A/N: A couple of the Elfwine Chronicles made mention of "what if Theodred had lived" and how would that affect Eomer and Lothiriel. shie1dmaidenofrohan mentioned that was a story just begging to be written, and I've finally felt inspired to pursue it. Other than the detail of Theodred's survival (and the impact it would have), I have tried to mostly keep to Tolkien, but the circumstances will naturally need to veer somewhat from canon. I'm not going to attempt to completely rewrite Lord of the Rings to insert Theodred; I will assume in some cases you know the storyline and not fill in all the background details. Instead, I will focus more on the action taking place where Theodred's presence "changes" things in the here and now. And, for a change, Gamling in this is Tolkien's Gamling rather than the one from the movie (sorry, Bruce!).
Endless thanks to Medea Smyke for helping me get on track with this through her thorough analysis of it, and to Virtuella for her comments and corrections. As these are long chapters, I will try posting every other day to make it easier to keep up.
Juxtaposition: the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side
Chapter 1 (25 Feb, 3019 III)
"Harding! To me!" shouted Elfhelm, summoning his second in command and trusted friend to his counsel with Grimbold.
When Harding had joined them, Elfhelm instructed the man in hushed tones, "Ride swiftly, and carry Lord Theodred to the Hornburg. Instruct Erkenbrand to keep him hidden and safe. Let it be said that he died here and send such word on to Edoras."
Grimbold's eyes went wide. "What! You would lie to the king, and tell him that his son is dead?"
Elfhelm clapped a firm hand on the other man's shoulder. "These are dangerous times. From what you have told me, the attack on Theodred was no accident of war. We must do this to keep him safe, and Eomer as well. If Eomer learns of this, he is apt to do something rash. Already the Worm seeks to discredit him in Theoden's eyes. For the moment, let the enemy think he has succeeded in Theodred's death, and perhaps grow over-confident. When Theodred is well again, we will reveal him. I fear this is our only hope."
Grudgingly, Grimbold accepted this assessment with a nod. "Very well, but I do not like lying to the king."
"Nor do I," Elfhelm assured him, "but Grima has too much influence there. If we wish Grima to think Theodred is dead, then Theoden must also believe it. Do you realize what will happen if both Theodred and Eomer fall? Theoden will be the last ruler of the Mark who is of the house of Eorl, and he will be under the influence of Grima. Would you have the Worm as your king?"
Grimbold's jaw tightened as the full realization of the situation struck home. "Never!"
Elfhelm's eyes flicked back to Harding. "You will do this?"
The man gave a curt nod. "Yes, my lord. Is there more you wish me to tell Lord Erkenbrand?"
Further instructions were quickly given, and Theodred bundled onto the horse with Harding. A small escort accompanied as they rode swiftly toward the Deep. With the remainder of their men, Elfhelm and Grimbold saw to the fortifying of their position. Much as it grieved them to leave their kinsmen unburied, there was simply no time for it now. They had little doubt Saruman's forces would return – all too soon.
Entering the inner court of the Hornburg, Harding made straight for Erkenbrand, who stood waiting on the steps. They had kept Theodred's face hidden, so no one realized who Harding carried on his horse, but as Erkenbrand and his Steward took the unconscious man down from the saddle, Erkenbrand glimpsed the Prince's face. His head jerked up to stare questioningly at Harding, but the man gave a slight shake of his head to warn him to silence.
Quickly he dismounted and moved to help carry Theodred inside the citadel. Once they were away from curious ears, Erkenbrand directed, "Speak. My Steward can be trusted." Accepting this, Harding murmured, "I bring word from Elfhelm, my lord. We must keep him concealed. No one may know that he yet lives. Tell only a select few whom you trust to help you care for him. And we must send word to Edoras saying that Theodred died at the Fords."
This was so shocking that Erkenbrand came to a stunned halt. "Are you mad?" he hissed. "We cannot lie–"
Harding cut him off. "I know what you would say, my lord, but we must. Surely you know how Theoden's counselor has his ear. To keep Theodred safe – to keep the Mark safe – we must conceal him for now. Lord Elfhelm does not wish for the Worm to know they failed to dispatch Theoden's heir at Isen."
Erkenbrand scowled more deeply, struggling to comprehend all the implications of what he was being asked to do. Glancing down at the young Prince, however, one thing was certain. They must act quickly or Theodred's death would be no lie. Clearly he was grievously wounded. "Come. Let us get him tended. We will take him to a room in the family's chambers."
"Retaleoth, come quickly. I need your help." Eanswith did not waste time with an explanation at this moment, trusting her daughter to do as instructed. Looking toward Tilleoth, who watched them from where she played on the floor, she added, "My sweet, go and play with Fylscinan while your Mama helps Grandmother."
The little girl obediently nodded and rose, hurriedly grabbing her doll before trotting out the door. As she moved off down the corridor, Retaleoth returned her attention to her mother, turning to follow as she led the way in the opposite direction. Surprisingly, she was making for a little used portion of their living area. The three rooms were rarely occupied, and were kept closed except when they had guests visiting.
The last door was their destination, and as Retaleoth stepped inside, her mother instructed, "Close the door, dear. We do not want to be seen."
At these words her brow knit in confusion, but Retaleoth allowed her mother to reveal only what she wished. Questions could come later. She glanced around, noticing a man on the bed. All other furniture was pushed well away to allow easy access to him, and she could guess he was injured even before she saw the bloodied clothing that he wore. This was familiar enough – she had assisted with many wounded men, not the least of which had been her husband.
Sympathetically, she glanced at his face, wondering who else might well be a widow before dawn, and her breath caught in her throat as she recognized him. Instantly she froze where she stood, until her mother spoke low and insistently, "Retaleoth! Quickly."
Abruptly she pulled herself back to the situation and stepped forward, her eyes flicking about and assessing what needed doing. "The healer is coming?" she asked, while helping her mother gently remove the ripped and bloodstained shirt.
"Your father is getting him now. Listen carefully, my dear – no one may know the Prince is here, and most of all they must not know he is alive –"
"What?" she interrupted with a gasp. "But why?"
"Your father did not have time to fully explain it to me as yet, but I am sure he will. I believe…I believe he does not think the effort to kill Theodred at the Isen was by chance. Only in secrecy may we keep him safe. And, hopefully, when it is safe to reveal the truth, he will be healed."
A quick knock at the door preceded Erkenbrand's return, along with the leech, Seftebeorn, who immediately went to examine Theodred. Unable to restrain herself, Retaleoth moved over to clutch at her Father's arm. "Papa, I do not understand. How could this happen? Why did Edoras not send him aid? Where is Eomer?"
Catching her shoulders to calm her, Erkenbrand gazed down at his daughter and answered quietly, "You know there is darkness overtaking us, dear girl. The evil even creeps at Edoras and blinds the king to our need. Eomer would have come if he could, if he knew. I can only assume he did not receive word, or he was hindered in some way. If not, then he is on his way, though he will be too late to prevent Theodred's fall."
He glanced over to the bed as Eanswith joined them. "What will you do?" his wife asked anxiously. With Theodred incapacitated, that meant Erkenbrand now stood as the leader of the forces in the Westfold.
"I do not know. I cannot leave the Deep undefended, and yet the Isen must be guarded as well. I am sure the attack on Theodred's forces was only the beginning. The wizard at Isengard is not finished. But so long as the Deep stands strong and ready for battle, we may hope to prevent any attempt at attacking Edoras." He fell silent, contemplating his thoughts and possible choices.
"My lord?" The leech's quiet voice drew their attention to the bed. "He is sorely wounded, but there is hope. I will do all that I can, but I will need assistance with his care. Who shall I entrust with this?"
"My wife and daughter will aid you. Whatever you need, they will see to it. Other than the three of us, few shall know the truth. And, now, I must go and spread the lie – that our Prince is dead." His face grayed at the thought, but he straightened with purpose. War was never easy, but he was seasoned in battle. He would do what was necessary to improve their chances for survival.
Erkenbrand delayed his own departure from Helm's Deep for three days, giving temporary field command to Grimbold. But as reports of Saruman's numbers reached him, he knew a great confrontation was coming and more men would be needed. Quickly he set out to gather what men of the Westfold he could to bolster their strength. Reluctantly he left defense of the Deep to his trusted captain Gamling, an old but seasoned warrior, until his return.
Over the course of the next few days, much happened. There were further battles along the course of the Isen and elsewhere in the land. The orc army broke the Rohirric lines at the Isen and their forces were scattered widely, trying to escape the onslaught in order to regroup and mount their own counter-attack. But disarray reigned and Rohan's straggling survivors tried to hold their own against the horde of invaders.
Within the Deeping-wall, all anyone could do was wait and watch. Sketchy reports trickled in, but gave them no clear idea of what was taking place elsewhere. Consequently, they could only assume a battle would come to them, and prepare for that eventuality. Added to the distress of not knowing their situation was their grief over Theodred's death. Sorrowful faces were everywhere, and even the children, who did not fully understand what was happening, rarely smiled. Silent tears would occasionally trickle down a woman's cheeks as she went about her tasks of the day. They mourned their beloved Prince, a familiar face in their midst, as well as their failing king. While most did not know the full details, there had long been rumors about circumstances at Edoras, and fear had become a way of life.
Only Erkenbrand's family and most trusted people knew of the deception and saw to Theodred's care. But in public view, they mourned his loss along with the rest of the people. Their long faces were not entirely false, for Theodred's injuries were serious, but he lived and that gave some hope.
Unbeknownst to the Westfold, their King, healed by Gandalf, had been riding to war with Isengard when they met Ceorl on the road, coming to inform them of the routing at the fords and requesting urgent aid. But Gandalf perceived the greater need was to guard the Deep and sent Theoden there, along with Eomer's forces and his three companions, while the wizard rode off on other unnamed business.
So much had been happening, and so very quickly, that Theoden's household had not had time to dwell upon their sorrow over Theodred's death. The urgency of imminent war gave them no respite, and soon after Theoden was returned to himself, they were mounted and riding to battle. Certainly they had given up their dearest blood in this conflict with Saruman, and there was yet no end in sight. If things went ill, they might well soon join Theodred in the Halls of Waiting.
Their unexpected arrival at the Deep was loudly cheered, particularly the sight of Theoden sitting tall and strong at the head of the company. Erkenbrand had not returned, so Eomer stood in his stead in marshaling the forces at the fortress, preparing for battle. Too many who had taken refuge there were not soldiers, and were either very young or past their prime, though they had little choice but to make do with everyone capable of bearing arms. The armory was completely cleared of weapons and armor as they outfitted all as best they could. Then it was Eomer's task to determine the wisest use of the forces at their disposal. If placed correctly, perhaps they could compensate for their weaknesses and deficiencies.
From the moment they had set foot inside the fortress, there had been much rushing about, hurrying to get everything in readiness before an onslaught could come. They had been met, oddly enough, not by Erkenbrand's wife and lady of the fortress, but rather by his chief captain. The man apprised them of Erkenbrand's absence and their current situation, so rather than pursuing any amenities, they had instantly set to work.
In the midst of his efforts, however, Erkenbrand's wife tentatively approached Eomer. "My lord, may we speak for a moment?" she asked.
"Now is not a good time," he answered absentmindedly, directing more men where to take up position. "Put those lads up on the wall with rocks," he called to Eothain. "And set archers over there."
She clasped his arm. "Eomer, it is important. Please."
Eomer looked at Eanswith, his attention caught. He knew her to be an intelligent and rational woman; she would not distract him unnecessarily at a time such as this. Though he had not spent a great deal of time at the Hornburg, he had always been impressed with this sensible, dependable woman, and Theodred had ever spoken well of her. With a nod, he gave consent and she gestured to her right. "Come with me. There is something you must see. I feel sure you will know what is best to do."
His curiosity piqued, Eomer followed impatiently behind her, and after several moments, he realized she was guiding him to the family's private quarters. Stepping to a door, she gave a quick sharp double knock upon it. A moment later, Eanswith's eldest daughter, Retaleoth, peeped out and then opened the door just enough for them to slip inside. The room was largely in darkness, save for the fire and a few candles. Eomer had rarely been in the family's quarters on his few visits, but this room seemed rather sparsely afforded to belong to someone of the household.
A man lay on the bed, and another sat in a chair next to him, but Eomer did not initially take much note of them, his mind still on war preparations. Not until Eanswith moved over to gaze upon the prone man did he look more closely, and his breath choked in his throat. "What…how? I do not understand!"
"He lives, my lord. Today is the first day he has awakened at all, for he was gravely wounded. It was only for a moment and he was not lucid. Lord Elfhelm thought it best to conceal him as he believes the attack was intended solely for the purpose of dispatching the prince. He thought it was safer if it not be known that Theodred had survived."
Eomer rushed forward, but then hesitated before seating himself carefully on the side of the bed and reaching for his cousin's arm. He was no healer, but certainly there was a steady pulse beating in Theodred's wrist, and his complexion was not that of a dead man. Eomer's eyes flicked to the man seated across the bed from him. "You are the leech?" he asked.
"Yes, I am Seftebeorn, my lord," he answered.
"Speak," Eomer instructed.
"His injuries were grievous, but he is responding well to the medicine. It may yet take time, but I believe he will fully recover."
Tentatively, Eanswith laid a hand on Eomer's shoulder. "If Erkenbrand were here, I would have left it to him to make this known, but as he is away I was not sure what to do. But I thought you should know, and perhaps you will think it is time to reveal him to the king also. We did not like the pain this caused you or the king, but Elfhelm thought it necessary."
After a moment's thought, Eomer stood abruptly. "Elfhelm was wise to do so, but now much has changed. I must tell the king that his son yet lives. He does not need to bear that sorrow into the coming battle."
Hurrying along passages, Eomer's mind reeled with this development – Theodred, alive! It little mattered how it was possible, only that it was true. Now Theoden, Theodred or he needed to survive the coming battle so at least one of them was left to rule the Mark – if there was still anything or anyone to be ruled. Alive! He let out a whoop of delight, unable to contain it, earning him a few curious looks from passing servants.
Theoden was talking with Gamling and some others when Eomer found him. Much as he was inclined to burst forth with this news, he thought it best to reveal it to Theoden privately first. Stepping up to the group, he bowed and said, "My lord, may we speak alone? I have a matter of great urgency I must share with you."
His uncle's eyes fell upon him, tinged with both sorrow and remorse. He had lost his son in battle, or so he believed, and through his own weakness he had separated himself from his devoted sister-son. On the ride from Edoras, Theoden had murmured something of an apology, though the busy company surrounding them did not permit conversation solely between the two of them. Both men had felt uncomfortable and embarrassed having such a discussion, but it was sufficient to clear the air. Eomer knew his uncle regretted what had happened, and Theoden was reassured that Eomer loved him no less for the difficulties of the past.
When they had separated themselves from the others, Eomer said quietly, "Uncle, I have just received some joyous news – Theodred is not dead! He lives, and he is here, though still unconscious and gravely injured."
Theoden's eyes went wide, not quite grasping what he was being told. Could it be possible? Yes, it must be, for Eomer would never lie about such a thing. How it was so, he could find out later, but for now he must see his son. "Take me to him – at once!" the king demanded, and Eomer instantly turned on his heel to lead the way.
The king's appearance in Theodred's room brought all present to their feet. They looked uncertainly at one another, unsure what they should do. Deciding it was her place to inquire, Eanswith stepped forward. "My lord, your son awakened briefly earlier today, but not since. Still, he improves steadily and our healer believes he will recover fully." She paused then asked, "Shall we leave you alone with him, sire?"
For a moment, it almost appeared that Theoden had not been listening to her, but then he smiled and grasped her hands in gratitude. "No, stay. If he cannot speak, then perhaps you will tell me what you know, but quickly – war is upon us and I cannot linger long."
With a nod, Eanswith explained all that had taken place over the past few days, while the king seated himself by the bed and took his son's hand in his own. As she finished, he murmured, "I thought I should never see him again. I only wish there was more time, for there is so much I wish to tell him." His voice broke and he swallowed hard. Then, looking up at the two women and the healer, he said, "You have my deepest thanks for your efforts in Theodred's behalf. I beg you to continue your ministrations and see him recovered." Rising, he growled additionally, "And I shall do my very best to keep you safe while you are doing so! Come, Eomer. There is a battle to be won!"
With a last look at his son, Theoden hurried from the room with Eomer on his heels. There was new purpose in their stride, and Eanswith's mouth tweaked with pleasure to see it. But then her eyes darkened again – if only Erkenbrand were here…
xxx (6 Mar, 3019 III)
"Open the gates! The King returns!" a sentry shouted.
The small party of Gandalf, Theoden, Eomer and the others who accompanied them made their way up the causeway and into the courtyard. All looked grim and weary as they dismounted. Saruman had been less than forthcoming with information that would be sorely needed to aid in their battle against Sauron.
Erkenbrand hurried forward to greet them. Eanswith had been overcome with relief when he returned safely. In that, she was more fortunate than the many whose husbands had fallen in the great battle. Were it not for the arrival of Gandalf and Erkenbrand's forces, victory might not have been theirs. The war was not over, but while the Eorlingas drew breath there was still a chance. For the moment, though, the Lord of the Deeping-coomb had other matters forefront in his thoughts. "My lord! Theodred is awake! Will you see him?"
Though Theoden knew his son lived, and rejoiced at the news, Theodred had not awakened during his visits, either before or after the battle of the Deep. "Of course!" the King exclaimed, hastening toward the room where Theodred lay, Eomer and Erkenbrand with him. More slowly, Aragorn followed, not wanting to intrude, but thinking perhaps he might be of some assistance. There had been no opportunity prior to this for him to offer his help, but ere he parted for Dunharrow he must do what he could.
The reunion between father and son was joyful, though Theodred was quite weak and not very alert. He seemed cognizant that it was his father with him, but was a little disbelieving considering his last memories of Theoden's condition.
Theoden was content to merely be with his son, murmuring his name over and over – "Theodred, my Theodred!" Perhaps the young man looked blearily at him, without full recognition, but he was alive and recovering. That was all that mattered. Even Eomer kept silent, but stood beaming at his cousin from the foot of the bed.
When at length Theodred began to doze off once more, Aragorn stepped forward to share what skill he possessed in Elvish healing techniques, and he was gladly welcomed to attend Theodred.
As they moved down the corridor away from Theodred's room, Theoden queried Eomer softly, "Does the sun set on one son of the Mark as it rises on another, Eomer? Tomorrow we depart to gather what forces we can and ride for Gondor. Who knows but what it shall be our last ride. Theodred would then be king. I have no doubt he will make a fine ruler, but I would wish to have many more years on this green earth in which to enjoy his company."
Eomer nodded, but encouraged, "We do not know our fate, lord. It could be that when the dust finally settles in the east, we will still stand and may one day return to live peacefully in the Riddermark. With allies such as Aragorn and Gandalf, our prospects are far brighter than they were only a week ago."
"Aye, perhaps you are right," Theoden answered, though his voice remained uncommitted to that belief. Whatever anyone said, he could not help thinking this might well be the last battle he would ever see.
On the morrow, Aragorn and those riding with the Grey Company, who had met them on the road returning from Isengard, hastened on to Dunharrow, to take the Paths of the Dead into Gondor. Legolas and Gimli would not be parted from him, so they too accompanied Aragorn.
It had been difficult for Theoden to gaze on his sleeping son that final time. Everyone had cleared the room to allow them a few moments alone. When he emerged, he glanced at Eanswith and her daughter waiting nearby, and huskily enjoined them, "Watch over him for me. And thank you for all you have done. I am ever in your debt." Turning quickly, he hastened away before emotion overtook him.
Soon, Theoden and Eomer also departed, gathering Riders for the muster, and arriving at Dunharrow three days later. Time was running out, made all the more plain when the messenger from Gondor came, bringing the Red Arrow and requesting aid of Rohan. Theoden's heart was torn; he was glad that his son lived and could take his place if necessary, but it sorrowed him that they might never see one another again in this life. As he looked at his nephew, though, it heartened him to know that Eomer was ever steadfast, and would stand at Theodred's right hand in all things. A king needed someone so dependable and true.
xxx (22 Mar, 3019 III)
"I am well enough, I tell you!" Theodred snapped with irritation. "Lord Aragorn's efforts have greatly aided my healing. True, I am not at full strength and able to ride to battle, but I must go and offer what help I can now that my Father has fallen."
His final remark silenced the healer for a moment. Then, with a sigh, Seftebeorn said, "Very well, my lord, but do take a sufficient guard with you. As you say, you are not up to battle as yet. We should not wish to lose you when victory is so near, especially now that our beloved Theoden is taken from us."
Theodred paused in lacing his shirt, then turned to look at the man with more compassion. "I understand your concerns, and I will be cautious. But if they have truly ridden on the Black Gates, I may yet be needed there. And if they fail, with my dying breath I will try to keep that evil from spreading over the Mark. Victory may be near, but it is not won yet, nor will it come easily." Resignedly the man nodded, and turned to prepare a medicine kit for the prince to take with him, all the while instructing him in how to properly tend his wounds.
From her chair, Retaleoth watched the exchange in silence. She had already spent all her arguments in trying to persuade Theodred to reconsider this course. News from the battlefield of Theoden's fall had been a blow to them all, but especially to the king's heir. Even as the people around him spoke of his father's vitality while at the Deep, he was being advised of Theoden's demise. It did little to assuage his pain to know that they had been reunited while he was barely conscious. He wanted more – he wanted time with the loving father that he remembered from years past. It rankled him that Saruman had stolen all that time from them.
"You promise you will be careful?" Retaleoth asked softly as Seftebeorn left them. "You are not so healed as you claim, and I think you will find this journey far more difficult than you imagine. If it comes to a fight, you will be easy prey."
Theodred's jaw tightened as he looked up from watching a servant pull his boots on for him. "Retaleoth, try to understand. I must do this. I cannot be idle here while all of Middle-earth battles for survival. I may not be able to fight, but I can lead and rally and rule as needed. I would feel dishonorable to remain safely at this fortress while my kinsmen risk all, even their very lives, to keep the Mark safe." The servant rose, and at a signal from Theodred, followed the healer from the room.
"I know," she murmured, giving an understanding smile. Like all Eorlingas, he was a proud man, and none could countenance letting others fight their battles. Even their kings led from the front, rather than the safety of the rear. "Come back to us. We should not wish to lose two kings in rapid succession," she told him with husky voice, her emotions bleeding through.
Rising stiffly he came over and stood before her, but she would not meet his eyes. Slowly he reached out a hand to stroke her hair. "I will return – I promise. Depend on it," he quietly assured her. "Come, walk me to my horse, and no tears." She nodded faintly, and drew a ragged breath before standing to accompany him out.
Despite the early hour, many people had gathered to cheer a farewell at their new King. It had not been difficult for Theodred to find an escort. Though he only chose a dozen, many more had volunteered when he asked for a group to ride with him to Gondor. Most of the men left guarding the Deep were past their prime, but warriors all. They did not like the necessity of hiding behind stone walls to do their fighting, rather than riding out to meet the enemy. Though hopefully there would be no danger on the road, in their heart of hearts each wished for one last chance to dispatch a few orcs in open combat.
In spite of his claims of recovery, Theodred found he was weaker than expected and could not ride for so long as he was used to doing. While his armor had protected him from irreparable harm, he had lost a great deal of blood from where the orcs had managed to cut him with their axe blades. But he had been fortunate to not suffer from any serious infection of the wounds that would have hindered his recovery. Slower to heal, though, were his ribs. The leech was not certain whether they were broken or merely bruised, but either way they were very uncomfortable. Theodred needed help getting on and off his horse, so as to avoid pulling on them and causing him severe pain. His horse's motion was smooth enough that the actual riding didn't hurt so much, but at day's end his entire body seemed to stiffen, and the poppy extract the leech gave him was needed for him to get any sleep. During the day, he could usually keep any discomfort at bay with spirits.
Their second night on the road they stayed over at Edoras so that Theodred could know the situation there, and make sure all was secure. Erkenbrand had been gone from the Deep when Theodred left, and he was grateful not to meet the man at Edoras either and have to suffer further arguments against his journey. Theoden had charged Erkenbrand with keeping the Mark secure during his absence, and he had been out checking on their strongholds to see how they fared. There was still the possibility their paths would cross between Edoras and Aldburg, but after that Theodred felt reasonably sure he would be safe from such an encounter. Part of him did understand the concern all felt for his safety and well-being, and he was even humbled as he knew the concern was personal as well as related to his kingship, but it did nothing to change his view on what was necessary for him to do.
The king's party stopped again at Aldburg the next night, realizing it would be the last real bed they would get for the remainder of the journey. His arrival at the smaller city had also been cheered, somewhat to his surprise, but he learned that Erkenbrand had been there just the day before and spread the excellent news that he lived. Betersel, Eomer's housekeeper at Aldburg, fussed over the King as though he were one of her children, and he rather enjoyed her attention. Eomer sometimes complained about her behavior, but Theodred was never fooled – his cousin liked being so cared for regardless of what he said on the matter.
Better even than this motherly cossetting was the sudden appearance of great eagles flying over them, just as they arrived at Aldburg. All about them, heads were craning up in wonder, and then utter astonishment as the magnificent birds spoke. They sang of victory, proclaiming the fall of the Black Tower and Sauron's defeat. Middle-earth had survived with the race of Men still present.
There was much celebration that night, and it pleased Theodred to witness it. There had been little cause for rejoicing in quite some time. If only his father could have been here to share in this…
Whether she sensed the melancholy mood coming upon him, or merely decided he needed his rest, Betersel hustled him off to bed early. Regardless of his protests, even the sounds of the festivities did not prevent his falling immediately to sleep the instant he climbed into bed, despite his sore body and the continuing pain in his side.
Initially, Theodred had felt pressed to hurry to reach Gondor, but with news of the victory, he relaxed somewhat. They still travelled a good clip, but now he paid more attention to the villages they passed along the way. The orcs and Dunlendings had destroyed many of the homes in the Westfold, and Eomer had indicated the last time they spoke at Edoras that it was the same in the Eastfold. To the extent he dared, Eomer had drawn the people closer to Edoras to keep them safer since he was so hampered in providing them with adequate protection. Even though it was more lightly settled than the Westfold, the plains were far more bleak and barren than when last Theodred had passed this way.
The villages that remained were ramshackle at best, and already he was mentally considering what would need to be done to see the inhabitants through the next winter. Supplies would surely be scarce.
Beside him, Wermund spoke and brought him from his musings. "I do not think many of them realize you had been believed dead, as they do not seem surprised that you live. Or perhaps they merely do not recognize you! The king's son has not often ventured this far east!"
He grinned teasingly, and Theodred laughed. "True! I sent Eomer instead, and likely they all believe he is the King's heir. They will be shocked when I step to the throne!"
"Shocked, perhaps, but not displeased, my lord. And Eomer will be your strongest supporter. He would never presume to –" Wermund had long lived in the Folde, and knew Theodred's cousin quite well. None that had fought alongside Eomer ever allowed anyone to speak ill of him.
"Do not defend Eomer to me, Wermund. I have never questioned his loyalty, and I do not intend to start now. Father may have been the one to name him Third Marshal, before the dark times came upon us, but I am the one who profited from that. When the Worm was plying his treachery, it was a relief to know that I had Eomer here. I could not be two places at once or fight every battle."
"True," Wermund murmured. Then, with another grin, he burst into song. The effort of singing was too uncomfortable on his ribs, so Theodred did not participate, but it lifted his spirit to hear it.
Their entire journey took more than a week. Though a few orcs were spotted, they were in small groups and avoided the Riders, not appearing desirous of a fight. Theodred could only think that was due to the fall of Saruman, and their defeat on the Pelennor. The Riders had ridden in almost a grim silence for the early days of their travel, but news of victory had so lightened their hearts that when Wermund burst into song not long after they departed Aldburg's gates, he was quickly joined by everyone else, and they had continued to sing for much of the remainder of their trip. Something of a minstrel, Wermund entertained them with impromptu songs that he newly formed. Theodred was rather relieved that he chose to focus on light topics such as romance and humor, rather than taking his fodder from the recent battles. There was time enough for that later. They all needed to think on the goodness of life just now.
Their last night, they camped a couple of leagues from the Rammas Echor. Part of him dreaded seeing the battlefield, so Theodred took that final evening to mentally prepare himself for both that and the devastation of lives he knew he would face once he entered the city. There would be rejoicing, of course, over their victory, but that success had come with a terrible toll in human lives. He didn't know the precise number that had ridden to Gondor's aid under his father's command, but he was very sure that many would not be returning home under Theodred's.
There were also the mixed feelings he had about the survivors. Even as a military leader, he had found it difficult to enter houses where the maimed and wounded were tended. The sights and smells seemed to claw at his insides, tightening them so he could barely breathe – reminding him that he had helped bring them to this end. He had led them into battle; he had commanded them on the field of conflict. He could not think himself guiltless in their fall, or in their loss. He had felt that way when merely the son of the Mark's ruler; he was sure it would be even worse now that he himself was the King. He knew they did not hold him accountable, and would even cheer his part in leading them to a victory, but he could not wholly put aside the feeling that he should have protected them somehow, and ensured that they returned safely to their homes and families. And if that weren't enough, he simply had never gotten used to watching a friend, or soldier under his command, die an unpleasant death. It was a relief to take the poppy syrup that night and drift into dreamless sleep, temporarily relinquishing his own pain, both mental and physical.
Wermund, who had become the unofficial leader of their camp, allowed him to sleep longer than usual since they would arrive at Mundburg just before mid-day. After a leisurely breakfast they broke camp for the last time, and at length, they drew near to the outer wall of Minas Tirith. Or what was left of it. A good portion of the wall had been destroyed, but there were guards along the ruins of it, most of which they recognized as their own kinsmen. A figure rode toward them, in the livery of the Mark, and after a few moments Theodred identified Elfhelm.
His fist resting on his hip, Elfhelm raised an eyebrow at Theodred. "Did I save your neck only to have you foolishly risk it riding to Gondor, Princeling?"
Theodred chuckled. The older man had been like a second father to him, or at least a mentor once he started training for war and with weapons. "Do not be such a mother hen, old man! I am well enough." He paused, then added quietly, "I thought I might be needed here. I am sure Eomer is managing well in my stead, but with Father's death our people need to see their king."
Elfhelm reluctantly nodded his agreement. "I notice you waited for all the dirty work to be ended, though! All that is left now is celebrating – no doubt with lovely ladies and much ale! You do have an excellent sense of timing!"
Theodred snickered, grateful for a lighter topic of discussion. "Part of the training to be king! Now, come, enough foolishness. Tell me of the situation here as we continue on our way, or must you remain here?"
The Marshal indicated he could accompany his king, and fell in beside him as they turned for the White City. It took most of the ride to relate tales of the battle: how Theoden had fallen, how Eowyn had played her part and how the day had been won by the unexpected arrival of Aragorn with reinforcements. Then Elfhelm prepared Theodred for what he would find in the City.
When he finished reporting, the king shook his head. "Little Eowyn, a woman of valor! Not that I am surprised by her courage or prowess, but still!" He sighed. "Eomer and I worried about her, being trapped at Meduseld with Grima haunting her steps, but there was nothing we could do about it while Father trusted the Snake's every word. I am glad she is free of that now. She deserves some happiness."
"Yes," Elfhelm acknowledged before lapsing into silence. As they approached the Eorlingas' encampment, Elfhelm indicated where Theodred's escort could set up camp, save for the two that would accompany him into the City. "Prince Imrahil has given us the use of his house, but you should visit the Steward and make yourself known to him. He was residing in the Houses of Healing, wounded in an earlier battle, but has now taken up his office. Eowyn is still in the Houses."
Once they had stabled their horses and left their belongings at Imrahil's townhouse, Elfhelm led the way to the Houses. Despite Theodred's dislike of such places, at least this one was a vast improvement over the often crude areas used for tending the wounded in the Mark. Even so, they still smelled of medicine – and fear, and despair. But this was necessary. His men would need to see him, receive encouragement from him; regardless of how difficult he found it, it was infinitely worse for them.
Clearly Elfhelm was well familiar with the place for he asked no directions, making directly for the room he sought. When Eowyn was not in her room, he commented, "Likely she is in the garden. She has spent much time there."
Again, he turned and strode off with perfect ease, and Theodred moved quickly beside him, hoping there would soon be an opportunity to sit down – his strength was waning. At the door to the gardens, he heard Elfhelm murmur, "Ah! There she is."
Looking through the glassed doors, Theodred saw his cousin standing gazing toward the east, as still as a statue. As they stepped into the garden and Elfhelm called her name, she turned, her expression greatly troubled. Theodred had not been expecting that, thinking she was healed now in body and spirit. Apparently there were still things amiss in her life. However, at the sight of him, her eyes widened and she beamed with joy, running to fling herself into his arms. He only just managed to keep her from bumping his aching ribs. "Theodred! It is true! Eomer told me you lived, but I scarce could believe it!"
Careful of her bandaged shieldarm and his own sore body, he hugged her gingerly. "Believe it – thanks to Elfhelm. And I am relieved to find you in one piece. I hope Eomer gave you a good talking to for doing such a foolhardy thing as sneaking off to war!"
Despite his words, his expression clearly told her he was teasing, but she earnestly tried to explain, "I had to come. I could not sit behind and tend to women and children, waiting to see if our world ended. I had to do my part!"
He pressed a kiss to her forehead. "I know. I am just glad I found out about it after it was too late, or I would have been frantic with worry over you." He leaned back and gazed more deeply into her eyes. "And, yet, you are not fully healed, I see."
She lowered her gaze. It had always annoyed her how easily he seemed to read her thoughts. Pulling from his embrace, she shrugged. "Wounds take time to mend."
Theodred could not help wondering which particular wounds she meant, but he refrained from asking just then. Looking around, he spotted a bench and nudged her toward it. "I must sit. My wounds are also still healing, and I yet tire easily."
Elfhelm gave a short bow. "I will leave you two to talk while I go and speak with some of my men."
Unexpectedly, Elfhelm's departure left them feeling awkward with one another, and unsure of what to say. So much had happened since last they had seen each other that conversation did not come readily. Before they could get past the awkwardness and speak, however, a man appeared nearby. Instantly, Eowyn rose as Theodred turned to eye him questioningly. He did not look like a leech…
"Lord Faramir – I would have you meet my cousin, Pr…Theodred King. He has just arrived." For a moment, Eowyn had almost called him a prince, then hastily realized his changed status. Her jaw tightened at the remembrance of how it came about. Then, uncertain how much Theodred knew of Gondor's leaders, she forced herself to add, "Lord Faramir is now Steward of Gondor."
"I am honored to meet you, my lord," Faramir said with a bow. "Welcome to Minas Tirith."
Slowly Theodred stood, already stiffening now that he had stopped moving. "The honor is mine, sir. I…I heard about your father and brother. I am sorry."
"As am I for your loss," Faramir answered evenly, suppressing any visible emotion.
For a few moments, they all stood awkwardly, until Eowyn asked, "Will you join us?"
Faramir hesitated, then replied, "As your cousin is just come, I am sure you will wish to talk privately. I will come back later." With another bow, he excused himself, and Theodred idly watched him walking away. The Steward had not seemed to know he was here, so he had not come out to greet him. Why then had he approached them? Theodred wondered.
As they reseated themselves, he noticed Eowyn's eyes flicking in the direction the Steward had gone, even as they talked. Looking more closely at her, he perceived a slight flush to her cheeks that he could not explain. I will come back later. Had Lord Faramir come to visit with Eowyn, and simply happened upon them together? An interesting possibility… He wondered what Eomer would make of it!
If his guesses were correct, Eowyn said nothing to confirm it. She carefully steered the conversation to how he was faring, and adding her own view of what had been happening in Gondor since their arrival.
"When will they return?" he asked.
"We have not yet received many details, but I understand they are gathered in Ithilien, tending to the wounded and celebrating. I think it may be a while before they make the trek back," Eowyn answered.
He nodded, then glanced to where Faramir had gone. "I think it might be best for me to remain here and see what I can do to be of assistance, rather than travel there. I do not truly have part in their victory anyway."
"Not so!" Eowyn exclaimed, catching his arm. "Just because you could not come here to fight does not mean the victory is not yours as well. You fought valiantly for many years leading up to this moment. To tarry in the Mark because you did not wish to fight would indeed be dishonorable, but that is not what happened. There is no dishonor that you were wounded at Isen and unable to come. Indeed, that you survived is a victory in itself!"
He smiled at her fervor – ever his and Eomer's champion, this one! Eomer… "What do you hear of Eomer? Is he well?"
"Only that he survived. Messages are slowly trickling in with details, mainly letting us know who is alive so as to relieve worried family members. They are camped at a place called Cormallen, and…and some from the City are going out to join them. But I am sure we will learn much more as time passes, and F…Lord Faramir will be sure to notify us of any news."
His eyes twinkled with amusement at her barely stifled familiarity with the Steward, but he looked away so she wouldn't see. It was evident she had feelings for the man, though whether they were requited he could only guess. Let her tell him of the situation when she was ready. And, perhaps, she had not yet acknowledged her feelings to herself. She had always been stubborn!
They talked a while longer, before Theodred let out a groan as he stood. "I need to lie down. Hopefully my guard can find our way back to Prince Imrahil's house." He glanced at his cousin. "How much longer will you be staying in the Houses of Healing?"
"They say it should require another month to completely heal my arm, but I am sure I can leave before then. They do not take into account how hardy we Eorlingas are!" she laughed.
He chuckled; knowing Eowyn, they would be hard pressed to keep her here another two weeks! She linked arms with him and walked him to the exit, leaving him with a kiss to his cheek. "I am glad you have come, Theodred. I only wish…" She didn't finish the sentence, but he took her meaning. He also wished his father was here. Helm's Deep was only a dim memory while his father had been there, and Theodred had not been up to conversation. He would like to have seen his father healed of Wormtongue's leechcraft and once again his own man. But it was something to know that it had happened, and that Theoden had died with honor. He was sure Eomer would tell him more of it when they saw one another.
Athelhad – "noble person" – injured Roh. at M.T.; Thd knew him from his serving at H.D.
Betersel – "more happiness" – Eomer's housekeeper at Aldburg
Brenross – "bold rain" – Swan Knight who guided Eomer from M.T. to Dol Amroth
Cuthwine – "known friend" – Retaleoth's deceased husband; Tilleoth's father
Deorlyft – "precious sky" – Dunhere's widow
Eadgif – "rich gift" – servant at Aldburg in Eomer's house
Eanswith – "one strength" – Erkenbrand's wife
Freobyrne – "free fire" – injured Roh. at M.T.; Thd knew him from his serving at H.D.
Fylscinan – "shine plentifully" – child at H.D.; Tilleoth goes to play with her
Harding – Elfhelm's second in command; carries wounded Theodred to H.D.
Retaleoth - "cheering or comforting song" – eldest daughter of Erkenbrand
Seftebeorn – "pleasant man" – leech at Helm's Deep
Swidhelm – "strong fortress" – Theodred's steward
Tilleoth – "good song" – daughter of Retaleoth
Walda – "power" – Rider in D.A. with Eomer, sent with message to Theodred
Wermund – "protector of truth" – rider in Theodred's escort to M.T.; sings/composes songs
Footnote: For those of you only familiar with the movies and not the books, Eomer never went to the Fords of Isen, found Theodred alive or took him back to Edoras where he died. Instead, Theodred died and was buried at the Fords. Eomer visited the site much later, with Theoden and Gandalf when they went to Isengard after the battle at Helm's Deep. They returned to Helm's Deep and then went on to the muster at Dunharrow. It was Elfhelm who rode to Theodred's aid and, after both battles at the Fords, Elfhelm took his surviving Riders back to guard Edoras about the time Gandalf was gathering Erkenbrand and Grimbold's scattered forces to help at Helm's Deep. Eventually, though, Elfhelm was involved in the muster and rode to Minas Tirith with Theoden. (see The Unfinished Tales for most of the available details on the battles fought at the Fords of Isen, etc.)
Additionally, in the books Eomer was imprisoned, not banished, and he fought alongside Aragorn at Helm's Deep. It was Erkenbrand who arrived with Gandalf to help defeat the enemy.
Harding is an actual character in Tolkien's work, mentioned only in a song commemorating those who fell at the Battle of the Pelennor. Rather than create a new character for my purposes here, I simply gave one of those unknown men a backstory.
When Theodred first meets Eowyn at Minas Tirith, she and Faramir have not yet had their talk in which she realizes she loves him and agrees to marry him, thus the reason she still looks troubled when Theodred initially sees her in the garden. (I couldn't find that Tolkien ever specified what precise date some of the events took place, so I approximated dates for my purposes – Eowyn got the letter from Eomer on March 30, Theodred arrives the morning of April 2 and Faramir proposes that same afternoon.)
When Aragorn speaks to Eomer and Theodred, in front of the court of Gondor, prior to their departure for Rohan after the war (early May), some of the dialogue is taken directly from Tolkien, some of it is paraphrased Tolkien and some of it is mine. The material point being that it's not all my words.
At Edoras, some of the dialogue for the acceptance of Theodred as king and Eomer performing the trothplighting of Eowyn to Faramir is actual or paraphrased directly from Tolkien.
A short treatise on reviews: May I just mention, on behalf of myself but also for my fellow writers, that reviews are greatly appreciated. A great many of you lurk along, reading our stories in silence, even marking them as favorites or us as a favored author, but you never speak directly to us. I have seen quite a few wonderful stories with only a handful of reviews, and I worry that they are not receiving their due notice. Even something simple like "Loved the story!" or "Great characterization of Aragorn" will warm our hearts and inspire us to continue writing. If you are able to offer constructive criticism or point out typos, that, too, is appreciated. We only ask that you do it in a friendly and courteous manner. You do not necessarily need to review every chapter, but we do love to get feedback and know how you are reacting to what we have written – did it make you think, or cry, or reread the book? Please let us know! And don't hesitate to offer story ideas. Possibly we will never be able to use them, but I know more than one of my stories has come from reader suggestions. You just never know what you might inspire!