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Theodred's Tale  by Elana

Chapter 1 – Welcome, Brother

Theodred bent low over Silverfoot’s neck as they galloped the last mile to Edoras. Horse and rider were both weary. Theodred had pushed Silverfoot to the limits of his speed and strength. The mearas had carried him across Rohan far faster than any ordinary horse, but now he needed rest and care. Theodred knew he needed rest, too, after riding with only the briefest pauses through the night and most of the next day, but he feared it would be long before he got any. His work was just beginning.

The grooms at the royal stables hailed him, and were quick to offer their assistance. But as was his custom, he tended Silverfoot himself, departing only when the horse was cool and carefully groomed, settled in his roomy stall with grain and water. By that time, news of his arrival had spread through the city, and Eomer met him at the stable door.

“Welcome, brother,” Eomer said, grasping Theodred’s arm in greeting. “We have needed you here, badly. Where have you been? No matter. We must discuss our strategy and make plans.”

“I came as soon as I heard,” Theodred told him. “Grimbold found me, but I could hardly believe his news. Can Saruman truly be fallen into evil?”

“There is no doubt. Our scouts have seen orcs coming and going from Isengard. Already they have attacked and destroyed the nearby villages. Truly, this turn of fortune is bitter to us, to have our greatest ally betray us.”

As the two men made their way up the streets of the city, Theodred quizzed Eomer on the details of Saruman’s forces, their numbers and locations. By the time they reached Theodred’s house, in the section of the city that housed the warriors belonging to the personal eored of the Second Marshal, Theodred had a clear picture of the situation. It was grim. Not, true, quite as grim as Theodred had feared on his desperate ride. In his blackest imaginings he had pictured returning to an Edoras sacked and burned, nothing left but ashes and the bodies of the dead. That fear had vanished at his first sighting, from far across the plain, of the Golden Hall shining at the peak of the hill. Rohan was still strong. Her armies stood ready to defend her. The military was Theodred’s responsibility, and he knew every company, down to the last man. His mind worked furiously, considering various strategies and possible deployments of his forces.

Once home, Theodred brought out his maps and spread them across the table. He and Eomer studied them and discussed possible courses of action.

Eomer wanted to mount as great a force as they could muster, and proceed immediately to Isengard. “We should attack before he has time to prepare. Orcs are no match for our Riders.”

Theodred shook his head. “I would agree with you if I thought we could truly take him unprepared, but that is a vain hope. He has been preparing for years. Isengard is strong. Other than Mordor and Mundberg, it’s the last place in Middle Earth I’d want to try to take. We don’t have the forces for a long siege. And you tell me he has more than just orcs at his command.”

“Yes, the Dunlendings support him, and there are those new creatures…. Like orcs, the scouts reported, but also like men.”

Theodred’s fists clenched. “They are crossbreeds. Half orc and half human. Saruman has been breeding them.”

Eomer stared at him in horrified comprehension. “Those women you rescued last summer….”

“Yes.” Theodred stared into the distance, a strained look on his face. “They were being used as breeding stock. It must have been going on for twenty years, at least.”

The two men were silent a moment, overwhelmed by disgust and horror. Then Theodred turned with an effort back to the map.

“I think we must abandon the northern villages.” At Eomer’s exclamation of protest, he insisted, “Saruman will have already taken all that they possessed of food and supplies. The people that survive have fled; those who came south we can provide for. We must fortify the Fords. In the mountains the Isen is swift and deep. Saruman’s forces are contained on the west side of the river. The only place he can bring across any sizeable force is the Fords. If we hold there, we can keep him at bay.

Reluctantly, Eomer had to agree that Theodred’s logic was sound. He pondered the map for a moment more, and then turned to the cousin he loved as a brother. “Now all we must do is persuade your father the king to go along with our plan.”

Theodred met his gaze. His voice was low, but like steel. “Whether Theoden agrees or not, we must defend Rohan.”

Eomer nodded. The two men silently pledged each other their faith with steady eyes and clasped hands. Eomer turned to depart.

At the door he turned back. “By the way, did you ever find that missing girl you went looking for?”

Theodred’s face was unreadable. “Yes.”

“Ah, good. That’s one positive thing, at least.”

The door closed behind him as he left.

Chapter 2 – Let Me Act

Theodred worked far into the night, finalizing his plans and drafting orders to be sent to the leaders of each of the companies of Riders. Finally he set down his pen, rubbing his eyes. He must get at least a few hours of sleep.

He gazed around his quarters. Since he had reached the age of manhood and established his own household, these rooms had been his, but there was little of himself to be seen in them. They were the rooms of a general, not a prince. The furnishings were spare, the decorations few. Theodred had been content here, his time and heart occupied with the ordering of Rohan’s military, but now he looked at the bare rooms and wondered. Could he bring Elana here? How would this house change with the presence of a woman, and a child? He pictured Elana by the hearth, spinning, Deore cradled in her lap, and the image sang to him. He had never desired such domesticity, but now he found he craved it. And it was lost to him. As long as this war lasted he must put her out of his mind. The room seemed yawningly empty, his bed, when at last he sank into it, cold and hard.

In the morning, Theodred rose, ate, and finished up the tasks he had started the night before. Then, dreading what he must do, but knowing he could delay no longer, he summoned a messenger and sent word to the king requesting an audience. At midmorning the messenger returned, bearing tidings that he was bidden to come to the Golden Hall.

Entering Meduseld, Theodred was moved as always by the beauty of the place. Since childhood he had loved the carved horses on the golden pillars, the patterns of stone inlaid in the floor, the shining tapestry of Eorl the Young upon Felarof. But his steps slowed as he reached the far end of the hall, loath to face the man seated there.

“Come forward,” commanded Theoden, voice thin and ancient far beyond his actual years. “So you have returned. What do you request?”

Theodred bowed low to his father. He longed to go to him, embrace him, speak words of closeness and companionship. When he was young, he and his father had been close. The shared grief of his mother’s death had drawn them to each other, and their kindred personalities had strengthened the bond. Theoden himself had trained Theodred in the arts of sword, spear, and bow, and had tutored him in statecraft and strategy. As he became a man, father and son had worked together as a team, Theoden trusting more and more in his son’s skills to aid in the ruling of the country. But all that had changed the day Theoden first turned his ear to the counsels of Grima Wormtongue.

Now Theodred was permitted only to stand before the throne, a vassal before his lord. He glared at the pale skinned, dark eyed man crouched at his father’s feet. How he despised the miserable wretch. Yet for some inexplicable reason the king chose to trust him, and had come to the point where he would listen to no other, not even his son.

“My lord,” Theodred addressed his father. “I have been informed of the new threat on our western border. I regret that my absence has delayed our response to this threat. But now, as commander of your armies and Marshal of the Westfold, I beg your leave to begin ordering our forces to defend against it.”

“If you speak of Saruman, I am not yet persuaded that he in truth poses a threat to us,” the king replied. “So far I have only heard rumors and hearsay. Saruman has long been a friend to Rohan, and I am reluctant to believe ill of him.”

“You are wise, my lord, not to rush to judgment,” murmured Wormtongue to the king.

Theodred was taken aback. Could his father truly deny all that had happened? “But I have been told that Gandalf…”

“Gandalf!” Theoden spit out the name. “Why should I believe anything that charlatan says? Undoubtedly this is some feud between wizards, and he seeks to slander Saruman to gain ascendancy over him.”

Theodred bit back his anger. “I’m afraid you have not been informed of the most recent news, my lord. Our scouts have reported back. They have seen with their own eyes orcs coming and going from Isengard. They have ransacked and plundered the northwestern villages. There can be no doubt that Saruman has become our enemy.”

“Even if what he says is true,” Wormtongue said, “we must not rush into battle. First we must send envoys to parley. For our people’s sake, we must avoid war if we can.”

Theoden nodded. “I would not see the country at war, if it can be prevented.”

“I agree, my lord, that war should be a last resort, but I fear Saruman will leave us no choice.” Theodred countered. He went on to detail what Saruman’s forces had already done, and what he feared was to come. But for every argument Wormtongue had a quick reply, always minimizing the danger and stressing the evils of war, and his desire for peace. The king assented to each of Wormtongue’s points, eventually lapsing into nothing but nods and sounds of agreement. Theodred grew more and more frustrated. The air in the hall seemed thick and cloying, the course of action which had seemed so clear and necessary now distorting in his mind to appear aggressive and reckless. He fought against the confusion, but his strength was not in battles of words.

“Then our path is clear,” Wormtongue declared. “My lord, I would advise that you appoint an ambassador, someone who can be trusted,” and he shot a look of malice at Theodred, “to seek an audience with Saruman, to negotiate and see if some accommodation can be reached.”

“What accommodation can we reach with a servant of Mordor?” Theodred voice rose. “For that is what he has become!”

“Foul lies! Even if the wizard has chosen to increase his power and influence, that is no proof that he has allied himself with Mordor.” Theoden seemed spellbound by Grima’s words.

Theodred was aghast at the power Wormtongue had gained over the king. Unless he could force Theoden to see the truth, Rohan would sit defenseless as Saruman’s forces overran the country.

“Do you know what he has done?” Theodred stepped forward angrily, and then stopped as the guards at his father’s sides tensed. “He has seized women of Rohan, kidnapped them, kept them prisoner. He has caused orcs to rape them!” Theodred spoke with intentional crudity, hoping to shock his father into listening to him. “He has caused them to be forcibly impregnated with half-orc, half-human hybrids, then raised up the offspring as warriors, more fell than any orc. I myself have rescued a group of women who were used thus. And now our scouts report these half-orcs in his service. Can you say that this evil does not answer the will of Sauron?”

Horror and outrage filled Theoden’s face. Even Wormtongue seemed taken aback with revulsion. Theodred fell to his knees, seizing the king’s hands, gazing imploringly up into his eyes. He searched those eyes, looking for traces of the man he had known and loved, the man he knew still lived somewhere within, buried under layers of deception and pride.

“Father, listen to me! Give me leave, I beg you, to defend Rohan. Please, for the love you bear me as your son, for the sake of our people, let me act!”

Eyes locked, the two men strove in a battle of wills. Theoden was the first to turn away.

“Do as you will.” At Theodred’s sigh of relief, the king spat angrily, “You will anyway, whatever I say.” Theodred could only watch in horror as his father turned again to Wormtongue, who was quick to murmur in his ear what Theodred knew must be commiseration over his ambitious, power-hungry son.

Theodred slipped quickly out of the hall, before the king could rescind his permission. He was relieved that now he would legitimately be able to act. But his heart burned with anger at Wormtongue, and he dashed away a tear of grief for the father who now seemed irretrievably lost to him.

Chapter 3 – What Kind of Man Am I?

Theodred stood on the stone terrace before the doors of the hall. He gazed out northward toward the White Mountains, breathing deeply of the cool fresh air, shaking a little in reaction to the intensity of the encounter. He had recovered his composure, and was about to turn and depart, when a clear voice called to him. “Cousin! Welcome home! I heard you had returned.”

He turned and smiled at Eowyn coming out of the doors of the hall, and embraced her warmly. “Ah, cousin, it’s good to see you.”

“Come, it’s nearly time for the midday meal. I’ve had the servants set up a table in my quarters, and Eomer will join us there.”

Gladly Theodred followed her to her apartment within the king’s hall. His young cousin had always been a favorite of his, and she in turn idolized him. He found that he was ravenous, and gratefully fell to the meal that had been prepared. Soon Eomer appeared and the three of them relaxed in each other’s presence, talking and laughing, happy to be with people they loved and trusted. Growing up set apart from others as the royal family, the three had formed a bond that was only strengthened by their shared grief and concern over Theoden.

Eomer and Eowyn filled Theodred in on news of the happenings while he was away. “…so then Theoden told him to take any horse he wanted, and get out. And Gandalf left, and you’ll never believe which horse he chose.”

“Which?” Theodred asked, running over in his mind the tally of the king’s horses.

“Shadowfax!” Eowyn grinned at Theodred’s gasp of disbelief. “I don’t know what magic he worked, but Shadowfax consented to bear him. The king was furious when he found out.”

Theodred shook his head in wonder. The ways of the mearas were strange and unpredictable. Traditionally, only those of royal blood might ride one, and only the king himself might ride their chief. But the mighty animals chose their own riders, and once horse and rider were united, the bond would often last a lifetime. Theodred thought of his own beloved Silverfoot, who even as a foal had looked at the young Theodred with eyes that could see into his soul. The pairing was obvious to all, and Theodred had been given the training of the young horse. None other had ever ridden him, save at Theodred’s bidding.

But even among the lords of horses, Shadowfax was unique. He had refused any rider, and roamed free, his concern always with the herds of horses that wandered the plain, guiding and protecting them. Now though, it seemed he had finally found his partner, and who could gainsay his choice?

The conversation continued. The other two questioned Theodred about his errand, and Theodred told them all he was willing to say. “I searched for a few days, and found her safe. She had had a disagreement with her family, and left without telling them. She didn’t wish to return, for she had made a place for herself elsewhere. But she did let me send word she was safe and well. I stopped along the way back and sent a messenger to her family with the news.” Theodred stopped, and his eyes were distant for a moment as he thought of Elana.

The talk turned to inconsequential things, and they enjoyed each other’s company as they finished the meal. Then Eomer excused himself to attend to his duties, but Theodred and Eowyn lingered for a while, sipping steaming cups of tea and nibbling at sweets.

As soon as her brother had vanished, Eowyn leaned forward with a conspiratorial grin. “Well, tell me about her. What’s she like? She must be something special, to have captured your heart after all these years.”

Theodred stared at her, confounded. Eowyn laughed. “The look on your face! Oh, cousin, it’s obvious to anyone who knows you. You can’t even talk about her without getting all quiet and your eyes going unfocused. Tell me everything!”

Theodred looked down, but couldn’t help smiling, and found himself pouring out his heart. “Her name is Elana. She comes from a village called Grassymede. Her family are farmers and herders. She was one of the women I rescued from the orcs last summer. She’d been held captive a year and a half. We were riding by at night, and I heard her singing, like a spirit from another world. All I could see were her eyes, through the bars on the window of her cell, but I think even then I was drawn to her, so valiant…”

He drifted off, gazing out into the distance. Eowyn giggled. She’d known someday her older cousin must find his heart’s love. The years had passed, and he’d shown no interest in any particular woman, though as heir he was a highly sought prize among the ladies of Edoras. But Eowyn had sensed he was waiting, watching, biding his time until the right moment arrived. Now it was here, and she laughed with delight at the change in him.

“So, when are we going to meet her? It will be a terrible scandal, and all the old ladies will mutter and grumble. Though to hear all their talk about ‘securing the succession,’ you’d think the fact she breathes and goes on two legs should be enough for them. All the young women will think it’s terribly romantic, except for the ones who shut themselves into their bedrooms to weep for you….” She trailed off, as Theodred shook his head, an anguished look on his face.

“I can’t bring her here. Not as long as this war goes on, as long as I have to lead the people. If they were to find out, they’d turn against me.” Eowyn started to shake her head, but he put out his hand on top of hers. “It’s more than just that she’s a peasant. She…. When I rescued her from the orcs, she was pregnant.”

“Oh.” Eowyn became very still.

“That’s what drove her away from her family. She wanted the babe, and loved it, half-orc though it was. Her family couldn’t accept that she could want to keep it, to raise it. Her own mother asked me to kill the child, when I found her. Elana left, with nothing but her clothes and a little food. A friend, one of her fellow captives, helped her, but even she couldn’t accept an orc-child. So Elana made a camp for herself, in the woods, and decided to live there alone with her child.” Theodred rose and paced angrily around the room. Eowyn watched him with silent sympathy. “When I found her, she was in labor. I watched her child be born. And I decided to let it live.” His eyes challenged Eowyn, as if he expected her to object to his decision. Eowyn returned his gaze with compassion, and continued to listen. “She loves the child, and believes she can raise her as a human, that her orc heritage will not doom her to evil. And I believe it, too.

“We stayed for a week, Elana’s friend and I, and helped her while she recovered from the birth. And on the last day I could be silent no longer, and declared my love for her, and offered to take the child as my own, and bring them here. And I even told her, if the people would not accept the child, I would leave, and go into exile with her. Although Elana did not believe I would abandon my duty, and I thought she was right. But we had decided to try, to fight for her acceptance, though it would be a struggle and possibly turn the people against me.

“Then Grimbold arrived, with news of Saruman’s betrayal. And everything was changed, and no longer could I risk the disruption her presence would bring, now that I need more than ever the people’s support. So I rode away, leaving her there.”

He turned to Eowyn, and unshed tears sparkled in his eyes. “And every minute since, I’ve fought the temptation to turn around, leave, go back to her, and take her far away from Rohan, somewhere they’ve never heard of orcs, where we can be wed and just be a family like any other. What kind of man am I, to leave my beloved defenseless, alone in the forest with a newborn baby? But how can I be fit to be heir, and someday king, if I would even consider putting my land in danger, or abandoning it entirely, for my own personal desires?” He collapsed back into his chair and propped his elbows on the table, burying his head in his hands.

Eowyn rose and drew close to him, putting her arm around his shoulders. When they had stopped shaking, she lifted his head to face her. He regarded her with anguish. She returned his gaze with eyes that were steady and clear. “You are a great man, and a worthy leader. You will lead us through this conflict, and we will be victorious. And when it is over, you will go and bring her here, and you will be wed upon the steps of Meduseld, in view of all the people. And I will hold the child, and kiss her, and declare her my niece. And the people will be won over by your great love for her, and for her child.”

Theodred closed his eyes, wanting desperately to believe that what she said could come true. After a while he looked again at Eowyn, and smiled, though not without effort. “Dearest cousin, you always know what to say to me. May it be as you have said!”

Across the room, a servant slipped unnoticed out the door. She had opened it several minutes earlier, coming to clear the table, and had paused when she heard impassioned voices. She had listened to Theodred’s entire story. Now she hurried down the corridors with eager steps. Grima would pay well for the knowledge she brought him.

Chapter 4 – Lord Grima Should Hear About This

Alone in his quarters, Grima brooded. The events of the morning had disturbed his carefully laid plans, and he must reconsider his next move. Though Grima had worked hard to poison the relationship between the king and his son, it was now obvious that some vestige of their former bond remained. Grudging as it had been, Theoden’s permission to Theodred to order Rohan’s defense had solidified Theodred’s position. Now he could act freely, without orders perhaps, but without fear of being accused of going against the king’s will. He and Eomer, between them, were quite capable of leading the armies of Rohan against Saruman, with far too great a likelihood of success for Grima to allow them to pursue their course unhindered.

Those two! When first he had been set to his task of destroying Rohan’s leadership from within, he had foreseen the task to be trivially easy. Two strong, able young men, both charismatic leaders, both ambitious – what could be easier than setting them at odds, with a throne at stake? A word here, an insinuation there, and soon each would be deeply suspicious of the other. They would compete for the favor of the king, each would plot to do away with his rival, and soon all of Rohan would be divided into factions. So simple it had seemed, and so Grima had immediately set upon his course. To Eomer he gave flattery, playing upon his ego and pride, subtly hinting at the unjustness of the accident of birth that placed him second in line to inherit. To Theodred he whispered suspicion, warning him to be cautious to secure his own position, causing the ballads sung around the fire in the evening to be always tales of scheming younger brothers plotting against the rightful heir.

And it had all failed miserably. When they didn’t ignore him, they laughed at him. All his machinations had run into the unyielding wall of their love and trust for each other, and it was a barrier he had as yet been unable to breach. He feared he had been too obvious. They were well aware now of his designs against them. Wormtongue, they had named him, and the epithet stuck. Grima’s mouth twisted in a mirthless grin. He wore the title with a perverse sort of pride.

Rising, he paced restlessly. He walked a fine line now. Eomer and Theodred were only held from open rebellion by their mutual love for the old king. Though Theoden was almost wholly within Grima’s power, he dared not exercise his control too obviously, lest the two finally feel the situation warranted true treason. They had enough support from the army and from the common people that they most likely could overthrow both the king and his counselor.

Grima sat again, a firm resolution taking form in his mind. If they could not be corrupted, the two must be eliminated. Grima considered his options. Theodred was the stronger of the two, older, more experienced, and as the heir trusted and supported by both warriors and commoners. If he were dealt with, Eomer could be controlled. Now how should he go about it? The simplest would be to arrange for him to fall in battle…

A timid knock at the door broke into his reverie. Annoyed, he strode over and opened it to reveal a young serving wench. “Well, what do you want?” he snapped.

“Excuse me, please, Lord Grima, sir. I…I heard something, that I thought you might want to know. I mean, they do say you want to know what people are saying, and that you might even drop a coin or two if you’re pleased enough….” The girl squirmed and appeared likely to bolt at any moment. “So when I heard Lady Eowyn and Lord Theodred, what they were saying, I thought, surely Lord Grima should hear about this….”

At Theodred’s name, Grima’s attention was caught, and he held back the abrupt dismissal he’d been about to bark at the girl. Instead he drew the girl inside and shut the door. The girl stood before him as he perched again on his chair. Casually he loosened his purse string and drew forth a small silver coin. Turning it in his fingers, he smiled at the girl. “Yes?” he prompted. “I would be most interested to hear what you have to say. Go on.”

As the girl recounted the conversation she’d heard, it was all Grima could do not to laugh aloud. How perfect! Theodred besotted with the mother of an orc-brat! Let it never be said that providence favored only the virtuous. The situation promised so many possibilities that his mind swam. How best to use this knowledge? He schooled his face to remain calm, and when the serving girl finished her tale he smiled gently at her.

“You were right to come to me, and I thank you for your service,” he told her. “But there is one other thing….” He slipped the coin back in his purse. The girl gave a small squeak of disappointment, quickly muffled. He brought out another, slightly larger, with the gleam of gold. Her eyes locked on it, and then rose to his when he pressed it into her hand. “You need not speak of this again. To anyone.”

She nodded mutely, and then scurried from the room at his wave of dismissal. Grima drew a deep breath to clear his mind, and then set about considering exhaustively how this new information affected each aspect of his overall strategy, and how each possible move on his part might play out. When he was confident he understood all the ramifications, he nodded to himself. His initial instinct to silence the girl had been a good one. Spreading rumors about the relationship had seemed one obvious ploy, and one he might yet resort to, but more productive courses of action were possible if it remained a secret for yet a while. The first step would be to locate the wench and the brat and take them into custody. Then he would have powerful leverage indeed against Theodred, able to blackmail him with the threat both of harming the objects of his infatuation, and of exposing the secret of their existence.

Decided, he strode to the door. Summoning one of his underlings, he gave detailed instructions about the necessary search. When he was confident the man understood what he should do he dismissed him and settled again into his chair.

Ah, how sweet was the promise of his task’s fulfillment. Surely, now, the day would not be long delayed when all that he desired was in his grasp. His master would be pleased.

Chapter 5 – You Need My Sword

Theodred and Eowyn walked down the steep, stone-paved streets of the city toward the north gate. Theodred’s next task was to speak with Elfhelm, chief of the city’s defenses, and Eowyn had asked to come along. At this hour he would be drilling his eored on the practice fields outside the city walls.

Her heart light, Eowyn fairly danced over the rough stones. Soon, now, her secret ambition would be fulfilled. So many years she had waited, prepared, focused always on her goal. One by one the impossible obstacles had fallen, bringing her a step at a time closer to her heart’s desire. The final wall had seemed unbreachable, and she had almost despaired, but now this crisis loomed, and the wall lay in rubble at her feet. Surely, now that every sword was needed, she would be granted her heart’s desire, to raise her sword in defense of her beloved Rohan.

Her earliest memory was of watching Eomer the day he first began his training as a Rider. The young boy was so proud, yet so awkward as he held the wooden practice sword and swung it clumsily in response to their father’s directions. Eowyn wriggled in her mother’s arms. Not like that, like this! Her hands itched to grasp the hilt, and her arms seem to feel the proper motions, smooth and graceful, powerful and deadly.

She’d been too young then to realize what it meant that she was a girl.

The tales sung around the fire at night told of the glories of Rohan’s past. In the time of Eorl bold shieldmaidens had fought beside the men, winning glory and fame, defeating evil. Was it any wonder Eowyn had expected to be able to do the same, to take up a sword as soon as she was tall enough to keep it from dragging on the ground, to follow in the footsteps of her elder brother and the heroines of lore? As soon as Eomer, bored of his lesson, had dropped the sword by the hearth, she slipped over and seized it.

The men had laughed, to see a three-year-old dragging around her brother’s sword, blind to her instinctive grasp of its balance. Her mother had scolded her and torn the sword from her reluctant grip, returning it to Eomer with an admonishment to properly put away his things if he wished them to be safe from his sister’s meddling. But Eowyn had felt for a moment a blade in her hand, and her destiny was forever set.

Not many years after that her father died, and soon after her mother, and she and Eomer came to live in the household of the king her uncle. Stricken by grief, she had clung even more fiercely to her dream. The nursemaids and governesses given charge of her had clucked and shaken their heads, but if it gave her comfort to spend endless hours watching the men gallop back and forth on the practice fields and hack at straw figures, they didn’t have the heart to deny it to the pale, skinny girl. She learned the women’s arts they taught well enough, but without enthusiasm, and set aside her embroidery with its small, neat stitches as soon as was allowed, that she might haunt the stables, grooming the silky coats of the horses and murmuring in their ears the secrets she could trust to no human, even mucking out the stalls when the stable boys permitted. Her riding lessons she attended to with great passion, and soon her skill on horseback was notable even among the horselords, where all were skilled.

It was Theodred, finally, who noticed her, watching him for the thousandth time with her intent blue eyes, tall and straight at the edge of the field where he led his eored through the maneuvers of battle over and over, seeking perfection. At the end of the session when he had dismissed his men, he rode over to her, and on impulse reached his hand down to her. Accepting it, she sprang lightly up in front of him, and though she said nothing her body was alive with excitement to be astride one of the mearas. Theodred noted the ease of her seat, even perched awkwardly before him. He urged Silverfoot to a canter, swinging in a wide circle, then let the horse open up to a full gallop as only a mearas could, flying with unmatched speed across the grassy plain. They curved back around toward the city, and reluctantly Silverfoot slowed again, coming to a stop before the gate.

Eowyn slid down with a word of thanks. Theodred dismounted too. He hurt to see how the light of joy sparked in her by their ride faded, and she turned to go through the gate like a fledgling bird, after tasting for the first time the freedom of flight, returning to its cage.

“Wait, Eowyn,” he called. She turned back to him. “How old are you now?”

“Thirteen, my lord.”

“Call me Theodred. You are my cousin, after all. Eowyn… I’ve seen you watching, often, while the men are training.” Somehow he didn’t think she was like the other young girls who watched, in groups, squealing with laughter at a flashy move, gossiping about which Rider they found most handsome. “You look at the Riders like you wish you were one of them, at the swords like you wish you held one in your hand.”

Distrust and hope warred in her face as her gaze met his. “Yes,” she said after a long pause, her voice low. “I have long regretted the ill-fortune that I was born female, or at least, born in a time when to be female is to be deemed unworthy to be a warrior.”

Gravely Theodred drew his sword from its sheath. “It was not always thus. Not that many generations ago, the men of Rohan counted it an honor to fight alongside a noble shieldmaiden.” Stepping to her side, he closed her fingers around the hilt of his sword. “Show me what you have learned from watching.”

The sword was too heavy for her, but it was a fine weapon, perfectly balanced. Self-consciously Eowyn held it before her, feeling awkward and ridiculous. She moved her arm into the first position of the most basic drill, one she’d watched trainees perform over and over until the movements were burned into their muscles. Thus would the sword parry the enemy’s blow, and thus slide around to thrust forward in attack. It felt strange, to move at last in reality through the exercise she had lived so often in her imagination, but right, wonderfully right. With each swing and thrust her body learned more about the art of battle, moved with more certainty into the next position. So deeply absorbed had she become in her task that Theodred’s hand on her shoulder was like a shock, waking her from a dream. She stared at him for a moment, longing naked on her face, then blushed and looked down, shoving the sword hilt toward him. He accepted it back and sheathed it smoothly, studying her gravely. Her gift was undeniable. Theodred had trained many a lad, and knew the signs of inborn talent. No matter that her stance was all wrong, her hand placed incorrectly on the hilt, her arms shaking under the weight of the too-heavy sword. Those things could all be corrected by training. What couldn’t be taught was the feel, the instinct, the passion. Those she had in full measure.

Theodred felt his resolve take shape. Grievous indeed would it be to see such passion denied. He would speak to Theoden and persuade him to see what must be done.

Her feet heavy, hands drooping empty at her sides, Eowyn turned back toward the city gate, trying to be glad that she’d been privileged to taste, however briefly, what she longed for. But the momentary sweetness only served to make her return to hunger more bitter.

Theodred’s voice stopped her, and the smile in his eyes and the warmth in his voice woke in her for the first time real hope. “I think perhaps it is time for Rohan to have a shieldmaiden once again. I would not see such a gift wasted. Would you wish to be trained? I warn you, it will be hard work.”

Eowyn tried to speak, and found herself voiceless. She cleared her throat, and blurted out, “Yes, please, more than anything.” She took his offered hand, and walked beside him up the stone streets. Her mind was skeptical, reluctant to hope, but her feet believed, and fairly danced upward toward the Golden Hall.

Now her feet danced again, walking down those same streets. The long years of training, the endless hours of labor, molding her body, hardening her muscles, drilling skills deep into her heart until no thought was required to use them, so they would be available in the heat of battle when no thought was possible, all that would now soon come to fruition. For many years the training itself had satisfied her, had answered her inmost need. But eventually the day came when she knew she had at last learned all that Theodred and the other Riders had to teach, when had she been male she would have been deemed ready to face the only true test, and ride into battle. But there was no place in an eored for her, no opportunity to participate in the defense against the endless orc raids, no first blood drawn or spilt. Now she worked only to maintain skills already honed as far as theory allowed, more and more frustrated that she was not allowed to put them into practice.

Her sense of entrapment returned, and she wondered bitterly why she had bothered, what it had all been for. She hadn’t even bothered to ask to be allowed to fight, knowing what the answer must be. Rohan had no lack of skilled warriors, and she was not needed.

But now! Now the balance of power had warped and distorted. Saruman’s betrayal had ripped away the security of the western border, exposing their vulnerability. Now eyes that had focused so long on the menace in the east must turn, and discover, with foes both east and west, what had seemed ample defense was now pitifully inadequate. Men would have to be mustered from every town and village, and even then the numbers might not be enough. Rohan could ill afford to turn away any hand skilled with a sword.

Not even mine! she exulted in her heart. Woman or no, how could they be so foolish as to deny her?

Arriving at the practice field, Theodred and Eowyn paused and watched for a while. The latest trainees had been drilling for several weeks now, and were coming along well. Elfhelm was watching, shouting instructions and orders as each in turn rode his horse through a course of obstacles, leaping over piled bales of straw, turning sharply to wind between closely set poles, navigating rocky ground and hedges of thorny branches. With an experienced eye Eowyn sized up the boy currently working his way around the course. Not bad, although he needed to tighten his knees and firm his seat. On that sharp turn he looked like he was about to come off his horse. He recovered well, though, and his form was good as he urged the beast high over the next fence, clearing it cleanly. As he finished the course, Elfhelm called his second in command over and put him in charge of the exercise, then strode over, greeting Theodred with clasped arms.

The two of them set about discussing all the arrangements for the defense of Edoras itself. Eowyn listened intently, appreciating the deep knowledge the two commanders had of every man in each eored, every road, path, hill and ravine for miles around the city, and the nuances of battle strategy. She worked to understand why they came to the decisions they settled on, and strove to see the whole of the plan in the multitude of details. The two allowed her to listen, but ignored her presence.

An hour passed. The trainees had moved on to the next phase of the exercise, which involved the experienced riders stationed at intervals along the course, so the trainees had to cope not only with the passive obstacles but also with attacking swords that must be parried. Theodred and Elfhelm had fallen silent, watching the training, plans in place. Eowyn sensed that this was her moment to speak.

“Lord Marshall, Captain, sirs,” she began, forsaking the familiarity of a cousin for the formality of a soldier addressing commanding officers. They turned to regard her.

“Yes?” Theodred prompted, when the words seemed frozen in her throat.

“Sirs, I have trained for many years in the arts of war. Both of you have worked with me; you both know my worth as a warrior. I have been mindful of my unique position, and until now have not asked or expected a place in an eored, as might normally be granted to one of my skill. But now, war is upon us, and I would not stand idly by while others do battle. You need my sword. I am asking now to be accepted as a Rider, and I await your command.”

Stunned, Theodred studied the young woman before him. She stood as tall and straight as that day he had first noticed her, but now her muscles were strong and hard, and her pose had the easy confidence of one who knew her own skill. He shouldn’t be surprised, Theodred reflected. Surely this day had been inevitable from the moment she first held a sword. She was right, he knew. Every word she said was true. She was entirely deserving of the place she asked for. Yet still he must deny her, must dash all her hopes. There was so much she didn’t understand.

“Eowyn,” he began, then groped for words to explain to her the reality of the situation. “Eowyn, it’s impossible, what you ask. Yes, you are skilled; your sword is the equal of any man’s. I would be glad to have you fight under my command. But you are not any man, you are the king’s niece, and the situation is so much more complicated than you know. You are the only one besides Wormtongue who Theoden listens to at all. You are needed at his side, much more than on the battlefield.” Theodred could see his words were not heeded. Eowyn had gone pale, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. Her eyes were full of hot denial.

“You cannot mean it. You will not allow me a chance, even now at our greatest need?”

Theodred hated having to deny her. But his duty was clear. She did not understand the carefully honed camaraderie of an eored, how each man must trust his comrades with his very life at every moment. Theodred knew her skill, but the very fact of her sex would prevent the men from accepting her, not as quickly as would be needed now, however unfair that might be. Perhaps, after many months of training together, an eored might come to know her, to trust her. But Theodred had seen eoreds fall apart in battle if that trust were not present, and he would not risk that now, of all times. And he shied from the thought of that fair head bloodied, those clear eyes confronted with the horrors he was all too familiar with. No, she must not be sent into battle, not unless the battle came to the very steps of Meduseld itself.

“I do mean it. You have placed yourself at my command, and I am ordering you as your superior officer. Your station is at the king’s side. You have leave to use your sword to defend him, if the need arise. But you are not to abandon him, not though the fight comes to the very gates of the city.”

Eowyn refused to cry in front of him, staring stony-eyed at him until he waved her away with a gesture of dismissal. She walked blindly away, turning her face into the wind that it might dry her tears before they fell. She watched unseeing as the trainees continued their drills, playing over in her head the arguments she had found so convincing, that he had refused to even consider. She was dimly aware of Theodred bidding farewell to Elfhelm and departing back to the city.

A hand fell on her shoulder. Startled, she looked up to see Elfhelm gazing down at her with an odd half-smile.

“You have a great heart, my lady, and I would not see it denied. Have you not heard it said, ‘where will wants not, a way opens?’” Her face lit with hope, but he shook his head. “I can do nothing to countermand the orders Theodred has given you. But if the day should come when Theoden no longer sits in Meduseld with you his only trustworthy companion, know that I would welcome you in my eored.” With a gesture he stilled the torrent of thanks and questions that spilled from her, and strode back to the practice field.

Eowyn watched him for a long time, wondering. Then she turned back to the city, her steps heavy as she plodded back up the streets she had so recently danced down. She felt the bars of her cage closing in again around her. But a faint hope burned in her heart, and gave her the strength to hold up her head. She loved Theoden, and to attend him was no burden, though no different than what she had already been doing. But the current situation could not endure forever. Surely soon Theodred must act to cast out the wretched Wormtongue. And failing that, a secret shameful whisper stole into her heart, the king was old, his health failing daily. How much longer could he last? Eowyn shook her head against the thought. But she resolved to make preparations, nonetheless. When her chance came, she would be ready to seize it.

Chapter 6 – So Completely Alone

Deore’s cry jerked Elana once again from sleep. The baby thrashed against her as Elana guided her nipple to Deore’s eagerly seeking mouth. Her cries were abruptly silenced as she latched on, and her body relaxed as she settled to vigorous nursing. Elana yawned and peered blearily around the tiny shelter. Was that the faintest bit of grey dawn light she could make out? This night had stretched forever, with Deore over and over settling into brief, light sleep, only to wake again after what seemed only moments. Elana had learned to sleep through the actual nursing, but Deore’s frantic cries and desperate rooting when the breast had slipped from her mouth and she could not find it again inevitably woke her. This night had been particularly bad, but rare was the night Deore would wake less than seven or eight times. Deore was thriving, but Elana could feel the lack of sleep wearing on her own body. Her mind was becoming fuzzy, and she made clumsy mistakes. Here in the forest alone, a single slip could be fatal, for her or her child. Deore would nap on and off during the day, but Elana must spend the precious and rapidly shortening daylight hours accomplishing the tasks that let the two of them survive.

Elana drifted off for a few more precious moments of sleep. When next Deore awoke, the lashed-together poles of the walls and the thatched roof of the lean-to were clearly visible, and the gray of dawn was beginning to be touched with gold. Elana shifted Deore to her other side, and the baby nursed until her initial hunger had been satisfied and her sucks slowed. Elana slid her nipple gently from Deore’s mouth, and for a moment the girl was content, but when Elana slipped out from under the thick pile of blankets covering them, a cold draft invaded the warm nest and roused Deore again to protest. Hastily, over the shift and knitted hose she had worn to bed, Elana threw on her warm woolen dress, with slits concealed in folds to allow access to her breasts. She took up a long length of woven cloth, and with a practiced gesture wrapped it in a few special folds around her body, then knotted it at her waist. She picked up Deore and slid her into the secure pocket thus formed, adjusting her position to allow her to nurse supported by the cloth, leaving Elana’s hands free. Elana wrapped her warmest cloak around the two of them, drew on her leather shoes, and stepped out into the morning.

Cold as it had been inside the shelter, outside was even colder. Frost rimmed every leaf and blade of grass, and the wind was sharp and bitter against her face. Elana knelt by the fire and stirred to life the coals she had banked the night before. Adding kindling and branches, she soon had a merry fire to put out a bit of heat and boil the water for her morning tea. After a month it was second nature to work around the bulk of the baby bound to her chest. Dried fruit and a strip of dried meat from her store made an adequate breakfast. She’d put away quite a bit of food before Deore was born, and the extra that Roswyn and Theodred had prepared in the week they’d spent here should ensure she had plenty to last until spring.

That week glowed ever more golden in her memory. Her friendship with Roswyn restored, and her growing love for Theodred, climaxed by their mutual declaration on that last bittersweet day, all had made that week one of the sweetest of her life. But now, after three weeks alone here in the silence of the wood, with a baby she loved dearly but who provided no company while depending on her completely, she would have welcomed even complete strangers, just to have another human presence, another voice to talk with. Never in her life had she been so alone. Growing up she’d been surrounded by her large, boisterous, loving family, and the close community of their friends and neighbors in the village. Even in those horrible months captive in the orc caves there had been Roswyn and their fellow prisoners. Now there was only the babble of the stream, and the calls of a few winter birds, and the rush of the wind.

Deore squirmed, so Elana took her out of the carrying cloth and removed her wool soaker and diaper. She dipped a rag in water warmed by the fire and bathed the baby’s bottom, then flung the messy items in the basket she kept by the door. Eyeing the full basket and dwindling pile of clean supplies, she sighed, knowing what the first task of the day must be. Tucking Deore back into the carrying cloth, she filled her biggest pot with water from the stream and set it to boil, then lugged the basket downstream from where she drew water to her washing area. With a new baby brother or sister every few years, Elana had washed plenty of diapers at home, but there it had always been a communal task, all the women of the village meeting at the stream to chatter and gossip while they worked, those with less to wash helping those with more, so that the time flew and the work seemed light. Here, alone, the mechanical motions of beating each soiled diaper against the rocks and rinsing it in the fast flowing water was mere drudgery. The icy water numbed her fingers. And frequent interruptions from Deore made it impossible to concentrate on her task, as every few moments she would need to be shifted to nurse on the other side, or moved to Elana’s shoulder to burp, or taken out and changed again. The pile of soiled diapers seemed never-ending, shrinking only with maddening slowness. Eventually Deore dropped off to sleep, which allowed Elana to focus on her work.

Finally done rinsing, Elana piled the diapers back in the basket, then dragged them back to the fire and dumped them in the pot. She’d boil them for a while, and then spread them to dry on the bare branches of the bushes surrounding the clearing. At least in this wind they should be dry by nightfall. If only it were summer, she could simply allow Deore to go naked, and learn to read her subtle signals of when elimination was imminent, allowing Elana to hold the baby out over the dirt in plenty of time to stay clean herself. But the cold of winter necessitated keeping her bundled up, so Elana washed diapers.

Deore had woken and was restless, not wanting to nurse, so Elana sat down on a log by the fire and set the baby on her lap. She studied the girl’s face, so different from other babies’, yet so familiar now to Elana. The hair starting to grow in was sparse, and coarser then most children’s. The nose was wide and squashed, the lips thin, and the cheeks broad and asymmetrical. The skin was darker than Elana’s, and blotchy. But the eyes were great golden-brown pools, that could drown you in their depths.

Deore made happy, excited noises, and Elana echoed them back. She nuzzled the baby’s cheek, enjoying the softness. She caught the tiny hands that waved towards her and let the short broad fingers with their delicate claws wrap around her finger. She winced as the points of the claws sank into her skin, and noticed a few red scratches on Deore’s face. “Looks like it’s time to do your nails again, Kitten.” Though Deore wiggled in protest, Elana buffed each claw carefully with a rough stone until the sharp points were dulled.

Elana never tired of gazing at and playing with her baby, but the sun had already passed its zenith, and her stomach complained of hunger. She mixed a bit of her store of flour with lard, and fried the cakes, drizzling them with honey to make an enjoyable lunch. She chopped onions, potatoes, carrots, turnips and cabbage, and added them with more dried meat and some flavorful herbs to a stew pot, which she set over the fire to simmer until suppertime. The diapers had boiled enough and cooled enough to handle, so she worked spreading them to dry, then ventured out into the woods to gather more fallen branches for firewood, and sticks and dry grass for kindling. She had a good amount stored already, but the winter looked to be a hard one, and she was using it faster than she liked. Once the snow came gathering would be much harder.

The short winter daylight was soon fading into sunset, so Elana ate her stew and sat beside the fire for a while, Deore nursing to sleep and drowsing in her lap. The cheerful sunlight and many tasks of the day had pushed aside her loneliness for a while, but now in the darkness it returned full force. Elana could take care of her physical needs and her child’s, but she hadn’t realized how strong her need for people would be. Sleepiness dragged at her eyelids, but Elana resisted, reluctant to face another night of broken sleep and another day alone. I can’t do this, she thought. It just wasn’t right for a mother and baby to be so completely alone. If she’d been back home, there would be plenty of hands to help with her tasks, cheerful voices to keep her company, even, if she needed it, other nursing mothers to take Deore for a few hours and nurse her while Elana got a little sleep. But here she could look forward only to day after day of empty toil, never able to relax from her duties for even an hour, lest her child suffer. Elana had believed she could bear anything, for Deore’s sake. Now she was willing still, but feared more and more she was not able. Almost unnoticed her tears fell, soaking the sleeve she used to wipe her eyes, and dampening her pillow when at last she crept into bed.

Deore slept better that night, and Elana got a few stretches of sleep. But the next morning she woke to a gray, drizzling rain. Thankful she had brought the clean diapers in the night before, she huddled in the shelter with Deore, listening to the rhythm of the drops on the leaves that thatched the roof. Without a fire, she ate cold meals, and stirred from the warmth of her nest of blankets only to patch the leaky places where water seeped its way through the ceiling.

She pulled out the lace shawl she was knitting. She hadn’t had much time in the days since Deore was born to work on her spinning or knitting, but the fine shawls she crafted were her only source of income, and she knew that she must continue to make at least a few, to earn the money for the few things she must buy. This one was almost complete, lacking only the border around the edge. If she worked hard today while trapped by the rain, she could have it finished by nightfall. But that would just about exhaust her supply of the yarn she’d spun before Deore was born, and she had no more fleece.

Pausing to change yet another diaper, Elana looked at the dwindling pile of yarn, and made a decision. Tomorrow, if the rain had stopped, she would take the newly finished shawl into Waymeet. She could sell it and buy new fleece, so she would have materials to work the rest of the winter. Deore was used to spending long hours in the carrying cloth. With luck she could time it so the baby would fall asleep before she entered the town, and Elana would have a few hours with Deore’s face safely concealed inside the folds of cloth. She could walk around the town, be surrounded by people again, speak to other adults who could listen and answer. She could even stop by the smith’s house and visit with Roswyn, her closest friend. Elana’s hands shook and she fumbled the pin, stabbing her own finger where it rested behind the cloth of the diaper, protecting Deore’s tender skin.

She worked feverishly all the rest of the day, impatient with Deore’s interruptions. She cast off the last stitch as the orange light of sunset broke through the clouds that were at last dispersing, taking the rain with them. Working far into the night, she washed the shawl and stretched it on the frame she had made for that purpose, so it would dry smooth and even, with the fine lace patterns clearly defined. She fell into bed exhausted, but she sang to Deore as she nursed her to sleep, filled with excitement and hope for the next day.

Chapter 7 – A Woman Can Waken Trust

The sun had passed midmorning and was approaching noon as Theodred and Elfhelm rode toward the main gates of Edoras. They had spent the morning riding around the outside of the city, inspecting the ongoing work of repairing and fortifying the wall that was the capital’s main protection. One of Theodred’s first actions on returning to Edoras had been to set crews to work identifying and correcting weaknesses in the defenses, which had been neglected in recent years, and now that work was nearing completion. Theodred was well satisfied with what they had seen, and felt confident that it was time to proceed with his plan.

He halted Silverfoot where he could watch the traffic moving in and out of the city gates. The mearas pranced, still fresh from what to him had been an easy morning’s ride. Elfhelm’s steed, though of noble breed, was no match for the mearas in speed or endurance, and had labored to maintain the pace, though pride would not allow him to falter. He stood now, head down and blowing, and Theodred lingered a while in consideration of his weariness before beginning the long, steep ascent.

“So what is our next step?” Elfhelm inquired, contemplating the busy scene before him. A trade caravan was passing out of the city gates, departing eastward on the main road. Wagons creaked and lurched one after another down the last sharp incline before leveling out as they reached the flatter ground outside the wall. Men on foot and on horseback swarmed around the wagons. A wheel jammed on an uneven cobble, and there was much shouting and confusion before the wagon was heaved free and continued on its way.

“I think the time has come to move on to the next stage of our plan,” Theodred replied. “All is in order here, as well as can be managed in so short a time. You will remain in the city with your eored, working to train all the newly mustered men, and see that they are mounted and equipped. Eomer I am sending to the Eastfold, to see to the defenses there. We can’t afford to forget that attack still might come from the east, though the west is now our main concern. I will take my eored to the Westfold, to command the forces there in the defense of the Fords. It is only a matter of time until Saruman tries to bring his armies across. Once the new men are trained, Edoras will have at least some defense if I should have to call you away. I fear it is likely that I will need to bring in your eored as reinforcements, if Saruman commits as great a force against the Fords as my scouts tell me he might.”

“The new men will be ready,” Elfhelm reassured him with confidence. “I will be prepared to ride out at your summons. When will you be leaving, do you think?”

“Early next week. That should give us enough time to…”

Theodred’s words were interrupted by a commotion at the gates. A horse reared and screamed. The man on his back shouted curses and hauled on the reins, cutting the bit cruelly into the horse’s mouth. The horse fought the man, plunging forward and bucking, then rearing again, as around him people scattered and shrieked. Theodred urged Silverfoot forward, knowing the presence of the mearas would have a calming effect on the panicking horse, hoping to get matters under control before horse, rider, or bystanders were injured.

Then the rider drew out of his belt a short, many-tailed whip, and began lashing the horse’s heaving flanks. Maddened by pain, the horse struck out with his hooves and twisted, trying to reach his rider with his teeth. The whip lashed forward and caught the animal full in the face, leaving bloody welts across his nose and cheeks.

“Halt!” cried Theodred, and the rider looked up, his fury finally pierced by the sight of Theodred’s sword out and ready, and the arrows of the gate guards aimed at his heart. As the whipping stopped the horse gave a final heave and then stood still, drawing great shuddering breaths. Theodred could see that his coat was marked with the scars of many such lashings, and though once he had been a fine, well bred beast, tall and heavy boned, neglect and ill-treatment had worn him down, and hunger had drawn his skin tight over his frame.

“Dismount!” ordered Theodred in a voice cold with fury. He kneed Silverfoot alongside the exhausted animal, and seized his reins. By his surly expression, the man was inclined to refuse, but a look at Theodred’s face changed his mind. He swung down off the horse, and then started as his arms were seized from either side by guards from the gate. He struggled to bring up the whip against his captors, but a blow knocked it to the ground and the guards held him fast.

Theodred passed the horses’ reins to Elfhelm then turned to stare down at the man in contempt. His face would have been strikingly handsome, had not rage distorted it into an ugly mask. He wore the clothes of a common warrior, though ill kept, and a sword hung at his side, which at a gesture from Theodred a guard removed.

“I do not know from what country you come,” Theodred told him, his anger barely contained, “but in this land what you have done is a crime, no less than had you done the same to a man. Are you a simpleton, that you would dare to abuse a horse so foully in plain sight, here in the heart of the Riddermark?” The crowd that had gathered murmured in support of Theodred’s words, echoing his anger. “By our law your beast is forfeit. I hereby claim him for the crown, and take him into custody, to be cared for in the king’s own stables.” The man glared impotently, as the crowd rumbled its approval. “By rights I should cast you in prison, were I not loath to see you remain inside our borders a moment longer than necessary. Guard, bring me the leader of this caravan.” One of the gate guards hastened away, and soon returned with a richly dressed and very annoyed merchant, trailed by several underlings.

“Is this man in your employ?” Theodred asked the merchant.

“He’s a mercenary. We hired him on a couple of weeks ago. The roads are dangerous these days, you know, orcs everywhere. Now could we please settle this; we’re already late getting on the road and we’ve got to make ten leagues before nightfall if we’re to make it to Fallowfield by market day…”

“Guards, bind him.” The captive’s hands were quickly bound behind his back. “I’m releasing this man to your custody,” he informed the merchant. “Under no circumstances is he to be allowed to mount a horse – he can ride in one of the wagons. I’ll be sending word to the way stations along the road. At each one you must show the guard on duty that he is still with you, bound, and under your control. You must proceed as quickly as possible to the border of Rohan, stopping only to do your business in the towns you pass. Once you have passed the border you may release him, and your obligation will be complete.” Theodred turned to address the captive. “You are exiled from Rohan from this day forth. To show your face in this land again is death. Guards, escort him to whichever wagon this good merchant will show you.”

The merchant, grumbling but not daring to disobey, led the prisoner and the guards off toward one of the lead wagons. Theodred watched them go with foreboding. He disliked letting the man loose with only the reluctant merchant and his men as guards, but he could not spare even one man to go with the caravan all the way to the border. His problems were great enough, without having to deal with scum like that in addition!

Elfhelm was attempting to lead the big, charcoal grey horse into the city, but the animal, rested enough to recover his spirit, resisted stubbornly. His eyes rolled white and he thrashed his head, scattering blood from the fresh cuts on his face and foam from his mouth. With soothing words Elfhelm attempted to gentle him, but at the sound of his voice the horse fought even more. Theodred signaled the gate guards to send for men from the king’s stable, and then went to help Elfhelm. Silverfoot nickered reassuringly, and the horse calmed somewhat, but when Theodred spoke, the sound of his warm, deep voice again agitated him.

The stablemen arrived, and with their help Elfhelm was able to lead the horse up to the king’s stable, Theodred on Silverfoot riding alongside. It was a struggle again to get him into a stall, as the horse seemed to regard any word or touch, no matter how gentle, as a new threat. Theodred shook his head as he watched the stablemen work. “What a terrible thing,” he said to Elfhelm. “Such a fine animal, so spirited and strong, and fast too by the look of him. I fear he may be ruined completely. Good care and careful handling can restore his health, but if the ill treatment was too severe he may never be able to abide a man’s touch.”

Eowyn entered the stable in time to see the stablemen finally coax the horse, by the use of a full bucket of oats and another of water, into the large, roomy stall, where he stood drinking great draughts. She listened curiously to the men’s conversation as she led her own steed to her stall. Nightbird was a beautiful, fine-boned, delicate mare, and while not a mearas, was still of the best breeding Rohan had to offer, every line bespeaking elegance and grace. Her coat shone a deep, rich black, highly prized because of its rarity now that so many black horses had been stolen away, broken only by a pearly white star on her forehead. Eowyn loved her more than any other living being, and was never happier than when in her saddle. The two of them were a familiar sight around Edoras, woman and mare merging into a seamless whole, a joyful sight to all who beheld them. Eowyn took her usual painstaking care in grooming Nightbird, checked to see that the stablemen had freshened her water and filled her feed trough, then spent several minutes stroking her silky mane and murmuring to her before finally bidding her farewell and slipping from the stall. She moved over to get a closer look at the rescued animal. The crowd around his stall had dispersed, leaving only Theodred and Elfhelm, standing a bit apart, contemplating him and conversing in low voices.

Free of threatening human presence, the horse had calmed and was quietly eating. Eowyn gasped at the sight of the red welts clear against the charcoal grey hide. The deepest cut on his face still oozed a little blood, though a scab was beginning to form. The stablemen had brought soothing salve to dress the wounds, but had decided the added distress of the touch necessary to apply it would do more harm than good, so had left the jar on a shelf near the stall, to be near at hand should the horse permit closer approach once it had settled.

The horse started and jerked up his head at Eowyn’s gasp, and stared at her, nervously tense. She murmured to him, her voice light and soft, wanting only to sooth the fear that radiated from him. “It’s all right, boy, you’re safe now, no one will harm you here. What a fine one you are! So tall and strong, you’ll be healed in no time, we’ll take good care of you, and you’ll never have to suffer again…”

Elfhelm stopped in midsentence, laying his hand on Theodred’s arm and jerking his head to indicate the girl and the horse. Theodred glanced around to see the horse first shy away, but lightly, not wildly as before, then gaze at Eowyn, puzzled and intent. He flicked his ears at her, listening to the melodic tone of her voice, so much higher then the deep male voices that spoke to him of anger and threats. A desire woke in him, born of the memory of another high, sweet voice long ago, when he had been young and wild and a laughing light maiden had tamed him to saddle and bridle. Hope warred with fear, and he stepped toward her, then stopped, trembling. Theodred watched, rapt, and opened his mouth to speak, but Elfhelm silenced him with a gesture. Eowyn smiled at the horse, and held out her hand, continuing her singsong string of endearments. The horse snorted and tossed his head, prancing backward, then turning to drink again. Eowyn relaxed, willing to give him time, folded her arms over the top of the stall door and rested her head on them, and contemplated him tranquilly. The horse ignored her for a while, but fascination soon proved impossible to resist, and he again approached the waiting woman, a few steps closer this time before he broke and danced away again.

Theodred grew stiff from standing so still, scarcely daring to breathe lest he intrude. He knew he had duties to attend to, people waiting to talk to him, but somehow he couldn’t bear to leave, but must remain and see how this drama of horse and woman would play out. Elfhelm remained beside him, also watching, and a few stablemen had now become aware of what was happening, but the two remained oblivious of their audience.

Eowyn remained patient through several more abortive approaches, occasionally speaking gently. At one point she reached out and took the jar of salve, unfastening the lid and setting it beside her in readiness. Each attempt brought the horse closer, and lasted longer, until at last with short, stiff steps, shaking, tail switching, the beast drew close to Eowyn and stopped, standing fearful but determined, waiting for her touch. She spoke to him again, and he relaxed a tiny bit at the sound of her voice. Never stopping her flow of words, she reached out her hand, slowly, and with gentle firm confidence laid it on his neck. He started, one convulsive jerk, then relaxed completely and leaned into her hand, blowing as if he had just finished a long run. With her other hand, Eowyn scooped up a bit of salve and smoothed it onto the welts on his face. Nothing was left in the horse’s eyes but utter trust as he submitted to her ministrations.

Theodred only realized he had been holding his breath when Elfhelm drew him out the stable door and he began to breathe again. “That was amazing,” he said in wonder. “The girl has a remarkable gift. I would have sworn it would take a month of good treatment before he would let anyone touch him, yet it was if she had bespelled him.”

Elfhelm smiled, sharing his delight, yet not so amazed. “He has learned well not to put his trust in men, for they gave him only pain. But he has trusted a woman in the past, I would guess, and she never betrayed him, so now a woman can waken trust in him again. Your cousin is gifted indeed. I only hope you value her as highly as she deserves.”

Theodred looked at him sharply, wondering what he meant by that, but Elfhelm returned his gaze guilelessly. “You go on with your work,” Elfhelm said, “and I will speak to her when she is through with him. I think if she and I work with him in the coming weeks, he should be able to overcome his fear of men and be ready to serve as a mount for one of the new recruits. He certainly has the build and the spirit of a warhorse.”

“Aye, he does that.” He lingered a moment, his hand on the stable door, looking back for a last glimpse of the pair, lost in communion with each other. Eowyn had slipped inside the stall and was treating the wounds on the horse’s hindquarters. “Tell Eowyn thank you for me, and tell her good luck with…. We never did ask that scum what he called the beast.”

“I should doubt we would want to use the name anyway; it was probably something foul. Should I tell Eowyn that she might have the naming of him?”

“Yes, do that.” It was a tradition in the Mark that the one who gave a horse its name would forever after have a link with the animal, and would be blessed with good fortune, so the opportunity was highly prized. “She has certainly earned it.”

Theodred returned to his duties, pondering the events of the morning. He fervently wished they might prove an omen of hope for the trials that yet lay ahead. Though evil might betray and destroy, and seem to doom all to hopelessness, still all unlooked for hope could come, and good, by faithfulness and endurance and mercy could yet triumph…. He laughed silently at his fancy, yet clung the more to the spark of light it kindled in his heart.

Chapter 8 – Careful Enough

Elana eased carefully to her feet and settled Deore down into the folds of the carrying cloth. She sighed in relief as the baby stayed asleep, body limp and relaxed. Deore had been at her most contrary today, sleeping peacefully during most of the walk from their forest camp to Waymeet, only to wake as Elana approached the outskirts of the town. She had been cheerful and alert, eager to gaze in fascination at the exciting world around her, and completely unwilling to have her face covered. She expressed her displeasure with screams and thrashing when Elana tried. So Elana surrendered to fate, settled down in a sunny spot next to the stream, and played with her child. Deore was just beginning to flash an occasional gummy smile, and Elana was urged to new heights of exaggerated faces and ridiculous noises every time she was rewarded with a wide-eyed grin. Eventually they tired of the game, and Elana nibbled on the lunch she’d brought, trying not to dwell on her impatience as the sun moved across the sky. Finally Deore settled into contented nursing. The gentle babble of the brook had nearly lulled Elena, too, to sleep, when she realized the baby was finally napping.

Deore remained asleep as Elana carefully arranged the carrying cloth to conceal her face, then picked up her bundle and set off toward the town. She passed a few outlying houses, and then came to the first streets. She looked off toward the smith’s forge, where she could hear the ringing of Teolar’s hammer. Later, she promised herself firmly. First she must take care of the business she came for, and then she could enjoy a brief visit with her friends.

The town was busy, and she passed more and more people as she drew near its center, until when she reached the central square where the markets and stores were located, crowds surrounded her. The noise and smells and close pressing bodies were overwhelming after so long alone in the quiet forest. Exhilarated at first, Elana soon tired of squeezing between people to gaze at the variety of fruits and vegetables for sale, or to admire some trinket brought in trade from a distant land. No one took any notice of her; mothers with babes tucked in carrying cloths or toddlers strapped to their backs were everywhere. Clutching her bundle, she wove her way through the throng to the side street where the cloth merchant she’d done business with before had his shop.

The quiet inside after the door closed behind her was a relief. She spent a few moments looking at the wares on display, before approaching the merchant behind the counter.

“Ah, you’re back,” he greeted her. “Have you brought me another of those fine shawls? I’ve got three ladies waiting for one of yours. I told them they might have to wait awhile, seeing as how you’ve got a new baby and all. I see you’ve brought the little one with you. Mind if I have a look?”

He was reaching for the folds of the cloth almost before Elana could react. She stepped back, and put her hand protectively up. “No! No, she’s…sleeping, please don’t, you might wake her.” She stared, heart pounding, pulling the cloth tightly closed.

“Well,” said the merchant, somewhat offended. “If you insist. Let’s see the shawl.” Elana tried not to let her hands tremble as she opened her bundle and passed the folded lace to the merchant. He spread it out and exclaimed over the careful workmanship and intricate designs. He paid her the usual generous price, which Elana took half in coin and half in fleece. She had recovered her composure by the time he bundled the wool and passed it to her, and she promised she’d return with another shawl as soon as she could.

It was now mid-afternoon, and Elana decided the time had come to call on Roswyn. She set off through the maze of streets toward the smith’s house. Not far from the shop she passed a tavern, which, though still early in the day, seemed to be doing a brisk business. As she walked by the door, smiling and humming along with the merry music coming from within, the door flew open and a group of laughing, bantering men surged out. So engaged were they with each other that one man crashed unseeing into Elana, before she could react and step out of his way.

Elana staggered, and then recovered her balance, unhurt. The jolt, however, woke Deore, and she responded as she always did to an unwelcome surprise, with a loud angry wail.

“Oh, I’m sorry miss. Here, let me help you….” The man tried to grab Elana’s arm to steady her. She scrambled out of his way, trying desperately to sooth Deore without exposing her face to the man’s curious eyes.

“No, no, I’m fine, really. Really, it was nothing, let me just….” Deore was screaming and thrashing now. Elana turned away and pushed the folds of cloth aside. The screams were cut off abruptly as Deore seized the breast and was comforted. Drawing the carrying cloth back around the baby, she turned back, to find the man staring at her with a peculiar expression on his face. Surely he hadn’t seen anything. She’d been careful enough – hadn’t she? She smiled brightly at the man. “She’s fine now. I must be going….”

The man shook his head, as if to clear it. “Of course. So glad you weren’t hurt.” Sorry again.” He turned to follow his companions as Elana hurried off in the other direction.

A few blocks away, Elana stopped, panting, trying to catch her breath. Her heart gradually slowed from its mad race. Deore had fallen asleep again. There was no sign of the group of men. He couldn’t have seen anything, surely. He didn’t say anything. Or even if he did notice something odd about her, it won’t matter. He wasn’t sure; he’ll forget about it in no time. There’s nothing to worry about. Almost she convinced herself.

Finally her breathing was calm again, and she was able to dismiss the encounter, leaving nothing more than a nagging worry in the back of her mind. She continued on through the streets of the town. On the far edge of the town, where her stream came down out of the mountains and across the plain to pass into the inhabited area, the smith’s house stood warm and inviting. The forge was silent and empty now, its fire banked. Elana knocked on the door of the cottage that adjoined the forge’s shed.

“Elana!” The woman who opened the door was only a few years older than Elana, tall and blonde. The gaunt, hard lines of her face had softened a bit since Elana had last seen her. It was still less than half a year since the two of them had been freed from captivity.

“Roswyn,” Elana greeted her friend.

“And you’ve got Deore with you, I see.” The words were only a little strained. Roswyn looked anxiously around, then drew Elana through the door. “Here, come inside; it’s better if nobody sees you.” She shut the door behind them. “Sit down; let me get you some tea. How are you doing? I didn’t expect to see you here in town.” Her voice was solicitous, but slightly critical.

“I know I probably shouldn’t have come, but it’s alright. I kept Deore covered up so no one could see her. I needed to sell a shawl and get some more wool. I’ve been doing fine, mostly. We’ve got plenty of food, and I’m able to do everything that’s needed. But it does get so lonely, sometimes….” Elana trailed away, her throat closing.

Roswyn’s face softened. She set the cup of tea on the table in front of Elana, then sat down beside her. “I can only imagine,” she said, patting Elana’s hand a bit awkwardly. “You are doing so well to be taking care of yourself and a baby all alone. Here, let me go get you some bread and honey.” She abruptly stood up again and hurried off.

Elana composed herself, scrubbing the tears from her eyes. Perhaps it had been a mistake to come here. Roswyn was her dear friend, but there was a barrier between them now. Though Roswyn had accepted Deore for Elana’s sake, and promised never again to try to harm her, Elana knew that the antipathy that had once led Roswyn to attempt to kill Deore was only suppressed, not eliminated. The memory of her abuse at the hands of the orcs, and of the half-orc children she’d been forced to bear, was too strong. Not even though it doomed her friend to loneliness and exile, could she set aside her discomfort at the baby’s presence. Elana knew it was a huge concession for her just to let the two of them into her house. Elana resolved to make the visit short. By the time Roswyn returned with the food, Elana had a smile on her face.

“So, where are Teolar and Arteo?” she asked with forced lightness.

“Teolar is off at a tavern with a customer. He says he’s hoping for a big order from this man, so of course they must settle the deal over many pints of ale.” They both laughed. “Arteo is playing at a friend’s house. You should see him, I swear he grows another inch every time I turn around.” She continued to tell Elana the details of her family’s life and the gossip of the town, while Elana sipped her tea and listened, occasionally commenting, savoring the company as much as she could.

All too soon the late afternoon sun was slanting through the western windows, and Elana knew she must leave if she was to make it back to her camp before dark. Roswyn protested her going, but only weakly, and Elana knew she was really relieved. Deore had wakened a short time before, and Roswyn quickly excused herself and moved away while Elana changed her diaper. Absent were all the normal admiration and cooing a month-old baby would usually provoke. Roswyn studiously ignored the baby’s presence, and Elana said nothing to force the issue.

Deore settled once again into her carrying cloth, Elana rose to take her leave. Awkwardly, over the bulk of the baby, she embraced Roswyn, who returned the hug only a bit stiffly. Roswyn watched as the mother and child set off, following the course of the stream, out toward the mountains.

The sun had sunk almost to the horizon and Roswyn was in the midst of preparing dinner when Teolar arrived. The huge man greeted his wife with an enveloping hug and quick kiss. “So, what’s the news today?”

As Roswyn told him of Elana’s visit, she was surprised to see the look of alarm that spread across his face. When she was finished, Teolar shook his head gravely.

“This was a bad time for her to come. She couldn’t have known, but still, I wish she had stayed away.”

“What? What happened?”

“It’s probably nothing. It’s just that, in the tavern this afternoon, a man was asking if anyone had seen a woman with a… deformed… baby. A stranger here, he said. He claimed to be a relative, looking to help her, but I didn’t trust him. Of course I didn’t say anything, and no one else there had any information to offer either. I don’t know for sure it was Elana he was looking for, but still… I don’t like it. I worry for her. If someone got it into their head to go orc-hunting, she’s defenseless out there. But still, as long as she kept the baby well covered, and no one saw her, it should be all right.”

“Yes, she said she was careful. It should be fine.”

“I know. But still….” Husband and wife both stared out worriedly along the stream, before turning again to their evening tasks.

Chapter 9 – A Common Purpose

Donaldo followed his guide out of the tavern. In the days the caravan had spent in Edoras, he had kept his eyes and ears open, storing away bits of gossip and rumor against any need. It was no secret in the city that the king’s counselor, Grima, was at odds with the king’s son. To Donaldo this had been only one more bit of information to add to his collection, albeit a particularly enjoyable one to someone with Donaldo’s taste for chaos and discord. But he had not anticipated a personal use for the knowledge, until that insufferably self-righteous lordling had stolen his horse from him, right there in the public street, with his bullies to back him up. Donaldo had almost had the beast properly trained, broken of the wild and willful streak that had marred what was otherwise a decent mount. But the stable where the caravan’s animals had been lodged had fed the horse far to rich a diet, renewing the rebellion that consistently applied discipline and carefully controlled rations had come close to eradicating. All had not been lost; it would have taken at most a week or two to subdue the creature once again, had not the horse taken advantage of Donaldo’s momentary lapse of attention to rear out of control, drawing the covetous attention of the king’s son. Donaldo had been well on his way to re-establishing his control over the animal, when Theodred, undoubtedly accustomed, in his position of power, to taking what he wanted without repercussions, had confiscated the animal at sword-point, then had Donaldo humiliatingly bound and given over as a prisoner to the leader of his own caravan.

Anger seethed in Donaldo at the memory. In that moment, as Theodred’s cold eyes had dismissed him in contempt, to turn with solicitous care to the ill-tempered beast, Donaldo had vowed revenge.

Luckily, he had known the caravan’s leader to be a corrupt and venal man, only keeping up the charade of holding him prisoner until they were safely clear of the city. Then the merchant had made his demands, and after accepting far too large a share of the gold Donaldo had kept secreted among his possessions where they were stored in one of the wagons, had loosed Donaldo’s bonds, barely bothering to conceal his gloat. There were plenty of men in the caravan that fitted Donaldo’s description well enough, who could be shown to the guards at each way station obediently bound. Had Theodred been stupid, or merely naïve, to think his precautions could truly insure that Rohan would be freed of Donaldo’s presence? He’d had no interest in the land before, seeking only a quick road south to richer lands with easier pickings, but now Theodred had earned an enemy, and he would not depart until he had revenged his humiliation.

A quick pass with shears and razor, and his appearance was transformed, long flowing locks reduced to short wavy ones, and beard and mustache traded for smooth-shaven skin. Donaldo had experience with changing personas, and knew the way of it. He traded his mercenary’s garb, with a bonus of grudgingly given gold, for the robes of a merchant, better made and cut than his old clothes, but not so much so as to attract unwanted attention in the quarters of the city where he planned to begin his search. He had shouldered the pack of his belongings and watched the caravan rumble on southeast, then trudged back to the city, cursing Theodred with every step. His gold was as persuasive in the taverns and inns of Edoras as anywhere else, and his discreet requests to meet with a representative of Grima Wormtongue had soon borne fruit. Now the man led him up the streets of the city, to the ostentatious palace that crowned the hill.

Donaldo was nervous that he would be seen and recognized, but knew from long experience that a cautious, fearful demeanor would draw notice and suspicion, obvious as a beacon. So his step was firm and confident, projecting to all watchers, I belong here. The hour was late and they passed only a few of the hall’s inhabitants, soon coming to a door that led to a private room. His guide knocked on the door, spoke briefly to the figure that opened it, then ushered Donaldo inside.

From the descriptions others had given him, Donaldo knew the man must be Wormtongue himself. Small, with pale skin and heavy-lidded eyes, wrapped in a dark robe, the man seated himself in a chair by the fire, leaving Donaldo to stand before him, a supplicant before a lord. Donaldo well understood the subtle manipulation by which Grima sought to establish himself as superior, and minimized its effect by standing with relaxed confidence a bit closer to the chair than Grima had anticipated, forcing the seated man to look up into his face.

“Well, what do you want?” Grima inquired, annoyed at this interruption of his time.

“My lord Wormtongue,” Donaldo said, allowing only a hint of mockery to color his respectful tone. “I am honored to meet you. Your fame has spread throughout Rohan, reaching the ears of even a lowly traveler like myself. Yet even in your lofty position, consider that I, though I scarce dare suggest it, might be of some service to you. I believe we can work together to a common purpose. For, unless I am gravely mistaken, we are dedicated to a common cause, and serve a common master.” With that, he made the secret, subtle sign by which covert servants of Saruman might identify themselves to each other.

Grima’s eyes widened, then narrowed as he examined Donaldo with new, intent interest. “Indeed. I do not say you are mistaken. How comes, then, a servant of such a master to this place? And what common purpose do you propose to pursue?”

“When I first came here, I was simply passing through. I had completed the work my master had for me, and he released me from his service. I hired on as guard for a caravan traveling south, and would be with them still, save that a man chose to make himself my enemy. A man who I believe is your enemy also. Which leads to the common purpose I spoke of. I hope you can help me, for I have sworn vengeance against Theodred, the king’s son.”

Steepling his fingers, Grima regarded the stranger. Arrogant he was, and marked with an oily smoothness that spoke of layers upon layers of deceit. Yet in this matter Grima was certain the man spoke truth. The bitter fire in his eyes when he spoke of Theodred was not something that could be faked. And he had given the proper sign. Perhaps he could actually be useful. Grima had been pondering a problem for some time now, and this Donaldo might be the perfect solution, if he were in fact what he claimed to be.

“Theodred. Yes, you are correct. I do consider Theodred an obstacle to the fulfillment of my plans, and intend to take action against him. You think that you could be of aid to me, and this would help you achieve your own ends?”

“Exactly. Whatever designs you have against Theodred, let me be a part of them. I will serve you in any way you require, if it allows me to make him suffer for the humiliation he caused me.” Donaldo’s breathing had grown heavy, and his fists were clenched at his side.

Grima cocked his head and considered the man. Slowly, a smile spread across his face. A messenger would take only a few days to travel to Saruman and return with confirmation of Donaldo’s identity. Then he could begin to put the man to use. None of the underlings currently in his employ had the initiative or intelligence to play the role that would be required, but this Donaldo might well serve. Grima could not afford to allow the secret of his own allegiance to Saruman to be revealed to Theodred. Once he knew that, the king’s son would stop at nothing to remove Grima from power. But Grima’s plan required that someone communicate directly with Theodred, and the girl after she was captured. Donaldo would surely find satisfaction in that role, and his personal grudge could only enhance his effectiveness. It seemed that providence was once again working in Grima’s favor.

Grima gestured across the room. “Pull up that chair and have a seat. We have much to discuss.” Donaldo dragged the indicated chair over to the fire, and seated himself, not quite able to pull off a relaxed sprawl for the intent eagerness that pushed him toward the edge of the seat. “You see, Theodred does have one vulnerability…” The two leaned their heads together, conversing in low tones far into the night, while the fire slowly died and cast their faces in deeper and deeper shadow.

Chapter 10 - Consider Yourself Our Guest

Forstrang peered out through the bushes into the clearing. The young woman sat on a log by the fire, singing softly to the baby in her lap. Would she never put it down? They had been waiting here more than an hour, watching as she went about her tasks, baby carried in her arms or tucked into a carrying cloth. Had it been up to him, Forstrang would long since have simply rushed in and grabbed them both, but Andgit had insisted that they must both be captured unharmed, and laid out his plan. Forstrang shrugged. Andgit knew what he was doing, and Forstrang’s job was simply to follow orders.

Ah, finally! The baby had fallen asleep, and the girl laid it on a blanket spread on the ground. She hesitated as the child stirred, stroking its back gently until it settled again. Then she stood and stretched, looked around, then picked up a pail and walked off toward the stream. Forstrang looked over at Andgit, who nodded sharply. Forstrang heaved himself to his feet and moved as quietly as his bulk would allow out from behind the bushes, over to where the child lay. He scooped it up, tiny in his thick arms. He couldn’t help but look closely at its face. Disgusted, he stared for a moment, then looked away. It was true then, what Andgit had told him. This was no child, but a monster, offspring of the foul orcs. The distorted, inhuman features sickened him. An urge to quickly and mercifully do away with it right then seized him, but he resisted. He had his orders, and his superiors had their uses for this tiny abomination. Andgit came out of hiding also, and looked at the creature with pleasure and greed.

The orc-spawn stirred in his arms and opened its eyes, staring for a moment at his unfamiliar face looming over it. Forstrang was caught by its deep brown gaze, from eyes neither orc nor human. Then the eyes closed and its face screwed up as it began to wail, its cries loud and harsh.

From the direction of the stream, Forstrang heard a clang as the girl dropped the pail. She ran wildly back to the clearing, then halted, eyes big with terror, at the sight of the two strange men. Andgit turned to her with lazy confidence, not even bothering to draw his sword.

“Elana, I believe your name is. If you cooperate, nobody will get hurt. Your presence is required, and I am assigned to bring you to my master, along with your… child. Now it seems you value the creature’s life, so I suggest you come along with us without a fuss. It would be a shame if anything were to happen to it.”

Elana dropped her arms, which had reached out instinctively toward the screaming Deore. She was trapped, she realized despairingly. Somehow they had found her, and with the huge man holding Deore there was no way she could fight without her child being hurt or killed. She could see in the men’s faces that they would not hesitate to harm the baby they considered a monster. Who could have sent them? What use could she, and Deore, be to anyone, that they would want to capture and keep them, and not simply slay them outright? Searching for a reason, a horrifying thought struck her. Theodred had many enemies. What if one of them had found out about her, and Theodred’s love for her, and intended to use her and Deore against him? At the thought of her beloved, her stomach lurched sickeningly. She grew lightheaded, but she could not faint, not when her child needed her. Ruthlessly she suppressed her terror, and forced herself to focus coldly on the small, wiry man’s words.

“Ah, I see you understand me. Now, come here.” Elana complied, stepping toward the man, no closer than she had to. His hand reached out and seized her forearm in a strong, but not cruel, grip. She shoved down memories of her earlier captivity that rose up and threatened to overwhelm her. “You are going to come with us. Our horses are back in the forest. I’m going to let you pack some of your belongings, clothes for you and the child, whatever else you might need. Forstrang here will take good care of the baby, won’t you Forstrang?” Forstrang nodded. “Now just move slowly and don’t try anything rash.” He let go of Elana’s arm and gestured over to her hut.

Elana wondered wildly if there was any way for her to resist. She could stab the man with her belt knife, run off into the forest and lose herself among the trees, flee back to Waymeet and get help. But she was frozen by the sight of Deore’s fragile body trapped in the arms of the big, muscular man, whose beefy hands could crush her delicate skull like an eggshell. She turned numbly to follow her captor’s instructions, stuffing her clothing and Deore’s into her pack along with diapers, cleaning rags, and some food. There was some space left, so she stuffed in the newly purchased fleece, her spindle, and her knitting needles. Her hands were shaking so hard by the time she was finished she could barely close it. Deore’s cries continued, cutting into her heart with longing to hold her and comfort her, and she trembled with helplessness and rage.

Andgit watched her closely, alert for any move of rebellion. When she stood with her pack, he gestured her to walk ahead of him, back into the woods. Forstrang with Deore fell in behind them. The little camp lay abandoned, the fire slowly burning out and dying.

They made their way through the forest to the place where Andgit and Forstrang had concealed the horses. Last night, when their search had finally borne fruit, it had been too late to depart. The man had been vivid in his description of the orc-child, telling how he’d caught a glimpse of its deformed features as the girl had sought to comfort it. They thanked him for his aid with another round of ale, after getting a good description of the girl. That had allowed them to ask more specific questions, and they soon located several people who had seen her leaving town south along the stream. With the first light they had easily picked up her trail and tracked her here. Now it was only a little past noon, and they could be well on their way by nightfall.

Deore continued to cry, her sobs taking on a hopeless, exhausted quality, broken by shuddering gasps for breath. Tears streamed down Elana’s face at the sound, but she didn’t dare stop or even look back. After a while, Andgit’s composure broke, and he turned and snapped at Forstrang, “Can’t you shut the thing up?”

“What am I supposed to do?” Forstrang asked, frustrated. The cries were wearing on him, too. “It has to breathe, so I can’t just cover up its face. Are you sure we can’t just kill it?”

“No, I told you, they’re both wanted alive. Here, give it to me.” He took the baby and bounced it awkwardly a few times, which only increased the volume of the cries. He passed it back to Forstrang and looked appraisingly at Elana.

“We want you both alive, but one would suffice.” They had arrived at the horses. “Here, mount,” he said, jerking his head toward the third horse that they had brought for her. Elana swung herself up onto the horse. It had no bit, only a halter and lead rein. “Now understand,” Andgit said, “Forstrang and I are both excellent archers. If you should for any reason try to ride away from us, we could easily shoot you down long before you could get out of range.” Elana nodded mutely. Andgit drew his sword and gestured for Forstrang to hand the baby up to Elana.

Reaching down, Elana took Deore into her arms with relief. She clutched her child close, burying her head in Deore’s hair and breathing her precious baby smell. Deore gave a few more shuddering cries, then subsided into ragged, hiccupping breathing. The forest seemed unnaturally silent in the sudden quiet. For a moment all Elana could feel was joy that her baby was back in her arms where she belonged, and that nothing else could possibly matter. She fumbled her clothing aside and latched Deore on to her breast, where she nursed desperately, the tenseness of her body only gradually easing. Calm flooded Elana. She took a deep breath, and from deep within her heart called up a firm resolve. She would protect Deore, no matter what it took. Though their situation was grim, they were alive, and together, and somehow they would make it through.

Forstrang and Andgit mounted their horses and set out. Andgit rode in front, leading Elana’s horse, while Forstrang rode behind, keeping careful watch, bow strung and ready. They rode partway back toward Waymeet, but turned east before they reached the town and the road, cutting across the open plain to avoid meeting anyone who might ask awkward questions.

After a while, Forstrang relaxed his guard. It was clear the girl knew she had no chance of escape. He used the opportunity to observe her. She was pretty enough, though no beauty, clearly one of the peasant folk of Rohan. He wondered how she had come to have an orc-child. It was disgusting how she doted on the nasty thing, cuddling it, kissing it, even nursing it. He felt queasy watching her; she was like a madwoman who had dressed a piglet or puppy in baby clothes and put it to her breast. Obviously her feelings for it were genuine, though Forstrang couldn’t understand how. But he accepted it as one of the inexplicable mysteries of life, as were so many other things. Forstrang didn’t waste much time pondering things he didn’t understand. He knew what his duty was, and that was enough. Let his superiors make the plans and give the orders; he could be depended upon to carry them out.

They rode through the rest of the day, pausing a few times when Elana indicated that the creature’s diaper must be changed. Andgit and Forstrang were glad enough to leave that duty up to her. Soldiers as they were, this business of traveling with a woman and child was strange and complicated, and they’d be glad when this duty was accomplished. They camped for the night far from any settlement, the two men taking turns keeping watch to prevent any attempt at escape. Elana and Deore slept wrapped in Elana’s cloak next to the fire, but still the chill of the night made them shiver.

In the morning they rose early and rode on. Near nightfall they drew close to Edoras. When they could just glimpse the golden glimmer of Meduseld atop its peak, they turned aside from their path that had paralleled the main road, and rode south through the gently rolling hills. Well to the southwest of the city they came to an abandoned farmstead, tucked into a small valley, isolated from any other human habitation. Ramshackle and decrepit, its thatched roof half fallen in, it clearly had been deserted for many years. Elana, exhausted from the long ride, was glad of any shelter at all as the two men escorted her into the tumbledown building. One room had been prepared as a makeshift cell, the ceiling reinforced, the one window boarded over, and a new, strong door hung in the doorframe, with a heavy bar on the outside. There was a pallet on the floor and a basin, and Elana was reminded forcefully of her cell in the orc caves. Here, though, at least she doubted she would again face rape, though she feared that the trials to come might be worse even, in their own way, than what she had gone through before. Now she was vulnerable not only in her own body, but in a new and horrible way through her child, and Elana knew it was only too sure that Deore would continue to be threatened to force Elana’s cooperation with whatever plot had been concocted. She knew, with sinking certainty, that they could force her to do almost anything with that weapon. She would rather be raped a thousand times than see her daughter harmed.

Mother and child were barred inside the room. Forstrang stayed, the other room having been much more comfortably furnished as a guardroom, while Andgit rode away. Elana slept deeply that night, exhaustion overcoming fear.

The next morning she woke as usual to Deore’s hungry rooting, and it was a moment before the memory of all that had happened flooded back into her mind. She buried her head in her covers and wept for a long time. She finally stopped, drained and empty. Slowly resolve crept in to fill the emptiness, and she rose grimly and set about taking care of her needs and her daughter’s. Forstrang brought a cold breakfast of bread and dried fruit. He watched mother and child with wary eyes, but spoke as little as possible, and left quickly. After eating, Elana arranged her meager belongings, setting up a corner to hold their neatly folded clothes, and another as a changing area, with a pile of the clean diapers she had left. The bundle of dirty diapers from the day before was beginning to stink, and she eyed it speculatively. When Forstrang returned with her midday meal she presented the problem to him. Faced with the prospect of having to deal with the soiled cloths himself, Forstrang was quickly persuaded to allow her access to the tiny stream that ran past the farmstead. Under his watchful gaze, Deore bound to her chest, Elana spent a few precious hours out in the free air. Never had she so painstakingly cleansed every tiny stain from each diaper, rinsing again and again. But eventually she could draw the task out no longer, and was ushered back inside.

Lulled by the activity, Deore slept, and Elana, desperate for activity to occupy her hands and distract her mind, pulled out her fleece and spindle and began spinning the yarn for a new shawl, drawing out he spiderweb-fine strands between her fingers and winding them around the spindle. She kept at her task until the light dimmed and long golden rays of the sinking sun slanted through the barred window. Then Forstrang brought supper, dried meat, cheese and bread. Deore was fretful that evening, and Elana paced around the little room for hours, bouncing and patting her, frequently stopping to offer the breast, but nothing could console Deore. She would nurse for a moment, then pull her head away, crying, and Elana would resume trudging circles around her cage. By the time Deore finally dropped into exhausted slumber, Elana was so worn out that sleep came easily and welcome.

The next morning Andgit returned. Outside her room Elana could hear his voice and Forstrang’s, accompanied by a third she did not recognize. She was sitting cross-legged on her pallet, finishing the breakfast Forstrang had brought in to her earlier, when she heard the beam being slid back from her door. Deore, full and content from her morning nursing, completely recovered from whatever upset had tormented her the night before, snuggled happy and alert in her lap. Elana set the bowl aside, picked up Deore, and got to her feet. She set her back to the far wall, facing the door, and waited to see who would emerge.

The door opened, and a tall, handsome man with short, wavy black hair came in. He approached Elana, smiling pleasantly, but Elana instinctively recoiled before him. He looked closely into her face, then examined Deore where she squirmed in Elana’s arms. A complex series of expressions passed over his face. Elana could read revulsion, fascination, and satisfaction, along with other emotions she could not name but which filled her with apprehension. Finally the man stepped back and composed his features into an attitude of pleasant hospitality.

“So you are Elana, my dear. It is my great pleasure to meet you. I apologize if the circumstances of your coming here were a bit unpleasant; I’m afraid it was unavoidable. You will understand that it is necessary that you stay here a while, but I hope you will consider yourself our guest. We will strive to make your visit with us as comfortable as possible, given the situation.”

Elana blinked. It was obvious that the man’s words were simply false pleasantries, in no way changing the fact that she was a prisoner and this man was her jailer. But such was the conviction with which he spoke that almost for a moment she believed that he was sincere. She shifted Deore’s weight in her arms and cleared her throat. “Who are you?” Her voice sounded harsh in her own ears.

“Ah, my dear, my name is Donaldo. Now we needs must speak of why I have brought you here. You are acquainted, I believe, with the King Theoden’s son, Theodred.” Elana tried to make no reaction, but she could not prevent her face from paling. “Yes, well acquainted. In fact, I have been told that he fancies himself in love with you.” Elana could no longer meet his gaze, but dropped her eyes, shaking her head in a denial she knew would not be believed. “Hardly wise, of him, don’t you agree, in these troubled times, to let his heart be ensnared by one with the, ah… complications that you possess.” He smiled down at Deore, who was beginning to respond to her mother’s distress with fretful fussing.

Donaldo paused a moment while Elana regained her composure and soothed Deore. “You will be pleased to know,” he continued, “that I have no plans to publish your existence or your relationship with Theodred. The two of you seem to have agreed it should remain secret, and who am I to dispute that?” His voice lost some of its smooth flattering tone, and gained instead a harder edge. “But you must understand that Theodred is currently set on certain courses of action that my master and I profoundly disagree with and must oppose. I believe that you and your child will be able to… persuade him… to listen to my counsel and choose to take the actions that I deem appropriate. In due time, I will bring him here, and allow you to speak with him. When that time comes, I hope you realize that it would be greatly in your best interest, and that of your daughter, if you expend all your effort to convince him to cooperate with me. If you are not able to persuade him, the consequences, I fear, could be most unfortunate.” Elana, pinned beneath the gaze of those dark eyes, could not speak. The threat hung in the air a moment, then Donaldo again smiled and broke the silence. “Until then, I must insist that you remain here with us. We will see that all your needs are provided for; you have only to ask Forstrang or Andgit, who will stay here as your guards. I look forward to the time when we shall meet again. Until then, farewell.” He departed, and Elana could hear the heavy beam sliding once again across the door.

Elana sank to the floor and shook, clinging to Deore for comfort. For all his elegant words, Donaldo’s menace was overwhelming. Clearly, he was the agent of Rohan’s enemies. Her life, and Deore’s, were hostage to this man, and unless she agreed to persuade Theodred to… do what? some treachery, no doubt… they would surely die. Her own life she would give, willingly, if it would save her land from destruction, no less than Theodred himself. But her child…. If the only way to save Deore was to beg Theodred to betray their beloved Rohan…. Elana buried her head in Deore’s hair and wept, terribly afraid that she was faced with a choice she could not make.

Chapter 11 - Farewell

Theodred guided Silverfoot upward toward the royal stables, his business for the day completed. The past months had been hectic, filled with preparations for war. His troops had fought occasional skirmishes, but not yet the major battle he knew must come. Reports from Isengard were few and sketchy, for Saruman was far too skilled at locating and eliminating the scouts Theodred sent, but enough information had reached him to indicate that Saruman was gathering a massive force, which soon must be turned against Rohan. Theodred’s general’s instincts told him that the battle would be joined very soon. Now, when the worst cold of winter was past, but the ground was still firm before the spring rains arrived, would be the prime moment to move a large army. Theodred had been dividing his time between the Westfold and Edoras, seeing to both the establishment of his troops in the field and the defenses being prepared in the capital, along with the recruitment and training of new forces in both places. In the morning he planned to ride west once more, taking his place with the companies camped at the Fords, where he had determined to make his stand. He knew he would not return again to Edoras until after the battle was over, whatever the outcome. Long years as a soldier had taught him not to dwell on that other possibility, always present, that he might never return at all.

Lost in his own thoughts, he had reached the stable yard when a voice hailed him. “Cousin! Over here!” He looked and saw Eowyn, golden hair streaming behind her, cantering around the yard atop a tall charcoal grey horse. He admired them for a moment, then looked more closely at her mount. Could it be the same animal he had rescued a few months before? He hadn’t seen the horse since, and, busy with his duties, had barely spoken with Eowyn, so the change in the animal surprised him. His gauntness was filled out, his coat gleamed with good health, and his gait was smooth and perfectly controlled under Eowyn’s lightest touch. Horse and rider came to a smooth stop alongside Silverfoot, and Eowyn swung to the ground. Theodred dismounted also, and grinned at Eowyn, whose face was beaming with pride.

“Here, take him,” Eowyn said, thrusting out his reins toward Theodred. Theodred approached cautiously, remembering the horse’s fear, but this time the animal behaved perfectly, graciously accepting Theodred’s hand stroking his long, silky neck, and following docilely as Theodred led him around the ring. His injuries had healed cleanly, with faint scars only apparent because Theodred knew where to look for them. Theodred returned his reins to Eowyn, well pleased.

“I’ve been working with him all this time. Elfhelm says he’s ready for service now, and will be assigning him to one of the newly mustered men soon. Once we overcame his fear of men it was easy, really. He’d obviously been trained for battle before. He’s fast, too.” She grinned mischievously at him. “Come ride with us out on the plain and see.”

Theodred hesitated, but the sun still had an hour yet before it set, now that the days were lengthening toward spring. Silverfoot was fresh enough, and restless after a day of only short trots conveying Theodred from place to place, and much standing and waiting. And he welcomed the chance to spend a little more time with his cousin, before his departure. He nodded his agreement and they both remounted, riding out to the practice fields outside the city.

Scarcely had they passed the gate when Eowyn leaned forward with a whoop. “Ay, Windfola!” The horse leapt into a gallop, racing away across the plain. Silverfoot snorted and charged after. He gained on the grey, but more slowly than Theodred expected. Finally he drew alongside, and for a few glorious moments the two horses thundered side by side. Then Silverfoot pulled ahead and the lesser animal fell back, exhausted. Theodred let Silverfoot run a few moments more, then circled back to where Eowyn was walking the grey cool.

“Foal of the wind, indeed!” His tone was teasing, but his gaze was full of admiration. “Quite a feat, to match paces with a mearas, even for a short time. He is well named, I think.” Eowyn smiled in appreciation of his praise, and the two walked their mounts in companionable silence.

After a time, Theodred look sideways at Eowyn, and spoke, hesitatingly. “Eowyn… how fares my father?”

Eowyn returned his gaze with compassion. “His health is not much changed. He spends much time in sleep, and his appetite is small. He eats more when I dine with him, and seems somewhat cheered, so now I take most of my meals with him, and attend him often besides. He likes me to come to him in the evening, and sing until he falls asleep.”

Theodred looked out, beyond Silverfoot’s ears to the horizon. “He refuses to see me.”

Eowyn stroked Windfola’s sweaty neck. “Nor will he allow me to speak of you. Nor Eomer. If I try to mention your names, he sends me away. He listens only to Wormtongue’s slander, that you scheme against him, and crave the kingship for yourself.”

Theodred laughed, a short bark without mirth. “If that was truly what I wanted, can he not see I would have taken it long since? Everything I do is twice as difficult as it need be, because I must always pay homage to the king, and work around Wormtongue’s obstruction, yet I grudge it not, for the honor I owe him. If only he could do me the honor of trusting me….” He was silent for a while. “Eowyn, do you think you could persuade him to let me come to him, if not in the hall, then in private? Tomorrow I ride out, this time, I’m sure, to battle, and… I would bid him farewell.”

Eowyn’s voice was grave. “I will try, though I doubt he will allow it. Yet even so, I might be able to bring you to him. Stay awake tonight, and wait for word from me.”

They spoke no more of the matter, and soon returned Windfola and Silverfoot to the stables. Theodred went to eat the evening meal with his men, since Eomer was away in the Eastfold commanding the forces there. Eowyn went, as was her custom of late, to eat with Theoden in his private chambers. The table was spread for the two of them close to the fire, which was built high to drive the late winter chill from the room. Eowyn found it stiflingly close, but Theoden drew his robe tight around him. Theoden was mostly silent, listening to Eowyn talk lightly of the gossip of the court. She entertained him with the tale of how one of her ladies-in-waiting had woken that morning to find that one of the dogs had chosen during the night to bear its litter on the pillow beside her head. The lady had leapt out of bed and ran shrieking through the hall, clad only in her linen shift. As the lady in question was rather old and quite portly, the effect was comical, and Eowyn was pleased when her rendition drew a smile and a rusty laugh from the king. She felt the moment was ripe to broach a more serious subject, so she took a few more bites, then laid down her knife and regarded her uncle.

“Lord, I was speaking today with Theodred, and he asked me…”

“No more! You know I don’t wish to hear of him.”

“But uncle, he is leaving tomorrow, to battle, he said, and he wishes to bid you farewell.” Theoden had turned his face aside and was ignoring her. She leaned forward and implored him. “You do not know what the fortunes of war may bring. How would it be, if he were not to return, and you had refused even to say good-bye?”

Theoden laughed, a short, mirthless bark. “Theodred is far too skilled a warrior to allow himself to be taken down by a few orcs. I have no fear for him. Now speak of him no more. I am weary. Come sing to me.”

Reluctantly, Eowyn complied, her sweet voice filling the chamber, until Theoden, nodding in his chair, roused enough to wave her away, and servants came to assist him into bed. Eowyn slipped out the door, easing it shut behind her, and turned to regard the two guardsmen flanking the door. Since the only assignment Theodred would give her was to guard and protect the king, she had taken the task to heart and made it her business to know everything that passed around him. She had paid careful attention to the men of the king’s personal guard, had come to know each by name, and to ascertain where each man’s true loyalty lay. A few among them were wholly Wormtongue’s creatures, but most remained committed to the king, and obeyed Grima’s orders only in faith that he was the king’s chosen representative. There was a quiet discontent with the situation among many of them, which had only grown as Grima caused the rift between the king and his son and nephew to widen. Such were the two Eowyn now studied, their faces carefully expressionless as they stood at attention.

“Marden, Thendamer, did you hear what passed between the king and I?” The door had been shut for privacy, but it was thin, and it was the guards’ responsibility to be constantly on alert from any sound within that might signal a need for their action.

The two exchanged guarded glances, then Marden nodded. “Yes, my lady.”

“You know then, that my lord’s son wishes to bid farewell to his father, but that Theoden refuses.” She could see from their faces that indeed they did know, but were reluctant to acknowledge it. “You needn’t reply. But I know you must agree with me that it would be a grievous thing for a son to be denied what might be his final glimpse of his father.” They looked at her, stone-faced, but she pressed on. “Whatever orders Grima may have given you, you know that Theodred bears no ill-will toward the king. If I were to bring him here later tonight, I pray that you would let him pass.”

She held her breath as their eyes silently conferred, then let it out again when Marden gave a quick nod. She murmured her thanks as her feet sped toward her own quarters.

Theodred moved restlessly around his house, unable to rest. Eowyn had told him to wait, but he knew not how long, or what summons might arrive. He went again through his belongings, neatly packed in his saddlebags ready for his departure at dawn. Everything was in perfect order. He had already cleaned and sharpened his sword, twice, checked the fletching and points on all the arrows in his quiver, and polished the metal of his helm and shield. He was about to sit down to check each link in his chain mail for rust or weakness, when he heard a quiet knock at his door. He dumped his mail aside and strode to the door, opening it to see one of Eowyn’s servants, who warned him to silence and beckoned him to follow. He led Theodred to Eowyn’s quarters, where she waited with a hooded cloak. “Put this on. I’ve spoken with the guards, but we don’t want any of Wormtongue’s spies seeing you.” She flung it around his shoulders and he drew the hood forward around his face. He followed her through the corridors to the entrance to the king’s apartments. The guards on either side of the door gave no sign of recognition when, at Eowyn’s signal, he pushed the hood back to let them see his face, but they made no move to hinder him when she led him through the door, then back through the suite of rooms to the king’s bedchamber.

The candles had been extinguished, but the fire burned low and warm, giving just enough light to see by. Theoden lay asleep in his bed. The ornately carved headboard warmly reflected the flickering firelight. Theodred caught his breath at the sight of his sleeping father. Under the heavy woolen bedclothes, elaborately embroidered with silk and gold threads, Theoden’s body seemed small and frail. The muscles of his face were relaxed in sleep, and the skin hung limp, the angular bones of his skull showing through. One hand lay outside the covers, palm up, thin bony fingers curved into a claw. Theodred stepped forward and dropped to his knees beside his father’s bed. He cradled the limp hand in his fingers and laid his cheek in it. The hand was cold, but the chill was not the chill of death. Not yet.

Theodred stayed there a long time. Finally he raised his head. He turned Theoden’s hand over in his and stroked it. Knotted blue veins seamed the hand, and brown age spots freckled it. Theodred found it easier to look at then Theoden’s gaunt, drawn face. He tried to speak, but his throat closed and choked him. He stopped, took a deep breath, and cleared his throat. When his voice came, it was barely louder than a whisper. “Father, I wish this barrier had never come between us. Know that I have always remained loyal to you, and my love for you has never faltered. I am doing the best I know, to serve you, and our Rohan. I am leaving, father, and my heart forebodes that this parting will be our last. Farewell…. His voice failed him, and he bowed his head over Theoden’s hand. Gently, he folded it and laid it down on the bed. He leaned forward and kissed the king’s forehead. Then he rose and turned to go. Theoden slumbered on, oblivious.

Chapter 12 - Think Well On Your Choices

Theodred stumbled after Eowyn, back to her chambers, suddenly overwhelmingly weary, longing only for sleep. When they reached her rooms, he handed the cloak back to her. “Thank you. That meant more to me than you’ll ever know.”

“I only wish I could have done more for you.”

“I know. But it was enough. Now we both have to get to sleep. Farewell, Eowyn.” They embraced, then she slipped away into her rooms, and he made his way out of the hall, through the city to his house.

Once home, he stripped off his clothes and fell into bed, exhausted in body and soul, though it was not yet midnight. He sank at once into sleep. But no more than half an hour had passed when an urgent knocking sounded at his door. Blearily he roused, pulled on his clothes and opened the door, expecting to see Eowyn’s servant again. But the man waiting there was unfamiliar to him. He eyed the short, wiry man warily. “What do you want?”

The man appeared nervous. His face was thin and his eyes were large and dark. “My lord, I bring you a message. You are Lord Theodred?”


“My name is Andgit. I was coming into the city this morning, from my village, when a woman stopped me, and asked me to help her. She said her name was Elana.”

Theodred froze, and a rush of fear swept through him. What could Elana be doing here? What could have happened?

“She asked me to find you, and tell her that she needs your help, desperately. She wanted me to bring you to her – she showed me the place where she is staying. She said I should wait until night, that it must be secret. She couldn’t pay me, but she gave me this.” From his bag he drew a swath of airy, delicate fabric. Theodred took it, hands shaking. He recognized it as the work of Elana’s needles, one of her finely knit lace shawls. He bunched it in his hands and buried his face in it. Was it his imagination, or did her scent surround him?

He dropped his hands, and the shawl fell from his numb fingers. “I’ll get my things. Where are we going?”

“Not far, my lord. It’s just outside the city. So you do know her?

Theodred strapped on his sword and slung his bow and quiver over his shoulder. “I do. You have a horse?”

“Yes, he’s tethered over there.”

“Good. I’m going to the stables. I’ll meet you back here in a moment.” Theodred paused for moment. Surely the man would have mentioned it, but he had to ask. “Did she have… a baby with her?”

“No, my lord.” The man looked at him quizzically.

Theodred swallowed. Something has happened to Deore. He set off for the stables at a run.

Moments later he was back upon Silverfoot, gesturing to the man to lead the way. They kept to a moderate trot through the city, not wanting to attract undue attention, but once outside the gates Theodred urged Silverfoot to a canter in the direction the man indicated. The man’s poor horse had to labor at a full gallop to keep up, even though Theodred held Silverfoot back to what seemed to him a snail’s pace. They made their way southwest, until the city was obscured behind them by a rise of land. Then Theodred followed the man’s pointing finger to catch a glimpse of an abandoned farmhouse ahead. Fiercely he urged Silverfoot to full speed, and the mearas blazed across the grass, leaving their guide far behind.

At the door of the farmhouse Silverfoot pulled up to a halt, and Theodred flung himself from the saddle. He thrust open the door, calling, “Elana?” Within, all was dark and quiet, but a faint glimmer of light caught his eye. Following it, he moved through several empty, ramshackle rooms, until he spotted the warm glow of a candle shining under a door. Not noticing that it was much heavier and newer than the rest of the building, he pushed it open, and his heart leapt with joy to see her there, sitting on a straw pallet on the floor, bent over her knitting needles. “Elana!”

She looked up, startled. “Theodred!” She dropped her needles and raised her hands to his, as he pulled her to her feet and swept her into his embrace.

“What happened? What are you doing here? Are you all right? What about Deore?” The words tumbled out of Theodred’s mouth. Then he noticed several things at once. Elana’s voice had been filled, not with joy at the sight of him, but with horror. Deore lay sleeping peacefully on the pallet. And behind him, two figures had stepped into the room.

His joy drained out of him, leaving behind cold, sick fear. He turned, thrusting Elana behind him, placing himself between her and whatever danger threatened. One of the figures was a huge, muscular, heavily armed man, glowering threateningly. The other was almost as tall, but leaner, and handsome in a sinister way, though bearing no visible weapons. Something about him seemed vaguely familiar….

Theodred drew his sword and launched himself at the huge man. Ready for the attack, the man’s own sword leapt out and parried Theodred’s blow, then swept around to strike. From the corner of his eye Theodred saw a blur of movement as the other man swooped down, but could not pause from his battle to see what he was doing or prevent it.

The man straightened with Deore in his arms. She shrieked piercingly as she was rudely roused from sleep, and thrashed her arms and legs. Elana screamed and flew at the man, tearing at his face with her nails. Momentarily he staggered under her attack. Running feet pounded outside the room, then Andgit burst through the door. Sizing up the situation quickly, he grabbed Elana from behind and crushed her to him, pinning her flailing arms. The man stepped back. Seeing that Elana was dealt with, he turned his attention back to the dueling swordsmen. Theodred had just parried one of Forstrang’s blows, and all was quiet for a moment as they strove together, sword hilts locked, Theodred gradually giving way under Forstrang’s great strength. The man tightened his grip on Deore, who renewed her frantic screams, and called, “Stop!’

Theodred and Forstrang both turned to him. “Drop your sword, Theodred, unless you wish me to break this creature’s neck.” His black eyes locked with Theodred’s, and Theodred knew without a doubt that he would do it. Theodred stepped back, spread his hands, and released his sword, which clattered on the floor. “Forstrang, disarm him.” The huge man stepped forward, retrieved the fallen sword, and removed Theodred’s bow, arrows, and belt knife. Theodred was careful to make no move of resistance, agonizingly aware of the vulnerable child clutched in the man’s grasp. At sword point, Forstrang backed him up against the far wall. The man jerked his head, and Andgit shoved Elana alongside Theodred, where Forstrang’s sword could cover them both.

Elana’s hand groped for Theodred’s, and he clasped it, almost crushing it with the intensity of his grip. The man smiled at the two of them. “Well, Lord Theodred, I see you have taken my bait and walked into my trap.” He had to raise his voice almost to a shout to be heard above Deore’s cries. The girl’s face was red, her eyes screwed closed, and her mouth opened in a wail that paused only briefly to allow her to draw breath before it began again, its grating tones increasingly irritating to her captor. He shook her roughly, but the crying continued.

“Give her to her mother,” Forstrang volunteered. “It’s the only way to shut her up.”

Donaldo was reluctant to give up his immediate power over the orcling, but it would be impossible to conduct this affair properly shouting over her. Elana and Theodred were well enough controlled by Forstrang’s sword, now backed up by Andgit’s. He passed the baby back to Elana. Deore buried her face in her mother’s shoulder, and her sobs died away.

When quiet was restored, Donaldo began again, in the calm, modulated tones that served him so well. No match, perhaps, for Saruman’s silken persuasiveness, but Donaldo liked to think that he had picked up a trick or two in his time in the wizard’s service. “It seems, my lord Theodred, that I have you at a disadvantage.”

“Who are you? What do you want?” Theodred stared with growing desperation at his captors. He had indeed, he could see now, fallen neatly into their trap. He usually took little thought to his own safety, well able as he was to take care of himself, and had never felt the need for a bodyguard, confident that as long as he was reasonably cautious he would be safe from any assassins or kidnappers that might target him as Rohan’s heir. But tonight he had allowed his frantic concern for Elana to drive him to reckless action, and now was caught, far from his men who might help him, not likely to be missed and sought for many hours.

“My name, Lord Theodred, is Donaldo. Lady Elana there has already made my acquaintance. As for what I want… well, that is what we are here to discuss, is it not?”

Studying the man, Theodred grew cold. Donaldo’s dark eyes gleamed with pleasure, savoring Theodred’s distress. Deep in those eyes lurked a hint of wildness, perhaps even madness. For the moment it was contained, but Theodred was left with the uneasy feeling that it might at any moment break free of control. Theodred swallowed. “If you plan to murder me, have done with it. Just let Elana and Deore go. They mean nothing to you.”

Donaldo paced before them, hands clasped behind his back. “Ah, but it seems they mean quite a lot to you, do they not? Which makes them quite interesting to me, as well. I am a reasonable man, and I have no wish to harm any of you, if it can be avoided. I think it is possible for us to reach an accommodation, if you will simply consider what I have to say.”

Theodred closed his eyes briefly. Whoever this Donaldo was, his intentions now were clear. Blackmail was the card he would play. He looked again with loathing at Donaldo, and his voice was firm. “I will make no bargains with you. Who do you speak for? Has Grima hired you? Or do you come from Saruman?”

Donaldo smiled mockingly. “Now, Theodred, everyone knows you despise your father’s counselor, but to suspect him of complicity in this? No, Saruman is my master, and it is his words I bring you.”

In his previous dealings with Saruman, Theodred had thought the wizard incompetent, even a bit of a fool. Certainly he had never been any help when Theodred had sought his advice to deal with the incursions of orcs into Rohan. But in the months since news had come of his betrayal, as Theodred’s scouts reported his swift and efficient preparations for war, and after Theodred had learned from Elana and her fellow captives of his long and brutal scheming, Theodred had come to realize that Saruman’s incompetence was merely a mask donned to fool the unwary, and that in truth the wizard was skilled and cunning, a formidable foe. Now he had ensnared Theodred. “Saruman must know that I will never give into his demands.”

“Perhaps not. The fact remains, however, that you are in my power at the moment, and you would be wise to listen to what I have to offer. It’s very simple, really. My master and I wish to avoid ruinous war and bloodshed, which I’m sure you will agree is a worthy goal. In a few days my master will be sending his troops down from Isengard, across the Fords of the Isen, and on to Edoras. I believe you currently plan to station your army at the Fords, and oppose our progress. All we ask is that you command your forces to stand aside, and let us pass unhindered.”

Theodred was speechless for a moment at the audacity of it. Finally he found his voice. “What you ask is blackest treachery.”

“Even so. But let me tell you what I offer in return. Your own life, which I assure you will otherwise be forfeit. The life of this woman and child. Free passage for you all out of Rohan, if that is what you prefer, or alternately, a position of power in our new government. Saruman can be generous to those who serve him well. And ruthless to those who oppose him. Consider carefully which side you will give your allegiance.” He raised his hand to silence Theodred, who had opened his mouth to speak. “No, do not answer yet. First I will allow you a little time alone with your lady friend. The two of you must have much to say to each other.” He cupped Elana’s chin in his hand, turning her face up to his. She stared at him in loathing, biting her tongue to keep from spitting curses at him. “I expect you to plead my case most eloquently, my dear. Consider this. I might not choose to do you the mercy of letting you die. To my master, you were once very valuable property. He lost most of his stock in your little raid, Theodred, and he is eager to rebuild his program. You are a proven breeder, and could provide many more offspring, if I were to return you to him.” He smiled down at the horrified shock dawning in her eyes. “And your daughter – what a excellent specimen she is! Strong, healthy… why, in a few years she will reach maturity and will be able to produce many sons to be soldiers for our cause.” Elana gaped at him a moment, then as the import of his words penetrated a wild look came to her eyes and she moved to throw herself bodily at him, ignoring in her desperation the swords protecting him and the encumbering weight of Deore in her arms. Theodred’s strong arms encircled her and held her back, as Forstrang and Andgit moved to block her path. Theodred swallowed against the sickness in his throat.

Donaldo turned and made his way to the door, gesturing for Andgit and Forstrang to follow. Before he left, he looked back at them, smug triumph showing through the calm smoothness of his features. Then the door slammed shut, and the bar grated as it was dropped into place.

Elana turned in Theodred’s arms, crumpling against his strong, warm chest. Her courage had held through all the months of captivity. Knowing she must be strong to protect her daughter, she had shut her mind to the terrifying prospects of the future, holding firm to the faith that somehow, she and Theodred together would find a way out of their predicament. Now he was here at last, and the threat against them even more horrible than she had imagined. The relief of being able to at last put aside her brave façade and pour out her fear and grief overwhelmed her, and his solid strength supporting her as she sobbed was unbearably sweet. She shifted Deore to her hip and leaned her full weight on Theodred, registering even in her distraction how oddly content her child seemed.

Theodred held her, eyes closed, face pressed against her hair, refusing for the moment to consider any of what they soon must face, or the terror that threatened to rise up and consume him, clinging desperately to this one moment, savoring only the feel of her in his arms, and her rich womanly scent.

They stood thus, until Elana’s sobs died away. Theodred stroked her hair, and then eased her to the floor, seating himself beside her. Gently he took Deore from her, lifting the baby’s surprisingly heavy bulk into his own lap. While Elana scrubbed at her face with the sleeve of her dress, Theodred peered at Deore, glad to seize on any distraction. “She’s grown so much.” Deore’s lopsided mouth opened in a grin, revealing four tiny pointed teeth peeking through her gums, two on top and two on bottom. “She’s got teeth.”

Elana smiled wanly. “Yes, the first one broke through about a month ago. They’re so much sharper than normal, it was terrible for a few days until I taught her not to bite while she nursed. She drew blood a couple times, but they do learn quickly, you know, if you stop nursing every time they bite, they can’t really bite and nurse at the same time anyway, their tongue covers their teeth, so you have to watch for when they finish and pop them off before they can clamp down….” She realized she was babbling, and stopped and drew a deep breath. They both gazed for a moment at the baby, who laughed back at them, cheerfully unaware of the disaster surrounding her. Her deep, golden brown eyes gazed on them with confident trust.

Elana leaned her head on Theodred’s shoulder. “What are we going to do?”

His hand stroked her hair, then her cheek, and turned her face up toward his. “We will find a way. I don’t know how, but I will find a way to rescue you, to foil Saruman’s plan. Donaldo will have to let me out, if they want me at the head of the army, and when he does I’ll bring my men, and we’ll surround this place… but that’s no good, is it, he will have you to use against us. Then I’ll come alone, in secret, and find a way to sneak you out.”

“Surely he will have thought of that and planned against it.”

“Perhaps. He’s probably planning to take you somewhere else as soon as I leave. What if… no.” With an oath, he slammed his fist into the floor. Passing Deore back to Elana, he rose and began pacing the room. “There must be a way. I know I can find some way out of this trap!”

Elana watched as Theodred roamed the small room, entertaining and discarding ideas and plans. Her own mind sought a way out as frantically as his, but fell always into the same worn patterns it had trod over and over in her months of captivity. She could see no stratagem that Saruman and Donaldo had not already foreseen and defended against. And she feared their devious minds had long since imagined, and then blocked, myriad paths of escape that would never even occur to either of them. Theodred continued to move restlessly, talking to himself occasionally. Deore grabbed at a lock of Elana’s hair, and Elana quickly untangled her fingers before they could pull it painfully. She picked up the little rag doll she had made from where it had been discarded forgotten on the floor. It was a simple hank of yarn, tied at one end to form a head, with the trailing strands braided to form arms and legs. Elana dangled it in front of Deore, who grabbed it and stuffed one leg into her mouth. Elana laid the happily gnawing baby on the pallet, then rose and went to Theodred, where he had stopped and leaned heavily against the wall, staring vacantly into the distance.

She took his hands in hers, and looked up into his eyes. “I believe you will find a way out for us.” He returned her gaze, hungry for the hope and trust he read there. Elana quailed before what she must say next, but gathered the tattered shards of her courage around her and spoke. She tried to keep her voice steady and clear, but despite her best efforts it quavered a bit. “But if you should not…”

“No! I refuse to consider it!” He pulled his hands away and turned from her.

“But we must consider it!” She recaptured his hands, and gripped them, afraid to say what she knew she must. “If it comes to the day of battle, and Deore and I are still in their power… you cannot do what they ask.”

“No…” It was unthinkable. He pictured himself, mounted at the head of his eored, watching as troops of orcs approached, splashing through the shallow water of the fords. Would his men even obey, if he commanded them to move back, allow the enemy to pass? He knew, sickeningly, that they would. Not for long, but long enough. He had earned their trust, had built it up over years of faithful service together, and it would hold for a while. Not understanding, they would still have faith in their commander, that he planned some strategy that would bring them the victory. Not for many long moments would they suspect, as Saruman’s army passed by unopposed. Then, inevitably, the doubts would be born; the unbelieving whispers of treachery would begin, and then grow to a rumble. He could hear their voices, questioning. My lord, when may we attack? What do you plan? What answer could he make? My lord, they are passing, they will be unstoppable soon. My lord, do you betray us? He knew, with a grim pride in his men, that they would break, and throw themselves into the battle. Which of them would put the sword or arrow into Theodred’s own heart, just payment for his crime? But by then it would be too late; the Fords would be crossed, Saruman’s forces deep within their territory. His riders would be confused and leaderless, easy prey for the ravening orcs. He shook his head, violently, trying to block out the images. But Elana, and Deore, would go free. Otherwise… and even more horrible images rose up before him, their bodies broken and discarded, a bloody heap lying on the ground… or worse yet, taken by the orcs, living bodies ravaged by cruel lust… “But how can I not?”

Elana could follow his thoughts as the emotions played across his face. The same images, near enough, tormented her own mind. She tried for tones of ringing courage, but feared her voice was nearer to leaden despair. “What matters our fate, if all of Rohan falls beneath the shadow? All of Middle-Earth? Once Rohan falls, how long before Sauron reaches out from Mordor and claims all the free lands? You lay down your life every time you go into battle; how should I do less?” She pressed his hands to her heart, but her eyes faltered beneath his anguished gaze, and she squeezed them closed, bending her head. “You must stand against them, and fight. Even if it means they kill me. Or even… send me back to the orcs. Even if.…” But her tongue choked on the words, and her heart hammered. “Even if… Deore.…” She stopped, unable to say it, paralyzed by the conflict between the necessity of the sacrifice, and the power of her motherhood, the need to protect her child at all costs. In the silence she heard a cheerful gurgle, and automatically glanced over to where Deore had rolled over onto her stomach and was shakily attempting to push herself up onto hands and knees. Her arms strained, and her body wobbled up off the ground, but then her balance failed and she flopped back down. Crowing with happy laughter, she struggled up again, undaunted. All Elana’s resolve fled, her brave words dry as ashes in her throat. She shut her eyes, dizzy and nauseous. As she swayed, Theodred’s arms wrapped around her and pressed her close to his body. She clung to him, and turned upward eyes naked with grief and terror. “Please, save Deore. Somehow, I don’t care, just please… please….”

As she trailed off into silence and buried her face in his chest, Theodred heard the scrape of the bar being removed, and the door creaked opened. Donaldo entered, closely flanked by Forstrang and Andgit. Theodred faced them, arms wrapped around Elana, heart cold and dead.

Donaldo was smiling again. Anger kindled in Theodred, and he tensed with the desire to erase that smile with a fist to Donaldo’s face. But he controlled himself, and merely glared as Forstrang, sword drawn, gestured for him to follow. Tenderly, he raised Elana’s face to his and kissed her gently. “Courage, dear heart,” he whispered. Then he released her and moved ahead of Forstrang out the door, Andgit and Donaldo following behind. He glimpsed her walking stiffly over to sink down beside Deore, gathering the child in her arms, and bowing her head. Then the door swung shut behind the four of them, cutting off his view.

All were silent as his captors escorted Theodred out of the building. It was still full night, though dawn could not be many hours away. The stars glittered in the cloudless sky, and the gibbous moon gave radiance enough to see by. Theodred could see Silverfoot, who had wandered away across the plain, though not far. He grazed, waiting for his master’s summons. As Theodred watched, Silverfoot raised his head and pricked his ears toward the cluster of men.

“Call him,” Donaldo commanded. Theodred hated being so compelled to cooperate in his own captivity, but the glinting swords left him little choice. He whistled, and the mearas cantered toward him, mane and tail streaming. He took the reins, and contemplated leaping on and racing away. But an arrow could fly faster even than a mearas, and Andgit had already placed a hand on his bow. Donaldo sent Forstrang off to fetch his horse, a heavy-boned, placid beast. When Forstrang returned, Donaldo ordered Theodred to mount, then seized Silverfoot’s reins and addressed Theodred.

“I have no doubt you are full of plans to defy us, to save both the girl and your own honor. So let me tell you a few things. As soon as you and Forstrang leave, Andgit and I will remove the girl and the child to another hiding place. I have my spies, and they will keep me informed of your actions. If any alarm is raised, or any rumor begins that you seek her, Elana will suffer for it. I will not kill her, as long as you go along with our plan, but there are many other things I might do to her that would cause you… distress. Even if you were eventually to find her, there will be time for me to inflict all manner of pain. And the orc-child… think what Elana might willingly do to spare her daughter.” The prospect was so enticing that Donaldo almost hoped Theodred would defy him, and give him the excuse to lay his hands on that sweet young body. Grima had been annoyingly stubborn in his insistence that the captives be well-treated, and had not allowed Donaldo to indulge any of his whims, but should Theodred’s actions call for retaliation against the hostages, Donaldo would be more than ready to carry it out.

Theodred’s expression remained stony, but Donaldo knew his words had hit home. “Now, ride back to Edoras, get what sleep you can for the rest of the night, and in the morning ride out with your troops to the Fords. And think well on your choices.”

He released Silverfoot’s reins, and gave him a slap on the rump, stepping back adroitly to avoid the hooves that lashed out at him. The mearas would have charged breakneck across the plain, but Theodred held him back, knowing that if he pulled too far away Forstrang’s arrows would seek not his own heart, but his mount’s. Anger and fear seethed inside him, but Saruman’s plans were too well laid, and he found himself helpless to do anything but follow the prescribed course.

Donaldo watched him ride away across the plain. When he was well out of sight, he stepped back into the farmhouse and called, “He’s gone.”

From the dark room where he had waited concealed, listening to everything that was said, Grima Wormtongue came forth. He favored Donaldo with a brief smile and a nod. “Well done. I could not have asked for a more effective performance. Now we must wait and see what Theodred will do.”

Donaldo grinned, basking in the praise and gloating over the memory of Theodred’s helpless anguish. “Indeed, I must thank you for the opportunity to convey your message. The experience has been quite satisfactory.” Let that teach the arrogant lordling to tangle with Donaldo! “Surely you don’t think there’s any way the plan could fail? The wench has got a hold on him so tight, there’s no way he’ll give her up to our tender mercies.”

Grima gazed with cold disgust at the leer on Donaldo’s face. “That remains to be seen. In any case, though Theodred’s aid would help our cause greatly, we can prevail even without him. Saruman’s forces should be strong enough to overwhelm Rohan’s defenses, even with Theodred at their head. But free passage of the Fords, with no or minimal losses, would indeed please Saruman, so your night’s work is well done. Now see to moving the prisoners. It must be done by dawn.”

Grima mounted his horse, which Andgit had brought from the stables, and rode back toward Edoras. Donaldo supervised Andgit as he went about getting Elana and Deore mounted and moved to their second prepared refuge, which was simply a camp next to a stream, only a short ride away, where Grima’s men had constructed a shack sufficient to contain the prisoners. They took extra time on their journey to conceal their tracks, and arrived just as faint grey dawn light began to illuminate the mist rising from the grass. By the time Elana and Deore were secured, and had sunk into an exhausted sleep, Forstrang had returned. He, Andgit, and Donaldo settled in to guard the camp, trading watches through the day.

Grima turned over his horse at the royal stables, then returned to his quarters, and pondered for a while, pacing the little room. Eventually, he settled down at the table with pen and paper. When the full golden light of sunrise had roused the rest of the palace’s inhabitants to breakfast and their morning activities, Grima had almost finished his message. He’d given an account of all that had transpired that night. So you may expect to find your passage across the Fords unopposed. Grima stopped and tapped his quill against his cheek, thoughtfully, then set it again to the page. But if Theodred does choose to stand against you, you must spare no effort to eliminate him, for he will have proved himself incorruptible.

Grima sealed the letter and entrusted it to one of his men, to be borne with all speed to his master.

Chapter 13 – Can I Count on You?

Deeply ingrained soldier’s reflexes woke Theodred at the first dawn light through his window. The same reflexes had sent him to sleep a bare hour before, though his mind was in turmoil and his gut in knots. On a campaign one must seize whatever opportunity presented itself to snatch a bit of sleep, never knowing when the chance might come again. So his body, at least, had rested, and now as he woke there was nothing to indicate that the whole sorry affair had been anything but an ill dream. Theodred lay for a moment, eyes still closed. Much as he might wish to believe that none of it had been real, his heart knew the truth, and would not let him deny it.

He rose and dressed, mechanically setting in order his equipment and possessions for the planned departure. Though surely he could not leave as planned, for somehow he must find Elana and Deore and free them. Somehow…

A harsh knock at the door interrupted his preparations, and he opened it to find a messenger bearing letters from Grimbold, promoted now to command of his own eored and left in charge of the men stationed at the Fords in Theodred’s absence. More scouts had returned from Isengard. Saruman’s preparations proceeded apace, more quickly even than before. Orcs poured into Isengard from the mountains to the north, forming an enormous army, beyond any Rohan had ever seen. It could be only a matter of days before the attack was launched. Grimbold urged Theodred to return to the Fords with all possible speed, that he be there to lead his men when the attack came.

Theodred crumpled the paper in his fist. He must go! His men needed him, and if he delayed here even a day it might very well accomplish by default the very purpose Saruman sought. Even with Theodred to lead them Rohan’s forces were far from assured of a victory. Leaderless, their defeat was almost certain. To abandon them would be treason, no less than the more blatant betrayal Donaldo had asked.

He clad himself in his mail, girded on his sword, and picked up shield and helm. He left his packed saddlebags by the door for the servants to bring. At the stables he mounted Silverfoot and settled his helm in place on his head. With a slight pressure from his knee he sent Silverfoot circling the yard, watching the preparations as the small troop of men who would ride with him gathered and mounted. Who here could he entrust with the task of searching for Elana and Deore? His best soldiers he had left at the Fords; these were men he knew less well, none of them his close friends or trusted confidantes. There was no time, even if he were sure of one, to explain the situation and persuade him to give aid. Eomer was far away in the Eastfold. A message would take a day to reach him, then he would need even more time to travel back, even if Theodred dared trust the tale to paper, which hostile eyes might intercept and read.

A dark flash at the stable door caught his eye. Nightbird, gleaming ebony, pranced out, Eowyn on her back. Clad in her shieldmaiden’s garb, sword hanging by her side, Eowyn came to bid the men farewell. Theodred was sure he was not the only one there who knew her well enough to read the hunger in her eyes. She believed she should by rights be accompanying them, and was only ill reconciled to remaining behind, valiantly though she tried to conceal it.

Eowyn! The thought struck Theodred in a blinding flash. He had told his cousin everything, that afternoon many months ago, and in love she had accepted and supported his strange choice. They had not spoken of it since, but the understanding remained tacit between them. Her sword was the match of any man’s, and she would be remaining here. She was the one he could trust to seek his beloved.

As quickly as the idea formed, Silverfoot was at her side. “Eowyn, come apart with me for a moment. I must speak with you.” Eowyn tensed in her saddle. There was something wild and haunted in her cousin’s eyes, a frantic urgency in the way he and Silverfoot crowded Nightbird into a quiet corner of the yard. Even before he spoke she knew that something must be terribly wrong.

“Eowyn, remember last fall, I told you about my… about Elana, and her daughter Deore.…” She nodded wary assent. “Last night, after I left you, a messenger came, saying she needed me. But it wasn’t true, it was a trap, and I blundered into it like a fool. They have her, Eowyn, and the baby, some lackeys of Saruman’s. There was nothing I could do except listen to their threats. They want me to turn traitor in the battle that is coming. I can’t stay, my men need me in the field, but someone has to find her, and get her away from them, or else when I stand and fight against them she’ll die, or worse.…” Eowyn gaped at the onrush of words, but did her best to comprehend the import of what he was saying. “You’re the only one I can ask, the only one I can trust. Even now I can’t let people know about her, for all the same reasons as ever. But you can do it, I know, you can find them and rescue them.” For a moment Theodred hesitated. What right had he to ask such a task of her, to put her in such danger? But there was no other. “Can I count on you, Eowyn?”

Eowyn reached out and clasped her cousin’s hands. “Of course you can. I will do my utmost. But where are they? What should I do, do you think?”

Theodred hastily described where to find the abandoned farmhouse. “But she probably won’t be there anymore, they will probably have moved her already. I don’t know where to search, but surely you’ll be able to find some clue….” How quickly would she be able to reach the place? Though a fine animal, Nightbird wasn’t as fast as some. Perhaps Eowyn would be better to ride Windfola, if the warhorse hadn’t been assigned already to some new recruit….

For the second time that morning, Theodred was hit by a burst of insight. Windfola. The man who had lashed the horse’s face with such savage malice, and glared at Theodred with such rage. The hair was different, the beard gone, the clothes changed, but the eyes were the same. How had he not realized before? He felt dull-witted, his mind foggy and slow, laboring to sort out pieces of the puzzle that should have fallen neatly into place. Reacting to events, not taking command boldly as he should.

He focused again on Eowyn. “Donaldo – that’s the name of the one in charge. I just realized it, but he’s the man I took Windfola from. He was in Edoras, back then, with the caravan, before they left. Somebody must know him, remember him. Maybe he even comes back here sometimes. Maybe someone in Edoras will know where he is…. It’s a long shot, but if you can’t find where they’ve taken Elana and Deore, maybe you can find someone who knows Donaldo.”

The troop that would accompany Theodred was forming up, baggage animals loaded and in place, all the men mounted and armed, looking over toward them in growing impatience. His acting second in command began moving their way, to find out what was delaying their captain. Theodred swore. “There’s no time. I’ve got to go. Eowyn.” His eyes met hers, blazing with intensity. “I trust you. I’m depending on you. Send me word, if you can….” He wheeled Silverfoot and cantered to meet his second, who escorted him to his place at the head of the troop. After a few moments of quickly exchanged words, Theodred called the command to proceed and the troop got underway, trotting out of the stable yard and down the cobbled streets to the main city gate. As he left the yard, Theodred twisted in his saddle and looked at her, his face settled into a mask of calm determination, and waved farewell. The he rounded the corner into the main street and was gone.

Sitting on Nightbird, Eowyn waited for a moment, dazed by the unexpected turn of events, trying to make sense of it all. Her cousin’s beloved seized and held hostage…. She, alone, entrusted with the task of finding and rescuing them…. A stablehand approached. “My lady, did you not mean to ride out with them, to speed them on their way? Or would you prefer us to tend to Nightbird for you while you return to the hall?”

Eowyn took a deep breath and firmed her hands on the reins. “Neither. I think I will change my plans. I would enjoy a ride, but I will not trouble the Riders with my presence. I’m going to take Nightbird for a bit of a canter out on the plains to the northwest. I’ll be back in time for the noon meal.” Before he could protest the impropriety of her riding outside the city alone, she had urged her horse past the man and out the gate. She took a different turning than the troop, down the path that would lead to the northwest gate. Soon she had wound her way through the streets of the city and out the gate, pressing Nightbird to her fullest speed across the plain in the direction Theodred had indicated.

She missed the little valley on the first pass, and had to circle around once she grew certain she had gone too far. She cast about, feeling lost and disoriented, then suddenly recognized the fold between two gently rolling hills from Theodred’s description. She followed the dell back, slowing Nightbird to a walk as she neared its end. There it was, tucked away out of sight, half fallen down, looking as if it had not been inhabited for a generation. There was no cover to conceal her approach, but she rode cautiously, all senses alert for any sign that she was being watched. Nothing stirred. She circled the farmhouse, seeing no signs of life at any of the windows, no horses or other creatures, nothing to indicate that this place was anything other than it seemed. Finally, she dismounted and pushed the decrepit door open, peering within. Dust swirled in the air, and lay thick on all surfaces. Seeing it made her suddenly think to look down, and she saw that the dust was swirled and trampled with the marks of many footprints. She swallowed at this confirmation that it was indeed the place, and followed the footprints through to the back of the house. There it was, as Theodred had described it, the room secretly repaired and strengthened, the heavy, barred door hanging open now. She slipped inside. It was empty.

A smudge of white on the floor caught Eowyn’s eye, and she stooped to pick it up. A bedraggled hank of yarn, tied and braided into the form of a doll, matted and ragged from the gnawing of baby teeth. Eowyn’s hand clutched convulsively around it. Then she tucked it carefully into her pouch.

The adjoining room showed the remains of a fire in the hearth. No doubt remained in Eowyn’s mind that this was where Elana and Deore had been held captive. But where had they been taken? She returned to the door, and stared around the little vale in frustration. Tracking! She had never learned tracking; it was no part of a Rider’s education. Most boys learned to read the signs in the dirt and broken blades of grass from their fathers, in the course of the hunt. Hunting had never appealed to Eowyn, it was the glory of the battlefield she sought, and so she had never thought to demand that she be taught the art. And none of her teachers had ever thought to offer it to her. Now she swore, in desperate need of a skill she did not possess.

She tried, nevertheless. It was easy enough to pick up the hoof marks of several horses in the bare dirt near the farmhouse door. A pile of dung confirmed their progress down toward the little stream. But the clear marks in the mud of the stream bank were unaccompanied by any matching marks on the far side. Eowyn mounted Nightbird and ranged up and down both sides of the stream. She found a number of gravelly or rocky places that might have allowed horses to pass without leaving traces, and explored around each one as far as time allowed, troubled by the uneasy feeling that she was failing to see signs that would be clear to more experienced eyes. Finally, as above the high overcast the sun neared its zenith, she admitted to herself that she was unable, for the moment at least, to proceed any farther. Tired, wet, dirty and cold, she returned to Edoras.

On the long ride back, she pondered what her next step could be. The country around Edoras was vast and sparsely inhabited. There were many places where Saruman’s minions might have established hideaways, and no guarantee that they would remain in any one place for long. She could continue to ride out each day and search, and would, though she feared such aimless wandering would prove fruitless. But Theodred’s information had included another path of investigation she must pursue. This Donaldo had been in Edoras before, and somewhere among the taverns and inns of the lower quarters of the city might well be men who knew him. He might even have confederates and allies, providing him with supplies and information.

She could hardly appear in such places as herself, the king’s niece, without drawing all sorts of unwanted attention. But she had a plan to deal with that problem. She’d been toying for months with the idea of a disguise, that she might take up a place among the defenders, should the battle come to Edoras. She’d even collected a few items, tucked away in her room. Now she plotted out her strategy to walk unknown and unremarked, and seek out the men who could give her the information she needed. She would begin that very night.

Chapter 14 – Come Quickly

Theodred’s troop of twenty Riders rode hard through the morning. The weather was damp and chill, an unbroken layer of clouds leaching the color from the landscape, leaving only dull grey. At times a fine misty drizzle dampened Theodred’s face. They paused only briefly at noon, to feed and water the horses, and to bolt a few quick mouthfuls of bread and cheese. Then back on the road, hour after hour, hooves beating out a steady rhythm. As accustomed as Theodred was to traveling, he found this journey wearing, his muscles aching and joints stiff as he swung down off Silverfoot for one of their brief rest stops, creaking as he mounted again. Age, he supposed, was creeping up on him. Long past were the days when a nearly sleepless night followed by a day’s hard ride could be taken in easy stride. He tried to dwell for a while on the depressing prospect of his body’s decay with the advancing years, but the distraction worked for only a moment. Soon enough his mind circled back to the images that tormented him. Donaldo’s sneering face. All we ask is that you command your forces to stand aside, and let us pass unhindered. Elana’s fear. I might not choose to do you the mercy of letting you die. Deore’s laughing innocence. Please, save Deore. Somehow, I don’t care, just please… please….

Now Silverfoot’s every stride carried him farther away from her, league upon league, toward the moment when he must make the choice that would condemn either his land or his beloved to doom. Perhaps Eowyn might yet save him from that choice, but truly his hope in that was slim. And even if she should succeed, it would probably be too late for word to reach him, and he must face the battle not knowing whether Elana’s fate remained hostage to his actions.

He puzzled again over the mystery of Donaldo, worrying it in his mind, trying to made sense of what he knew. Had the man been an agent of Saruman even at their first encounter? Had that incident, too, been a trap somehow? Or had anger at Theodred over Windfola’s confiscation driven Donaldo to seek out Theodred’s enemy and offer his service? What road had he walked in the intervening months, to bring him to where he now stood, hands clutched around Theodred’s heart? Try as he might he could deduce nothing with certainty.

Late in the afternoon, they crossed paths with a messenger, riding at great speed toward Edoras. Theodred hailed him, and he reined his sweating horse to an exhausted stop. “I bear a message to Theodred, the Second Marshall,” the man called.

“I am he,” Theodred replied.

“Well met, my lord. Glad I am to find you already so far along the road. Though it is ill news I bring, that will bring you little joy to read. Still, better now, for much longer might have been too late.” Theodred accepted the folded packet of paper the messenger handed him, and began tearing it open even as he dismounted. Reading as he walked, he led Silverfoot to where a line of trees marked the course of a tiny rivulet. The messenger and his men followed. By the time all the horses had drunk thirstily, and the men had gathered in a loose circle, eyes on their leader, he had finished the grim message. Wordlessly he handed the paper to one of his men, whose eyes devoured it as the others clustered about to read over his shoulder.

Saruman has sent us a warning, Grimbold had written. Today he released all the scouts he had captured, through all the months we have been watching him. Maimed, each of them, in one way or another. Hamstrung, blinded, tongues cut out, that they might be of no more use to us as scouts or soldiers. But before he let them go, he brought them out and paraded his army before them. The numbers are vast, they tell me, double our most generous previous estimate. He laughed, they said, and bid them say, “The hour for secrecy is past. Prepare to meet your doom.”

Come quickly, lord, that you may counsel with us how we may best meet this challenge. Send for what reinforcements you may, for we will need all our strength, and more. I beg you, hurry!

Theodred closed his eyes, sickened by the message’s import. A secret, glad whisper spoke deep in his heart. Surely now, surrender would be justified. Faced with such an overwhelming force, who could blame him if he took the prudent course and acted to at least save his men’s lives? Why should he sacrifice Elana and Deore to fight a battle he could only lose?

Shame burned in him at the thought. His men would not thank him for selling them out to so vile an enemy, whatever the odds against them. Rohan deserved no less than all they could give, even if the cause seemed hopeless. He could not save Elana and Deore that way. The only recourse then, was to strive, somehow, to bring about a victory, gamble everything in a desperate chance, that the sacrifice, if inevitable, might at least not be in vain.

Theodred met his men’s eyes, as they looked up from the message, wide with horror. He took the paper back and turned it over, hastily scrawling lines on the blank side. He turned to the messenger. “Bear this to Elfhelm in Edoras. It bids him come with all speed he may, and bring with him all the forces that are in Edoras, trainees, new recruits, everyone. That will leave the city all but defenseless, so you are to continue on to Eomer in the Eastfold, and carry word for him to bring his eored back to Edoras. It won’t be enough, should we fail, but we cannot pull any more forces back from the eastern border.”

Grim understanding returned Theodred’s gaze all around the circle. “Now, men, we mount and ride. More then ever, we must make haste. As quick as the horses may, and yet be fit to fight when we arrive.” Swiftly, the men obeyed.

Chapter 15 – More Than Honor

Through the rest of the day and on past sunset, the troop rode on. Theodred pushed himself mercilessly as long as he could, but his weariness was great, and he feared that soon not even Silverfoot’s skill could prevent him from toppling out of the saddle. So he called a halt, several hours’ ride short of the Fords. His men wondered a little that he did not press on further into the night, but they were glad enough of the halt. At any rate, they would be little use in battle if they arrived at the Fords exhausted on spent horses.

Theodred slept deeply, and if he was troubled by dark dreams he did not remember them when he woke. Much refreshed, he had the men on the road again soon after sunrise. After an hour of riding they passed the road to Helm’s Deep, which branched off to the left. Helm’s Deep was held by Erkenbrand, a lord of the Westfold. Theodred contemplated calling him out with his forces to strengthen the force at the Fords, but reluctantly decided against it. The fortress was a key strategic point, guarding the road east to Edoras and the heart of Rohan. Should the Fords fall, Theodred and his men would have to retreat there and make a stand. They could not risk leaving it defenseless, able to be taken by the enemy and held against them. And Erkenbrand commanded few men there; the place was so strong that only a small force was needed to defend it. Those few would make little difference at the Fords, but would serve a crucial function holding the fortress.

Past the intersection the road turned sharply north. The White Mountains dwindled behind them as they rode, while on the northern horizon, far across the flat lands of the Gap, the shadowy grey forms of the southernmost peaks of the Misty Mountains rose like a bank of low-lying storm clouds as they approached. By midmorning they had drawn near the Fords. The road turned sharply again, and ran due west, down a sharp drop from the high grasslands to the floodplain of the River Isen.

Theodred paused Silverfoot on the edge of the bluff and gazed out over the vista spread before him. The shining silver path of the river ran down from the north, where thick brush and thickets of trees overshadowed it. It spread out into the wide, rocky shallows of the Fords, splitting into two arms that encircled a low, grassy island. The road crossed at the southern end of the island, passing through the sparkling water as it flowed over sand and gravel, then running for a few yards across the dry land of the island, and continuing on to the deeper and rockier crossing of the western arm of the river, where fist sized stones made for treacherous footing for the horses. South of the Fords, larger boulders were tumbled in the river, dividing it into a series of deep pools and narrow, rushing channels.

The near side of the river was a riot of activity. The tents and pavilions of the army camp spread north and south of the road. People swarmed about, busy with all the tasks of the camp, preparing the midday meal, feeding and watering the horses. The sound of hammering rang out from the forges where smiths toiled over last minute repairs and modifications of weapons and armor. An eored drilled on the plain to the south. Long picket lines of horses stretched along the riverbank, while more horses ranged in loose herds on the plain to the north.

Frowning, Theodred studied the horse herds. Surely that herd was made up of yearlings? And there was a group of pregnant mares, a few early spring foals among them. These were the herds from the breeding and training farms across the Isen. He’d thought the farms were far enough south to be safe, but it seemed the animals had been brought here, where the strength of the whole army could protect them. A large portion of the wealth of Rohan grazed there beside the river. Theodred sighed. Yet another factor to take into consideration in his plans. He urged Silverfoot forward again, the mearas’ large hooves picking a careful way down the steep slope.

He was greeted, when he rode into the camp, with enthusiasm and a sense of restrained but profound relief. His men trusted him, and looked to him to work some strategic miracle, to salvage the possibility of victory from a situation in which they could see only defeat. The burden of his men’s trust settled heavily on Theodred. What had he ever done to deserve such blind faith? He was a good enough commander, he supposed. He knew he had a gift for seeing the overall shape of a battle, and choosing the course that would maximize his forces and exploit the enemy’s weaknesses. They had overcome long odds together before, but never such dire peril as this. Had they always looked at him thus? If they had, he had simply accepted it as his due. Now, acutely aware of the fragility of the resolve that kept his own faith true to them, their unshaken confidence in him was a heavy load on his heart.

He dismounted, reluctantly surrendering Silverfoot to the ministrations of the grooms that swept up to tend him. No time now for the soothing ritual of caring for his mount. He made his way to the command tent, where leaders of each of the companies were gathered, planning strategy. A bowl of stew was thrust into his hands, and he ate absently as he bent over the table covered with maps marked with the latest information on their own forces and Saruman’s. Grimbold quickly acquainted him with the reports of the last few hours, which mostly confirmed and detailed the reports the maimed scouts had brought.

Setting his stew aside half-eaten, Theodred studied the situation. Much to his surprise, confidence dawned in him, and grew slowly but inexorably. Their position was far from hopeless. He could see two strategies at least that held hope of victory. He outlined them to his commanders, illustrating with broad gestures over the maps. “We could concentrate all our forces here, on the eastern shore of the river. Then they would have to come at us through the water, where the footing is unstable, and they’d be approaching up the slope of the bank. They could only bring a portion of their force to bear at any one time, since both north and south the river is proof against any significant numbers getting across. Alternatively, if they are slow to get their forces moving, we could take the main body of our army across the Fords, leaving just a small force here, and go north up the west bank to meet them. We could surprise them before they expect to meet us, or we could even set an ambush if we could find a suitable place, though the land there is ill suited for concealment.” He sat back and surveyed the maps, checking for any factors he might have overlooked. The two plans seemed about equally attractive to him, each offering advantages and difficulties. “So, tell me your thoughts.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent in intense conversation, debating the merits of the competing strategies, playing out various scenarios, each of the commanders bringing the force of his experience and intelligence to bear on the problem. By evening, Theodred was satisfied that everyone understood all the options as thoroughly as possible. He slightly favored waiting on the eastern shore himself, though most of his commanders pushed for the more active advance to the west and north. He would have to reassess the situation in the morning. Depending on where the main body of Saruman’s troops was located, crossing the river might be the more attractive option then.

For a while he joined the men of his own eored around the fire. His coming had infused the men with hope, and though the battle on the morrow loomed in all their thoughts, the relief from the despair they had felt at the news of the size of Saruman’s forces left them giddy and high-spirited. Ale flowed, though not so much as to impair their performance in the morning. Boastful tales, laughter, and songs of the glories of Rohan’s past filled the night air. Theodred tried to give at least the semblance of sharing their mood, but managed only a quiet reserve. He was glad when the festivities died down and he could excuse himself to his tent.

He puttered around for a while, unwilling to surrender to the quiet dark of his bed, where his thoughts would have free rein. He’d managed to push aside all thoughts of Elana and Deore through the day, but now no longer. Could he truly go through with it, tomorrow, and fight the battle the blackmailer had sworn would lead to her death, or worse? Yet he knew beyond doubt he could not betray his men or his people, even for her sake. He rolled up the map he’d been studying by the flickering light of his lamp, and rose to pace around the tent. The hours ahead of him seemed to stretch on interminably. At least once the fighting began he’d be able to lose himself in battle rage. He’d never been one to let the fierce joy of combat overcome his senses, preferring to remain in control of his thoughts and actions. Now, though he understood in a way he never had before the appeal of the stark berserk madness that took some warriors in battle. He found himself craving it like some men craved ale.

“My lord?” Theodred jumped at the soft call from outside. “Messenger from Edoras, my lord.”

Theodred’s heart hammered. Could it be word from Eowyn? “Send him in.” Theodred turned to light another lamp, hand shaking, trying to compose himself. He turned, raising the lamp to cast its light on the messenger’s face. He stopped, cold shock freezing him in place. The face was Donaldo’s.

Donaldo smiled at Theodred’s discomfiture, although surely the light of the lamp shining in his face must have half-blinded him. He took the lamp from Theodred’s numb grip, hung it from the waiting hook on the tent pole, then stepped over to the table. He pulled out one of the folding camp chairs, turned it to face Theodred, and seated himself, thrusting out his legs and crossing his ankles and arms. He was dressed in the uniform of an official messenger, with the badge of office pinned to his shoulder, and a standard message pouch dangling from his belt. He surveyed Theodred with an insolent smirk, and waited for him to speak.

Theodred clenched his hands into fists at his sides. He forced words out of his frozen throat. “What are you doing here?”

Donaldo’s grin grew wider. “When we parted yesterday – was it only yesterday? Your courier horses are swift; it was a pleasure to ride them – I felt it would be necessary to stay close to you, to monitor your reactions to my offer. I suggest you reconsider that.” He nodded to where Theodred’s hand had begun to move toward the dagger at his belt. His sword was hung at he entrance of the tent, beyond Donaldo from where he stood. “I have a sword and you do not. Also, your lady friend is safe in the keeping of my men, and I have left word that should I not return, they are to make her death as slow and painful as they know how.” Theodred froze again. “Much better. As I was saying, I have been watching you, and from your actions today it seems likely that you plan to refuse my generous offer. Very noble of you. I hope your honor will warm your bed as well as your sweetheart might have. You are still free to accept of course, and the promised payment still stands. But I realize that the conditions I set might seem too… blatant? inelegant? obvious? to you. So as a secondary option for you to consider, I would like to offer something more… subtle.”

Theodred was mesmerized by the melodic cadences of Donaldo’s voice. He could focus on nothing but the man’s words. “You have been considering how to deploy your forces tomorrow. Saruman wishes to choose the field of battle. He asks that you hold your forces here, at the Fords, and not advance across the river to meet his forces before they are ready. In return, a quick and painless death for the girl, and for the orc-brat…” He leaned forward, eyes meeting Theodred’s with gleeful malice. “I will deliver the orc-brat to you, to do with as you will.” He settled back into the chair. “None ever need know that you aided us. And, fortunes of war being what they are, you might even manage to win anyway. The bargain would still stand.”

He drew his feet under him and rose. Theodred still stood, motionless, unable to form a coherent thought or decide on any action. Donaldo executed a small, mocking bow. “Farewell, Lord Theodred. I will be nearby, ready to respond to whatever you choose to do.” He slipped from the tent.

Released from his stupor, Theodred dashed to the tent entrance and thrust aside the flap. The cry on his lips died as he gazed out into the peaceful night, white hulks of tents lit only by the occasional torch or lamp. Donaldo was nowhere to be seen. He let the flap fall closed again, and turned to stare blindly at the spot where Donaldo had sat.

Curse the man! Would he never leave Theodred in peace? Almost he longed for it all to be over. At least dead Elana would be out of reach of Donaldo’s torment, and Theodred would be free of the looming threat against her. Did Donaldo truly think he’d be any more open to this bargain than to the last?

Theodred moved over to the table. He turned the chair Donaldo had used and shoved it up under the table, then almost against his will unrolled the map laying there and spread it out to his view. He gripped the back of the chair, studying the markings on the map. Donaldo had said the bargain would stand even if Rohan’s forces won. So long as Theodred chose to fight the battle there on the eastern bank, Deore at least would be spared. Elana’s voice whispered in his mind. Please, save Deore. I don’t care… Assuming, of course, that Donaldo could be trusted, which Theodred did not believe for a moment. But hadn’t he favored the eastern strategy already, as having the slight edge for Rohan? Why would Saruman want to ensure he chose that plan? Could he have some trap laid, ready to spring if Theodred would only keep his troops in the proper place? Or were his forces really that vulnerable as they moved, that he must keep Theodred away from them?

Could it be done? He closed his eyes, the image of the map burned on the backs of his eyelids. He thought he could prevail against Saruman by holding the eastern bank. But what was he missing? Anger built in him. Curse Saruman, vile traitor, and curse Donaldo, deceitful scum. Whirling, he snatched from its hook the lamp Donaldo had so provocatively taken from his hand. He dashed it to the ground. Oil spilled out, soaking into the trampled earth, and the flame guttered, then caught at a wisp of dry grass. Theodred stamped out the tiny flame, and in his fury smashed the fragile pierced tin of the lamp beneath his boot also.

Throwing himself down on his bed, he began methodically stripping off his outer garments. Saruman wanted him to choose to fight at the Fords. Therefore, he must be planning to exploit some weakness Theodred was missing. Somehow, his forces would be vulnerable should he choose what had seemed to him the stronger ground. He could not let his own arrogant confidence in his men’s prowess lead him to believe they could conquer on the very ground Saruman had chosen for himself. Surely Saruman was counting on his greedy desire to have it all, to win the battle and Deore’s life too.

Theodred felt again the warm, wet weight of the baby in his arms, moments after her birth. His hands had caught her as she slid from her mother’s body, and the deep, rich brown of her dazzling eyes had ensnared his soul. She was his child in a way that transcended the trivialities of begetting and blood. He loved her not only for Elana’s sake, but for her own sake as well. Elana was willing to sell her own life for that of her child. Could he hold his own honor more dear than Deore’s life?

Not his honor, he realized. Were it simply a matter of sullying his own honor, he would not hesitate a moment. But more than honor rested on his choice. At stake were the lives of his people, the future of his country. That he could never betray.

He found the thought oddly comforting. His choice was clear. In the morning, unless Saruman’s forces had advanced right up to the Fords, he would lead his men across in strength and take the orcs unprepared. Only at great need would he allow his troops to make a stand on the eastern shore. Elana, Deore, all would be sacrificed, but whatever devious plot Saruman had concocted would be foiled.

He stared long into the blackness, and only his trained body sent him eventually into sleep. The morning could not come quickly enough.

Chapter 16 – So Many Regrets

Theodred was gathered with the other commanders in the strategy tent when the scouts reported in at the first light of dawn. He listened to them, the eggs and bacon he’d eaten around the fire with his men when he first awoke lying in a heavy lump in his stomach. Saruman’s forces had advanced during the night. They were well out of Isengard now. Except for the events of the previous night, Theodred would have been inclined to hold his forces there at the Fords. But now he knew that option was a snare, its promise a deceit. He concealed his bitter satisfaction. You lose, Saruman. You gambled that you could buy me, but in so doing you have revealed your own hand.

Swallowing with difficulty, Theodred met the expectant, eager gazes of his men. Forgive me, Elana. “We attack. Muster your men and be ready to depart within the hour.” He quickly reviewed the assignments of each commander. The foot soldiers from the Westfold would all remain here, along with three companies of riders, to remain in reserve in case any of Saruman’s forces should escape and make it to the Fords. With them would remain all the spare mounts, so that the companies traveling north would be light and unencumbered. They would hold the Fords, east and west, against any foes. Theodred would take the main body of the army, eight companies of Riders, plus his one company of mounted archers, and ride swiftly north to meet the advancing host.

Practical matters settled, Theodred caught the eyes of all his commanders. “We ride now to victory. Let this day be remembered in song and story as Rohan’s hour of greatest glory. Forth Eorlingas! Eager voices joined his in the battle cry, and as they surged out of the tent the cheers of all the assembled men greeted them.

Preparations were quickly accomplished. Soon Silverfoot’s hooves splashed into the icy, leaden waters of the Isen. The day was grey and misty, and along the river thick banks of fog drifted downstream. As behind him the ordered and disciplined horsemen streamed across the Fords, Theodred led the way up the western bank and north along the road. Turning, he could no longer see the camp, for it had vanished into the mist.

He set a brisk pace, fast enough to cover the miles, but not so fast as to exhaust the horses. Constantly he searched the landscape for an appropriate location to stage an ambush. The persistent fog would lend itself to such a strategy, but the lay of the land was simply not suited to the purpose. The only trees where men might wait hidden were down at the edge of the river, separated from the road by a steep bank where the raging floods of late spring had dug the river’s course below the level of the plain. This portion of the plain was unrelieved flat land, unlike the gently rolling hills around Edoras. There was simply nowhere a force of sufficient size could lie concealed. At least Saruman’s forces would be similarly unable to ambush them.

By midday, the sun had burned off some of the fog, though it still lay thick in the river valley. So the leading troop of orcs was still more than a mile away when Theodred caught the first glimpse of sunlight glinting off helmets and mail, twenty miles north of the Fords. The moment was here at last. Around him the men of his eored fell neatly into battle order, charged with excitement. Behind, the other eoreds assembled, commanders shouting a few last minute orders. When all were ready, Theodred gave the signal, and the horses thundered forward, a roar of challenge ringing from a thousand throats.

The vanguard of Saruman’s forces showed every sign of being taken by surprise. The orcs scattered before the Rohirrim onrush. Soon enough, though, they rallied, and fought fiercely. Though not mounted, among them were many armed with pikes and long spears, effective weapons against mounted foes. At least one of the orc commanders must have had some intelligence, for a portion of the orcs fell back into a defensive position, shoulder to shoulder with pike butts braced against the ground, a wall of spikes for a charging horse to impale itself against.

Falling back, Theodred surveyed the situation. Only a few of his own men had fallen, and many orcs lay slain. This company seemed to be made up of only the familiar mountain orcs Theodred had fought against his whole life. He searched the ranks of the enemy, but saw none of the half-orcs his scouts had reported. He signaled to his company of archers, who until now had hung back, carefully firing only when they had clear shots at a foe apart from the tangle of their own men. Now the eored galloped along the pike wall, firing shot after shot rapidly into the massed ranks of orcs. Gaps opened up in the wall, and Theodred led his eored deep into the center of their formation.

Within moments it was over. The remaining orcs threw down their weapons and fled screaming. Theodred led his eored in pursuit of the stragglers, riding down and slaying most of them. He looked back. A few knots of orcs still struggled with the eoreds in the rear, but those skirmishes would soon be over and his men would regroup. The Riders’ losses were minor, thankfully. Theodred shut his mind to the fact that he knew the name of each Rider and horse that lay motionless on the battlefield, each face that should fill each gap in the ranks. After the battle would be the time for grief. For now, the only thing that mattered was the strategic situation, which was good. Almost their full strength remained. And they would need it, Theodred saw, for farther north along the road he saw the main body of Saruman’s host, in much vaster numbers than the advance party they had just defeated.

Theodred urged Silverfoot forward, the men of his eored thundering alongside him, confident that the commanders of the other eoreds would bring their men up behind. We can do it. We did take them by surprise. They cannot stand against us.

These troops were better prepared. They had seen their comrades ahead fighting, and had fallen quickly into readiness. Again, Theodred saw rows of pikes forming a thorny hedge across the road. He slowed, waiting for the archers to catch up and deal with these as effectively as with the last. But as he drew closer, a chill struck him. No orcs were visible holding those menacing pikes. They bristled above a mound of earth stretching right across the road. The orcs had dug a shallow trench, mounding the dirt in a dike that sheltered the pikemen from attacking arrows.

Pulling up and gathering his men about him, Theodred saw that the trench extended all the way to the drop off east toward the river. Westward the trench seemed to end much closer, so Theodred led the eored that way. They galloped down the length of the trench, just out of bowshot of enemy arrows, and rounded the end at a gallop, hoping to sweep around behind.

Once beyond the end of the dike, Theodred assessed the situation, dread growing in his heart. More trenches and dikes had been dug here, stretching as far as he could see, gaps between the ranks of bristling pikes just large enough to permit the passage of hordes of charging orcs. Farther west, a larger force hastened southward, attempting to surround Theodred’s eored and cut him off from the rest of his companies that remained behind.

These trenches could not be the work of only a few hours. Theodred knew, his heart growing cold at the thought, that the orcs must have been laboring to build them for a full day at least, long before he had set out from the Fords that morning. Even before Donaldo had visited him in the night.

No time now to ponder what that meant. Shouting orders, Theodred gathered his men around him and faced the onrushing orcs. His spear and Silverfoot’s hooves were black with blood, and the tight knot of his eored was smaller by a dozen men and horses, when finally he heard the shouts and horns of the other companies coming up to join the battle. The greater numbers pushed back the foe, and fought them to a moment of stalemate, orcs huddling behind their trenches, Riders regrouped but unable to advance against the hedge of pikes that still held firm across their path. Theodred seized the lull to sound the notes of retreat on his horn, and his well-disciplined troops immediately, if reluctantly, wheeled and rode back south along the river. For the moment at least, they were not followed, and they gathered again near the site of the first skirmish.

Theodred circled his men on Silverfoot, assessing their losses. They had lost many, but they were still a strong force. Could they circle around the trenches to the west, and come up behind Saruman’s forces that way? The wind freshened, blowing from the west, and Theodred pulled off his helmet and turned his face thankfully to the breeze, letting it dry the sweat of combat from his brow, and breathing its sweet fragrance gladly after the stink of blood and fear.

The fog that had surrounded them all morning was rapidly blowing away, rolling eastward away from the river. Theodred turned and gazed east and south, toward Edoras. Was Elfhelm even now on his way with reinforcements? How long would the city wait, defenseless, until Eomer could arrive with his eored to man it?

A motion caught Theodred’s eye, and he focused his gaze on the east bank of the river. It was far off, and trees and brush concealed the far side, but were those men he saw, making their way across the rough country on the river’s eastern bank? No, those shapes were unmistakable. Orcs, a large company of them, moving south, away from Isengard, toward the camp he had left only lightly defended on the east side of the Fords. Even as he watched the wind died, and the fog settled again in the river valley, obscuring his view.

Horror drained the strength from Theodred’s body, and he trembled, shutting his eyes. His hand’s tightened convulsively on the reins. Suddenly everything was clear. Saruman’s cunning, and his own folly.

Donaldo had never meant him to take the offered bargain. He had expected, in fact depended on, Theodred doing exactly what he had done. Saruman known the Rohirrim could stand against him on the eastern bank of the Fords, and so had devised a plan to use Theodred’s own integrity against him, and draw him over to the west, to the chosen and prepared place. And Theodred had taken the bait. His secret love had made him vulnerable to secret dealings and offers, and his determination not to be corrupted had blinded him to the possibility of being tricked. What a fool he had been! The ploy now seemed so obvious, so predictable, that he could not understand how he had not seen it before.

He had failed them. His men, his father, the people of Rohan. Elana and Deore. Despite everything, despite his best intentions, he had betrayed them all.

Leaden shame paralyzed him. If only he were free to cast away reason and charge in suicidal rage against the ranks of orcs, to take down as many as possible before he fell. But his responsibility still held. Though his honor lay in broken shards around his feet, still he must do what he could.

He forced his eyes open and composed his face into a calm, resolute expression. He took a deep breath, then urged Silverfoot into motion. Spying Grimbold, he hailed him. “There is a company of orcs advancing down the eastern side of the river. Saruman means to attack the Fords from both sides.”

“But how could he get troops enough across the river?”

“I don’t know! But he’s done it somehow. I just saw them. The country is rough on that side; they’ll be slow. We can make better time on the road. But the forces on this side will be pursuing us. I want you to keep your eored to the rear, and turn and face them whenever they get too close. Fight them off, but don’t pursue them, break free and continue to cover our retreat. The force at the Fords will fall if we don’t get there before the orcs on the eastern bank do. I’ll be leading the retreat. Signal if you need our help. We’ll turn and fight as often as we must, but no longer than we have to. It is a race, now, and speed is what matters.”

With swift obedience, the Riders followed Theodred’s and Grimbold’s orders. Many were wounded lightly, though still able to ride and fight. Those injured too badly to have made it away from the battlefield were lost to them now. Some were horseless, their mounts slain under them. Theodred took up one such behind him on Silverfoot, and distributed the rest among the other men and the few horses that had escaped with empty saddles. Then they set off south, grimly determined to spare no effort to reach the Fords in time.

All through that long afternoon they raced southwards, forced to stop all too often to fight against the orcs that eagerly pursued them. By the time they finally drew within sight of the Fords the day was waning. The sun stood low in the west, enveloped in flame colored clouds, and their shadows stretched long before them as they made the turn eastward toward the river.

Theodred strained for the first glimpse of the far shore. Were they in time? As far as he could see, the camp was still calm. Did they know yet what was approaching?

The foot soldiers of the Westfold Theodred had left to guard the west bank hailed them. “How goes the day?”

“Ill. Saruman’s forces are close behind us. And more approach on the east. Grimbold!” The commander drew his horse alongside Theodred. He was weary, scored with many small wounds, though none apparently serious. Theodred hated to ask more of him, so much had he already given. But he was the best commander he had. “Keep your eored here on the western shore. I’ll leave all the horseless men with you – there’s about fifty. Do what you can to slow them down. I’m hoping it’s just a small band coming down the east. When they are dealt with, you can bring your men over the Fords and we can make our stand united in the east.” As we should have done from the beginning.

Swiftly he instructed the rest of the commanders to take their companies across the river. Then he eyed the islet in the middle of the Fords. It would have to be held, so that Grimbold and his men would have a safe escape should Saruman’s forces prove too much. The task would be dangerous, because the space was too small and the footing too treacherous to allow the horses to be effective. Though well trained on foot as well as on horseback, no rider would willingly sacrifice the advantage the Rohirrim’s unparalleled skill on horses gave them in battle, save at great need. But in this case, the horses would be more a liability than an asset.

Calling his own eored around him, he quickly gave his orders. If the men disliked his choice, none showed it, instead dismounting with quick efficiency and trusting the reins to members of the other companies crossing the river, to be taken to the relative safety of the east side. Theodred swung down off Silverfoot. The mearas would have little trouble with the footing, but Theodred would not ask his men to do what he would not. Stroking Silverfoot’s sweat streaked neck, Theodred gazed for a moment into his calm brown eyes, wise beyond mere animal intelligence. “Find your own way, my friend. Strike a blow against our foes, if you have the chance, and be ready for me when I call you.” He unfastened the bridle from around Silverfoot’s head and stowed it in his saddle pack. Then with an affectionate slap on the rump, he sent the mearas galloping through the water eastward.

Gathering his men in formation around him, Theodred knew the hardest task was before them. They must wait, able to watch the progress of the combat but do little to help, until the battle came to their post. He set lookouts to keep watch in both directions. Westward, it was quiet. They had outdistanced the orc hordes in the later part of the afternoon, and apparently they were approaching only slowly and cautiously, having learned to fear the Rohirrim’s skill. So Theodred, along with most of his men, turned his attention to the east.

The first of the Riders had reached the bank and were shouting tidings of the imminent threat to those who had remained behind. The Riders who had spent the day idle, impatient to play a part in the battle, leapt eagerly astride and began falling into order. The exhausted men who had been fighting all day stopped to let their horses drink, some dismounting themselves to thirstily scoop up the sweet cold water of the river, ignoring the swirling silt churned up by the horses’ hooves.

Disaster had struck before Theodred became aware of it. The sound of more hoofbeats was lost among the noise of his own men, so the first he knew of the Dunlending horsemen that attacked, coming down out of the trees to the north, was the clashing of swords and screams of battle. The forces on the east shore were caught in disarray, and fell back before the wild onslaught.

The Rider beside Theodred tensed, and his body yearned toward the fighting. He was young, only recently promoted to his place in Theodred’s eored. Theodred placed a hand on his shoulder. “Steady, man. We must hold our position. The battle will come to us soon enough.” The Rider nodded mutely, and continued to stare across the river, fist clenched. Theodred knew only too well the rage and helplessness the young man felt; his posture reflected exactly the emotion that surged through his own heart.

The battle was going badly for the Riders on the eastern shore, very badly. The Rohirrim companies were being pushed south along the course of the river. Soon their line would be forced past the road down to the Fords. Then, behind him, Theodred heard the shouts of the watchers and the noise of battle. The main force of Saruman’s army had appeared and engaged Grimbold’s eored and the men of the Westfold. Theodred began to swing around, to assess the situation on that side too, when a terrible sight on the eastern shore caught his eye.

Around and between the Dunlending horsemen streaked great wolves, orcs clinging to their backs. Even their allies’ horses shied away from them, and the Rohirrim horses were quickly thrown into panic as the beasts darted in among them, snarling and snapping at exposed flanks and throats. Theodred had heard of the fabled wargs, but had never met them in battle before. The Riders were unprepared for this new threat, and were hampered by horses suddenly mad with terror. More wargs raced along the lines of picketed horses, slaying with fierce glee the helpless animals. Now behind the Dunlendings orcs appeared, huge and heavily armed. Their numbers were relatively few, compared to the force on the west bank, Theodred could see, but large enough for the purpose.

A stallion’s scream drew Theodred’s attention beyond the fighting, to where the herds of pregnant mares, foals, and yearlings brought from the breeding and training farms were gathered. They were milling about, heads tossing and eyes rolling. Wargs had surrounded them, Theodred saw, and herded them like sheep, preventing them from turning and fleeing across the plain. Even as he watched, the wargs began to move in among them.

The scream rang out again, and Silverfoot streaked toward the lead warg. He whirled and lashed out with his hind hooves, sending the attacker tumbling into the ranks of his companions, skull caved in. The mearas reared and bit, chestnut flanks heaving, silver socks flashing, glorious in his fury, as the wargs abandoned for the moment the herds to surround the defiant stallion. Freed from constraint, the mares and yearlings fled, stampeding wildly away towards the open plain. Silverfoot’s sides were gashed and bloody, but he fought on, slaying warg after warg until orc archers found him with their arrows, and he stumbled and fell, dragged down to vanish under a writhing pile of the ravenous beasts.

Theodred, stunned, found he was crushing the young Rider’s shoulder with his grip, tears blinding him. The boy turned to him with awkward compassion, unsure what to say. Then his eyes widened, and he dragged on Theodred’s arm. “Look, sir! Orcs are coming!”

Swiping furiously to clear his vision, Theodred saw them come. The Rohirrim on the eastern shore had been driven downstream, giving Saruman’s forces access to the Fords. A troop had emerged out of the trees to the north, following the swath of destruction cut by their comrades, and had turned onto the road, splashing now through the shallow water toward the island. Theodred knew at a glance what they must be. Not merely orcs, but taller, heavier, eyes gleaming with intelligence, faces somehow the more hideous for their greater resemblance to men. These were half-orcs, products of rape and torture, crossbreeds between orc and human.

Their mail was thick and heavy, and they carried axes. Inexorably they marched through the Fords, eyes fixed on Theodred’s eored waiting on the shores of the island. Something like relief coursed through Theodred. Here at last were foes he could kill, and in his despair for the utter ruin the day had become, the likelihood that he also would meet death seemed no ill thing.

“Attack!” he cried, and his men surged forward, meeting the half-orcs as they came up out of the water onto the sand. The Rohirrim were eager to fight, and their valiance held the orc-men for a time, but the foe was disciplined and well trained, and their long, heavy axes gave them an advantage against the Rider’s swords. Step by step Theodred’s men fell back, falling one by one under the half-orcs’ blades.

Gladly Theodred surrendered to battle rage, and for a time he was oblivious to all save the swing of his sword and the shock as it met his foe’s blade, the satisfying resistance as it bit into flesh. He knew not how much time had passed when in a momentary lull he realized that he had been driven up to the peak of the low knoll at the island’s northern end, and only a handful of his men remained about him. Even as he watched, two more fell, and he realized with cold detachment that the battle was lost. No hope now remained.

Even as he thought this, he looked eastward, and wondered at the sight. Charging down the road came what seemed a great force, white banner gleaming in the twilight. They crashed into battle with the orcs on the eastern bank. Hope unlooked for flared in Theodred’s heart, and he cried out in a great voice “To me, Eorlingas!”

On the western bank Grimbold heard the cry, and looked up from where he fought. He saw Theodred, alone at the peak of the island, surrounded by foes, the few remaining men of his eored separated from him and greatly outnumbered. Grimbold slew the orc he had been fighting, and turned to race toward the island, calling to the men closest to him, “With me! To the king’s son!”

Theodred turned his attention back to his attackers, fighting with renewed energy. Foe after foe fell beneath his sword, but their numbers were too great. A new enemy took the place of each that Theodred dispatched, and fatigue was beginning to take its toll, slowing his reactions and weighing down his arms. Finally, tugging his sword free of the half-orc he’d just slain, he looked up to see looming above him the hugest orc-man he’d yet seen. His axe was already in motion, a powerful swing sweeping around to cleave Theodred’s body in two.

Desperately, Theodred strove to bring his sword around in time to parry the blow, only partially succeeding. His sword crashed down on the half-orc’s axe, deflecting it away from his torso. Instead it slammed into his left leg, biting deep into his thigh.

Bone shattered and muscles severed, the leg crumpled under Theodred and he fell. Time slowed, and the pain seemed far distant. So this is how I meet death at last. Weariness overcame him, and he closed his eyes and waited for the final blow to fall. So much grief, so many regrets. I tried, Elana. I tried to do what was right. I couldn’t save you, or Deore, or Rohan. I will wait for you, if I am permitted, as Beren waited for Luthien, that we may pass beyond the circles of the world together.

No blow fell, but a crash shook him as a body fell beside him. He opened his eyes to see Grimbold standing above him, drawing his sword out of the half-orc whose blow had felled Theodred. More of the orc-men assaulted Grimbold, and the two companions who had come with him fell before them, but Grimbold fought on. Loss of blood was blurring Theodred’s vision, and the pain of his leg was rapidly forcing itself into his consciousness, a fire like to consume him. But, just as Grimbold seemed overmatched by two great foes, he glimpsed one fall beneath a new blade, as Elfhelm leapt up beside them. Grimbold quickly dispatched the other, and the two men faced each other over Theodred’s body.

Elfhelm! So the reinforcements had come in time. Dimly Theodred heard their voices. “Look, Grimbold, he yet breathes! Theodred, can you hear me? We hold the eastern shore, and are prevailing on the west. The day is ours. I’ll send word for Eomer to bring his forces out of the east, to reinforce us. We can hold, Theodred. All is not lost.”

Theodred opened his eyes and focused with difficulty on Elfhelm’s face. Grimbold was busy at Theodred’s side, binding his belt around the stump of Theodred’s half-severed leg. Let be, Grimbold. You cannot save me. Eomer must take charge now, and be king after Theoden. May he serve Rohan more faithfully than I, and win some hope back out of the ruin I have made. He opened his mouth, and forced his voice out in a rasping croak. “Let me lie here… to keep the Fords until Eomer comes.”

He closed his eyes once again. His leg burned now, the fire grown fierce and wild, devouring his flesh and his soul. Darkness yawned, ready to swallow him, and he welcomed it for the relief it brought from his pain. He surrendered to the blackness, and knew no more.

Chapter 17 – Life from Death

Hamm peered out from the shelter of the dense thicket of trees. Behind him, his horse and wagon remained concealed, the tiny clearing surrounded by heavy growth barely large enough to hold them. He shifted his axe nervously in his grip. He had little hope of defending himself with it; he was skilled enough in its use to harvest trunks and branches, but had never learned the art of combat. But perhaps there would be no need. It had been some time now since the last of the orcs had passed, and the sounds of fighting from the south had died down. Would it be safe yet, he wondered, to venture out of his hiding place, and try to make his way home?

He had left the little cottage in the tiny village, no more than a huddle of a few buildings, early that morning. This would be his last woodcutting venture of the winter. Soon the weather would warm and the new sap would rise in the trees, and the season for harvesting the dormant wood would be over. He had set out west and north, meeting the Isen some miles north of the village, and worked his way south along the shore of the river all during the day. Here, on the east bank of the Isen, were the finest stands of horse-apple trees in all Rohan. They thrived where the river brought water enough to nourish them, and grew in such tightly packed abundance that their trunks rose straight and branchless for many feet. Hamm was selective, choosing only the soundest, straightest trunks to cut, loading his wagon with long logs of the precious yellow wood. Once home, Hamm would split each log into wedge-shaped staves, then carefully store them away to dry and season for two years or more. Then they would be ready to be crafted, by Hamm’s painstaking skill, into fine and powerful bows.

Hamm’s bows were in great demand in Edoras and all Rohan, especially now as war threatened. He had sent his entire inventory to the capital weeks ago, and reaped a fine profit. For a soldier about to ride to war, a sound and accurate bow seemed suddenly a highly valuable commodity, and Hamm’s enjoyed an excellent reputation. He had lived in Edoras for a time, and plied his trade there, but years ago he had chosen to return to his home village, here close to the lush stands of horse-apple, whose tough, springy wood made such excellent bows. Far to the south yew trees grew, and the bowyers of Gondor crafted famous bows from their wood, but Hamm would wager on a bow of the horse-apple of Rohan in any contest between them.

The day had been growing late, and his wagon was piled high with the fruits of his day’s labors, when Hamm had first heard the orcs approaching. He had worked his way far south along the river, almost to where the trees ended north of the Fords. For all that the orcs tried to move quietly, seeking concealment among the trees, they still made a racket that shattered the peace of the quiet woods. Hamm had fled before them, somehow managing to avoid detection, seeking the shelter of the deepest thickets, urging his horse to force the wagon through the brush closer to the river, until he had found this tiny clearing behind a dense screen of trees. They had huddled here, Hamm soothing the skittish draft horse to keep him quiet, while the orc army passed by. Between the branches Hamm had caught glimpses of wild horsemen, wolf-monsters, and other horrors. Before they had all passed, screams and clashing metal rang out, telling of battle joined. They must be fighting for possession of the Fords. Before today Hamm had felt secure, safe on the east side of the river, protected from the ravages that the traitor Saruman had inflicted on the villages to the northwest. Now he wondered if before nightfall enemy forces might be marching to Edoras itself, wiping away the illusion of security from all of Rohan.

Twilight was deepening, and the sounds of battle had faded into the distance. Hamm knew that now was his chance to escape. He struggled with the wagon, working with his horse to get it turned around and freed from the close confines and uneven ground of the thicket. Before he had managed it however, the fighting sounds came close again, and he froze, afraid. Then, near at hand, he heard voices.

“I thought you said your men held the east bank.” The voice was strained with weariness and anxiety.

“We did. I’m sure this is no more than a skirmish, mopping up the last of their forces.”

“Well, in any case, we can’t get through it carrying him. We’d all three be cut to pieces.”

“Maybe we should wait here until it clears.”

The first voice was ragged, close to breaking. “We’ve got to get him to the healers. I don’t know how much longer he can hang on.” There was a grunt, and the sound of a burden being lowered to the ground. “Look, he’s cold, but he’s sweating. His breathing is too fast. We should have made for the west bank. The battle surgeon in my eored is skilled; I’ve seen him pull men through wounds this bad before.”

“The fighting was even worse that way. Maybe we should try to circle around, and approach the camp from the east. The healers’ tent was on that side of the camp anyway. Here, let me carry him for a bit.”

Hamm could remain silent no longer. He stepped out from behind the thicket of trees. In the dim light he could see the two men swing around, startled, raising their weapons in defense of the still form lying at their feet. They wore the armor and insignia of Riders of Rohan, stained and ragged with the ravages of battle.

Hamm spread his hands open before him. “Excuse me, my lords, I couldn’t help but hear.” Seeing his unthreatening demeanor and workman’s garb, the two Riders lowered their swords, but still eyed him warily. “My home’s not far, and my wife’s a skilled healer. Seems your friend there is in need of tending, and she’d never let me hear the end of it if I let a man go without when she might have fixed him up. I’ve been stuck here a while, trapped by those orcs, but they’re gone now, and it’s not more than a mile to my house, that way, away from the fighting.” He gestured northeast.

The Riders exchanged glances, and both looked down at the wounded man. The younger stepped forward. “I’m afraid he’s beyond the skill of a village herb-woman. He’s taken an axe to the leg, and like as not he’ll lose it. Though we thank you for your offer. Perhaps you could take us in your wagon around the fighting, to the healers at our camp.” Even as he spoke, the noise grew louder, drawing inexorably closer.

Hamm moved to clear a spot in the back of the wagon among the logs. “Oh, my Haelan’s dealt with amputations before. Traveled, she did, in her younger days, before she met me. You should hear her tales. Lived with the Elves a while, and learned from them, and south in Gondor, and all over. You talk to her. She’ll be able to do for your friend, if anyone can.” He turned to help the older Rider lift the wounded man into the wagon. He was wrapped in his cloak, and another cloak, heavily stained with blood, swathed his lower body and legs tightly. His face was pale and clammy, but his breath still came, in shallow, rapid gasps.

Now the clamor of battle was louder still, all to the south and east. The younger Rider gazed searchingly in the direction of the conflict he could not see for the trees and the darkness. Then he jumped up in the back of the wagon, to crouch, along with his companion, beside the injured man. “Very well then, take us to your home. I hope she is as skilled as you say. Though we have little choice, it seems, but to trust you.”

With a lurch, the wagon started on its way, as Hamm led the horse forward. The ride was bone-jarringly bumpy for while, then the way smoothed as Hamm found one of the narrow paths that wound through the woods. They made their way through the wide band of trees that bordered the river, then through the lower brush and scrub. At the edge of the floodplain, they lurched up a steep track that slanted up the side of the bluff, and emerged at last onto the grassy level plain. It was full night now, moon and stars concealed above a thick layer of clouds. But Hamm knew this road, and could follow it safely home, even dark as it was.

Suddenly, a single horn rang out through the night. The note was harsh and dissonant, grating on the ear and chilling the heart. For a moment after it had died away all was still, then below them in the river valley they could hear the sounds of orcs passing northward, first only a few, then many. Saruman’s forces were retreating back to Isengard.

The men in the wagon tensed, for only darkness and distance concealed them. But those must have been cloaks enough, for none of the enemy turned their way. Now the way back to the Rohirrim camp was even more surely blocked. Hamm climbed up in the driver’s seat and urged the horse homeward. Behind them, the orcs continued to stream north.

The way was smooth and straight, and only half an hour had passed when ahead Hamm glimpsed the few warm, flickering lights that marked his home village. Most of the villagers had turned in with the sunset, day’s work done, either abed already or lingering in quiet company around their hearths, so none observed Hamm pull his wagon up alongside his cottage. He was helping the Riders lift the injured man, as gently as they could, when the door was flung open, spilling golden firelight out into the night.

A woman stepped out, holding a lantern high to cast its light on the men. Her hair, bundled in a thick knot at the nape of her neck, was steely grey, though still shot through here and there with its former rich gold. Her face was lined with the experience of many years, but her eyes were bright and sharp. “Where have you been all this time? I’ve been worried sick. Supper’s long since grown cold, and I finally ate mine; I wasn’t going to wait hungry all night…. Who’s this you’ve brought with you?”

Hamm grinned at the Riders as the woman’s harangue shifted to curious concern. His guests might have heard only anger, but his practiced ear could detect the real fear and relief concealed in her half-mocking scolding. “I’ve brought you another wounded foundling to tend. Though I expect this one will test your skill a bit more than the bird with the broken wing last week.”

At this news, the woman was suddenly all business. A glance at the man in the wagon told her of the seriousness of his condition, and she directed the men to bring him in and lay him by the hearth, where she quickly spread a pallet of blankets swept up from the cottage’s one bed. She set the lantern on the mantle and opened it wide to clearly illuminate the space where she would work. Even warmed by the rosy light of the fire, the man’s pallor was alarming. She felt his forehead. Cold, and damp - he was sinking into shock. She called for Hamm to bring her more blankets from the storage chest, and turned to his companions, who had drawn close and knelt at his side, eyeing her suspiciously.

“My name is Haelan. I need to know everything that happened to your friend. What is he called?”

The older looked questioningly at the younger, who shrugged. The older man spoke. “This is Theoden King’s son, Theodred. An axe struck his left leg. I am Grimbold, and this is Elfhelm.” He seemed about to say more, but bit his words back and only watched her guardedly.

Haelan heard Hamm gasp to hear the identity of their guests. Her own hands paused only momentarily, then resumed their work calmly. Lord or beggar, the man before her was gravely wounded, and only her skill stood between him and death.

She turned back his cloak from around his body, then drew her knife from her belt and cut away the folds of the cloak that swathed his legs. Someone had thought to bind a leather belt as a tourniquet around the thigh, she noted approvingly. It had stopped the bleeding, or else he would have died long since. It might have doomed the rest of the leg by cutting off its blood supply, but she saw at a glance, as she cut away his leather breeches, that that was not a concern. The leg was lost in any case. The orc axe had sliced cleanly though the leather, below the chain mail that protected his torso, and into the flesh of his leg. The bone was cut through completely, along with all but a narrow strip of flesh on the inner thigh.

“Hamm, my instruments…” she began, and turned to see him already setting the case down beside her, along with a lit candle. He murmured a request to Elfhelm, who rose to assist him. Good, he was sending Elfhelm to tend the horse. Wagon and logs might wait until tomorrow, but the horse must be fed and watered tonight. She was glad Hamm could stay to fetch and carry for her.

Now Hamm brought her a bowl of warm water and a pile of clean rags. She opened the leather case and checked over the instruments within. The bone saw would not be needed this time, but the scalpel and the file were ready, along with fine needles and plenty of silk thread. She remembered with fond gratefulness the surgeon in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith, who had berated her so often and harshly during her apprenticeship, then had gifted her with his own precious set of instruments when she left. She washed her hands thoroughly in the water that Hamm brought, the lye soap stinging, then sent him for fresh water. She picked up a needle and held it in the candle flame, closing her eyes and murmuring the melodic Elvish words of the prayer she had been taught.

“Why are you doing that?” Grimbold asked her when she had finished, watching in nervous fascination.

“I lived with the Elves of Rivendell for a time, long ago in my youth. I wished to learn everything known in Middle Earth of the arts of healing. The Elves laughed at my presumption – I was barely more than a child by their reckoning, and looking back I find that I agree with them. But they humored me, and Elrond himself showed me a little of his art, though the higher mysteries remained beyond me. The fire is for purification, to burn away the corruption that causes wounds to fester. The words are a prayer for grace and mercy, that my hands may be steady and sure, and that his body and spirit may be strengthened.” She slid a length of silk thread through the needle’s eye, and set it aside. Dipping a rag in the fresh water, she set to work washing away the blood that crusted the wound.

Grimbold looked a bit greenish as the jagged white end of the bone became more clearly visible. Well, it took one sort of courage to deal out such damage (and accept the risk of receiving it, her thoughts added with more charity), and another sort to face it laid out in plain sight before you. He swallowed hard, and asked, his voice almost completely steady, “You will have to take the leg, then?”

“Oh, aye, no healer in Middle Earth could save it now.” She set down the bloodied rag and picked up the threaded needle. “The axe did most of the work; I’m just finishing the job. It has to be done quickly, while he’s still unconscious.” Even as she spoke, her fingers were locating the severed ends of the large blood vessels, closing each with a few neatly placed stitches. When she was sure she had them all, she unfastened the tourniquet. Blood oozed out through the mangled tissues, but her sewing held and no life-threatening gush occurred. She sloshed water across the wound, clearing her field of vision, and examined the remaining unsevered flesh. Good, enough remained to work with, not too badly damaged.

She repeated the ritual purification with her scalpel, and then with firm certainty made her first cut. Ruthlessly, she completed what the orc had begun, freeing the man from the limb that now must die, so that he might live. She left only a flap of skin and muscle sufficient to cover the base of the stump that remained.

Pushing aside the dead flesh, she looked up and met Grimbold’s eyes. His face was even paler now, but his mouth was set in a grimly determined line. He tenderly wrapped the leg in the tattered remains of the blood-soaked cloak. His own cloak, she realized, for he wore none. He looked around, then bore the bundle to the furthest corner of the cottage, where he laid it gently down. Returning to her side, he looked at her defensively. “It should be buried, with all honor. Not simply cast aside.”

She nodded in understanding, and went back to her work. Her file was purified, then she set about smoothing and rounding the jagged end of the bone, lest any sharp edges remain to cut through the healing skin. That finished, she lifted the stump and set a bowl underneath, then flushed the area over and over again with water, cleansing it as thoroughly as she could. Then folding the flap over to close the wound, she sewed the skin together with small neat stitches all around.

She sat back on her heels, stiff from kneeling so long over him, and wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her wrist. She surveyed her work. It was well and skillfully done; her old tutors would have been pleased. Now, if he was spared the festering and fever that sometimes took even the most carefully tended wounds, he was like enough to live.

She set the soiled instruments aside for careful cleaning later, and closed the case carefully around the rest. She stacked her bowls and rags and carried them off to the corner that served as her kitchen. Mortar and pestle she lifted down from their shelf, and selected from her cupboard various healing herbs. Garlic, comfrey, calendula, plantain… she swiftly reduced them to a smooth paste. Returning to her patient with the poultice and strips of clean linen she kept for bandages, she slathered the stump with the mixture and wrapped it in many layers of cloth.

Weary, she gestured for Hamm, Grimbold and Elfhelm, who had returned, to carry the wounded man to her own bed, and to tidy the remaining mess. “And get him out of that mail and those filthy clothes. Hamm, get one of your clean shirts to put on him.” While she was working, it had seemed her youth had returned to her, but now her true age was making itself fully felt again. She fought to maintain control for just a few minutes more. One task yet remained to be done.

Beckoning the man’s friends to come with her and gather by the bedside, she sat on the edge of the bed and gazed for the first time full into the man’s face. She had put aside his name, and all thought of him as a fellow human being, while she worked, needing to be able to see him as simple physical flesh to be manipulated. Now she must open herself to accept again the living man, and call his wandering spirit back into his body.

“Theodred.” She stroked his hair gently, as a mother would stroke a child. “Theodred. Come back. It is not yet time for you to leave. Return to us.”

For a long moment there was no response. Then his breathing deepened, and his eyelashes fluttered. Haelan nodded, giving him a final pat on the cheek. Then she withdrew, leaving him to his friends. She sank down into her chair, trembling, exhausted but satisfied. It had been long since her skills had received such a test, and she was pleased to see that her gift had not deserted her. She whispered the Elvish words of thanksgiving as was proper, heart full of gratitude that fate had placed her here, where she might once again serve in the manner she loved best. Might once again salvage life from death.

Chapter 18 – A Vanished Dream

The dream faded, stealing away even its memory. Theodred reached after it as it disappeared, trying to recapture the sweetness. Was it a strain of beautiful music, or a delicious fragrance, or a gentle caress? He could not remember. It was gone, lost, and all that was left was the patient, pitiless voice, calling him back.

Theodred. Come back. It is not yet time for you to leave. Return to us.

No! All that was left back there was pain. Pain of the body, pain of the heart. As the memory of the dream slipped away, the memory of all that had happened inexorably returned. How could they ask him to face all his losses again? Far better to follow the dream, far away, wherever it might lead. If that was death, it held no terror for him any more. Life, though, life he feared.

He fought to recapture the dream, but it was gone. His breath sounded harsh in his ears, and the sensations of his body were returning. Candlelight flickered beyond his closed eyelids. Pain crept back upon him, a vague and formless fog that sharpened as he regained consciousness, mounting higher and higher, past anything he had imagined, past anything he had ever believed could be borne.

He moaned, and shook his head. Please, let the darkness come again. He could not live like this. He cracked open his gritty, sticky eyelids. There were faces, hovering over him anxiously. Their blurry forms swam into focus as he concentrated, and he recognized them. Grimbold, and Elfhelm. Friends, and companions in arms. They would understand what he asked.

“Mercy….” Shock and horror filled their eyes, and they withdrew. Desperate, he pleaded with them. “Will you not grant me mercy? Do we not owe one another that, at the last? I cannot… I cannot…”

Grimbold took his hand, and gripped it hard. His eyes welled with tears and his voice was choked. “You know I would not refuse you, my lord, my brother, if hope were gone. But we are in the house of a healer. She has tended your wound, and she says you will live. I have known many men to live after… after…” Grimbold bowed his head and closed his eyes, but the news must be given, and would not be more easily received for being delayed. He raised his head again, and met Theodred’s eyes. “After losing a leg.”

The words rang meaningless in Theodred’s ears, for what seemed a long time. Only gradually did their sense penetrate.

“But… but I feel it… it hurts….” He tried to sit up, but fell back, gasping, choking back a scream. His hand groped down, beneath the blanket that covered him, toward the center of the pain, but it was too far. Grimbold supported him with an arm beneath his shoulders, raising him until his hand could reach. There was his thigh, heavily bandaged, but solid and familiar, and then… nothing. Only empty air where his lower thigh and knee should have been.

Nausea swept over him, and he sank back, shaking his head violently. “No… no… it’s not possible….” Why hadn’t he died? Far better a clean death in battle then to live on like this, only half a man….

Grimbold and Elfhelm looked on, silent. There were no words of comfort for such a loss. Only by their presence could they show their loyalty and support.

Theodred lay, lost in black despair. This was his punishment, he supposed. His failure, his unwitting treachery had cost so many lives.… All the men of his eored, along with so many others of his soldiers. Silverfoot. Elana and Deore. And how many others would die in the coming days, as Saruman’s forces regrouped and attacked again. Eomer did not have enough men to defend both the eastern border and the west, so Sauron too would attack, and Rohan would be crushed between the two powers of evil. Was his life not payment enough? How cruel was justice, that it would force him to live on, helpless, powerless to stop the destruction he had set in motion? His hand groped at his waist, but they had taken all his weapons from him, even his belt knife. Helpless even to end his own suffering.

Elfhelm was speaking, and Theodred could not help but hear. “Sleep, now, Theodred. It’s late. In the morning we can take you back to the camp. You can rest there, until we can arrange to transport you back to Edoras. Grimbold and I can take over command of the forces, for surely Saruman won’t wait long to move against us again.”

Already it had begun. No longer was he a soldier, a leader, a man among his equals. Now he was simply baggage, a burden to be dealt with as expediently as possible, while other, more capable men stepped up to take his place. They would always defer to him in name, but never again would he truly command, or even serve.

He could picture in his mind how it would be. The pity with which they’d look at him, speaking kind words yet drawing away. He’d felt it himself, whenever men of his company had been maimed in his service. Dutifully he’d visited their bedsides, conveyed Rohan’s thanks for their sacrifices, delivered the generous pensions that were their due. All the time a secret voice whispering May that never be me. Better death…. Most had retired to the countryside, back to their home villages, or to new towns where they would be strangers. Far from the coldness of the Riders, who hated the reminder that beyond the glory of victory or death, uglier possibilities lurked. But as Theoden’s son, he could not vanish, out of sight and mind. His duty would compel him to remain, a figurehead to be honored in name, while others carried out the tasks that should have been his. Did he not know exactly how it was? Had his service under Theoden not shown him how terrible it would be to condemn his people to another generation of the same? Rohan had barely survived one weak king; what would happen to it under another?

Theoden…. How could he ever face his father again? Much as he loved him, still he had despised him for falling under the spell of Wormtongue’s trickery and deceit. And now he was guilty of the same failing. And Eomer, his brother of the heart. They had been strong together, fought side by side on the battlefield, trusted each other with their lives and honor. Would he now be able to look at Eomer’s sound, whole body without bitter envy eating away at his soul? And what of Eowyn, dearest cousin? Would he, who had been her teacher and mentor, now burden her, another frail body to minister to, another bar on her cage, when she longed to fly free?

No. He would not. He could not. He could not go back there. Better they all believe him dead. They would mourn him, and their grief would be bitter, but they would pass beyond grief, and serve Rohan better for his absence. Eomer would be free to take up the leadership of the people, and to inherit the kingship upon Theoden’s death. Rohan would thrive under his hand. Theodred would slip away into the shadows. Perhaps, if fortune smiled, he might yet die of his wound. Otherwise, he would take up a new name, and make whatever way in the world he could, preferably far beyond Rohan’s borders. As far as the world was concerned, Theodred would be dead.

As he contemplated the prospect of a long bleak future utterly alone, his heart quailed. What of Elana? How long would it take Donaldo to ride back to Edoras and carry out her death? There was nothing he could do to stop that, nothing. Even should Donaldo carry out his crueler threat, and send her back to the orcs, even if she lived long in captivity, what could his maimed body do to free her? But… what if Eowyn had succeeded in what he had asked, and even now Elana and Deore were safe? He caught his breath. He would be free! They could leave Rohan, travel together, be a family, as his dearest dream had always been. For a moment he could almost feel her sweet warm body against his.

Then the full horror of it struck him. How could he ever offer this broken, ruined body to her? She would recoil, and pull away in disgust, and the pity in her eyes would not be able to conceal the revulsion. What did he have to give her anymore, crippled as he was?

He squeezed his eyes shut, bitter tears leaking through, and turned his face to the wall. Cruel fate indeed, to take away everything from him with a single blow, save that which he now valued least of all.

A gentle hand touched his shoulder, and he turned to see an old woman, offering him a cup. “Drink, Theodred. It will ease your pain and help you sleep.”

Behind her, Grimbold and Elfhelm watched. “Rest, my lord,” Grimbold urged. “It will be a hard journey tomorrow.”

Resolution solidified in Theodred’s heart. He pushed the cup away. “I will not go back.”

Grimbold frowned in puzzlement. “My lord?”

“I will be your lord no longer. That life is over. Tell them all that I died there, cut down by that orc’s blade. Let them believe it, for it is true. For I will not return.”

Stunned silence met his declaration. Finally Grimbold spoke. “My lord, the pain has made you delirious. Of course all seems hopeless now, in your shock and grief. Sleep, and let us speak of this again in the morning, when your mind is clearer.”

“My mind is as clear as it has ever been. My decision will not change in the morning. And you two cannot linger here. The men are leaderless. They need you to return and assume command. Saruman may renew his attack at any time.”

Elfhelm nodded slowly. “Aye. We must return at first light. But surely you do not believe we would abandon you so?”

Theodred grieved for the pain and confusion he saw in their eyes. But he could not allow them to sway him from his path. He would drive them away with anger, if he must. “I do not pretend that I could resist you, if you determine to take me against my will. But you would never again be able to trust me with so much as a belt knife, lest I turn it against myself. One way or another, Rohan will be free of me. If you doubt me, give me my sword now, and let me make an end. Then you may bear my body back in truth. But if you insist the mercy of death is forbidden me, then you will have to return alone, for I will not go back.”

Elfhelm leaned forward, eyes ablaze. “You cannot do this, my lord.”

Theodred returned his gaze steadily. “I can, and I will.”

“You will desert us, in this our hour of greatest need?”

“What do you need? You need a leader, not a helpless cripple to burden you! What use can I be to Rohan now? What use if I cannot lead the men into battle? What use if I cannot even ride?”

Grimbold clutched at his hand. “You dishonor us, my lord, if you think your men would ever consider you a burden, or feel aught but joy to know you have survived.”

Theodred struggled to sit up. Grimbold’s arms moved to support him. The cup called to him, its draught promising him relief from the waves of pain that almost overwhelmed him. But first, he must make them understand.

“What Rohan needs is a strong, capable leader. Eomer is more than able to be that for you. If I return, he will never have the full authority he needs. Besides, you don’t know, you can’t understand…” He faltered.

“What, my lord?” Grimbold’s voice was grave with concern.

Theodred closed his eyes and turned his face away. He spoke in a whisper. “I do not deserve your trust any longer. I have betrayed you. One of Saruman’s agents sought to bargain with me, and I told no one. I thought I had outsmarted him, but his trickery deceived me. That is why the battle was almost lost. You are far better off without me.”

They gaped at him, shocked. Finally Elfhelm spoke. “Even so, lord, your place is with your people. Honor demands that you face what you have done, not flee the consequences.”

Theodred did not look up. “But… I cannot. Please do not ask it of me.”

Elfhelm’s voice was cold. “Then perhaps you are right. Perhaps Rohan would fare better with the memory of a dead hero than the presence of a living coward.”

Theodred flinched, the words hitting him like a blow, but did not speak or meet Elfhelm’s eyes. Finally Grimbold broke the silence. “Is this truly what you wish, Theodred?”

“Aye. Will you do this for me?”

Tears streaked Grimbold’s cheeks. “For love of you, my friend, and for our bond as brother Riders, I will, if you ask it of me.”

“I do.” Theodred turned to him, wordless thanks in his eyes. “And you?” He turned to Elfhelm.

Elfhelm’s voice was flat. “I will do what my lord commands.”

“Consider this my last order to you, then. You are to forget that Theodred survived the battle. Do whatever you must to convince everyone that I was slain. Seal the secret away in your heart, until it seems no more than a vanished dream, and speak of it to no one, until you too lay silent in your burial mound.”

“As you command, my lord.” Elfhelm nodded stiffly, but cold anger burned in his eyes. He strode across the room to stand staring into the fire. Theodred sagged back against Grimbold’s supporting arm. “My lady Healer, I believe I will have that cup now.”

Haelan had remained at the bedside, watching and listening to all that transpired, silent but attentive. Now she held the cup to Theodred’s lips, and he drank the bitter brew eagerly. Grimbold eased him back down onto the bed, then withdrew.

Haelan studied the face before her, lined with pain and weariness, eyes closed to shut out a world gone terribly wrong. Compassion filled her heart. “Are you truly set on this course, Theodred? Can I not dissuade you from it? To cut yourself off from your friends, your family, your whole life – that is a desperate step indeed. Are you certain this is the road you must travel?”

Theodred met her eyes. “Aye. I am certain.”

Haelan smiled ruefully. “Then I offer you the hospitality of our home. My name is Haelan, and my husband is Hamm. You are welcome to stay with us until you are fully healed, and as long after as you may wish. Rest now. The draught should be taking effect soon.

Indeed, Theodred felt light-headed and distant, the pain where his leg should have been growing faint and remote. “Thank you, my lady,” he murmured, sinking gratefully into sleep.

He sought everywhere for the lost dream, hungry for its sweetness, but he could not find it, and the pain, though dulled now and easily bearable, never went completely away.

Chapter 19 – Nothing Left to Tell

Grey mist again shrouded the battered and bedraggled camp on the east bank of the Isen, as the first dim light of the sun returned to the world. The men of Rohan had straggled back, weary and grim, all through the night. Few of them had slept. Too much work remained to be done. The bodies of their dead comrades must be gathered and laid in honor until a mound could be prepared. The bodies of the foe must be cleared at least from the immediate vicinity of the camp, and piled ready for burning. The horses that had survived must be fed and watered, a duty that no man neglected, however weary he himself might be. Great pots of stew must be prepared to feed men who had fought all the long day nourished by no more than a few bites of dried fruit or meat carried in a saddlebag and bolted during a lull in the battle. The wounded must be tended, in the crowded healers’ tent, their cries disturbing the quiet of the night. The dying must be comforted, the touch of a friend’s hand and a whispered farewell granting peace as they began their long journey.

The fog lay thick to the north of the camp, where the last of the orcs had vanished into the trees the night before. Now a few of the men busy at the edge of the camp paused in their tasks, and turned and watched the figures that appeared out of the mist. One by one those close to them turned also, and a hush spread across the camp as gradually all became aware of what approached.

Two men walked through the fog, their forms slowly becoming clearer as they drew near. The men were glad to recognize Grimbold and Elfhelm once their faces could be made out, for the absence of the commanders had troubled all, and they had been feared lost. But the long, cloak-wrapped bundle Grimbold bore in his arms filled them with a nameless dread. No, not nameless, for all hearts whispered the name they knew must lie concealed beneath the folds of cloth that swathed the limp form’s face.

Grimbold did not pause as he passed through the camp. Elfhelm at his side, he bore his burden down to the edge of the river. There Elfhelm stopped, but Grimbold splashed into the shallow water of the Ford. Across the leaden waters he strode, up the sandy shore of the little island, and onward to the top of the knoll. The ground had been cleared of bodies, but blood stained the grass and mud red-brown.

Grimbold eased the bundle down on to the grass. He bowed over it a moment. Inside the folds of the bloody cloak were Theodred’s clothes and armor, stuffed with straw. Deep in the heart of the effigy the cold, stiff flesh of Theodred’s lifeless leg lay concealed.

Climbing to his feet, Grimbold stared for a moment northward. Somewhere in that direction Saruman schemed at the top of his tower. Turning back to where the men watched from the shore of the river, he took a deep breath. Then he cried out, his voice ringing across the water. “Here let him lie, where he fell. Raise a mound over Theodred, son of Theoden, who has sacrificed his life for the sake of us all.”

Kneeling again beside the still form, Grimbold bowed his head, and did not move until the other Riders had brought rocks and earth. Then he joined in the labor of piling them around and over the lifeless shape. The men of Theodred’s eored who had fallen beside him were brought and laid alongside, then others of the Riders, and the mound rose higher and wider, until the little island was nearly swallowed up by its bulk.

Grimbold waited until the work was well underway, the false Theodred safely hidden in the mound’s heart. Then he sought out his own second in command, who had taken charge of their eored in his absence. Grimbold exchanged a few words with him, assuring himself that all was well with those who remained. He authorized the man to remain in command until he returned. Then he made his way to the messenger’s station, where a rider was mounting one of the swift courier steeds. Grimbold took the horse’s reins and motioned for the man to dismount. “I’ll take that.” He reached for the message pouch, slinging it around his own body as the courier looked about in confusion. The commander of the couriers burst from the tent, protesting, but Grimbold ignored him and swung up onto the horse. Elfhelm, hearing the commotion, hurried over.

“Where are you going?” he demanded. “You can’t leave now.”

“I must bear word to the king of Theodred’s death,” he replied. “I was at his son’s side when he fell. He should hear the news from me, and none other.” He returned Elfhelm’s challenging stare with a gaze steady and full of unspoken meaning. “I will return as soon as I may.”

Elfhelm was the first to look away. “Go then. I’ll order the defenses while you are away. But return swiftly, for I fear Saruman will not give us long to rest before he renews the attack.”

Grimbold nodded his thanks, then with a touch of his heels sent his steed racing eastward along the road.

Sparing neither his mount nor himself, he sped toward Edoras. He made a quick detour down the Deeping Road to the Hornburg, and gave tidings to Erkenbrand of all that had happened. Then he was on the road again, stopping only to change horses at each waystation. Through the night he rode, driving back weariness with fierce determination. Rumor had a way of traveling faster even than the swiftest horses of the Mark, but he was resolved to outdistance it to Edoras.

When he reached the gates of the city about noon the next day, he was relieved to see that he seemed to have achieved his goal. The gate guards watched him pass with eager curiosity, but their discipline prevented them from questioning him. All up the steep street people cried out, “What news? How goes the battle?” But his stern, unyielding face and his silence quieted them, and fear gathered in their hearts. By the time he reached the steps of Meduseld a throng had gathered behind him, anxious to hear his tidings, however dreadful they might be. The guards held the crowd back, but they let Grimbold pass, taking the reins of his horse as he dismounted.

The Golden Hall was dim, but it buzzed with tension. Men of the king’s guard and members of the court gathered at the far end, around the king’s dais. Theoden was there, in his great seat. Grima stood before him, and the hall rang with the echoes of his angry voice. “He has acted against your express orders. Under cover of darkness, in the middle of the night! He has taken his eored with him, and left the city all but defenseless. When he returns you must….” Grima’s words cut off abruptly as everyone in the hall looked around at Grimbold’s entrance.

All present fell back, clearing a path for Grimbold to approach the throne. Eowyn, beside the king, laid a hand on his arm. Theoden passed a hand before his eyes and shook his head, as if to clear it of cares and confusion. Then he focused on Grimbold, taking in his bleak eyes and grim expression. Theoden drew in his breath and glanced over quickly at Grima, whose gaze was fixed on Grimbold. Then Theoden closed his eyes and bowed his head, drawing himself in. The eyes he raised to Grimbold were calm and resigned, and his voice quiet and steady. “Tell us, what tidings do you bring of the battle in the west?”

“Victory, my lord.” A murmur of surprise ran through the room. Victory was not what his face betokened, nor the harsh tone of his voice. “We have met Saruman’s forces, and have turned them back. Our men hold the Fords.”

“I am pleased to hear it.” Theoden’s eyes did not leave Grimbold’s. “But I see that there is more to tell. Speak on.”

Grimbold shifted uncomfortably. “It was at the height of the battle. Theodred held the island in the midst of the Fords.” Theoden’s lips tightened at his son’s name. “He fought mightily, and slew many foes. Yet still he was overwhelmed. He cried out ‘To me, Eorlingas!’ and we answered him. I came from the west, and Elfhelm, whose troops turned the tide of battle and won for us the victory, came from the east. Yet even as we reached his side, a great blow from an orc-axe struck him, and he fell.”

The hall was silent, as if all there held their breaths. Theoden’s face was white.

“We slew the orc, and knelt at his side. He breathed still, and he spoke to us. ‘Let me lie here,’ he said. ‘To keep the Fords, until Eomer comes.’”

“Eomer,” Grima spat. “Where is Eomer now? No sooner had he arrived in Edoras, then he came to the King with some wild tale of a band of orcs coming out of the Emyn Muil. Theoden expressly forbade him to leave the city, for after Elfhelm left his eored was all the defense left to us. Yet what do we find this morning but that he had crept away like a thief in the night, taking his men with him.”

“Peace, Grima.” Theoden waved his counselor to silence. The eyes he turned on Grimbold were full of the dread of what he feared to hear, but still a tiny flame of hope burned, cutting into Grimbold’s heart like a sword. “Finish your tale.”

Grimbold dropped to his knees before the king. He bowed his head. The truth burned on his tongue, longing to spring forth and echo from the rafters: Theodred yet lives! How dare he lie to his king, to all of Rohan? How could he speak the words that would shatter Theoden’s heart with false and needless grief? Almost he forsook his course. But loyalty stopped him. Theodred had been his commander in battle, his comrade in arms, more truly king of Rohan these past years than Theoden. Theodred had asked him to bear this falsehood, convinced he could serve Rohan better by his death than by his life. Grimbold did not understand or agree with his conviction, yet still he had vowed to carry out Theodred’s wishes. And by that vow he was bound.

“There is nothing left to tell,” he whispered. He turned his face up to Theoden, eyes wet with tears. “Even now Theodred’s burial mound stands in the midst of the Fords, as was his wish. He has fallen in battle, and he will not return.”

Theoden sank back into his throne. He looked lost and bewildered, and old, suddenly years older than only moments before. “Theodred…?”

He turned to Eowyn, who was staring at Grimbold with wide, dark eyes, hands clenched at her mouth. Then to Grima, who had schooled his face into a mask of sorrow and concern. “My lord, this is grievous news indeed. How bitter it is for you to lose your son, your heir, your loyal right hand. We must mourn him as is his due…”

But Theoden was not listening. His eyes wandered, vacant, around the room. “Theodred…my son…Theodred….” He crumpled, burying his head in his hands, and his shoulders shook as silent sobs wracked his body.

Grimbold bowed his head again, unable to look at Theoden any longer. Of all those gathered there, only he knew that the burden that stooped his shoulders and bent his head was the weight, not merely of grief, but also of shame.

Chapter 20 – I Can Help You

Eowyn stood before the mirror in her private chamber, and scrubbed angrily at the tears that still welled from her eyes. Later she could cry, could fall across her bed and weep until all her grief drained from her and she slept. But she had no time for that now. Theodred’s last request to her was yet unfulfilled, and at any moment the chance to save those he had held dearer even than his own life might be lost. Theodred had stood against Saruman’s forces, and fought, and even now his enemies might be exacting the promised price. Little hope remained that she could save Elana and Deore, yet she had to try one last time, and it must be done now.

With a practiced hand she combed out her hair, rearranging it into the elaborate braided style favored by the Riders. Peering into the polished metal mirror, she dipped her fingers into the pots of cosmetics and smudged them across her face. She had never seen a need to use them to color her face as the other women did, but had found that carefully applied they could create the illusion, in dim light at least, of a beginning growth of downy beard. She shrugged out of her dress and shift and pulled on leather breeches and a linen shirt. Her bosom was flat and boyish enough there was no need to bind it, as the heavy leather jacket concealed it sufficiently. Tall boots and a woolen cap pulled low to shadow her face completed her disguise.

She checked her appearance again in her mirror. Careful examination by one who knew her well would probably reveal her true identity, but to the casual eye she could pass for a youth newly come to manhood. Satisfied, she drew her cloak around herself, waited until the corridor outside her apartment was empty, and slipped unseen out of the hall.

Once in the streets of the city she threw her cloak back and adjusted her posture, lengthening her stride and lifting her shoulders up and back. It was not hard, really. She had spent so much time among the Riders, training as they did, that it was easy to take up the attitude and bearing of a young man. In some ways it felt more natural to her than the constrained motions she was forced to adopt among the women.

She made her way down to the lower quarters of the city. Each of the previous four evenings she had donned her disguise, and she had learned much about the inns and pubs where common soldiers, craftsmen, travelers and foreigners would congregate, drinking and trading stories and songs. She had wandered from one establishment to another, nursing pints of ale as she listened, ears straining to catch every bit of gossip she could, occasionally asking after Donaldo with her voice pitched as low as she could manage. The first night she had been tense and jumpy, expecting at any moment to be discovered. But men intent on ale were not suspicious, and as she was accepted again and again for whom she pretended to be she was able to relax a bit. She had not thus far heard any word of her quarry, but there remained plenty of territory yet to explore. Only time stood in her way. If she failed today, she would most likely never find what she sought.

Though it was still only the middle of the afternoon, already patrons were starting to gather. She made her way from pub to pub, listening, questioning, but finding nothing. As the day progressed she began to be afraid, with a rising sense of panic, that she was on a fool’s quest. What if, despite what Theodred had guessed, this Donaldo had never been in Edoras at all? The sun was already sinking towards the west, and she knew no more than she had at noon. Somewhere out there, were Elana and Deore dead already, while she wasted time here?

She stared into her mug, sinking into despair, sure she had failed Theodred’s memory after all. She drained her ale and motioned recklessly for another. Thus far she had been careful to drink only measured amounts, so her head would remain clear. Now she thought perhaps she would see if it was true what was said about ale drowning sorrows.

Low, unintelligible rumblings came from the table behind her, where a huge, muscular man, apparently already far gone in drunkenness, muttered to himself. As she accepted her fresh mug, Eowyn’s ear caught a few of his words. “… nothin’ but a baby after all. Least he could’ve done was take care of it himself, instead of stickin’ me with the job….”

Eowyn froze, breathless with hope. Slowly, carefully, she picked up her mug and wove an unsteady path to the man’s table. “Mind if I join you?” She exaggerated the slurring of her words, and seated herself before he could reply. He eyed her warily but did not object. “Looks like you, too, drink to forget tonight, and I could use the company.” She took a swig of ale and stared morosely into her cup.

He took her bait. “What’re you tryin’ to forget?”

“My cousin’s dead.” Despite herself, Eowyn’s voice shook. “Killed in the battle at the Fords.” Almost forgetting that she was here seeking information, she swilled more ale. It didn’t seem to be helping any.

“Ah.” The big man raised his glass in commiseration, and for a while they sat in silence.

“I always knew it could happen. But I guess I never really believed it. Now he’s gone. The orcs, they hacked him in two with an axe. And my brother’s a Rider too, so the same thing could happen to him any time….” Eowyn found her voice had risen in pitch, and she forced it down again. “But I’m boring you with my tale. What troubles you, friend?”

The man drained the last of his ale. “I shouldn’t tell you….” He looked at his empty mug wistfully.

Eowyn motioned for another round. “This one’s on me.”

“Many thanks.” He accepted the full mug. “I s’pose there’s no harm in tellin’ you…. Well, the guy I work for, see, he gave me a job. And I don’t particularly want to do it. Listen, you won’t repeat this, will you?”

“No, no, I won’t tell a soul. You can trust me. Go on.” Eowyn tried to seem casually interested, though her heart was pounding. She hung on his every word.

“Well, for a few months now I’ve been guardin’…. This is disgusting, but there’s this girl, and some orcs grabbed her, and they…. Well, now she’s got this baby orc. And the guy I work for, he was keepin’ them, so I’ve been guardin’ them. But now he wants them both dead, so he told me to go do it. And I’ve been thinkin’ all along someone ought to kill the little monster, but now it comes down to it I find I don’t like the idea. She’s just a bitty thing after all, and her ma sure dotes on her. She laughs, even, and smiles. And the girl, her ma, she’s right nice. Sure didn’t deserve what happened to her. So I don’t like it, is all, havin’ to get rid of them. But I’ve got to anyway, because the guy I work for, he don’t put up with no backtalk. He says do it, it’s got to be done. I was just hopin’ a few drinks might make it easier. Don’t seem to be workin’, though.”

Eowyn leaned forward. “The man you work for – is he Donaldo?”

The big man eyed her suspiciously. “Donaldo. Yeah, sure.”

Eowyn’s words came in a rush. “Listen, I’m a friend of Theodred’s. He told me about Elana and Deore. I can help you, ah, what’s your name?”

He gaped at her, bewildered by the sudden turn her words had taken. But her question, at least, was easy enough. “Forstrang.”

“Forstrang. You don’t want to have to kill them. What if you let them go, give them to me, and tell Donaldo they’re dead. He’ll never have to know the truth. I’ll get them out of Rohan, so Donaldo will never find out.

“Give them to you… instead of killin’ them…. and then you’d take them off…. I’d have to make sure Andgit didn’t find out…. Hmmm, I guess that could work….” His eyes narrowed. “How do I know I can trust you? How’d you find me, anyway? Are you some spy of W… of Donaldo, come to get me in trouble?” He shoved his chair back, ready to heave himself to his feet.

“No! No, Forstrang, sit down.” She lowered her voice, aware of heads turning their way. “I can’t prove anything to you, Forstrang. You’re just going to have to trust me. Either that, or… go through with it.”

“Yeah…” He settled down and picked up his drink again. “Let me think about it….”

They sat for a long time, not looking at one another. Eowyn’s impatience screamed inside her, but she bit it back and forced herself to wait as Forstrang’s ponderous thoughts worked their slow way to a conclusion.

Finally he looked up. “Yeah. Let’s do it. You meet me outside the city gate in an hour, um….”

“Dernhelm,” Eowyn supplied.

“Dernhelm. It’s an hour’s ride or so, out to where they are.” He got to his feet, extending a hand to Eowyn as, rising, she swayed, giddy with ale and relief. His grip was like a vise on her arm. “Uh, Dernhelm, uh, I… well, I know I’m not too smart, and W…Donaldo just hired me ‘cause I’m big and strong, but I’m not…. I mean I really didn’t want to just kill…. Well, I guess I just want to say, um, ah, well... thanks, is all.”

Strangely touched by the big man’s stammers, she smiled at him. “Thank you, Forstrang.”

An hour later she sat astride Windfola, cloaked and hooded, concealed by the darkness outside the walls of the city, watching the pool of light cast by the torches at the gate. Finally she spotted the unmistakably vast bulk of Forstrang, mounted on a thick-boned giant of a horse, emerging from the gate. She fell in with him as he left the circle of light. He acknowledged her presence with a nod and they rode through the murky night. At length they turned from the main road and wound their way back into the rolling hills. She recognized the first part of the way from her rides out to the vicinity of the abandoned farmhouse, but soon their path turned away from the area she had searched. Their course intersected a little stream and they followed it upstream for several miles.

Near a copse of trees and brush Forstrang signaled her to halt. “Hide here. I’ll be back with them in a few minutes.”

Peering past the screening branches, Eowyn caught a glimpse of a low campfire. She watched, heart pounding, as Forstrang approached the figure hunched beside the fire. It seemed preposterous to think that the plan might actually work, that she might, beyond all hope, succeed in her task. Could she truly trust Forstrang, who was after all a servant of the enemy? It was too late now for fears or doubts. All she could do was wait and see if he proved true.

Chapter 21 – Daughters of the Rohirrim

Sitting huddled in the little shack her captors had built to contain her, Elana wrapped her cloak more tightly around herself and Deore. The baby had fallen asleep a while back, but the night was dank and chill, and Elana could not settle herself to rest. The golden flickers of firelight leaking through the cracks in the boards taunted her with their promise of warmth denied. When Forstrang was on guard he would usually let her out to share the fire, but tonight Andgit kept watch, and he didn’t care if she froze in here. In fact, she suspected he enjoyed the thought of her discomfort.

Five days now it had been, since the night they had brought Theodred to her and presented them both with impossible choices. Surely the battle must have been fought by now, for good or ill. How long after it was over would the news take to reach Edoras? Would they even bother to tell her what had happened, before they carried out her fate, whatever that was to be?

She clutched Deore to her and rocked, cold and miserable. She was thinking about lying down and at least trying to doze, when she heard hoof beats, then Andgit’s voice hailing Forstrang.

She stiffened. The guard was not due to be changed until tomorrow morning. Careful not to wake Deore, she squirmed closer to the door, and put her ear to the largest crack facing the fire.

“Hey, Forstrang, what’re you doing here? You got news?”

“Yeah.” Forstrang’s words seemed even more terse than usual. “Word arrived this afternoon. Battle’s over.”

Elana’s blood froze, and she pressed even closer to the crack, her pulse so loud in her ears she feared she would not be able to hear. Andgit’s voice was impatient. “Well, what happened? Did Theodred take the bait?”

“Nope. Fought just like he’d never talked to us.” Elana squeezed her eyes shut, overwhelmed by pride and fear. “Donaldo’s trick worked, though. Theodred took the army across the river, right where Saruman wanted him.”

Andgit sounded pleased. “So, we won, then?”

“Not quite. Elfhelm got there in time and they managed to hang on to the Fords for now. Won’t be able to for long though.”

Andgit spat. “Boss’ll be upset about that. Probably take it out on us.”

“Nah. We took out Theodred. That’ll cheer him up. No way they’ll be able to hold out long without him.”

Almost Elana missed it, so casual and emotionless were Forstrang’s words. But their full import hit her with Andgit’s coarse laughter. “Oh, that will cheer him up all right! I think he’ll consider a setback well worth it, to have our noble Second Marshall dead.”

Their voices continued, but Elana couldn’t hear them anymore. Numb, her mind seemed unable to function. All she could do was rock, and shake her head. “No,” she whispered. No. It cannot be true. “No….”

Lost in despair, she remained oblivious to the men’s conversation, until Andgit’s voice shocked her to attention. “So, what’s he want us to do with those two?”

“Oh, he told me to kill them, of course. Theodred broke the bargain, and they’re no more use to him now. Guess I better go ahead and take care of that.”

Elana shuddered, and buried her head in Deore’s hair. Was this the end, then? Hot tears scalded her eyes. All their bright hopes, all the sacrifice and courage, to come now to nothing but death and defeat…

Then she swallowed, took a deep trembling breath, and wiped her eyes. She stood up and faced the door, waiting, Deore still asleep in her arms. From the depths of her heart’s emptiness, she summoned up a last bitter resolve. Her fate was beyond her control, but she could still choose the manner in which she faced it. They would go to their deaths with heads held high, as befit daughters of the Rohirrim.

The door opened, and Forstrang held out his hand to her, something like pity in his eyes. He ushered her to his horse and held Deore while she mounted, then handed the baby up. The motion woke her, and her big dark eyes met Elana’s in silence.

Andgit trailed behind. “Where are you taking them?”

Forstrang didn’t look behind as he led the horse away from the clearing. “He told me to take them off in the woods away from camp and bury the bodies.”

“I suppose you want me to come help dig.” Andgit didn’t sound enthusiastic. Elana noticed with a chill the shovel bound to the back of the saddle.

“Nah, you stay here. I’ll take care of it.”

Gratefully Andgit retreated to the fireside. “Hey,” he called over his shoulder. “You’d better take her stuff with you, and bury it with them. Don’t want anything around to let anyone know we had her.”

Forstrang paused. “Good thinkin’. Could you get it for me?” Andgit, grumbling, disappeared into the shack and returned with Elana’s pack, haphazardly stuffed with all her belongings, which he attached to the saddle. Then Forstrang took the reins and started off.

Forstrang led the horse silently into the dark forest. Elana stroked Deore’s head, clinging fiercely to her pride lest she lose all dignity and dissolve in tears and pleas for mercy. She would meet her death with as much courage as Theodred had met his. Oh, Theodred, this was not the reunion we wanted, yet it seems it is all that is left to us….

They followed the streambed, past a thicket of trees. A shadow detached itself from the deeper darkness of the thicket and fell in behind them, a cloaked horseman. Elana twisted around to get a better view, then jumped as Forstrang’s hand across her mouth stifled her questions. “Hush,” he muttered, waiting to remove his hand until she nodded, eyes wide. The procession continued, turning away from the stream and the trees that bordered it, and cutting off across the trackless plain, while Elana remained lost in silent confusion, not understanding what was taking place, but afraid to hope.

They rode for at least an hour. Then Elana, sense of direction hopelessly muddled in the starless, moonless overcast, was surprised to hear the horse’s hooves thud on the hard packed dirt of what could only be the main road west out of Edoras.

Halting, Forstrang turned to the cloaked rider. “This is as far as I can take you. Andgit will be expectin’ me back when it’s been long enough that I would’ve had time to bury them.” He took the shovel from behind the saddle and plunged it into the ground at his feet, drawing it forth stained with dirt. He fastened it back in place, and then turned to lift the speechless Elana down.

The hooded rider had dismounted, and approached, no more than a deeper shadow in the night. Elana, heart hammering with a wild mix of hope and terror, clutched Deore close and strained to see in the darkness. “What is going on? Who are you?”

“I’m a friend of Theodred. I’m here to help you escape. Now be quiet; I’ll answer all your questions as we ride. I need to get you as far along the road as I can before I must turn back.” Turning to Forstrang, the rider clasped his arm. “I don’t know how to thank you enough, Forstrang.”

“Aw, it was nothin’. You just get her out of here. Miss Elana, you better get you and Miss Deore there out of Rohan quick as you can.”

Elana was dizzied by her sudden change in fortune. “Oh, I will. Thank you, thank you…” Forstrang pressed her pack of belongings into her hands, then was gone into the darkness.

The cloaked stranger led his horse over. “Windfola can carry two; we’ll go faster if we both ride. Here, let me get that pack, then I’ll hold Deore for you.” Soon they were mounted, Elana in front clutching Deore and the stranger behind. He murmured to the horse, who set out at a brisk trot westward.

The stranger’s voice, which had been low-pitched when he spoke to Forstrang, changed to a higher, lighter tone as he spoke to the horse. That, and the lines of the stranger’s body pressed close to her back suddenly made sense to Elana, and she swiveled to try to catch a glimpse of the rider’s face. “You’re a woman!”

She no longer attempted to disguise her voice. “Yes, I’m Eowyn, Theodred’s cousin. He sent me to find you, before...”

“Is it true, then, what Forstrang said? But he was lying. Oh, tell me that was a lie too...”

But her hope was dashed as fast as it had sprung to life. Eowyn’s voice was harsh. “No, that was the truth. Theodred fell in the battle.”

Elana could feel the rigidly controlled tenseness in Eowyn’s body, and hear the grief that so closely matched her own. She bowed her head and they rode far in silence.

Eventually, when the night was far advanced, Eowyn halted Windfola where the road bent north to pass around a rocky outcropping. In amongst the stones they found a sheltered nook where they dismounted.

Eowyn busied herself unfastening Elana’s pack from Windfola’s saddle, then set about kindling a small fire, that they might warm themselves. “This is as far as I can take you. I locked myself in my chambers and told the servants to leave me alone. They will respect my grief, but if I don’t come out by morning someone will eventually get suspicious. So I must get back. You can continue on foot, west out of Rohan. I suppose you should head south, into Gondor. There you may find people to take you in. Not that there’s anywhere you could go where Deore will be accepted.”

“You know about Deore then. About what happened to me.”

“Yes, Theodred told me all about you, back when he first returned to Edoras. He was so changed, by meeting you. He tried to hide it from me at first, but his love for you shone in his face. He told me he was there when Deore was born, that he loved her as his own daughter, that he wished to bring you to Edoras and wed you.... May I hold her?”

Eowyn’s voice was choked with unshed tears. Hearing her speak about Theodred struck to the core of Elana’s grief, yet she hungered to hear more. She laid Deore, once again wakeful but quiet, in Eowyn’s arms.

Gazing into the baby’s face, whose deep brown eyes reflected the golden flickers of firelight, without surprise or revulsion, Eowyn remembered that day, so bright with promise. “I told him I would stand on the steps of Meduseld, and kiss her, and name her as my niece.” She closed her eyes and for a moment her shoulders shook, but then she lifted Deore and gently and firmly kissed her forehead. Deore smiled, revealing her four white, pointed teeth, and cooed. “You are my niece. Theodred chose well, I think. And may I count you as my sister, Elana? For he was truly close as a brother to me.”

“Oh, yes.” Words failed her, and she moved, awkwardly at first, to embrace Eowyn. They both found comfort in the touch, and the tears flowed freely between them.

When their grief was spent they withdrew, and a little embarrassed Elana wiped her eyes. Deore had grown fretful, so she took her back from Eowyn’s arms and seated herself on a ridge of stone, settling the baby in to nurse. She beckoned Eowyn over to sit beside her. “If there is time –surely we can take a little time – come talk to me. Tell me about him.”

Eowyn sat down, and for an hour she told Elana about Theodred, about his kindness when she first came to the king’s house, about his seeing in her the potential to be a warrior, about the long hours when he trained her, demanding but never harsh. Elana listened, savoring each word, achingly aware the she would now never hear these tales from his own lips. She spoke then, haltingly, about her own time with him, about her first glimpse of him through the bars of her cell when he pledged himself to her rescue, about his steady support through the drama surrounding Deore’s birth, about the tenderness and sorrow of that day they declared their love and were torn apart. Then for a while they spoke of themselves, of their own lives and upbringings. Elana marveled at the determination and skill with which Eowyn had pursued her dream, and envied a little her freedom and strength. Eowyn, for her part, was fascinated by Elana’s tales of growing up surrounded by her large family, so different from Eowyn’s own, and by the gentle but powerful bond so evident between mother and child. She had never wanted motherhood, had considered it only a burden and a prison, yet now watching Elana and Deore she found herself glimpsing an aspect of womanhood she had never appreciated before, and much to her own surprise she found it intriguing, even appealing.

But finally the time came when Eowyn knew she could linger no longer. She must return to Meduseld while it was yet dark and she could slip back into her chambers unseen. She hoped she would be able to attribute the weariness that dragged at her to nothing more than her sorrow. Now that sorrow was magnified by the need to leave this newfound friend and sister when they had barely had the chance to meet, yet the knowledge that another heart grieved as she did was, if not comforting exactly, yet still sweet.

“I am sorry I can do no more for you. As long as Wormtongue holds my uncle’s ear, I am all but helpless. And I fear for what will happen in the coming days. There is so little hope that Rohan can even survive.... Yet if beyond hope we do come to better days, I am of the King’s house, and perhaps one day it will be in my power to help you more.”

“I will remember.” Elana embraced Eowyn one last time, then hefted Deore onto her back, tying the carrying cloth tightly around them both. “Thank you again....”

But Eowyn raised her hand, signaling silence. She was gazed at Windfola, who was agitated, eyes rolling and head tossing. Eowyn soothed him with a gentle hand, but still he trembled, staring fixedly back toward the road. “What is it, boy, do you hear something?”

But then they both heard it, coming closer, hoofbeats approaching from the east.

Chapter 22 - Things That Belong To Me

Grima looked up from his desk as Donaldo entered the room, and the vague dislike he had always felt for the man crystallized into active antipathy at Donaldo’s cocksure swagger. He fixed his ally with his coldest stare as Donaldo sprawled in the chair opposite him. “A bit late, aren’t you? The messenger arrived before noon. When I obtained the courier’s uniform for you I expected you to use it for speed on the road. But apparently you felt free to dawdle. A single success does not ensure our victory.”

Ignoring Grima’s rebuke, Donaldo leaned forward, eyes glittering. “I told you, didn’t I? You didn’t believe me, but I told you it would work. Self-righteous little lordling, wave a bribe in his face, and he’ll run so fast in the other direction he won’t even see what he’s stepping in until he’s hip deep in it. You try, Grima, but you just don’t have what it takes to get these fools to dance to your tune.”

Insufferable braggart. I’ve been setting up this situation for years, and he comes breezing in, makes one little suggestion, and wants to take the credit for everything.... Grima’s annoyance was only sharpened by the suppressed knowledge that Donaldo’s ploy had in fact been the deciding factor in the recent positive developments; that without him, Grima’s carefully constructed plans would probably have failed. He dismissed Donaldo’s boasts with a wave of his hand. “I realize your primary objective has been accomplished and our original agreement is at an end. However, I have another mission for you which I believe will ensure our master’s final victory. Carry it out, and your efforts will be well rewarded, I assure you.”

“Let’s hear it then. I’m not opposed to earning a bit of gold, if the job suits me.” Donaldo settled back to listen, but didn’t entirely lose his self-satisfied smirk.

“With Theodred’s death, the heirship of the kingdom devolves on Eomer, the king’s nephew, who is nearly as strong and capable as Theoden’s son was. However, he has just made the grave error in judgment of defying a direct order of the king and taking his troops off away from Edoras. Until they return our position is tenuous, for he might at any time appear at the Fords, ready to reinforce the defenses there. But, when he does return to Edoras, I will have an excellent case to have him removed from his post and cast into prison. Theodred’s loss has stripped Theoden of his last vestiges of independence; he will do whatever I suggest. Once Eomer is eliminated, the leadership of Rohan will be left entirely in my hands. Therefore, it is imperative that word be carried to Saruman to hold back any further attack on the Fords, and delay his advance until I notify him that Eomer is safely in custody. Will you carry this message for me?”

“Another two days in the saddle? You horse-lovers may think a nag’s back is better than a feather bed, but I’m ready for a little riding of a different sort, if you take my meaning.” At Grima’s frown, Donaldo relented and leaned forward to take the paper Grima held out to him. “If you insist, I’ll take it, though I expect to be well paid.” Despite his show of reluctance, Donaldo’s heart quickened at the thought of his master’s forces finally pouring forth out of Isengard and crushing all who stood before them. “I suppose you want me to leave right away.”

Grima nodded, and rose to escort Donaldo to the door. Halfway there, Donaldo paused as an idea struck him. “Hey, what about that girl, Theodred’s tart? And the orc-brat? I’d be glad to take them off your hands, now you’ve got no use for them.” Lust momentarily twisted his face into a leering mask.

“I’ve already had them dispatched.” Grima watched the disappointment on Donaldo’s face with disgust. At least after tonight he’d be rid of the man for good. He ushered him to the door firmly. “Remember, it is of utmost importance that the message get to Saruman with all speed. Let nothing delay you.” He closed the door firmly behind Donaldo. What could he, whose base desires were quickly aroused and as quickly satisfied or forgotten, know of true hunger, born slowly but inexorably and nurtured in secret over years of patient waiting? Grima allowed himself a rare moment to contemplate her, eyes proud and defiant, muscles hard and supple beneath her glowing skin, golden hair damp with sweat after a training session…. Then he buried the image deep, where it had languished for so long. He had worked hard to make sure no one suspected, though he feared her brother had somehow divined the truth. But Eomer had blundered fatally, and soon would be removed from the reckoning. Then Saruman’s long anticipated victory would be complete, and Grima’s reward would finally be won. He must put aside such thoughts for a few days more, lest they interfere with the clear thinking necessary to play out this game to its conclusion. But as he returned to his work, a tiny smile played around his lips.

Donaldo fumed as he left Grima’s room, straightening his fraudulent courier’s insignia and heading for the stables. What a waste, to kill the girl so quickly. She might have provided much pleasure first, had he been given the responsibility to dispose of her. How she would have screamed and begged when he toyed with that little orcling she was so obsessed with. What might he have been able to make her do…. Wormtongue was a fool, and it rankled that he was held so high in their master’s esteem, when he himself had been dismissed once Saruman had no further use for him. But now he was rid of the man for good, and once this message was delivered he’d be rid of Saruman too.

Mounted on a courier horse and out the main gate, Donaldo headed west, depending on his steed’s familiarity with the road in the inky blackness of the moonless, starless night. The beast was inclined to indolence, but quickened its pace satisfactorily after feeling the bite of Donaldo’s whip. They made good time along the road. Donaldo had settled into bored endurance of the endless miles, when he was startled alert by the sound, not far ahead, of a fearful whinny. It sounded like… but surely not. What could his former steed be doing out here? He jerked his mount to a slower pace, then dragged him to a stop, ears and eyes straining. There, a faint glow among the rocks. He dismounted to investigate. A few coals burned, all that was left of a hastily scattered fire. He kicked the remains back together with his booted feet, listening all the while. Was that muffled, panicky breathing, or just the sigh of the wind? A pile of sticks lay ready nearby, and he added them to the fire, building it up until its light blazed out, illuminating all of the clearing among the rocks.

He was sure, now, where they were hiding. A snort and a strained voice whispering, “Quiet, Windfola, quiet,” only served to confirm it. Taking a burning brand from the fire and drawing his sword, he stepped around the outcropping of rock. There, just as he’d suspected, was his horse, the very one Theodred had stolen from him. At his head a skinny boy left off murmuring calming words in the horse’s ear and stepped forward, drawing a sword and assuming a guard position. The quivering of the blade might have been simply an illusion of the dim and flickering light, but Donaldo knew fear when he saw it.

“Boy, that’s my horse you’ve got there. Now, you can hand him over peacefully, or I can….” At the sound of his voice the horse reared and strained to pull away from another figure now revealed clinging to his reins, a young woman, nearly jerked off her feet by the creature’s wild plunging. The baby bound to her back was awakened by the violent motion and added her shrieks to the animal’s loud protests. Surely it couldn’t be…. Donaldo raised his torch higher. Then he laughed, low and ugly.

“Well look what I’ve stumbled on, out here in the dark. All sorts of things that belong to me….”

Elana’s heart quailed at the familiar voice, and her fingers lost their strength. Windfola yanked the reins from her hands and plunged off into the darkness. Eowyn stepped forward and thrust her sword at Donaldo. Almost negligently he raised his own to knock it aside, then suddenly thrust the blazing brand at her face. Eowyn leaped back to avoid it, stumbling over a rock. Momentarily blinded by the fire’s dazzle, she waved her sword in Donaldo’s direction but could not block the quick twist that tore it from her grasp. A step and a shove, and she was lying on her back at Donaldo’s feet, his boot planted in her stomach.

“Boy, I’ll teach you not to take from me what is mine. She should have been dead already, but how much better to find her alive, and her brat too. Is she your sweetheart, perhaps? Is that why you’re running away with her? I’ve already killed one of her lovers; will she scream, do you think, if I hurt you? Well, Elana,” and he turned his attention to where she stood watching, fists clenched at her mouth, unable to help Eowyn but equally unable to abandon her, “what will you do for me to spare him this?” His foot had been inching its way down Eowyn’s body, and with this word he ground his heel viciously into her groin. She cried out with the pain, but it was not as strong a reaction as he had been expecting, or else he felt the unexpected contours of the body beneath his foot, for he stopped and looked sharply at her, holding the torch near her face. She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head aside, grinding her cheek into the dust.

“A girl!” He stared a moment, then laughed again. An orc laugh, Elana thought, numb with terror, oblivious even to Deore’s screams. She backed away, faster and faster, and then turned to flee.

Donaldo brought his boot down again on Eowyn’s midriff, a sharp stomp that drove the breath from her body. As she lay curled up, retching and struggling to breath, Donaldo pursued Elana, who stumbled blindly into the darkness. In only a few steps he caught her and dragged her back, his arm in a chokehold around her throat. Elana struggled until she felt Deore slip askew in the carrying cloth on her back, and then froze in fear that the baby might fall.

At the fire Donaldo cast the brand back in, then used the free hand thus gained to grope in the pack of his tethered horse. Seizing a length of rope, he bound Elana hand and foot, and then shoved her to a seat on the ground. As he left to go back to Eowyn he idly reached out and slapped Deore, a sharp blow to the side of her head. The child shrieked with pain and renewed fury, and Elana cried out and twisted around to flail uselessly at Donaldo, but he was already out of reach. She reached clumsily over her shoulder with her bound hands to stroke Deore as best she could, straining her head as far around as it would reach. She tried to murmur “It’s all right, love,” but she choked on the words. At least Forstrang’s knife would have been quick and clean.

Donaldo dragged Eowyn over to the fire. She lay beside Elana, still curled around her belly, struggling to breath. The man was humming softly, a cheerful, bouncy tune. He fed the fire a few more sticks, then turned to contemplate the two women, standing with his legs straddled and his hands clasped behind his back. He paced before them, and Elana quailed before the gleam in his eyes. She buried her face in her knees and screwed her eyes shut as he approached. A frantic relief swept over her as he passed without touching her, then was replaced by guilt and renewed terror as instead he dragged Deore out of the carrying cloth and brought her around in front of Elana. The child writhed in his grasp, kicking and flailing her arms, screaming in great piercing shrieks. Donaldo struggled for a moment, then seized Deore’s ankle and dangled her before Elana’s face.

Cold choked Elana, and a vision rose before her eyes. Leering, laughing orcs, dangling her son just so, her first half-orc child, slapping him before they took him away….

“She’s a tough little thing.” Donaldo shook Deore, and his smile widened at Elana’s involuntary, useless lunge. “Yet so vulnerable. I could kill her now, you know…” and he swung her up to clamp her under his arm, a hand across her face smothering her cries. “Do you want me to do that? Or do you want me to let her live a bit longer? What is it worth to you,” and his hand tightened on Deore, crushing into her nose and mouth, “for her to draw a few more brea….”

But at that moment Deore sank her four needle-sharp teeth into the heel of Donaldo’s hand, and his words cut off in a bellow of pain. He flung the baby from him, and her tiny body flew across the clearing, crashed against a rock and came to rest motionless on the ground.

Bewildered, Elana gaped for a moment at the still, huddled heap that was her daughter, and then white-hot rage blazed up inside her. She struggled to her feet and cast herself at Donaldo as he cursed and shook his hand, scattering droplets of blood. Flinging her bound hands around his neck, she dragged him down, sending them both crashing toward the fire.

Eowyn, who though much recovered had continued to feign helplessness, leapt to Elana’s assistance. The two bodies rolled, entangled, but Elana had landed nearer the blaze, and the stench of burning hair filled the clearing as a tress contacted a smoldering coal. Donaldo sought to force her closer, but, oblivious, Elana struggled to find some purchase with her teeth. Eowyn landed a hard kick in the small of Donaldo’s back. Momentarily he paused, and Eowyn snatched a knife from its scabbard on his belt. A second kick to his groin struck somewhat less forcefully than her anger would have wished, but his reaction gained her a precious moment. She cut Elana’s bonds and dragged her away from the writhing Donaldo.

Elana fought to renew her assault on their captor, but Eowyn, stronger, pulled her toward the road. A piercing whistle brought an answering neigh from Windfola, who had not strayed far, his devotion to Eowyn warring with his fear of Donaldo. In a moment the horse was there, and Eowyn grabbed at his reins.

A feeble whimper came from the rocks, and Elana and Eowyn both swung around in shocked amazement to see Deore’s still form stir, as the whimper rose to a wail. Eowyn released Elana, who scrambled to her child’s side. Eowyn mounted Windfola, and edged him over between Elana and Donaldo, who was slowly getting to his feet.

Elana knelt beside Deore, afraid to touch her lest she aggravate what surely must be terrible injuries. But Deore, seeing her mother, rolled toward her and reached out her arms. Wonderingly, Elana scooped her up, feeling her all over but finding no broken bones or obvious damage. She clasped the baby close and rose to find Eowyn reaching down from Windfola’s back. She passed Deore to her and scrambled up to cling awkwardly behind Eowyn, then grabbed the baby back and clutched her with fierce protectiveness.

Donaldo had risen and drawn his sword. He approached them with a face stripped of any pretense of humor or poise, only murderous rage left in his eyes. But Eowyn was astride now, a Rider of Rohan armed with her most formidable weapon. Windfola steadied beneath her as her touch and voice overcame his fear. He responded to the pressure of her knees and her hands on the reins as she called on his training in the maneuvers of war. Rearing, his flashing hooves menaced Donaldo, who backed away.

“Hold on,” Eowyn whispered to Elana, who clamped her knees tighter and clung to Deore with renewed intensity. A light touch from Eowyn sent Windfola spinning and dashing across the clearing, to where Eowyn’s sword lay forgotten. Suddenly Eowyn was gone from in front of Elana, sliding down the horse’s side at full gallop. She snatched the sword and was in the saddle again in an instant, before Elana had finished her startled gasp.

“Theodred taught me that. Very useful skill in battle, being able to retrieve a lost weapon. Don’t tell my brother, though, he’d have a fit.” Eowyn grinned at Elana, though her light words and the excitement of battle in her voice did not completely conceal her lingering fear. She bent low over Windfola’s back and sent him racing back to the road, then west. Elana’s skill on horseback allowed her to keep her seat, but her awkward perch behind the saddle, hanging on to Deore as best she could, could not be maintained for long.

Behind them more hoofbeats thundered, as Donaldo, remounted, pursued them. Eowyn called back to Elana, who strained to hear the words torn from her lips by the wind of their speed. “When we stop, jump down. I’ll drive him away from you. Run, hide, get away from here as quick as you can. Are you ready?” The faster Windfola had opened a lead on Donaldo’s horse. Eowyn sat back, and Windfola slid to a fast, disciplined stop. Elana dropped from his back, and Eowyn took a moment to unfasten Elana’s pack from the saddle where they had stowed it in the desperate scramble to hide as Donaldo approached, and tossed it down. A quick embrace, a whispered “Farewell, sister.” Then she wheeled Windfola and charged back toward the rapidly approaching Donaldo.

Elana watched, breathless, as the two horsed plunged together, sure they would collide. But Donaldo’s horse veered aside, and Windfola turned after him, driving him around in a wide arc. Swords flashed, and Donaldo shouted curses. Then Eowyn landed a blow with the flat of her sword on the other horse’s rump, and he bolted, bit in his teeth, oblivious to Donaldo’s furious efforts to turn him. Then they were gone into the night, echoing hoofbeats dying away to nothing, and Elana and Deore were alone.

Elana stared after them for a moment, breathing deeply. Then, suddenly weak, she sat down on her pack and bowed over Deore, trembling, fighting to keep from bursting into tears. Deore wailed, and Elana clutched her close. “I thought you were dead,” she whispered. “Oh Deore, I knew you were dead.” Her self-control crumbled, and they sobbed together.

Eventually Deore’s cries changed, and she squirmed. Elana moved reflexively to offer her the comfort of her breast. Silence descended as Deore suckled with single-minded intensity, and as the child’s body slowly relaxed, the familiar calm of nursing flooded Elana. Now finally she was able to compose herself and think about what she must do next.

Back to her camp outside Waymeet, she decided. No illusion of its security remained, after her capture there, but Forstrang was her ally now, and Andgit believed her dead, so she should be safe enough for a few days at least, long enough to gather supplies and prepare for a long journey. For she knew now that her path must lead her out of Rohan altogether.

Deore pulled away, content. Elana smiled wistfully at her. “All’s right with the world, as far as you’re concerned, isn’t it?” Remembering again the trauma the baby had suffered, she dug in her pack for a candle and kindled it anxiously with her flint. She examined every inch of Deore in minute detail, but the only damage she found was a bruise spreading on her back and a lump on the back of her head. Deore flinched and whimpered when Elana’s fingers probed her injuries, but stopped as soon as Elana left off, even smiling and grabbing at the candle. She seemed to be moving all her limbs normally. Fascinated by the light, she watched the candle intently as Elana moved it to keep it from her grasp, her pointed teeth gleaming as she opened her mouth in a laugh.

Elana closed her eyes, shaking. Never had she thought to be glad of her child’s orc heritage, but tonight her sharp teeth and tough bones had saved Deore’s life, and Elana’s and Eowyn’s as well. Blowing out the candle, she clutched Deore tight for one more moment, then hoisted the baby onto her back and retied the carrying cloth. “Come on, Kitten, we’ve got a long way to go.” Elana picked up her pack and set out along the road.

Eowyn pursued Donaldo eastward along the road. She held Windfola back from his full speed, not trying to overtake the slower horse, just keeping it fleeing before them. Eventually Donaldo regained some control, and wrenched the horse’s head around to the left, leaving the road and thundering north. Perhaps he hoped to lose her in the broken ground and rolling hills, but it was a bad move, for his own blindly stampeding horse was more hindered by the rough territory than Windfola, who was open to Eowyn’s expert guidance. The pursuit went on for many miles. Windfola was tiring beneath her, but Eowyn could tell that Donaldo’s horse was far more spent. Now Donaldo could have turned him if he had tried, but instead he lashed him with a cruel many-tailed whip to force a last burst of speed from him. Reluctant to push the poor horse any farther, Eowyn slowed Windfola to a trot, then walk, ready to fight Donaldo should he turn. But her quarry continued on north, horse gradually slowing until, just before they were lost to Eowyn’s sight into the darkness, even Donaldo’s furious blows could no longer urge him to more than a staggering walk.

Sickened, Eowyn turned Windfola’s head back toward Edoras. Not until she was almost home, dawn just beginning to show in the East, did she think to wonder why she had not pursued Donaldo those last few steps and done her best to kill him. She didn’t think it was fear of him. More a disgusted sort of pity, to see him flee before her. He was no threat to her or Elana any more; his exhausted horse could never carry him back before Elana was well hidden and she was safely back in the city. Something had prevented the thought of pursuing him and finishing him off from even occurring to her. Well, no matter now, the opportunity was lost. With any luck, she would never have to deal with Donaldo again.

As she caught her first glimpse of the walls of Edoras in the distance, Eowyn became aware of her great weariness. She should be in time to slip into her room unseen. Windfola would need careful attention after his night’s exertions, but she could trust the grooms of the royal stables to be silent; they had aided her escapades before. She was stiff and sore from the bruises left by Donaldo’s boot, but they would be concealed beneath her shift, easy to keep secret even from the eyes of her maids. At last she would be able to rest, and let her tears for Theodred flow. As the full memory of her loss returned to her, she almost dreaded returning to the city emptied of those dear to her. Theodred dead, his eored and Elfhelm’s gone to war, who knew how many of the men she had trained with slain. Theoden alone remained, shut up in the prison of his grief. And Eomer was gone on some unknown errand. Well, at least he should return soon, if only for a brief time before the war called him, too, away. She longed for her brother’s comforting embrace, to weep in his arms as she had wept at their father’s death, and their mother’s. He could share her grief for Theodred as no other.

Should she tell him of her night’s work, of Theodred’s last wish fulfilled? No, she decided. No hope, now, of the future they had dreamed of. Should any rumor escape of Elana and Deore’s existence, it could only be misunderstood as a shame and a dishonor to Theodred’s memory. Theodred had wanted the secret kept, even from Eomer. Let the secret lie in his grave. She would carry it to hers.

Chapter 23 - Treason

The returning pain woke Theodred, and he knew the latest dose of Haelan’s draught was wearing off. He would gladly have drunk enough to send him into the oblivion of sleep forever, but she doled it out with ruthless precision, just enough to let him rest while still insuring that periodically he roused enough to tend to his body’s needs. Her finely tuned awareness of her patient brought her to his side as he came fully awake, offering first the bedpan and then a filling bowl of lentil stew. She kept him company while he ate, talking of light matters when he wished but mostly sitting in companionable silence. But he was not fooled by her casual manner; he knew her sharp eyes were constantly assessing his wellbeing, or lack thereof.

He found it a bit easier today to sit up and talk, and to drive the agony down to a smoldering presence at the back of his consciousness. He had been wounded before, though never approaching this severity, and what he had learned then about managing pain was coming back to him now. His eyes went to the window, where streaks of sunlight were leaking in around the heavy curtains. Haelan smiled and rose to draw them back, letting the spring afternoon flood the room.

He wondered, suddenly, what was happening out there, in the world he had forsaken. He tried to tell himself not to care, that none of it concerned him any more, but still he hungered to know. Tentatively, he spoke to Haelan. “How long has it…have I….”

“Four days now you’ve been here. And no, there’s been no word of any further fighting. The men check on what’s happening, down at the Fords, and all’s still quiet.”

“Good.” Each day Saruman delayed gave Grimbold and Elfhelm more time to prepare, gave Eomer more time to bring reinforcements to strengthen the defense. Frustration at his own helplessness loomed up and threatened to overwhelm him, and he forced his thoughts to other subjects.

“My leg.” This was the first he had dared speak of it. “How long will it be before it is….” He could not bring him self to say healed. It would never heal. “Better?”

“There will be significant healing within a week; by then most of the swelling will have gone down and I’ll be able to take out the sutures. I’d like to get you up and around in a month or so. Hamm’s already made crutches for you and I’ve set him to work on a wooden leg. We’ll have to get Rellen – he’s our leatherworker - in to take your measurements for the socket, though I’m not entirely happy with his skill; it might be better to send to the next village for theirs.”

Theodred’s head was reeling. Up and around? Crutches? A wooden leg? He hadn’t even dared think of what the future might hold, aside from a vague notion of helpless bedridden dependency. Now Haelan was leaping forward with startling ideas of unconsidered possibilities. The thought of a false limb was repellant, yet the promise it held of standing, of walking again, even halting and lame, was more than he dared hope. Yet it seemed Haelan thought it possible.

Through the open window came sounds of a disturbance, shouts and excited voices. Haelan went to the door and looked out. She shook her head and came back to Theodred’s side.

“I don’t know what they’re up to, out there. Hamm will tell us when he gets back.” She examined Theodred’s face. “You’ve been up long enough, I think. I’ll prepare your next dose.” She helped ease Theodred back down, and he sank into the feather pillow with relief. He tired so quickly, even just sitting up and eating. And the pain was growing again. He lay, eyes closed, hoping Haelan would hurry.

Before she had finished, though, the door opened and Hamm came in. Haelan’s curious voice questioned him about the earlier disturbance. Though he cared little, Theodred could not help but hear.

“Some of the young men were out working in the far field, and they caught a vagrant. His horse was lame, and he was beating it. Had a sword, too, and used it, but not much he could do against six of our lads. No, none of them are wounded, not beyond a scratch or two. We’ve got him locked up in the storage shed. There’s going to be a council of the village elders soon as we can call in the others, to decide what to do with him. Personally I don’t think there’s much doubt; they all saw what he was doing to that poor creature. Hanging’s too good for him.”

“Oh, that’s terrible.” Haelan’s voice was angry. “As soon as I finish our guest’s draught, I’ll go see to the horse. Is he very badly injured, do you think?”

“Not so bad. Fellow was using a whip on him and he’s got some welts that’ll need treatment, but looks like the lameness is just a stone bruise, nothing a little rest won’t cure.”

“Fetch my salve down out of the cabinet there, then.” Theodred heard Hamm moving to comply. “Any idea who the man might be?”

“Not from these parts, surely. Funny thing is, though, he’s wearing the uniform of one of the King’s couriers. Stole it, I guess, or murdered for it. It’s sure none of the King’s men could ever treat a horse that way.”

A man in a courier’s uniform, beating a horse. Donaldo’s sneering face leapt up behind Theodred’s closed lids. It could be no other. What could he be doing out here? What new scheme had the villagers’ innocent outrage interrupted? He opened his eyes and struggled to sit up, ignoring the flare of pain caused by the movement.

“This man. I’ve got to see him, talk to him. Bring him to me.” Theodred remembered belatedly that he had no right to command here, in another man’s house, stripped of his authority. He met Hamm and Haelan’s astonished gazes. “Please. I must. I think I know who he is, and if I’m right, I have to know what he was trying to do.”

Haelan frowned. “You think you know him? How….” But she left off questioning, concern for her patient quickening. “I don’t like the idea of bringing him in here. You are much too weak, and tired already. Can it not wait until morning?”

Hamm nodded agreement. “He’s not going anywhere. That shed is sound, and he’s tied up as well. Whatever he might have been trying, he won’t be doing it now.”

Theodred shook his head, trying to clear it. “No. It has to be now.” He didn’t know why he felt such urgency, but for some reason conviction flooded him that he must discover Donaldo’s new plot immediately. He held Hamm’s eyes, trying to convey his need.

Shrugging, Hamm acquiesced. “I’ll have him in here in a few minutes. I’ll bring a couple of the lads with me to make sure he doesn’t get out of hand.” He disappeared out the door.

Theodred leaned back against the wall, gathering the strength he knew he would need. Annoyance touched Haelan’s voice. “I don’t have anything for the pain that won’t make you sleep.”

“I know. It can wait.” He would have to have a clear mind. Twice already Donaldo had duped him. Now he must meet him again, in the worst of circumstances. Could this capture be just another trick, a chance to fool him again with some new subterfuge? Theodred felt sick fear at the thought of trying to outthink Donaldo’s cunning. He knew he was not equal to the task. But he alone knew of the threat that Donaldo represented. He alone must make sure that Rohan was defended from that threat.

Haelan helped him to a more comfortable position sitting up on the bed, propped against the headboard, and arranged the blankets neatly around him. He was ready when the door opened again, and Hamm entered, followed by two young men dragging the prisoner between them.

Without surprise Theodred saw that it was indeed, Donaldo, though he looked somewhat the worse for wear, bruised and bedraggled, clothes torn and hands bound behind him. Seeing Theodred, Donaldo stopped struggling and stared for a moment. Then he laughed, and his eyes traveled up and down Theodred, taking in his weakened condition and the conspicuous absence the covers could not conceal.

“So you’re still alive after all? Everyone thinks you’re dead, you know.” Theodred tried to stay impassive, but something in his face must have given him away. Donaldo’s eyes narrowed. “That’s what you want them to think, isn’t it? You can’t bear to let them see you with a leg lopped off. So noble, virtuous Theodred has turned deserter.” Theodred flinched at the malicious glee in his voice, and at the hateful word.

“That’s none of your concern.” Theodred tried to sound cold and stern, and inwardly cursed the weakness that robbed his voice of its power. “You are a prisoner here. I know you must have had some foul purpose before you were captured, and I intend to find out what it was. Were you journeying back to Isengard? Perhaps with some message for your master?”

The barest flicker of expression crossed Donaldo’s face, so quickly Theodred thought he might have imagined it. But he felt sure he was on the right track. “Hamm. Was anything on him when he was taken?”

One of the young men holding Donaldo spoke up. “He had a courier pouch, with some papers in it. We were going to bring it to Lady Haelan so she could read them, seeing as how she’s the only one in the village who can.”

Theodred’s certainty sharpened. “Bring it to me.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, trying to gather his strength, while the pouch was fetched. When it was laid in his hands, he had to work hard to keep his fingers from shaking long enough to get the buckle open and draw forth the papers inside.

He scanned the first few without result. They were nothing but routine messages, probably already in the pouch when it was stolen and left there for camouflage. But two thirds of the way down the stack he found it, a scrap of parchment with only a few cryptic lines.

E at large. Will neutralize upon return. Once E eliminated, attack can proceed as planned, with assurance of victory. Delay action until further word.

Theodred studied the message. Who could “E” be except Eomer? Some cohorts of Donaldo’s must remain in Edoras, with plans to somehow assault Eomer when he returned. Returned – from where? Surely Eomer must have long since have gotten his earlier message and be on his way to the Fords with reinforcements from the Eastfold. But this message was saying he was not, but that the conspirators expected him to be back soon, and somehow vulnerable. Theodred considered the implications, should Eomer indeed be captured or killed. Without the Eastfold forces, the Fords could never stand against a renewed thrust. Saruman’s troops would sweep across, and then only the meager garrison at Helm’s Deep would stand between them and Edoras.

He must get word to Eomer somehow! But even as he thought it, he knew it would be impossible. Even if one of the villagers would consent to bear the message, where would he send them? If Eomer was not in Edoras, he had no idea where he might have gone. But he knew his cousin, and trusted his judgment. If some word had reached him pressing enough to divert him from bringing reinforcements to the Fords, it must be urgent indeed. Could the armies of Mordor be advancing in the east, ready to aid their ally Saruman and crush Rohan between the two arms of a vise?

Shaking off that fear, he bent his thoughts again to the implications of the message. Slowly the import of the last phrase sunk in. Delay action. Apparently, Saruman’s return to the Fords was imminent. This message urged him to delay. Since it would not reach its goal, the wizard would have no reason to change his plans, and soon orcs and half-orcs, wargs and wildmen would begin sweeping south, towards the pitifully inadequate defenses.

Delay action. Almost Theodred could wish that Donaldo had not been captured. If the message had gone through, at least a short reprieve would have been gained. Two days, perhaps, or even three. Not that there was much hope of the situation changing in that time. Still, with a few days’ grace anything might happen. Eomer might deal with whatever had diverted him and bring the reinforcements in time. Some other help unlooked for might appear, beyond all hope, and come to Rohan’s aid. Those two or three days might have made all the difference, and Theodred felt their loss as an ache of vanished possibilities.

Then an idea, impossible, foolhardy, yet seductively simple sprang up in Theodred’s mind. He drew in his breath, and would have crumpled the message in his suddenly clenched fist if he had not stopped himself and smoothed it with exaggerated caution. He looked at Donaldo, and felt nothing but loathing for the man. Donaldo had tormented both himself and Elana. His bribes and trickery had caused Theodred to betray the men who trusted him, very nearly to defeat. Even now he was plotting to bring ruin to Rohan. Could he, should he, even consider the preposterous plan that was growing to completion in his heart?

Donaldo studied Theodred’s face as he bent over the paper. A new hardness was graven there, etched by his ordeal in lines of pain, and Donaldo knew he would no longer be so easily manipulated. Donaldo’s own death was surely foremost in his mind, and much as he hated to admit it, Donaldo could think of no way at the moment to escape. But he still had his voice, and he could at least lash out and cause as much pain as possible to his enemy.

“You know,” he began conversationally, “I would have thought you would have asked me by now about your little sweetheart and the orcling.” His words had the desired effect. Theodred froze and met Donaldo’s eyes with a mixture of desperation and fear.

“Yes, Elana, and Deore.” Donaldo forced himself to set aside the memory of humiliation, and stretched his mouth into a broad, self-satisfied grin. This could be his revenge on them, as well as on Theodred. “Once you were dead – well, I thought you were dead – I of course had no more use for them. If I had know you were still alive… but it’s too late for that now.” Let Theodred ponder that, and add a burden of guilt to his grief. Theodred’s face was blanched, but he could not tear his eyes away from Donaldo. Good. Donaldo took great satisfaction in his reaction. “But they did at least provide me some pleasure, first.” Donaldo considered elaborating his description, but decided against it. From Theodred’s expression, he was already imagining more sickening horrors than Donaldo could ever devise. He leaned forward as far as his guards would let him, and dropped his voice to a whisper. “And when I had had my fill of them, I killed them. The orcling first, while she watched, and then the girl.”

Theodred felt cold, the same numb emptiness that had gripped him when the axe sliced into his leg. He had known, or should have known, what their fate must be. But to hear it now, from Donaldo’s lips, and to see the gloating leer on his face…

The young guards pulled Donaldo back roughly, and one struck him, but still he grinned. Theodred shuddered, flooded with revulsion. Here before him stood, not a man, but the very embodiment of evil. Worse than treacherous Saruman, worse even then the Dark Lord in his tower, Sauron himself.

“Worse than the half-orc that took my leg.” He didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud, until he felt Haelan beside him lean forward in concern, and saw the spark of interest that leapt in Donaldo’s eyes. He tried to step toward Theodred, but was roughly restrained by his guards. Still Theodred could read wonder, and the dawn of an unholy delight in Donaldo’s expression.

“It was a half-orc that did that to you.” Donaldo did not need to have it confirmed. He laughed, savagely, savoring the sweet irony. “Oh, then I have most truly had my revenge on you.”

Theodred knew he should not ask, knew the answer could only bring more horror, yet he could not remain silent. “What do you mean?” he whispered.

Donaldo’s eyes glowed with immense satisfaction. “My son. The half-orcs are my sons. The eldest of them, anyway. I came to work for Saruman twenty-five years ago. I pleased him, and he permitted me to do what I would with the orc-wenches. The whelps they bore were bigger and stronger than orcs. Saruman saw the potential right away, and it became my main duty to beget as many half-orcs as I could, to build an army for him. Of course, there were a few others over the years, though Saruman seems to have had trouble finding many who were man enough to appreciate the opportunity he was offering. And of course there were the women. He wanted to avoid inbreeding, you see. He planned to breed generations of them. But most of them are mine. All mine. And even after you’ve killed me, they will live on to carry on my work. And you will live all the rest of your days with my mark upon your body. Sweet revenge indeed.” A manic glow lit his eyes, and he laughed again, and did not stop.

Theodred recoiled. He had though himself numb to further horror, yet still this penetrated and roiled his stomach. He had never wanted anything so intensely as he wanted to give the word to Hamm, who waited, face grim and set, hand on his knife. Surely Donaldo deserved death, if any foul creature had ever deserved it. To slay him swiftly and rid Middle-earth of his filth would surely be a noble deed. His breath fouled the very air.

And yet…. Theodred looked again at the parchment still clutched in his hand. Two days, or even three.

His leg hurt. He was tired, terribly tired. He straightened up as best he could and looked one last time at Donaldo, still laughing softly. Then he turned to Hamm, and his voice was resolute.

“Let him go.”

“What?” gasped Hamm and Haelan in unison, and Donaldo’s laughter cut off as he stared at Theodred in shock.

“Take him to the far north edge of the village. Give him the fastest horse you’ve got.” Theodred ignored the angry protests this provoked. He no longer cared if he had the authority to command or not. This order must be obeyed.

“Give him this.” His hands were steady as he tucked the parchment back into the messenger pouch, and held it out to Hamm, who took it reluctantly.

He turned to Donaldo, who fell back before the power of his gaze. “You. I free you. Take the message to Saruman, and let him do with it what he will.”

It was done. Theodred sagged back against the headboard of the bed, swept by waves of pain and nausea. He was barely aware of Hamm and the two young guards taking Donaldo from the house.

By the time Haelan came to give him his draught and help him lay down, his certainty had been replaced by doubt, which was quickly giving way to despair. How could he possibly have thought any good could come from freeing Donaldo? He had just let loose an enemy of Rohan. He had sent a message to Saruman that might help him overcome Rohan’s defenses once and for all. He had had good reasons, he knew, but he could no longer remember what those reasons were. But still, not unwitting this time, but in the full knowledge of what he did, he had acted.

It felt like treason.

When Haelan brought the draught, he drank dully, wishing it were poison. The medicine took effect quickly on his overstrained body. As she tucked the covers around him, Haelan murmured, “I don’t understand why you did that, Theodred, but I honor you for it.”

He shook his head in denial. He could not open his eyes to face her. “Don’t call me that.” He no longer deserved the name. “My name is Antheod.”

Haelan smoothed the hair away from his forehead as he sank into sleep.

Chapter 24 – The Journey South

Dawn was rising in glory behind her, stretching her shadow long before her feet, as Elana picked her way down the steep slope to the river, careful not to overbalance with the weight of her pack and Deore on her back. She was weary from the night’s journey. Usually she would stop and make camp before dawn, lying in some concealed spot during the daylight hours and traveling only in the concealment of darkness, but she wanted light to be able to see this place. Already she had traveled many days out of her way to come here. She intended to travel south toward Gondor, and could have saved long weary miles of walking by proceeding directly west, meeting the River Isen far south where it bent towards the sea. She would not be crossing it, so this long detour north to the Fords was unnecessary. But she could not bring herself to leave Rohan without coming here, to see the place where Theodred had fallen, to bid him a last farewell at the mound where he lay in silent sleep forever.

She had reached her camp outside Waymeet a few days after her escape from Donaldo. For several weeks she had rested there, planning, gathering supplies, winnowing her belongings ruthlessly to the bare minimum necessary to support herself and Deore on the road. She had looked skyward, wondering, on the day black gloom obscured the sunrise, and again when the haze dispersed. She fretted constantly over worries about what was happening in the outside world. Had Saruman’s forces attacked again? In those days of despair it seemed possible that his armies could have swept all Rohan’s defenses away before them, overwhelming all the free folk of the land, leaving only herself and a few other pitiful refugees. But she had not dared venture forth from her hiding place to seek tidings.

Then the day had come when nothing changed, but everything changed. The sun seemed to shine brighter, the colors of the leaves and the rocks and the water took on a luminous intensity, the songs of the birds and the chattering of the squirrels sounded like music, and Elana found herself laughing for no reason at all, swinging Deore around in the air while her daughter crowed in delight. Some great and wonderful thing had happened, something that changed the very quality of the air around her. As the days passed, the feeling lessened but did not depart, until finally, curiosity overcoming her caution, Elana ventured again into Waymeet. There she had lurked at the edge of a crowd and heard a minstrel sing the tale of two creatures out of legend, who had ventured into the heart of Mordor, struggling on to the end of strength and hope, and whose very failure had been transformed into glorious victory. With the rest of the people she had listened spellbound, and wept, and laughed with joy, and though the cover slipped from Deore’s face midway through the telling, somehow her features went unnoticed in the midst of the general rejoicing.

Elana had reconsidered her plan then, but found that, though the most urgent fear was gone, still she was restless. Nothing bound her here anymore. Roswyn and her family had left Waymeet months before, fleeing with many others the threat of Saruman. Even if she were to return, nothing had changed. Nothing in the glad news gave any reason for her, or Elana’s family, to change their feelings about Deore. With Theodred gone, Rohan was empty for her, holding nothing but memories. At least elsewhere would be new, fresh, full of possibility.

So she had continued her preparations, and just a few weeks later had set out. Night travel seemed safest, so her progress had been slow, but she felt no need to hurry. The whole summer stretched out before her, promising ample time to journey and find a new home before the next winter descended.

Now she had come to the Fords, far off her direct path, to lay her past to rest before she ventured into the future. Deore had been fretful earlier, but now settled into alert calm, big brown eyes taking in the sparkle of the sun on the water. Elana came to the river’s edge and looked across to the little island in its midst. Then she lifted her skirts and ventured out across the stones that formed a walkway through the shallows.

The mound rose before her, taller than she was, taking up most of the north end of the island. Spears ringed it, a bristling forest pointing outward in guard. At its peak a banner fluttered, white horse on green.

Her steps slowed as she approached, until she halted just outside the ring of spears. Soft threads of green were already springing up on the dark soil. She looked for a long while, as her throat closed and her eyes blurred. She groped behind her for Deore, pulling her free of the carrying cloth and wrapping her arms around the baby. Always quick to catch her mother’s mood, Deore snuggled close in silence. Elana bent her head and rested her cheek against her daughter’s sparse, downy hair. Only a few tears escaped to dampen Deore’s head.

It was a fair place. No sign remained of the blood and death that had raged here, except the mound before her. Deep within lay her beloved’s body. But whatever last trace of Theodred she had come seeking was not here.

“Farewell,” she whispered. Then she made her way back over the stepping stones to the shore. Deore’s sturdy body was already growing heavy in her arms, but she would carry her thus for a while longer, before moving her again to her accustomed position on Elana’s back. Hugging her close, she looked once again at the mound, and beyond it into the west. The she turned her face resolutely downstream, and set off on the first steps of the journey south.

Chapter 25 – The Journey North

Antheod propped his crutch against the stable wall and braced his wooden leg carefully for balance, second nature now after more than three years of practice. He needed both hands free to stow all his belongings carefully on Hearm’s back. They must be distributed comfortably for the horse, for his tools were heavy and their road would be long.

Hearm squealed in protest and jerked his head back to nip at Antheod, but was caught by the short tether rope Antheod had used to tie his head. He flattened his ears in displeasure, the wide, lopsided blaze that broke the dull brown of his coat giving him a look of sneering dislike. Antheod regarded him with much the same expression, and expertly punched the horse’s side, causing him to let out with a huff the breath that had inflated his ribs, so that Antheod could tighten the girth under his belly to its necessary tension. “Hearm,” the man who sold the beast to him had named him. Grief. “And grief is all he’ll give you!” the man had promised. But for all his muddy brown coloring, long neck, swayback, and foul temper, the animal was young, strong and healthy, and Antheod was sure of his ability to manage the creature. If anything, the beast’s faults made him more attractive to Antheod. This mount was as different as could be imagined from the ideal of Rohan’s finest breeding he had known before. Here was a horse he could not be expected to love.

Last to be fastened to the saddle was the bow he had made himself and his quiver of arrows. Many long hours of toil had gone into the crafting of it, guided by Hamm’s patient tutelage. It had been the first usable bow he had produced, and he still remembered the faint, astonishing glow of pride he had felt the first time he had drawn and shot it.

He had taken up the craft in the restless frustration of his idleness, those early days in the village. As his body healed and his strength returned, he needed activities to fill the empty days. For a while learning to walk again had consumed all his waking hours. He had driven himself, until his stump chafed and bled, and Haelan scolded him and sent him back to bed. At first shaky, often stumbling, bruised from many falls, still he fought on, pushing aside the arms that willingly reached out to steady him, until as the weeks passed he gradually, painfully, gained skill.

When finally he could get about all the little lanes of the village with reasonable speed and endurance, he had felt the emptiness looming again, and had sought, almost desperately, for some new challenge. Watching Hamm hard at work in his workshop, straddling the bench vise and drawing long, fragrant curls of wood from the carefully prepared stave, he had felt a stirring of interest, and cautiously inquired if Hamm might allow him to try. Only one leg was needed to brace the vise tight around the stave, and the pull of the drawknife was satisfying as he shaped the back of the bow, following the grain of the wood. He threw himself into the learning, limping along behind Hamm through all his tasks. Hamm taught him to shape the bows, to balance the limbs and to rasp the belly until the desired draw was achieved, to fashion and fletch arrows, and to twist a bowstring from tendon. When winter came he took Antheod down to the banks of the Isen and showed him how to find the trees whose wood would be strong and supple. Antheod had spent endless hours practicing the craft, honing his skills, surprising himself with how much pleasure he took in concentrating solely on the work of his hands, and in seeing something beautiful and functional take shape beneath them.

Hearm fully loaded, he took up his crutch, made his way out of the stable, and limped over to the cottage, where Haelan and Hamm waited at the door, shadows long before them in the early morning light.

“You’re all ready to go?” Hamm inquired, and Antheod nodded. He felt awkward and confused. How could he thank them, who had done so much for him? How could he say good-bye to these two who had become his family over the past three years?

Yet he had to go. He ran his hands nervously through his close-cropped hair. It was mostly grey now, a contrast from the shoulder length golden locks he had worn before. The changed helped conceal his identity, along with the short beard that obscured his previously clean-shaven face. But still he was afraid any time a stranger came to the village, and hid himself in the house until he was sure it was not someone who could have known him before.

He could never be truly at peace, in Rohan. Too many people who might recognize his face, too many memories, too many ghosts.

“Oh, come here, let me hug you.” Haelan pulled him toward her and embraced him roughly. Her voice was ragged. He knew she hated losing her dignity and emotional control, yet tears wet her eyes, and his own throat was tight and eyes wet in response.

She had saved his life so many times over. First by the surgery on his leg, of course, and often again in the days after. After Donaldo’s departure he had lain in bleak despair, and been overtaken by fever. For days he had been lost in delirium as infection fought to overwhelm his weakened body. Haelan had battled unceasingly at his side, and her medicines, but even more her unquenchable will, had slowly and painfully brought him back from the edge of death.

He had been too feverish to understand when they told him, four full days after he had released Donaldo, that Saruman’s forces had finally come forth from Isengard and swept past the defenses at the Fords. Fearful, the villagers had withdrawn, preparing to make what little resistance they could, so it was only by confused rumors many days later that news of the victory at Helm’s Deep reached them. Eventually, Antheod was lucid enough to understand, and learned how Gandalf had come to Edoras, with companions out of legend, and had woken Theoden from his enthrallment and cast out Wormtongue. He marveled to think his father was himself again, and longed to go to him. He would have repented his choice then, and taken up again the name of Theodred, and returned to Edoras, to be reunited with the father he remembered. But by that time Theoden was gone, answering Gondor’s summons to the south, and Theodred was far too weak to travel. Still for a brief time he hoped.

Then the messenger came reporting the events of the battle at Minas Tirith. Antheod wept unashamed as Haelan repeated the tale to him. Theoden slain. Eowyn – Eowyn! – grievously wounded in his defense. Eomer assuming the kingship and leading the Rohirrim to glorious victory. He mourned for his father with grief made achingly bitter by lost chances and shattered hopes. He could never go back now. Eomer had earned his place on the throne. Antheod could never tarnish his cousin’s glory with his own ruined and broken presence.

He released Haelan and stepped back, his manner as clumsy as his shuffling gait. He wanted to be done with this awkward farewell, off to the solitude of the road.

Hamm clasped his hands briefly. “You have the names I gave you, and the letters?” Names of bowyers and weaponsmiths across Middle-earth, along with letters of introduction, that Antheod might seek them out and hone his skills under their tutelage.

“Of course. In my saddlebag.” He used the words as an excuse to turn toward the stable.

“Here, let me help you.” Hamm accompanied Antheod back to where Hearm waited. Antheod hated the way Hamm was forced to shorten his usual long strides to keep pace with Antheod’s slow progress, but he turned away and suppressed his frustration. Just this once, he could endure the humiliation of aid. Soon he would be free of it.

He suffered Hamm to hold Hearm’s head, controlling the beast’s restless movement, while he mounted. Hands braced on the saddle, he balanced for an unsteady moment on wooden leg alone as his right leg reached up for the stirrup, then swung the stiff, unresponsive thing over the horse’s rump and settled it in the specially designed stirrup the leatherworker had fashioned for him. Hearm put his ears back and pranced, but Antheod was in firm control. He made his way out of the stable, Hamm following, and back to where Haelan waited to make one final farewell.

Haelan smiled at him. He thought he could read both pride and sorrow in her gaze. “Farewell, Antheod.” She had never once slipped and called him by his old name. “May your road be blessed, and may you find what you seek.”

What he sought? What did he seek, besides escape? He hid his confusion in a flurry of good-byes, and then he was off, down the road to the Fords.

Haelan’s words continued to trouble him. What he truly longed for, he could not seek, for it was nowhere to be found. His former life, his unmarred body, Theoden, Elana, Deore, even Silverfoot – all were gone beyond any possibility of recall. He wrenched his thoughts away from that track, for he knew all to well that it could lead only to black despair.

He came to the top of a rise, and breathed deep of the fresh wind that rippled the green grasses on the long slopes down to the river. Ahead lay the Fords, undefended now, for no enemies remained. Saruman was gone, and Sauron himself, and Rohan had thrived in the rich green years since their downfall.

Antheod remembered that day, a month after the battle at the Fords. He had just been beginning to recover his strength, and his newfound energy had turned inward. Lying confined day after day in Haelan’s bed, he had played the memories over and over in his mind, berating himself mercilessly for each error of judgment, pondering obsessively how he might have chosen differently. He despised his own weakness, and longed again for the mercy of death.

Then in the midst of his black thoughts, he paused, and though he neither heard nor saw anything, suddenly the room seemed brighter, the air fresher, and he remembered something they had told him, something he had ignored as unimportant when first he heard it. Four days, they had said, had passed between the day he had released Donaldo to carry his message to Saruman, and the day Saruman’s armies had poured forth out of Isengard. And when those armies crushed the defenses at the Fords and marched on to Helm’s Deep, they had found there a force stronger than anyone could have anticipated, which had arrived only barely in time. And they had been defeated, and that very day creatures from the trees had appeared and cast Isengard down, and so Rohan was saved.

Four whole days. That was what he had hoped, when he spoke the words to release Donaldo, was it not? Perhaps Saruman’s long delay in sending out his forces was unrelated to his own actions, but perhaps, just perhaps, the message had been the deciding factor.

If that were true, than his presence in the village had saved Rohan from destruction. And that was worth any price, even his leg, even Elana and Deore’s lives, even his own betrayal of all he held dear. If that were true, he could live, he had to live, even with the leaden weight of grief he bore. He pushed back the covers, and called for Haelan, and from that moment he bent all his strength to healing.

Only later, after messengers on the fleetest horses spread throughout the land the news of the destruction of the Ring and Sauron’s defeat, did he work out the times and realize that his change of heart must have happened in that very hour. By then he was well into the hard work of learning to live again.

Antheod guided Hearm down the steep bank that led down to the river’s floodplain. What did he seek? Not the past returned, for though the price had been high almost beyond bearing, what it had bought was dear enough to justify the cost. A new life, then, he supposed. To be a man again, living by his own efforts, performing a useful service.

There it was, ahead of him. The water burbled and chattered, shimmering in the sun as it bounced and splashed shallow over the rocks. The road led down, across the narrower arm of the river, to the island in the middle. That had changed since he saw it last. A mound rose at its northern end, taking up most of the area of the island, taller than he was. At its peak a banner fluttered in the wind, white horse on green. Lush green grass carpeted its flanks. Someone had planted simbelmynë, he saw as he drew nearer, for white stars winked among the grass, as they did on the mounds of his ancestors outside Edoras.

Hearm’s hooves splashed through the glimmering water and thudded on the sand of the island’s shore. Even the horse seemed subdued as Antheod halted him, and sat gazing upon his own burial place.

No, not mine, he thought. Theodred lies buried there, but I live.

He bowed his head, the burden of that life heavy on him. A mound like this stood outside the gates of Edoras, an eighth added to the seven he had known all his life, over his father. It would be the last, for with him the line was broken. Other mounds covered many of the Mark slain on the fields outside Mundberg, Grimbold among them. And somewhere, in some unmarked grave, lay a mother and child, slaughtered for no other reason than that he had loved them. He bore their lives along with his own.

Farewell, Elana. Forgive me for failing you. I will never forget you. He turned and looked out, to the western horizon, and beyond. Then he turned Hearm’s head that way, and urged him into a rough canter, across the little island and into the deeper water of the west arm of the Isen.

One of Hamm’s letters was addressed to a bowyer in Tharbad. He would follow the road there, learn from him what he could, then venture wherever his whim took him. Middle-earth was vast, and he had seen little of it in his life. He found himself for the first time anticipating his future with interest, even hope. Perhaps someday he would find whatever it was he sought.

Across the river, he slowed Hearm to a walk. The day was young, and many miles lay before them. At the bend in the road, he paused Hearm and took one last look back at the banner atop the mound, dancing in the wind. Then his one good leg kicked the horse into motion, and he set out on the journey north.


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