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Theodred's Tale  by Elana

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.

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