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Theodred's Tale  by Elana

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.

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