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Theodred's Tale  by Elana

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.

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