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Theodred's Tale  by Elana

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.

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