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Theodred's Tale  by Elana

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.

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