It was barely twilight when Eomer and his guard rode out. If they rode fast enough, they might make the hills before full dark fell. The moon, while not full, was out. That would help as well.
They rode in silence in the direction Eoden had spoken of, all the while watching for any signs of the boy. Though perhaps Eomer needed to stop thinking of them as boys. They seemed young to him, but Eoden was as nearly as old as he had been when he'd started training in earnest to join his first eored, and Andric only a year or so behind that.
"He'll be fine, Eomer." Eothain said when they paused to make sure they weren't going off course. "We've not seen any orcs near here since the battle last fall."
"It's not orcs I'm worried about. It's wild animals." Hungry animals, still recovering from winter.
"That's a concern," Eothain conceded, and seemed to be listening. It was quiet out, a nearly perfect spring evening. They began to move again, angling a bit left.
They were nearly to the darker line of trees at the base of the hills when Eothain sniffed. "Do you smell smoke?"
Eomer did, and stifled a sense of
hope. It could be, and hopefully was, Andric. But it could be other
travelers as well. Including ones not necessarily friendly to a boy.
"I don't hear anything," he said after a moment. A group, regardless of purpose, probably wouldn't be quiet. "Let's leave the horses here," he said softly. "It will be easier to navigate the trees on foot."
Eothain nodded, and they dismounted. There was still a bit of light left. It would be darker in the trees, of course, but he thought they could go awhile without torches. If Andric was where he believed he was, Eomer could find it in full darkness.
Three of the men stayed with the horses, while the rest of them started through the trees, Eomer in the lead. He could sense Ethan's state of alertness, but the other man didn't protest Eomer going first. There'd been much less tension between the two of them in that respect since the trip to Helm's Deep.
They moved quietly, and then Eomer slowed, stopped, and motioned. Through the trees, they could see the flickering light of a fire. They crept forward until they were close enough to see that it was indeed Andric. He'd made his camp next to the stream and was sitting by his small fire, staring moodily into the flames.
"Wait here," he said softly. Eothain nodded, and Eomer quietly moved forward until he stood on the edge of the clearing.
He'd thought that his temper might spike again if and when he found Andric safe and uninjured, but now, staring at him in the dim light, he found that wasn't so. Looking at the discouraged slump of the boy's shoulders, he felt only pity, and a sense of failure.
And he had no idea what to do next, or what to say. He stepped forward, said quietly, "Andric."
He started, jerked around, stared at him, and in his eyes, Eomer saw honest shock. "Sire?"
Had the boy really not known Eomer would come after him? Had he thought himself so unimportant? Dismayed, Eomer went over, sat down next to him. On Andric's other side, the hill sloped up with the trees growing denser, and across the fire from them, the stream gurgled as it came down the hill.
Andric wasn't looking at him now, was instead staring into the fire as if the answers to a lifetime worth of questions might be found there, his shoulders hunched.
"Where are you headed?" Eomer asked casually. He reached for a stick to poke at the fire, more for something to do than anything else.
It made sense, and he again felt sorrow that he'd let the boy think so many things that weren't true. The sooner he explained himself, the better. "Do you know why I gave Fleetfoot to Eoden, and hadn't yet given you a mount?"
Andric gave an abrupt nod. "He's a hero. I'm not."
"No." At that, the boy looked at him, doubtful. "Well, yes," he corrected. "At least in respect to what Eoden did for Edoras. But you're a hero, too, Andric," he said gently. "You saved Lisswyn's life because you would not turn back from following her, even when she was taken by Hunlaf. That is just as heroic as riding after us when the orcs marched on the city. And both of you went out last fall amongst orcs and wargs in an attempt to save my life."
Andric looked back into the fire, and shrugged.
"So it is not because I don't view you as a hero that I've not yet given you a mount. There are several reasons, actually, but that's not part of it." The boy didn't look at him, but Eomer knew he was listening. "Some of it was timing. Fleetfoot was fully trained, and it was time for him to go to a rider. After seeing your brother's love for him, I couldn't give him to someone else."
"I'm not sorry you did, sire. I wouldn't want Eoden to not have Fleetfoot!" He was looking at Eomer now, anxiety in his eyes.
"I never thought you did."
Having clarified that, Andric resumed his study of the fire.
"Another reason I gave Eoden Fleetfoot is that I knew he'd begin training to join an eored in another year or so, and having a mount he was already well familiar with would help."
"And I'm not brave enough to be in an eored."
"No! That's not it." Where did the boy get these ideas?
"Eoden has the sword you gave him, and is training with it," he said matter of factly.
Eomer closed his eyes for a moment, registered yet another thing the boy had misunderstood. "Eoden will join an eored," he finally said. "And while I wish it weren't true, I believe he'll have to fight, as I think we're still a number of years away from complete peace. That doesn't mean you won't join an eored, or have to fight as well, however much I might regret that. But Eoden has a gift for the sword, for learning of war, and how to fight to protect the Riddermark. While you may have to fight as well, and are certainly courageous enough to do so, warfare is not your gift, Andric. Horses are."
At that, the boy finally looked at him, his eyes wide. "What do you mean?"
"Breghelm says you're the best of anyone in the stables at calming agitated horses, and that training them seems to come easier for you than to most grown men, including himself."
Andric shrugged. "You just think about what's best for the horse."
"It's more than that. Breghelm says that you can frequently tell a horse's parentage just by looking at it, and can remember details of lineage even he has to look up. He has also told me that he thinks you could turn out to be the best trainer and breeder the Riddermark has seen in many years. We're going to need someone like that, Andric, as we rebuild the herds. We're going to need that just as much as we're still going to need warriors."
Plainly stunned, it took him a moment to respond. "Breghelm said that? About me?"
Eomer's lips twitched at Andric's shock. Breghelm was a good man, and as committed to the boys who worked for him as he was the horses. But he wasn't nearly as generous with his praise as he could be. "He did."
They fell silent, and then Andric looked at him again, appeared to struggle for a moment, then hunched his shoulders and stared at the fire again.
"That still doesn't answer the question of why I've not given you a horse, does it?" He sighed. "I made a mistake, Andric, one which hurt you. And I'm sorry."
"What do you mean?"
"My plan has been take you out to the herds a little later in the spring, and let you choose a young horse to train for your own, with Breghelm's help," he said simply.
The boy's head jerked around, his mouth moving soundlessly as he struggled to get sound out. "I get to choose? A horse? Of my own? Me?"
Eomer nodded, watched as Andric turned his head, tucked his face into his drawn up knees. He suspected the boy was fighting tears, and not wanting to embarrass him, he simply waited. When it seemed Andric had himself under control, he added, "I wanted it to be a surprise, and didn't stop to think how it would seem to you when I gave Brynwyn her pony. I'm sorry."
Andric merely nodded. He lifted his face, stared at the fire again, but now there was a half smile on his face, his expression dreamy.
Eomer cleared his throat. "There is something I'm going to require of you."
At that, Andric looked at him, the expression of wonder replaced with wariness. "Yes, sire?"
"One sign of being a man is the willingness to apologize to those you've injured," he said quietly.
It took a moment for the confusion to clear and be replaced by shame. "I'm sorry, sire."
"For what?" prompted Eomer.
"For leaving without saying anything. For not trusting you."
"You don't need to apologize for the latter, if I've not earned that trust, but I'll accept the apology for running away. But it is not only to me you owe such to."
"She's very hurt, and frantic with worry," he said. "And my men, back there in the trees, had every expectation of spending the evening quietly at home with their families." He watched the boy's shoulders droop, then added quietly, "and some of the joy in her pony vanished when Brynwyn realized you were gone. She thinks it's because of her." They were harsh words, he knew, because the boy loved the little girl. But nothing was ever gained by people not fully seeing the consequences of their actions.
They sat for a moment like that, then Eomer watched as Andric firmed his shoulders, then turned to him. "I am sorry, and will tell them all so, especially Brynwyn. And you do deserve my trust. It was me," he whispered. "I thought I had failed you."
"Let's leave it that if you do fail me, I'll tell you," Eomer said a bit dryly.
He watched as a grin played around Andric's mouth, then his eyes were caught upward. Reaching for his sword, he quietly said, "Do as I tell you, and start slowly scooting behind me. Do it now."
Most of his gaze focused on the feral eyes he could see on the hill above them, but part of him noted how quickly the boy moved to obey. Still slowly pulling Guthwine out of its sheath, Eomer shifted onto one knee, prepared to rise. A growl and a blur as the wolf leaped told him he was out of time.
He yanked his sword the rest of the way out and threw himself between the beast and boy, succeeded in knocking it to the ground. One chance was all he was going to have to roll far enough away that he could gain his feet and bring his sword back down before the wolf could launch itself again, but one chance was all he needed, and the wolf fell to the ground.
Crashing in the trees behind him told him Eothain and his guard were there. Wiping his sword, he turned and looked at the captain of his guard, dared the other man to express remorse for not having somehow prevented the attack.
Instead, Eothain looked down at the body of the wolf. "If you couldn't defend yourself against an ill, half-starved animal, you would be in dire straits, indeed."
Eomer grinned at Eothain's tone, then looked down. It was true. The wolf wasn't just thin from winter, but was obviously sick as well. No wonder the beast had attacked. He turned back to Andric. His eyes dark in a bone white face, he looked from the wolf, up the hill, then back to his fire before turning to Eomer.
"It can be dangerous in these hills, at any time," Eomer said matter of factly. "It may not be your gift the way it is your brother, but it's time for you to begin training in earnest with a sword, too."
Andric swallowed, and nodded.
"Put your fire out, then, and let's go home."
Andric nodded again, and moved to do as he was told. Eomer exchanged a glance with Eothain. His captain's face was now somber, and he knew they were both thinking about what would have happened if the wolf had attacked while Andric had been alone. Suppressing a shudder at the thought, Eomer watched the boy finish dousing the fire, then motioned for him to follow Eothain down the path through the trees, as he brought up the rear.
They came out where the horses were, and as Eomer went to Firefoot, began to untie him from the branch he was secured to, he noted Andric watching him, then looking around at the guards preparing to mount their own horses.
"If I walk, I'll slow everyone down."
"You're not going to walk." Eomer swung up into the saddle, held his hand down.
A look of wonder and astonishment crossed the boy's face, but instead of taking the hand, he said, "Wait." Then he walked over to where Eothain was preparing to mount his own horse. "Lord Eothain?"
"I'm sorry that you and your men had to come out this evening to look for me." He turned to take in the rest of the guard. "It was wrong of me to leave the way I did."
"Aye, it was at that," Eothain agreed. "But we all do things we regret at times. Let's ride for home, shall we?"
Andric nodded, and turned back to Eomer, grabbing the hand that Eomer once more held out and scrambling up behind him.
"Well done," Eomer said. "Now put your arms around my waist, and hold on. We're going to ride fast."
Andric pressed his face against the king's back, and tried not to laugh for sheer joy. He was riding with the king, on Firefoot.
And not as a child, the way Brynwyn did, tucked in front of the king, but as a man would, when sharing a horse. He tightened his arms. It wouldn't do to fall off.
Emotion moved through him. He was going to have a horse of his own! And not only that, he was going to be allowed to choose it! Everything inside him yearned at the thought of being allowed to work with a horse he'd never have to give up.
Breghelm had asked him once where he'd learned to train them. He hadn't known how to answer. He didn't think of it as training. You showed a horse what you wanted, and if you were kind, and firm, the horse obeyed you.
He shook his head, grinned. He was going to have an opportunity to form a relationship with a horse almost right from the beginning. It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to him, he decided.
And that wasn't all. The king of the Riddermark had saved his life. One moment, they'd been sitting here, with the king telling him he expected him to behave as a man and apologize to those he'd wronged, and the next moment, the king had been throwing himself between Andric and the wolf. He had no business risking himself for anyone, even less a mere stable boy, but he'd done so, apparently without even thinking about it.
Thoughts of the wolf made him shiver, and he pressed his face into the king's back again at the memory of those wild eyes. He was mostly trying not to think about what would have happened if the wolf had attacked before the king arrived.
He shivered again, told himself it was because he was cold. And it was true. He really hadn't been thinking when he'd left Edoras, or it would have occurred to him that an April night would be much, much colder than an April afternoon was. He'd been fine by the fire, but out here on the plains, racing back toward the dark mass of the city, he was cold.
He wouldn't admit it, though. It was his fault, after all, and a man not only owned up to his mistakes and apologized when he'd wronged others, he accepted the consequences of his actions.
Such as being cold because he'd not thought to bring a warm cloak with him.
While he was looking forward to being warm and fed in the sitting room of the royal apartment, he wasn't looking forward to apologizing to Lisswyn and Brynwyn.
Particularly Brynwyn. How did he explain to her the hurt and despair that had driven him to leave without sounding like a fool? And a petty one at that, who'd resented her getting the pony?
And Lisswyn… He swallowed. There were times, so many of them, when he looked at her, and saw his mother. And wanted nothing more in the world than simply to go to her, and be held the way his mother had held him. To hear her whisper that everything would be fine, that she loved him, that his father and brothers had loved him. But Lisswyn wasn't his mother, and he wasn't a baby to be cuddled in such a way.
They were slowing. Aware that his eyes were wet, he rubbed his face against the king's cloak – no one must know he wept! – and looked around. They were riding through the gates, into Edoras. People were there, watching, and some of them pointed at him. Shame pricked, and he fought the temptation to bury his face again. He deserved their censure.
And then they were in front of Meduseld. Firefoot stopped, and Andric slid off, then looked up. Lisswyn, Brynwyn and Eoden were standing on the porch, watching them.
Or watching him, rather. He'd seen Lisswyn standing in that same spot when the king came home from some patrol, and no matter who rode with him, her eyes were always for the king.
But not this time. This time her eyes were on him. She had one hand pressed against her lips, as if to hold something in, and her expression was the one that always reminded him of his mother. It made his throat ache.
"Go to her." He hadn't noticed the king dismounting, but now realized he was standing behind him, his hands on Andric's shoulders, his voice soft.
Andric ran up the stairs, threw himself at her. Felt her arms wrap tight around him, and heard her voice whispering to him, telling him all would be well, apologizing – what did she have to apologize for?
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry." And understood from the kiss she pressed against his hair that she'd already forgiven him.
Slowly, he pulled back. Lisswyn allowed him to go, but reached out with a smile to smooth his hair. "We have a meal for you in our chambers."
He was hungry, he realized. Starved, in fact. But first…he turned to Brynwyn. The little girl was standing next to them, an anxious expression on her face. "Will you let me help you during your riding lesson tomorrow?" he asked.
And in answer, got a beaming smile.
That night, Lisswyn lay curled on her side in their bed. Eomer was curled behind her, his arm around her, and though she knew he was awake as well, they hadn't really spoken since the boys left to return to the stables and they'd gotten Brynwyn settled in her room.
On a sigh, she rubbed her lower stomach, wished the cramps would ease. As much to take her mind off the monthly discomfort as anything, she finally asked, "What are you thinking about?"
He didn't answer at first, and when he did, his tone was troubled. "I believed Eoden needed me more," he finally answered. "He has always been so obvious in his need for my attention, I figured if Andric needed such from me as well, he would behave similarly. And in thinking that, in waiting for him to let me know what he needed from me, I managed to communicate that he'd somehow failed me."
There was censure in his tone, and Lisswyn shifted onto her back so she could see him in the dim light of the fire. "How could you have known? I've known him all his life, and didn't understand what he was thinking. How could you?"
"I was an orphaned boy in Meduseld, once," he murmured.
"And, in temperament, was more like Eoden, I'm guessing." At his nod, she said, "I thought he was missing his mother more than Eoden was, and I didn't know what to do about that, either."
"We both failed him, then."
"It seems that way. But perhaps that's part of the rearing of children," she said slowly. "Is it possible to make no mistakes at all, do you think?"
"I don't know."
"Did your parents make mistakes?"
He looked up from her, stared broodingly in the direction of the fire. "My mother did, if you count loving my father more than life, so much so that she refused to live without him, even for us. My father, not so much. But he was gone a lot, through no choice of his own."
Unsure of what to day, Lisswyn rolled toward him, rested her head more fully on his shoulder.
"What of your parents?"
"It's similar, actually," she said slowly. "My mother's determination to give my father a son eventually took her from us needlessly."
"What do you mean?"
"My mother kept having stillborn children and miscarriages after I was born, and the healers warned her that she was growing weaker and weaker, and should try to prevent further pregnancies. There's a plant, which when made into a tea sometimes prevents conception, and they recommended she drink it. But she wanted so badly to give my father a son, she refused. The next pregnancy after that was Brynwyn, which took her life."
Eomer frowned. "What did your father say?"
"He begged her drink the tea, insisted he didn't need sons. I believe he would have liked one," she added. "But he did truly love me, and Brynwyn as well."
He leaned down and pressed a kiss against her hair, then rested his head against hers. "There's to be no repeat of that," he finally said, his voice rough. "If you give me only girls, then the Riddermark will have its first ruling queen."
Moved, she reached up, touched his cheek before settling her head against his shoulder again. "So far, I've not managed either one," she grumbled.
He gave a snort of laughter. "As I said earlier, we'll continue striving toward that goal as soon as your monthly time is past. It's not as if the effort to conceive them is a trial to be endured." Then he sobered. "As to Andric, we'll just view this as another lesson learned."
"Maybe the important thing is what we did tonight," Lisswyn responded slowly, shifting to look at him again. "Did you see the expression on his face when you discussed your forthcoming trip to the herds?"
"I didn't know he could smile like that."
"I realized when he did that I've not seen him smile at all since his mother died."
"Perhaps we're on the right path with him, then."
On a sigh, she shifted once again into her original position with her back to him, and still curled in his arms, let sleep take her.