We have found safety with all things undying,
The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth…
We have built a house that is not for Time's throwing.
We have gained a peace unshaken by pain for ever.
War knows no power. Safe shall be my going,
Secretly armed against all death's endeavour;
Safe though all safety's lost; safe where men fall;
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.
Rupert Brooke, Safety"A game of tafl, sir?" Eomer asked, eyebrow raised, a slow smile drawing itself on his face. "Now?"
"Unless 'the lad thinks it too tame to learn strategy through a game. Isn't he keen to see real battle?'"
"However can you remember that, Uncle? I was no more than thirteen, if that. It was Gamling who suggested you let me have a go at one of the younger men of the eored."
"Aye, and you lost, but it was a close contest."
"I am sure I would win now."
"I should hope so!" Theoden cried, mockingly shocked, as he set the board firmly upon the table. They should all be seeking their rest, and his body craved for it, but his mind was restless, and a game of tafl had always helped him find his focus.
They only had a few hours before setting out on their final journey to Mundburg, and Theoden felt that he was running out of time. He felt it as a bone-wearying coldness, the kind that settled on men marked to die. As a soldier he had heard plenty of tales about it; as a man, he had stared at it in the face of friends dying under spears or blades. For his own part, he had long come to terms with dying and was not afraid of death. What he was afraid of was dying badly, unfinished, undone. And he would miss some things, like the young man sitting across from him.
Eomer had stopped being a boy a long time ago, perhaps even as long as Eomund's death, but, looking at him, Theoden always remembered the curious, lively boy that he became in Edoras as he found his place and an outlet for all the power he was forced to hold in check. He resembled his sire in that. In the dimness of the tent Theoden could see more shadows on his face than he could remember; but, then again, he had not really looked at him in a long time. Now that he had a few moments, he would do his best to correct that. He set himself to arrange the board to begin.
Theoden nodded. "I am in a better mood for this."
"And not Hnefatafl… where the aim is protecting the King?"
Theoden smiled and rolled the dice. Quickly summoning to mind one of his most successful opening moves, he advanced two of his pieces.
"You will not gain much quarter from me if you think to undo me with that particular move. I have shred this strategy before, sir."
Theoden's face remained on the board. "We shall see. You reveal too much too carelessly, Eomer. That is a problem."
A small scowl formed on Eomer's face as he rolled and moved his pieces in turn.
"I forgot myself," he said, ducking his head in that self-conscious way of his. "It is good to be playing again, Uncle. I have missed it," and the last was tinged with regret. Perhaps it would be much easier to get to where he wanted to go than he had foreseen.
"Truly?" Theoden asked. "At some point I even suspected you of not liking the game as much as you wanted to imply."
Eomer's low chuckle came with another roll of the dice. "You told me to reveal nothing, and so I shall obey your counsel."
Eomer's frown told him that he had hit upon a sore spot. One of so many that we must heal. The lad reveals what is in his heart too easily for whoever would read him. No wonder he did not do so well these past years. A stab of guilt cut through him, deservedly so; still, he would not spend what precious time he had with Eomer wallowing in grief. He had much to say; it was time he got to it. The question was how best to begin. Carelessly—or seemingly so—he moved a piece.
"What did you think of the Chief?"
"He is a very interesting man; wise, he seemed to me, in the ways of the forest, but much too mysterious. For all that he won't join the battle, he led us true. I am grateful to him."
"Aye. It seems that we were born upon a time where it is courage that marks the measure of a man. I hear it was not always so."
"I think…" Eomer finally said, as he availed himself of the opportunity to move three pieces, "I think that lack of knowledge might excuse a person. Ghan-buri-ghan may not have known what is at stake, or else he would have joined the fight. At least I like to think so."
"What if that was not the case?"
"I like to think that it is."
Theoden allowed himself a smile, a real one. "You have a good heart, Eomer, and it has helped you judge truly in the past. Always listen to it; the mind wastes too much time thinking when the heart would be doing. Once upon a time I would have thought that you let your heart govern you too much, but a heart in the right place can sense things in others that cannot be seen with the eyes."
Eomer looked a question at him, but decided not to ask it.
He fears me. Or rather, fears to upset me.
"You may yet amend the movement of that particular piece. I think I may corner you there," he said, pointing to one of Eomer's reds. He saw Eomer's eyes taking in the entirety of the board, perhaps retracing what moves he had taken, reminding himself of his game plan. A slow smile crept up his face.
"You watch your whites and I will watch my reds," he said. "I may yet win, although a victory would have been easier if we had played Hnefatafl. You are giving me a hard time trying to bring all my reds home."
They were finally coming to it.
"Yet that is the task ahead of you," Theoden said.
Eomer looked across the board at him, one of his red pieces in his hand. "This is not about the game, is it?"
"It never was."
Eomer moved his three allotted pieces in the 5 + 4 + 3 pattern he favored and returned the dice to him. "I have not thought as far as tomorrow, if truth be told. There has been so much to do today to occupy my mind that I have been able to forestall those thoughts so far. I am tired of this darkness; I would see it vanquished."
"Do you think there is still chance of it?"
Eomer considered this for a moment. "I see, at least, that you do not."
"An idealist may always see a way out, but I think I have lived long enough—seen enough, definitely—to judge differently. When the odds are so slanted toward the enemy's camp," he said, pointing at the game board with his hand, "sometimes retreat is the wisest choice. That is not an option for us now, and so we go on, and so we hope against hope that there will be something to salvage through our fighting. Alas, that I have lived to see such days. I would not have spoken like this some years ago; I must be turning soft."
"I never saw any sign of it."
"Ah," Theoden said. "That is not quite true. I know that you despised me for heeding the Worm."
The alarmed look that Eomer gave him made him infinitely sad, but there was no other way; it was pointless to tread around the issue, particularly because of the little time they had.
"I do not fault you for it. Bringing Grima into my court might yet be the greatest mistake I have ever made."
"I made mistakes, too, Uncle. Whatever it was I saw at Edoras, I did not stop it. You have much for which to reproach me," he said, looking at his palms on the table. "Not only had I sworn my oath to you, but you were my father. I should have acted sooner. I should have seen him for what he was, and stopped him, regardless of the consequences."
"If I recall correctly, I sent you to prison when you tried."
His head snapped up; Theoden could see that he strove hard to keep his emotions in check. "I had hoped you would not remember that," he finally said, and looked aside.
"I owe you an apology, sister-son. It should have never come to that: your life or mine. I should have protected you, not the other way around. I would ask your forgiveness, Eomer."
"Please, do not think of it, Uncle. He is gone now, and cannot harm us any more."
"Not think of it? And prevent myself from feeling the full consequences of my mistake? The loss of my son, and so many men with him, and women and children? No, Eomer. When one errs, one must atone. It is only fitting that I should try; my conscience demands it."
"Not in the way you think, Uncle. Surely you can do more good in life than in death." By now Eomer was quite agitated, he could see, from the way he gripped at the table. "I—any of your men would die for you if it is required. I would do it without hesitation or regret, my lord."
"I had rather you lived, and I had rather you called me Uncle," Theoden said, trying to smile in a reassuring way, but feeling the weight of the emotions of the last few days begin to settle on him. "I do not wish for death, if that is what troubles you. I will not seek for it, but if it comes to me I will welcome it. There is no shame in dying a good death, and there can be no better death than that one achieved protecting what one loves. I have many regrets, but I will die content if I can die a good death. Do not prevent me from it, Eomer. I beg you."
"You have never had cause to beg anything from me, Uncle. Please."
"I will beg you to let me go on, for there is much I should say to you, and so little time!"
"There will be time."
"Maybe," he said, to alleviate Eomer's obvious tension. "But for now, you must listen to me. I have thrust a grave responsibility upon your shoulders. Please, do not interrupt. I know what troubles you, but be assured that I know you never sought for it. It is yours, nonetheless, and I know that you will fulfill it well, for your love of the Riddermark runs strongly through your blood. But love of land is not enough to make it one's aim in life."
Eomer's brow was furrowed. Perhaps, Theoden thought, it pained him to hear him speak of dying; perhaps he was beginning to feel the weight of his new roles. Be it as it may, Theoden had begun and would not stop until he was done. Settling the dice on the board, he looked at Eomer in the eye.
"Now that we come to the end of days, I can look back and see that I was wrong about many things that I assumed were right. I should hope that I have learned something after all this time! This world that we live in is full of what seems to us to be chance; if you believe there is purpose to it that we do not understand, some pattern that we cannot divine, the burdens become lighter. That makes me think that happiness, in itself, is not the point at all, but the search for happiness within the part that is allotted us. Happiness does not come from circumstance: it must come from somewhere inside, and that is the true quest! Do you understand this?"
A small nod.
"There were many happy moments in my life, yet I would not call my life a happy one. Still, now that I face death, and in spite of my regrets, I am ready, and at peace with myself. That is what you must search for, Eomer; that peace that nothing can take from you, that will see you through any trial."
"Why are you telling me this, Uncle?"
"Because I have failed you in so many other ways."
"You have been a father to me; there is no failure."
Theoden gave him a half-smile. "You, and Eowyn, are all that remain of me. I would see you succeed where I have failed. I would see you at peace, content with the life you have led, able to face death without regret for you have done all you could. Family, Eomer, family and duty are the most important things. Loving one's family can bring a man such completion. Doing one's duty is what allows you to look others in the eye. Those are the things in my mind now, for whatever they are worth. I feel ready, now that I have shared them with you."
The board lay between them, forgotten, as they looked at each other. They had seen each other many times before, but never like this. Theoden liked what he saw. I have failed a son, but I will not die failing the other.
"You were right," Eomer finally said, ducking his head, "and if we are going to be forthright, I might as well confess it now: games of strategy were a little too tame for me."
"Then why ever did you let me impose upon you to play?"
"Because you always talked to me, and I liked that."
And talk they did, for longer than they should have, but there were so many years to make up for that Theoden had missed. When the weariness was such that they could scarce endure it, Eomer rose to seek his bed. Theoden hailed him at the door.
"If we are going to be forthright, I must tell you one more thing: it was never a favor, bringing you and Eowyn with me. It was never a favor to you, as much as it was to Theodred and me. Calling you both son and daughter was one of the few things I did right."
As Theoden slept that afternoon, waiting for evening and his chance to make amends, he felt exceedingly light for the first time in many years. He felt finally at peace.
NOTES: For more information on the games that Theoden and Eomer talk about, see this page:
For the poems of Rupert Brooke, see: .com/~ (I love the deep quality of Brooke's poems. They depict the struggle at war but from within, as it were. They are quite introspective and use beautiful, beautiful language)