It is said by the wise that there really are only a handful of stories told in the world. There is the story about the blood, the story about the hunt, the story about the heart, the story about the gift, and a few other ones.
But wherever you travel, these stories all tell of the same things. We make them worth hearing through the uncountable ways that we tell them.
In the land between the White Mountains and the river Isen and the far shores of Anduin, in the great vale which the men of Gondor called Calenardhon, there once lived a man who stopped plowing his fields.
One day he put down his plough and left it in the moist earth, his cropping abandoned and unfinished.
The man’s wife was dead and his children grown, but he still had much strength in his arms and his beard was barely touched by gray. His sword Grimklinga, which he had used in the battle of the crossings of Poros, he hung on the wall to gather dust, and his hand grew stiff from not practicing with it in the mornings.
Empty handed, the man started closing himself up in his hut, muttering to himself in his loneliness. “I must be careful. What if I cut my own leg, swinging Grimklinga at the wind? No point in doing that…”
So the blade rusted on the wall while the man started selling off everything which had once given him joy, to bring in more gold, which he spent buying provisions. He filled his cellar with dried foods and salted meat and in this way he could lock his door and not go out at all.
“I have what I need here,” he thought, as he sat brooding.
A wanderer who had roamed throughout Middle-earth had once told the brooding man that there were elves, who unlike men, lived forever. These elves called the aging of men and what came after, a “gift,” and this became the main dark song running through the man’s thoughts.
There came a day when a courier riding from the south, arrived to the Riddermark with a red arrow in his hand, signaling war and the need for soldiers. But Grimklinga was unfit for battle and the man’s hut was dark and closed shut with cobwebs in the windows. The Westfold Marshal and his troops passed it by, thinking the man was gone.
In the gloom of a single candle, the man was thinking, when he heard the hoof beats in the distance. “If it really is a gift, it is also a mockery, I shall not have it!”
Many autumns went by, and the war against the Balchoth was won, granting glory to men and women of the Mark. The man who refused the gift knew little of this. His days were carefully laid out between frugal meals, simple tasks, and brooding. There was nothing that he wanted.
When one day, his daughter came knocking on his door, with his first grandson on her arm, the man didn’t care. “What’s the point?” He thought. “I shall probably not see the babe’s face grow up anyway. There is nothing that I want.”
One winter, when the man who wanted nothing had lost count of years, a strange wind blew down from the mountains, thrashing his door wide open. As he went to close it, something glistening in the moonlight caught his eye. It was the shape of a great white horse, more magnificent than any steed he had ever seen. With shaking hands, the man grabbed a piece of rope and ran out with neither coat nor boots. Following hoof prints in the snow, he glimpsed the great animal now and again until he came to the edge of Fangorn Forest. There he froze.
The horse was standing in a glen watching. Ancient eyes black as tarns regarded him, he saw winter stars reflected in them, and he saw a ragged creature holding a rope, stretching out a trembling arm, his mouth forming husky words. The man who held that rope had touched neither song nor verse for many years, and yet now a lament suddenly forced itself from behind his teeth:
Mighty steed will not be bridled
by fool’s hand
feeble steps were not walked but sidled
dragon’s bed has lost its glow
In barren lands,
where you go
I must follow
I must follow
Far away there was a horn ringing out through the trees, it raised a hollow wind in his heart. He thought of wasted fields, the face of a babe, a rusty sword and many other things, and he wept because he understood.
The horse turned its head one more time, regarding him and then it started trotting toward the echo of the horn. Following the horse, the man started walking west.
Each year around the new year, on moonlit nights, when the trees raise their arms to the sky like ragged orphans, the horn of the great hunter can sometimes still be heard over the hills of the Riddermark. And if you are lucky, you may glimpse his white horse, Nahar in the shadows.
But if you hear the wistful song, or the weeping of the man who had his wish granted, you should turn your head away, because no good can come from following that lonely sound.
[Art by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen]