When father came home, it was like the best part of a bedtime story when the hero shows up to rescue the prisoners. His great, hard-soled riding boots would clomp the floor and he’d pretend to look for his son. He’d check the flour barrels and the root cellar, even though Oswy couldn’t hide there. He wasn’t allowed to go where he might fall or be stepped on. He’d always be hiding under the table by the vegetables he’d been peeling until his father finally gave up with a loud, “Bah, women! You’ve lost my son again!” Then Oswy would clamber on his hands and knees, leaving his crutch behind. You didn’t need a crutch when father’s hand was there to hold you up.
Early memories are a tricky thing. They blend and merge in blurred images and patchworks of words said often and over. Some stand out sharp, like sunlight through thick clouds when they split and rays reach down to the grasses like piercing lances. On the grasslands of Rohan, those beams seem like the arms of the sun reaching out to bless the verdant green of summer.
This memory was clear as yesterday, though Oswy was still small enough that he reached up to his father’s hand. Father always let him walk, no matter that his twisted foot and withered leg made him slow and clumsy. Women carried him and clucked. Men left him hobbling behind. Father gave him his hand and paused when he grew winded.
On this day, his father took him to the archery range. Oswy was nervous, hanging back some until his father asked, “Son, what is it? You’re not frightened, are you?”
Oswy answered seriously, “I’m not allowed. It’s a rule. Only proper men go where the weapons are.”
His father’s brow drew down, and he knelt as he always did when he was especially concerned. “Who told you that?”
“I don’t know.” Oswy shuffled, toying with his crutch. “Women. Other boys. People.”
“I see. But how do you think boys grow to be proper men?”
Oswy pointed out, thinking perhaps his father was dense, “I’m a cripple. Cripples can’t be proper men because we can’t fight.”
His father looked angry, and Oswy drew back before a calloused, gentle hand stayed him. “Forgive me, son. I’m not angry with you. It’s true, you won’t ever be able to fight like I do. But fighting doesn’t make a proper man.”
“Yes it does, father. Everyone says so. Men fight, women cook.”
“No it doesn’t. True, men must learn to fight as much as they’re able. But the part of fighting that makes a man a proper man isn’t how well he can hurt things.”
Oswy’s look was incredulous, and his father insisted, “It isn’t. Why a man fights – that’s the important part. If a man fights to hurt people, well. He’s a brute. If he does it to steal, he’s a brigand. A proper man protects the weak. He doesn’t use his strength to hurt people who can’t fight back or to take what doesn’t belong to him. He tells the truth and he deals fair.”
Oswy sucked on this pinky in thought a moment, then popped it out to ask, “What if he can’t fight?”
“Everybody can fight. Some people do it with words, or with hands, or by making things to help people stay safe and warm and fed. But anyone – anyone – can be that kind of proper man. And I expect you to try very hard to be a proper man. Understand?”
“Yes, Father.” He was drawn into a tight hug, then hobbled his way to the field. That was the day he was given his first bow. That was the day he first stood with other boys and their fathers and grandfathers, and they didn’t snub him. When he hit the target the most times, some of them congratulated him. His father was proud.
Alone in his room he hugged his pillow to his face so nobody could hear the hoarse noises escaping his throat. He wasn’t terrified when he shot the brigand attacking Lady Winflaed, though he’d felt queasy afterwards. He never told anyone about being queasy; it didn’t sound brave to be queasy. Heroes in the sagas were never queasy when they killed evildoers.
Tonight, he was frightened. Borstan, Theoden’s envoy, had tried to make it sound like he thought Oswy was special, but that wasn’t why he’d taken an interest. He knew about Oswy had had that stupid, stupid attraction to Lady Winflaed and Borstan wanted to make Oswy pay. If he was lucky, Borstan would make him go to Edoras, and then perhaps send him off to war. And in war, he’d die the minute he was unhorsed, if not before. He had no training beyond the bow, and he was too young. He swam in his father’s armour.
Perhaps, though, the envoy was serious. Perhaps he really did believe that Oswy was special and would make a good husband to his daughter. She seemed nice, even if her blood wasn’t pure Rohirrim, and he could talk to her better than he managed with other girls. Perhaps they’d make the best of it and fall in love and…
“Don’t be an idiot.” He punched the pillow a few times. Why would the envoy marry his daughter to a nobody like Oswy? Oh no; half-blood or not, a daughter would be too valuable a pawn to waste on a nobody like him. Borstan would use the promise of a marriage just like he’d used flattery, both enticements to coax Oswy away from his protectors in Nihtseld. Then, he’d end up just like the skald, tortured for the joy of it because he’d dared to win favor with Lady Winflaed and had vied, however ineptly, for her love. Only nobody would know he needed rescuing. He’d die alone out there, and that would be the end of it.
“A proper man protects the weak. He protects the weak.” He murmured it as he rocked himself. He had to go. The envoy had the King’s voice and to disobey was treason. If he disobeyed, the good people who had taken him in and treated him like a valuable man would suffer. Just look what they’d suffered already. Poor Mildwyn was just a taste of what these people would stoop to doing to ruin his lords. They’d hurt Cengifu, maybe. Or they’d kill Lord Herebeald, or they’d blame Lord Cerdic for something awful. Lord Cerdic who’d treated him like a proper friend, cripple or no.
“I’ll go.” He told himself firmly, half practicing the phrase until it sounded solid. “It doesn’t matter what happens to me once I’ve finished those bows. I just have to keep Sifrun safe. Maybe find her a way out. And then I’ve got to be brave and go, and not let them see me being afraid so they don’t try to save me and get in trouble. When they torture me, I’m not going to scream or anything. I’ll spit in their faces and not tell them anything about Nihtseld. If I end up in battle, I’ll fight as hard as I can before I get killed. I’m going to die a man, and Father will be proud, even if nobody ever knows.”
He watched the moon fall and the sky grey with dawn as he sat practicing until he sounded brave.