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Theodred's Tale  by Elana

Chapter 20 – I Can Help You

Eowyn stood before the mirror in her private chamber, and scrubbed angrily at the tears that still welled from her eyes. Later she could cry, could fall across her bed and weep until all her grief drained from her and she slept. But she had no time for that now. Theodred’s last request to her was yet unfulfilled, and at any moment the chance to save those he had held dearer even than his own life might be lost. Theodred had stood against Saruman’s forces, and fought, and even now his enemies might be exacting the promised price. Little hope remained that she could save Elana and Deore, yet she had to try one last time, and it must be done now.

With a practiced hand she combed out her hair, rearranging it into the elaborate braided style favored by the Riders. Peering into the polished metal mirror, she dipped her fingers into the pots of cosmetics and smudged them across her face. She had never seen a need to use them to color her face as the other women did, but had found that carefully applied they could create the illusion, in dim light at least, of a beginning growth of downy beard. She shrugged out of her dress and shift and pulled on leather breeches and a linen shirt. Her bosom was flat and boyish enough there was no need to bind it, as the heavy leather jacket concealed it sufficiently. Tall boots and a woolen cap pulled low to shadow her face completed her disguise.

She checked her appearance again in her mirror. Careful examination by one who knew her well would probably reveal her true identity, but to the casual eye she could pass for a youth newly come to manhood. Satisfied, she drew her cloak around herself, waited until the corridor outside her apartment was empty, and slipped unseen out of the hall.

Once in the streets of the city she threw her cloak back and adjusted her posture, lengthening her stride and lifting her shoulders up and back. It was not hard, really. She had spent so much time among the Riders, training as they did, that it was easy to take up the attitude and bearing of a young man. In some ways it felt more natural to her than the constrained motions she was forced to adopt among the women.

She made her way down to the lower quarters of the city. Each of the previous four evenings she had donned her disguise, and she had learned much about the inns and pubs where common soldiers, craftsmen, travelers and foreigners would congregate, drinking and trading stories and songs. She had wandered from one establishment to another, nursing pints of ale as she listened, ears straining to catch every bit of gossip she could, occasionally asking after Donaldo with her voice pitched as low as she could manage. The first night she had been tense and jumpy, expecting at any moment to be discovered. But men intent on ale were not suspicious, and as she was accepted again and again for whom she pretended to be she was able to relax a bit. She had not thus far heard any word of her quarry, but there remained plenty of territory yet to explore. Only time stood in her way. If she failed today, she would most likely never find what she sought.

Though it was still only the middle of the afternoon, already patrons were starting to gather. She made her way from pub to pub, listening, questioning, but finding nothing. As the day progressed she began to be afraid, with a rising sense of panic, that she was on a fool’s quest. What if, despite what Theodred had guessed, this Donaldo had never been in Edoras at all? The sun was already sinking towards the west, and she knew no more than she had at noon. Somewhere out there, were Elana and Deore dead already, while she wasted time here?

She stared into her mug, sinking into despair, sure she had failed Theodred’s memory after all. She drained her ale and motioned recklessly for another. Thus far she had been careful to drink only measured amounts, so her head would remain clear. Now she thought perhaps she would see if it was true what was said about ale drowning sorrows.

Low, unintelligible rumblings came from the table behind her, where a huge, muscular man, apparently already far gone in drunkenness, muttered to himself. As she accepted her fresh mug, Eowyn’s ear caught a few of his words. “… nothin’ but a baby after all. Least he could’ve done was take care of it himself, instead of stickin’ me with the job….”

Eowyn froze, breathless with hope. Slowly, carefully, she picked up her mug and wove an unsteady path to the man’s table. “Mind if I join you?” She exaggerated the slurring of her words, and seated herself before he could reply. He eyed her warily but did not object. “Looks like you, too, drink to forget tonight, and I could use the company.” She took a swig of ale and stared morosely into her cup.

He took her bait. “What’re you tryin’ to forget?”

“My cousin’s dead.” Despite herself, Eowyn’s voice shook. “Killed in the battle at the Fords.” Almost forgetting that she was here seeking information, she swilled more ale. It didn’t seem to be helping any.

“Ah.” The big man raised his glass in commiseration, and for a while they sat in silence.

“I always knew it could happen. But I guess I never really believed it. Now he’s gone. The orcs, they hacked him in two with an axe. And my brother’s a Rider too, so the same thing could happen to him any time….” Eowyn found her voice had risen in pitch, and she forced it down again. “But I’m boring you with my tale. What troubles you, friend?”

The man drained the last of his ale. “I shouldn’t tell you….” He looked at his empty mug wistfully.

Eowyn motioned for another round. “This one’s on me.”

“Many thanks.” He accepted the full mug. “I s’pose there’s no harm in tellin’ you…. Well, the guy I work for, see, he gave me a job. And I don’t particularly want to do it. Listen, you won’t repeat this, will you?”

“No, no, I won’t tell a soul. You can trust me. Go on.” Eowyn tried to seem casually interested, though her heart was pounding. She hung on his every word.

“Well, for a few months now I’ve been guardin’…. This is disgusting, but there’s this girl, and some orcs grabbed her, and they…. Well, now she’s got this baby orc. And the guy I work for, he was keepin’ them, so I’ve been guardin’ them. But now he wants them both dead, so he told me to go do it. And I’ve been thinkin’ all along someone ought to kill the little monster, but now it comes down to it I find I don’t like the idea. She’s just a bitty thing after all, and her ma sure dotes on her. She laughs, even, and smiles. And the girl, her ma, she’s right nice. Sure didn’t deserve what happened to her. So I don’t like it, is all, havin’ to get rid of them. But I’ve got to anyway, because the guy I work for, he don’t put up with no backtalk. He says do it, it’s got to be done. I was just hopin’ a few drinks might make it easier. Don’t seem to be workin’, though.”

Eowyn leaned forward. “The man you work for – is he Donaldo?”

The big man eyed her suspiciously. “Donaldo. Yeah, sure.”

Eowyn’s words came in a rush. “Listen, I’m a friend of Theodred’s. He told me about Elana and Deore. I can help you, ah, what’s your name?”

He gaped at her, bewildered by the sudden turn her words had taken. But her question, at least, was easy enough. “Forstrang.”

“Forstrang. You don’t want to have to kill them. What if you let them go, give them to me, and tell Donaldo they’re dead. He’ll never have to know the truth. I’ll get them out of Rohan, so Donaldo will never find out.

“Give them to you… instead of killin’ them…. and then you’d take them off…. I’d have to make sure Andgit didn’t find out…. Hmmm, I guess that could work….” His eyes narrowed. “How do I know I can trust you? How’d you find me, anyway? Are you some spy of W… of Donaldo, come to get me in trouble?” He shoved his chair back, ready to heave himself to his feet.

“No! No, Forstrang, sit down.” She lowered her voice, aware of heads turning their way. “I can’t prove anything to you, Forstrang. You’re just going to have to trust me. Either that, or… go through with it.”

“Yeah…” He settled down and picked up his drink again. “Let me think about it….”

They sat for a long time, not looking at one another. Eowyn’s impatience screamed inside her, but she bit it back and forced herself to wait as Forstrang’s ponderous thoughts worked their slow way to a conclusion.

Finally he looked up. “Yeah. Let’s do it. You meet me outside the city gate in an hour, um….”

“Dernhelm,” Eowyn supplied.

“Dernhelm. It’s an hour’s ride or so, out to where they are.” He got to his feet, extending a hand to Eowyn as, rising, she swayed, giddy with ale and relief. His grip was like a vise on her arm. “Uh, Dernhelm, uh, I… well, I know I’m not too smart, and W…Donaldo just hired me ‘cause I’m big and strong, but I’m not…. I mean I really didn’t want to just kill…. Well, I guess I just want to say, um, ah, well... thanks, is all.”

Strangely touched by the big man’s stammers, she smiled at him. “Thank you, Forstrang.”

An hour later she sat astride Windfola, cloaked and hooded, concealed by the darkness outside the walls of the city, watching the pool of light cast by the torches at the gate. Finally she spotted the unmistakably vast bulk of Forstrang, mounted on a thick-boned giant of a horse, emerging from the gate. She fell in with him as he left the circle of light. He acknowledged her presence with a nod and they rode through the murky night. At length they turned from the main road and wound their way back into the rolling hills. She recognized the first part of the way from her rides out to the vicinity of the abandoned farmhouse, but soon their path turned away from the area she had searched. Their course intersected a little stream and they followed it upstream for several miles.

Near a copse of trees and brush Forstrang signaled her to halt. “Hide here. I’ll be back with them in a few minutes.”

Peering past the screening branches, Eowyn caught a glimpse of a low campfire. She watched, heart pounding, as Forstrang approached the figure hunched beside the fire. It seemed preposterous to think that the plan might actually work, that she might, beyond all hope, succeed in her task. Could she truly trust Forstrang, who was after all a servant of the enemy? It was too late now for fears or doubts. All she could do was wait and see if he proved true.

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