Findhwen looked up at the sun, trying to judge how long she'd been outside, and frowned. Too long. It must be tea-time, or near enough, and her mother and aunt would likely be in the front sitting-room. That meant little chance of slipping past unnoticed. It would be difficult enough to explain why she was outdoors – she was supposed to be working quietly at her needlework, away in the rooms she shared with her sisters – but her clothing would be nothing short of scandalous.
She would be ten this fall, her mother had reminded her when the tailor had measured her for new clothes a month ago. Girls of ten – noble-born girls, and least of all princesses of Ithilien – had no need of play-clothes, for they were too old to go romping through the woods like boys. But her cousin Elfwinë had challenged Elboron to a sparring match, and there had been whispers of a trip afterwards to the creek, to catch tadpoles, and stars above Findhwen would not miss all that!
But she could not risk ruining her new dress. Just last week her mother had threatened to send her across the river, where she might be tutored with the king's daughters, and though Findhwen had flatly refused, she had no desire to press her on the subject. Findhwen wondered that her mother – Éowyn Wraithsbane of all people! – should guard so heavily against tomboy ways, but she always had. When Findhwen had asked about that once, her mother had only sighed resignedly, and said something about this new age wanting princesses more than shieldmaidens, and Findhwen had let the matter rest.
So she had borrowed an old tunic and trousers from Elboron, and had snuck out when she was sure her mother and aunt had left for the stables, several hours earlier. It had seemed a sensible plan at the time, but now... No, the main gate was not for her. With a furtive glance to make sure no one was watching, she bound across the flower bed in three steps (forgetting, as she often did, that boot-crushed peonies were a far more serious crime that truancy or boys' clothes) and slipped behind the rose-trellis. Grabbing the window-frame for leverage, she hoisted herself over the wide windowsill and into the spare bedroom she often used for secret escapes.
To her left, she saw the back of a golden head, and she silently cursed her foolishness. But of course, with the house fairly teeming with cousins from Rohan, few rooms were left unoccupied this week. The boy braced himself on his elbow and half-turned to face her, then grunted in pain and let himself fall back again. Findhwen's stepped away from the window so she could see him better. His left leg was propped up on pillows, and his calf was bound tight between two planks of lebethron wood. "Aldric!" she cried. "What happened?"
He grimaced at that, and blushed, and turn his face toward the couch so that Findhwen could not see his expression. Findhwen retrieved a footstool from across the room and pulled it over to the couch so she could sit beside him. "Are you badly hurt?" she asked after a long moment's silence.
That got his attention, and Aldric turned to face her, his eyes sharp as dwarf-steel. "Would I be lying here, propped up like this, if I could avoid it?" He scowled at her, but she guessed his anger was born more of pain and embarrassment than of aggravation with her. "No," he said, "I fell... from a horse."
A horse? Findhwen knew she mustn't laugh, but oh, her chest ached with the effort. Ithilien stock was already becoming known for their gentle temper, and the stablemaster would have insisted that a boy of seven take out one of the more tranquil steeds he had on offer. What had Aldric done, to get himself into this situation? There must be a story behind this. "What happened?" she asked.
Aldric's scowl faded a little, but his expression was still dismal. "It's not my fault, or not all my fault at least." Findhwen opened her mouth to answer him, but thought better of interrupting him. "Your saddles are different here, see? In Rohan we have a hand-rest, a little knob on the saddle – really, it's for the cowherds, who might hang a bit of rope off it or tie a steer to their own horse as they drove it to market. But it serves me well enough for a hand-rest, and I'd gotten used to it, I suppose."
He looked over toward her, to try and gauge her reaction, then continued. "I grabbed at her mane instead. Without realizing I was even doing it. And just then a branch cracked and fell for no reason I can tell, and perhaps the horse was already on-edge from my pulling at her mane. I don't know – she just threw me off. I don't know why." He started to turn away again, but then he must have found his courage, because he stared defiantly at her. "It never happened like that at home." He swallowed hard, and then added, "I don't know what I'll tell Elfwinë. Thrown from a horse. He'll never let me hear the end of it."
Findhwen shrugged. "You were riding with Mother and Aunt Lothíriel? Anyone else?" Aldric shook his head, and Findhwen said, "Well, that solves it. They'll keep the true tale to themselves, if you ask them; Elboron got sweets in bed and stories read to him for hours on end, when he was your age, and he'd only sprained his ankle stepping into a rabbit-hole. Say you fell out of a tree, or some such lark, and they probably won't press you for the full story."
Aldric nodded. "I'm not the only one with a story to tell, it seems!" He looked at Findhwen's trousers and smiled widely. "Though perhaps now's not the best time to tell it? The healer's off preparing a pain draught, but when he's ready, they'll – " His earlier good humor left his face entirely, and he gulped. "They still need to set the bone. Mother will be back with him, or before, perhaps. And Aunt Éowyn went off to my room to fetch me some... some things. You should go change, if you don't want to be caught as you are."
"A good idea," Findhwen said. "But I'll come back after I've changed, and we can talk more until the healer arrives, if he doesn't beat me back." She touched her fingers to the wide-brimmed hat she was wearing, as she'd seen the gardeners do when she walked by. "Your health, Aldric." she said, and with that she left the room.
Findhwen was not three steps down the hall, though, before she nearly ran into her mother coming around a corner, a stuffed horse tucked under her arm. She gasped and took a half-step backwards, but was too proud to run. Her mother looked at her for an interminable second (Findhwen guessed she was trying to reconcile the not-quite-unfamiliar face with the boy's clothes) before recognition dawned in her eyes. Éowyn took off her hat so that Findhwen's braids fell down her back and – much to Findhwen's surprise! – her mother laughed out loud.
"Béma's breath!" she exclaimed once she'd caught her breath. "Well, we all push the bounds from time to time. When I was your age – when Hild, our governess, first told me I must start dressing my station – I traded my riding gloves for a maid's hand-me-downs, just to spite her I think." Éowyn arranged her face more seriously, though Findhwen saw the spark dancing in her eyes, and guessed her mother wanted nothing better than to hear her day's tale.
"You and I are alike, dohtor min; too much, perhaps, for this quieter age." She replaced Findhwen's hat on her head and tucked her under the chin. "Stretch your legs while you may, but be discreet about it. It will go better that way, for both of us."
Findhwen nodded and started down the hall. She did not have to be told to change quickly before anyone else saw her, and to leave the clothes in Elboron's clothes-hamper rather than her own. And she knew the afternoon's adventures might yet have consequences down the line. Still, just then, she could not help thinking that her mother understood. Understood her, perhaps, as only a woman could.