Disclaimer: Middle Earth and all its inhabitants belong to J.R.R. Tolkien. No money has been made from this endeavor. No mumakil were harmed in the writing of this story, though one Nazgûl was slightly lost

Author's Note: I could not find any mention of the names of Théoden's sisters other than Théodwyn. Bearing that in mind, I have called the eldest of them Théodhild. If anyone is aware of her actual Tolkien-given name, I'd love to know.

Requiem for a King: The Leave-taking

"Théoden! Théoden!"

The young boy giggled and buried himself deeper into the straw. It was not the voice of his sister, strident and bossy, but that of his mother. Soft and yet insistent, it almost drew him out of his hiding-place, but he resisted at last and nestled deeper into the horse's bedding. Yet she must have heard the laugh, or seen the shifting of the golden straw. There was a rustling of heavy skirts, and a gentle crackling as she sat down and pulled the bedding from him. "You do not want to go, do you, little one?" she asked, her words quiet and filled with understanding. "You do not understand at all…"

The child sat up, shaking golden strands from equally golden hair, and his bright blue eyes blinked and met his mother's gaze. "I like it here, mother, and so do you and father. So does Théodhild," he added, trying not to make a face. "Father does not want to go; I heard him say so." He sighed, then crawled into Morwen's lap and rested against her. "Let us not go, please? I do not want to."

He had heard the reasons before, something about princes and kings and a lot about duty. He rubbed his wrinkling nose at the thought of the word. Duty. That was like eating all the vegetables on your plate instead of sneaking them onto your sister's. "Papa will be a king. A…" What was the word again? He sighed and twined his fingers in his tangled hair, trying to remember. "A ruler. So… Does that mean he'll boss everyone around like Théodhild does?" He bit his lip as soon as he said the words, and glanced up again at his mother.

Laughing softly, she scooped the boy into her arms and lifted him up, then rose and walked out of the now-empty stall. "Not quite like that, no, Théoden. He will tell people to do things, even as he tells you to do things, and they will listen well to him, and obey him even as you do. Like that. Do you understand, child?" She carried him from the stable, and out into the bright sunshine of the courtyard. The leaves were not yet full enough to give shade, and glints of light sparkled off the small pond. Gathered at the far end of the yard were horses, horses long-limbed and fair, with grey coats and flowing pale manes. Shaggy mountain-ponies were hitched to waggons, sturdy beasts to pull sturdy wains that held all their belongings. They waited patiently, pulling at tufts of new grass, and the horses waited with somewhat less patience, lifting their heads and whickering to each other, discussing the strange events on equine tongue.

"He'll be a father to them, then," answered the boy, understanding finally coming to him. He smiled and kissed his mother's cheek, his lips brushing feather-soft before he wriggled out of her arms. For he was a big boy now, all of five, and it would not do to be carried, especially now as he was a Prince. What was the word in that strange— no, his— tongue? "Ætheling," he murmured, feeling the word on his tongue like a colt tasting a bit. "Thengel Cyning. Théoden Ætheling." He laughed at the funny sounds, then galloped to his father, who waited for him on his great white-maned horse.

"They found you too, eh my lad?" asked Thengel, looking down at his son. He dismounted, kneeling beside the boy. "It is a fair place we leave, son, and I know you shall miss it. But you must not hide any longer. I cannot hide any longer." He ruffled the boy's already untidy hair, then took his hand and rose. "I know you are unhappy, Théoden, and I am sorry for that. But perhaps I can do something that will make up for some of this." He led the boy to one of the horses, no Gondorian palfrey for ladies or a fat pony. It was an older horse, gentle, patient, but one of the steeds of Rohan nonetheless. Riddermark, the boy corrected his own mind. He stared at the horse, and then at his father, then gave a great shout of glee. Thengel laughed, then lifted the boy up into his great arms and placed him in the saddle. "There is a bed for you in one of the waggons when you have need of it, child, but I think you are old enough to ride."

The boy did his best not to shout or wriggle anymore, for he knew better than to do such things on the back of a horse. A few dumpings into straw and an irritated nip or two from his father's oldest and wisest horse had taught him that early on. "Thank you, papa, thank you!" he cried, then contented himself with a bounce or two in the saddle before stilling himself and taking the reins. Not far from him, his sister sat primly on her own horse, and she rolled her eyes at him once their father stepped away.

"I cannot believe you are my brother," Théodhild hissed, keeping her voice quiet enough that neither their parents or the servants could hear. "We've been waiting forever to leave, and you had father worried you had run away. And it would just be like you to do such a thing. You're a prince now, and I'm a princess. You need to act like a prince. I already know how to act like a princess. Behave like a princess, talk like a princess…"

"Talk like a chicken, more like," snorted Théoden, shaking his head. "Cluck cluck old hen…"

Whatever his sister growled back in reply was lost when his father called out, and his great voice rang in Théoden's ears like he imagined a horncall should sound, a great ringing out of old tales. The horses lifted their heads and neighed, and even the ponies grew lively. For the sound continued, long and clear and musical, and the son of Thengel opened his eyes wide and stared. In his father's hand was a fair horn twined with silver and strange carvings, twisted etchings he did not understand. It hung upon a green baldric, the colour bright as grass. His father had the horn to his lips, and was blowing it. Then, without other word or command, he urged his horse out of the courtyard and northwards, away from all that Théoden had known.

They walked down a tree-lined lane that led to open fields, over rolling country that would take them into places the children had only dreamed in stories. Théoden turned his head and looked back for as long as he could, until the house was swallowed by hazy distance. He was relieved to see his sister did the same. Her cheeks glistened in the sun, and he bit at his lip, then nudged his horse closer to hers. "It will be all right," he murmured, his own voice shaking. He glanced ahead, and saw that his father sat stiff and straight in his saddle, not once looking back. He is a king now, he thought, not aware that he had twined his fingers in his hair and pulled a lock into his mouth. He is a king now, but he was a prince before. Mama said so. Now I am a prince. He blinked rapidly, then drew himself up proud and straight. "Do not cry, Théodhild; it really will be all right. And… I am sorry for earlier. About what I said. You're right; I have to act like a prince. You cannot help sounding like a chicken."

The boy smiled broadly, then pulled his horse away, proud that he had done his duty. Papa would be a good king, and he would be a good prince. Lifting his head in unconscious imitation of his beloved father, he settled himself in the saddle and looked behind no more. For good or for ill, the strange land of horses was now his home. He set his gaze to the north, looking ahead.