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Theodred's Tale  by Elana

Chapter 19 – Nothing Left to Tell

Grey mist again shrouded the battered and bedraggled camp on the east bank of the Isen, as the first dim light of the sun returned to the world. The men of Rohan had straggled back, weary and grim, all through the night. Few of them had slept. Too much work remained to be done. The bodies of their dead comrades must be gathered and laid in honor until a mound could be prepared. The bodies of the foe must be cleared at least from the immediate vicinity of the camp, and piled ready for burning. The horses that had survived must be fed and watered, a duty that no man neglected, however weary he himself might be. Great pots of stew must be prepared to feed men who had fought all the long day nourished by no more than a few bites of dried fruit or meat carried in a saddlebag and bolted during a lull in the battle. The wounded must be tended, in the crowded healers’ tent, their cries disturbing the quiet of the night. The dying must be comforted, the touch of a friend’s hand and a whispered farewell granting peace as they began their long journey.

The fog lay thick to the north of the camp, where the last of the orcs had vanished into the trees the night before. Now a few of the men busy at the edge of the camp paused in their tasks, and turned and watched the figures that appeared out of the mist. One by one those close to them turned also, and a hush spread across the camp as gradually all became aware of what approached.

Two men walked through the fog, their forms slowly becoming clearer as they drew near. The men were glad to recognize Grimbold and Elfhelm once their faces could be made out, for the absence of the commanders had troubled all, and they had been feared lost. But the long, cloak-wrapped bundle Grimbold bore in his arms filled them with a nameless dread. No, not nameless, for all hearts whispered the name they knew must lie concealed beneath the folds of cloth that swathed the limp form’s face.

Grimbold did not pause as he passed through the camp. Elfhelm at his side, he bore his burden down to the edge of the river. There Elfhelm stopped, but Grimbold splashed into the shallow water of the Ford. Across the leaden waters he strode, up the sandy shore of the little island, and onward to the top of the knoll. The ground had been cleared of bodies, but blood stained the grass and mud red-brown.

Grimbold eased the bundle down on to the grass. He bowed over it a moment. Inside the folds of the bloody cloak were Theodred’s clothes and armor, stuffed with straw. Deep in the heart of the effigy the cold, stiff flesh of Theodred’s lifeless leg lay concealed.

Climbing to his feet, Grimbold stared for a moment northward. Somewhere in that direction Saruman schemed at the top of his tower. Turning back to where the men watched from the shore of the river, he took a deep breath. Then he cried out, his voice ringing across the water. “Here let him lie, where he fell. Raise a mound over Theodred, son of Theoden, who has sacrificed his life for the sake of us all.”

Kneeling again beside the still form, Grimbold bowed his head, and did not move until the other Riders had brought rocks and earth. Then he joined in the labor of piling them around and over the lifeless shape. The men of Theodred’s eored who had fallen beside him were brought and laid alongside, then others of the Riders, and the mound rose higher and wider, until the little island was nearly swallowed up by its bulk.

Grimbold waited until the work was well underway, the false Theodred safely hidden in the mound’s heart. Then he sought out his own second in command, who had taken charge of their eored in his absence. Grimbold exchanged a few words with him, assuring himself that all was well with those who remained. He authorized the man to remain in command until he returned. Then he made his way to the messenger’s station, where a rider was mounting one of the swift courier steeds. Grimbold took the horse’s reins and motioned for the man to dismount. “I’ll take that.” He reached for the message pouch, slinging it around his own body as the courier looked about in confusion. The commander of the couriers burst from the tent, protesting, but Grimbold ignored him and swung up onto the horse. Elfhelm, hearing the commotion, hurried over.

“Where are you going?” he demanded. “You can’t leave now.”

“I must bear word to the king of Theodred’s death,” he replied. “I was at his son’s side when he fell. He should hear the news from me, and none other.” He returned Elfhelm’s challenging stare with a gaze steady and full of unspoken meaning. “I will return as soon as I may.”

Elfhelm was the first to look away. “Go then. I’ll order the defenses while you are away. But return swiftly, for I fear Saruman will not give us long to rest before he renews the attack.”

Grimbold nodded his thanks, then with a touch of his heels sent his steed racing eastward along the road.

Sparing neither his mount nor himself, he sped toward Edoras. He made a quick detour down the Deeping Road to the Hornburg, and gave tidings to Erkenbrand of all that had happened. Then he was on the road again, stopping only to change horses at each waystation. Through the night he rode, driving back weariness with fierce determination. Rumor had a way of traveling faster even than the swiftest horses of the Mark, but he was resolved to outdistance it to Edoras.

When he reached the gates of the city about noon the next day, he was relieved to see that he seemed to have achieved his goal. The gate guards watched him pass with eager curiosity, but their discipline prevented them from questioning him. All up the steep street people cried out, “What news? How goes the battle?” But his stern, unyielding face and his silence quieted them, and fear gathered in their hearts. By the time he reached the steps of Meduseld a throng had gathered behind him, anxious to hear his tidings, however dreadful they might be. The guards held the crowd back, but they let Grimbold pass, taking the reins of his horse as he dismounted.

The Golden Hall was dim, but it buzzed with tension. Men of the king’s guard and members of the court gathered at the far end, around the king’s dais. Theoden was there, in his great seat. Grima stood before him, and the hall rang with the echoes of his angry voice. “He has acted against your express orders. Under cover of darkness, in the middle of the night! He has taken his eored with him, and left the city all but defenseless. When he returns you must….” Grima’s words cut off abruptly as everyone in the hall looked around at Grimbold’s entrance.

All present fell back, clearing a path for Grimbold to approach the throne. Eowyn, beside the king, laid a hand on his arm. Theoden passed a hand before his eyes and shook his head, as if to clear it of cares and confusion. Then he focused on Grimbold, taking in his bleak eyes and grim expression. Theoden drew in his breath and glanced over quickly at Grima, whose gaze was fixed on Grimbold. Then Theoden closed his eyes and bowed his head, drawing himself in. The eyes he raised to Grimbold were calm and resigned, and his voice quiet and steady. “Tell us, what tidings do you bring of the battle in the west?”

“Victory, my lord.” A murmur of surprise ran through the room. Victory was not what his face betokened, nor the harsh tone of his voice. “We have met Saruman’s forces, and have turned them back. Our men hold the Fords.”

“I am pleased to hear it.” Theoden’s eyes did not leave Grimbold’s. “But I see that there is more to tell. Speak on.”

Grimbold shifted uncomfortably. “It was at the height of the battle. Theodred held the island in the midst of the Fords.” Theoden’s lips tightened at his son’s name. “He fought mightily, and slew many foes. Yet still he was overwhelmed. He cried out ‘To me, Eorlingas!’ and we answered him. I came from the west, and Elfhelm, whose troops turned the tide of battle and won for us the victory, came from the east. Yet even as we reached his side, a great blow from an orc-axe struck him, and he fell.”

The hall was silent, as if all there held their breaths. Theoden’s face was white.

“We slew the orc, and knelt at his side. He breathed still, and he spoke to us. ‘Let me lie here,’ he said. ‘To keep the Fords, until Eomer comes.’”

“Eomer,” Grima spat. “Where is Eomer now? No sooner had he arrived in Edoras, then he came to the King with some wild tale of a band of orcs coming out of the Emyn Muil. Theoden expressly forbade him to leave the city, for after Elfhelm left his eored was all the defense left to us. Yet what do we find this morning but that he had crept away like a thief in the night, taking his men with him.”

“Peace, Grima.” Theoden waved his counselor to silence. The eyes he turned on Grimbold were full of the dread of what he feared to hear, but still a tiny flame of hope burned, cutting into Grimbold’s heart like a sword. “Finish your tale.”

Grimbold dropped to his knees before the king. He bowed his head. The truth burned on his tongue, longing to spring forth and echo from the rafters: Theodred yet lives! How dare he lie to his king, to all of Rohan? How could he speak the words that would shatter Theoden’s heart with false and needless grief? Almost he forsook his course. But loyalty stopped him. Theodred had been his commander in battle, his comrade in arms, more truly king of Rohan these past years than Theoden. Theodred had asked him to bear this falsehood, convinced he could serve Rohan better by his death than by his life. Grimbold did not understand or agree with his conviction, yet still he had vowed to carry out Theodred’s wishes. And by that vow he was bound.

“There is nothing left to tell,” he whispered. He turned his face up to Theoden, eyes wet with tears. “Even now Theodred’s burial mound stands in the midst of the Fords, as was his wish. He has fallen in battle, and he will not return.”

Theoden sank back into his throne. He looked lost and bewildered, and old, suddenly years older than only moments before. “Theodred…?”

He turned to Eowyn, who was staring at Grimbold with wide, dark eyes, hands clenched at her mouth. Then to Grima, who had schooled his face into a mask of sorrow and concern. “My lord, this is grievous news indeed. How bitter it is for you to lose your son, your heir, your loyal right hand. We must mourn him as is his due…”

But Theoden was not listening. His eyes wandered, vacant, around the room. “Theodred…my son…Theodred….” He crumpled, burying his head in his hands, and his shoulders shook as silent sobs wracked his body.

Grimbold bowed his head again, unable to look at Theoden any longer. Of all those gathered there, only he knew that the burden that stooped his shoulders and bent his head was the weight, not merely of grief, but also of shame.

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