Shall we perhaps relinquish the picnic to them and take a walk? I would not wish to bore them."
"Neither would I, by any means," Firefoot's rider was a little too quick to reply.
The two of them set off in direction of the herd, where the loaf of bread changed hands, before starting their way to the edge of the big water. Firefoot watched them in deep satisfaction, musing about the lengths one went to guide one's two-leg to their happiness. At least he had been so fortunate to end up with one wise enough to take his horse's advice when it mattered.