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Theodred's Tale  by Elana

Chapter 18 – A Vanished Dream

The dream faded, stealing away even its memory. Theodred reached after it as it disappeared, trying to recapture the sweetness. Was it a strain of beautiful music, or a delicious fragrance, or a gentle caress? He could not remember. It was gone, lost, and all that was left was the patient, pitiless voice, calling him back.

Theodred. Come back. It is not yet time for you to leave. Return to us.

No! All that was left back there was pain. Pain of the body, pain of the heart. As the memory of the dream slipped away, the memory of all that had happened inexorably returned. How could they ask him to face all his losses again? Far better to follow the dream, far away, wherever it might lead. If that was death, it held no terror for him any more. Life, though, life he feared.

He fought to recapture the dream, but it was gone. His breath sounded harsh in his ears, and the sensations of his body were returning. Candlelight flickered beyond his closed eyelids. Pain crept back upon him, a vague and formless fog that sharpened as he regained consciousness, mounting higher and higher, past anything he had imagined, past anything he had ever believed could be borne.

He moaned, and shook his head. Please, let the darkness come again. He could not live like this. He cracked open his gritty, sticky eyelids. There were faces, hovering over him anxiously. Their blurry forms swam into focus as he concentrated, and he recognized them. Grimbold, and Elfhelm. Friends, and companions in arms. They would understand what he asked.

“Mercy….” Shock and horror filled their eyes, and they withdrew. Desperate, he pleaded with them. “Will you not grant me mercy? Do we not owe one another that, at the last? I cannot… I cannot…”

Grimbold took his hand, and gripped it hard. His eyes welled with tears and his voice was choked. “You know I would not refuse you, my lord, my brother, if hope were gone. But we are in the house of a healer. She has tended your wound, and she says you will live. I have known many men to live after… after…” Grimbold bowed his head and closed his eyes, but the news must be given, and would not be more easily received for being delayed. He raised his head again, and met Theodred’s eyes. “After losing a leg.”

The words rang meaningless in Theodred’s ears, for what seemed a long time. Only gradually did their sense penetrate.

“But… but I feel it… it hurts….” He tried to sit up, but fell back, gasping, choking back a scream. His hand groped down, beneath the blanket that covered him, toward the center of the pain, but it was too far. Grimbold supported him with an arm beneath his shoulders, raising him until his hand could reach. There was his thigh, heavily bandaged, but solid and familiar, and then… nothing. Only empty air where his lower thigh and knee should have been.

Nausea swept over him, and he sank back, shaking his head violently. “No… no… it’s not possible….” Why hadn’t he died? Far better a clean death in battle then to live on like this, only half a man….

Grimbold and Elfhelm looked on, silent. There were no words of comfort for such a loss. Only by their presence could they show their loyalty and support.

Theodred lay, lost in black despair. This was his punishment, he supposed. His failure, his unwitting treachery had cost so many lives.… All the men of his eored, along with so many others of his soldiers. Silverfoot. Elana and Deore. And how many others would die in the coming days, as Saruman’s forces regrouped and attacked again. Eomer did not have enough men to defend both the eastern border and the west, so Sauron too would attack, and Rohan would be crushed between the two powers of evil. Was his life not payment enough? How cruel was justice, that it would force him to live on, helpless, powerless to stop the destruction he had set in motion? His hand groped at his waist, but they had taken all his weapons from him, even his belt knife. Helpless even to end his own suffering.

Elfhelm was speaking, and Theodred could not help but hear. “Sleep, now, Theodred. It’s late. In the morning we can take you back to the camp. You can rest there, until we can arrange to transport you back to Edoras. Grimbold and I can take over command of the forces, for surely Saruman won’t wait long to move against us again.”

Already it had begun. No longer was he a soldier, a leader, a man among his equals. Now he was simply baggage, a burden to be dealt with as expediently as possible, while other, more capable men stepped up to take his place. They would always defer to him in name, but never again would he truly command, or even serve.

He could picture in his mind how it would be. The pity with which they’d look at him, speaking kind words yet drawing away. He’d felt it himself, whenever men of his company had been maimed in his service. Dutifully he’d visited their bedsides, conveyed Rohan’s thanks for their sacrifices, delivered the generous pensions that were their due. All the time a secret voice whispering May that never be me. Better death…. Most had retired to the countryside, back to their home villages, or to new towns where they would be strangers. Far from the coldness of the Riders, who hated the reminder that beyond the glory of victory or death, uglier possibilities lurked. But as Theoden’s son, he could not vanish, out of sight and mind. His duty would compel him to remain, a figurehead to be honored in name, while others carried out the tasks that should have been his. Did he not know exactly how it was? Had his service under Theoden not shown him how terrible it would be to condemn his people to another generation of the same? Rohan had barely survived one weak king; what would happen to it under another?

Theoden…. How could he ever face his father again? Much as he loved him, still he had despised him for falling under the spell of Wormtongue’s trickery and deceit. And now he was guilty of the same failing. And Eomer, his brother of the heart. They had been strong together, fought side by side on the battlefield, trusted each other with their lives and honor. Would he now be able to look at Eomer’s sound, whole body without bitter envy eating away at his soul? And what of Eowyn, dearest cousin? Would he, who had been her teacher and mentor, now burden her, another frail body to minister to, another bar on her cage, when she longed to fly free?

No. He would not. He could not. He could not go back there. Better they all believe him dead. They would mourn him, and their grief would be bitter, but they would pass beyond grief, and serve Rohan better for his absence. Eomer would be free to take up the leadership of the people, and to inherit the kingship upon Theoden’s death. Rohan would thrive under his hand. Theodred would slip away into the shadows. Perhaps, if fortune smiled, he might yet die of his wound. Otherwise, he would take up a new name, and make whatever way in the world he could, preferably far beyond Rohan’s borders. As far as the world was concerned, Theodred would be dead.

As he contemplated the prospect of a long bleak future utterly alone, his heart quailed. What of Elana? How long would it take Donaldo to ride back to Edoras and carry out her death? There was nothing he could do to stop that, nothing. Even should Donaldo carry out his crueler threat, and send her back to the orcs, even if she lived long in captivity, what could his maimed body do to free her? But… what if Eowyn had succeeded in what he had asked, and even now Elana and Deore were safe? He caught his breath. He would be free! They could leave Rohan, travel together, be a family, as his dearest dream had always been. For a moment he could almost feel her sweet warm body against his.

Then the full horror of it struck him. How could he ever offer this broken, ruined body to her? She would recoil, and pull away in disgust, and the pity in her eyes would not be able to conceal the revulsion. What did he have to give her anymore, crippled as he was?

He squeezed his eyes shut, bitter tears leaking through, and turned his face to the wall. Cruel fate indeed, to take away everything from him with a single blow, save that which he now valued least of all.

A gentle hand touched his shoulder, and he turned to see an old woman, offering him a cup. “Drink, Theodred. It will ease your pain and help you sleep.”

Behind her, Grimbold and Elfhelm watched. “Rest, my lord,” Grimbold urged. “It will be a hard journey tomorrow.”

Resolution solidified in Theodred’s heart. He pushed the cup away. “I will not go back.”

Grimbold frowned in puzzlement. “My lord?”

“I will be your lord no longer. That life is over. Tell them all that I died there, cut down by that orc’s blade. Let them believe it, for it is true. For I will not return.”

Stunned silence met his declaration. Finally Grimbold spoke. “My lord, the pain has made you delirious. Of course all seems hopeless now, in your shock and grief. Sleep, and let us speak of this again in the morning, when your mind is clearer.”

“My mind is as clear as it has ever been. My decision will not change in the morning. And you two cannot linger here. The men are leaderless. They need you to return and assume command. Saruman may renew his attack at any time.”

Elfhelm nodded slowly. “Aye. We must return at first light. But surely you do not believe we would abandon you so?”

Theodred grieved for the pain and confusion he saw in their eyes. But he could not allow them to sway him from his path. He would drive them away with anger, if he must. “I do not pretend that I could resist you, if you determine to take me against my will. But you would never again be able to trust me with so much as a belt knife, lest I turn it against myself. One way or another, Rohan will be free of me. If you doubt me, give me my sword now, and let me make an end. Then you may bear my body back in truth. But if you insist the mercy of death is forbidden me, then you will have to return alone, for I will not go back.”

Elfhelm leaned forward, eyes ablaze. “You cannot do this, my lord.”

Theodred returned his gaze steadily. “I can, and I will.”

“You will desert us, in this our hour of greatest need?”

“What do you need? You need a leader, not a helpless cripple to burden you! What use can I be to Rohan now? What use if I cannot lead the men into battle? What use if I cannot even ride?”

Grimbold clutched at his hand. “You dishonor us, my lord, if you think your men would ever consider you a burden, or feel aught but joy to know you have survived.”

Theodred struggled to sit up. Grimbold’s arms moved to support him. The cup called to him, its draught promising him relief from the waves of pain that almost overwhelmed him. But first, he must make them understand.

“What Rohan needs is a strong, capable leader. Eomer is more than able to be that for you. If I return, he will never have the full authority he needs. Besides, you don’t know, you can’t understand…” He faltered.

“What, my lord?” Grimbold’s voice was grave with concern.

Theodred closed his eyes and turned his face away. He spoke in a whisper. “I do not deserve your trust any longer. I have betrayed you. One of Saruman’s agents sought to bargain with me, and I told no one. I thought I had outsmarted him, but his trickery deceived me. That is why the battle was almost lost. You are far better off without me.”

They gaped at him, shocked. Finally Elfhelm spoke. “Even so, lord, your place is with your people. Honor demands that you face what you have done, not flee the consequences.”

Theodred did not look up. “But… I cannot. Please do not ask it of me.”

Elfhelm’s voice was cold. “Then perhaps you are right. Perhaps Rohan would fare better with the memory of a dead hero than the presence of a living coward.”

Theodred flinched, the words hitting him like a blow, but did not speak or meet Elfhelm’s eyes. Finally Grimbold broke the silence. “Is this truly what you wish, Theodred?”

“Aye. Will you do this for me?”

Tears streaked Grimbold’s cheeks. “For love of you, my friend, and for our bond as brother Riders, I will, if you ask it of me.”

“I do.” Theodred turned to him, wordless thanks in his eyes. “And you?” He turned to Elfhelm.

Elfhelm’s voice was flat. “I will do what my lord commands.”

“Consider this my last order to you, then. You are to forget that Theodred survived the battle. Do whatever you must to convince everyone that I was slain. Seal the secret away in your heart, until it seems no more than a vanished dream, and speak of it to no one, until you too lay silent in your burial mound.”

“As you command, my lord.” Elfhelm nodded stiffly, but cold anger burned in his eyes. He strode across the room to stand staring into the fire. Theodred sagged back against Grimbold’s supporting arm. “My lady Healer, I believe I will have that cup now.”

Haelan had remained at the bedside, watching and listening to all that transpired, silent but attentive. Now she held the cup to Theodred’s lips, and he drank the bitter brew eagerly. Grimbold eased him back down onto the bed, then withdrew.

Haelan studied the face before her, lined with pain and weariness, eyes closed to shut out a world gone terribly wrong. Compassion filled her heart. “Are you truly set on this course, Theodred? Can I not dissuade you from it? To cut yourself off from your friends, your family, your whole life – that is a desperate step indeed. Are you certain this is the road you must travel?”

Theodred met her eyes. “Aye. I am certain.”

Haelan smiled ruefully. “Then I offer you the hospitality of our home. My name is Haelan, and my husband is Hamm. You are welcome to stay with us until you are fully healed, and as long after as you may wish. Rest now. The draught should be taking effect soon.

Indeed, Theodred felt light-headed and distant, the pain where his leg should have been growing faint and remote. “Thank you, my lady,” he murmured, sinking gratefully into sleep.

He sought everywhere for the lost dream, hungry for its sweetness, but he could not find it, and the pain, though dulled now and easily bearable, never went completely away.

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