By Kielle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
DISCLAIMER: All characters and events within (or at least the bare bones thereof) belong to J.R.R. Tolkien. No profit is made and no harm is intended. Please ask before archiving. Feedback is treasured!
EXPLANATION: I had no intention of writing these characters again after "Red Day Rising," but when plotbunnies attack I know better than to resist. Plus they kept me from more difficult work...though in the end this story seized control of itself and kept me wracking my brain for several days anyway. And the title took several days more. Bloody hell. Anyway, here's a tale of childhood lost in the eastern reaches of Rohan...
SERIES NOTES: Yes, it IS possible at this point that I will write more stories about these characters. I'm not sure yet. If I do, I can say right now that all tales in this series will have colors in their titles. Why? Just because, really.
GEOGRAPHIC ETYMOLOGY: Yes, I got confused too. Until proven otherwise, I'm using "the Eastmark" (alternately "Eastmarch") to designate all of east Rohan and "Eastfold" for the dangerous eastern border. Emnetburig is my own creation; with no stockade, it's just a strategic cavalry camp not meant to stand for more than a few years, and thus no threat to canon.
DEDICATION: To Chris for whipping this into shape; to Crantz for inflicting his Theoden on me (I swear, John, I'll firehose him if he doesn't stop barging in); and to Joannie for her own wonderful tales of Eorl's descendents.
Minas Tirith, Gondor
Theoden stood alone in the courtyard, a creased slip of parchment clenched in one hand. This was the third missive from Eastfold in one month. Three was said to be a lucky number. It was not, apparently, his.
Few Riders of the Mark could read; written messages were rare, and written word from the Eastmark was especially unusual. The day-to-day business of guarding Rohan's eastern border was none of Edoras' concern, nor his own. His sister's husband Eomund cared well for that shadowed land...
Or, rather, he had. The first message, two weeks ago, had been an alarming report of increased orc raids. The second message, twelve days ago, had been news of Eomund's death.
Shaken, Theoden had vowed to attend the traditional rites...as soon as he could end this interminable negotiation. Gondor! An arrogant land ruled by an arrogant man. Theoden would not miss the White City when he returned to his own people's green plains. Unfortunately, that meant approving a new Marshall for the Eastmark -- a difficult task both politically and personally. He'd been fond of Eomund himself, in younger years.
And now there was this third message...
The messenger hastily excused himself to tend his lathered mount. Alone in the noon sun which suddenly held no warmth, the king of Rohan braced himself and unfolded the parchment.
And he read.
Carefully, precisely, he refolded the parchment. His expression did not change, but his jaw was clamped tight beneath his beard. Just for a moment, he felt a terrible weight bearing down upon his shoulders -- the weight of too many years, and too many deaths.
He had known that his sister was ill.
He had not known that she was dying.
Denethor Steward of Gondor could take his schedules and his maps and his tedious court etiquette and shove 'em all head-first down a midden. Family came first. Eastfold was several days' ride away, and there was no time left for politics...
Emnetburig, Eastern Rohan
The doll was made of straw bound with colored string. It had hair, of a sort -- a mass of rough-spun yellow wool, some of which was meticulously braided. It needed a face and a new dress. It most certainly did not need a spear.
Nonetheless, the boy bent studiously over his work, concentrating as his sun-browned fingers lashed an arrowhead to a whittled stick. The task was much like repairing an arrow, and he'd known how to do that since his eleventh birthday. He'd only been practicing for few months now, true, and he despaired of ever being able to fletch a shaft from scratch, but this would never need to fly true from a bow.
"There. Done." He held out the toy spear and it was immediately snatched up. "Do you like it?"
"It's perfect! She loves it!"
"Really? I didn't hear her say that."
This earned him the standard exasperated eyeroll. "She didn't say it to you." Clutching both toy and doll under her arm, the child scrambled up onto the low stone wall and sat beside him, chubby legs kicking under her homespun skirts. Her bare feet were as grimy as her hands. "Can she have a sword too?"
He sighed. "I can't make you a toy sword."
"Your knife would make a good sword for a doll."
"'Wyn, you can't have my knife!"
"Because it's mine, and because Mama would kill me if I armed you. You're bad enough barehanded." He cast her a sidelong glance. "That reminds me. Weren't you supposed to help with the laundry this morning?"
His little sister hid her grubby fists in her lap and wriggled like a puppy. "I already did."
"You wouldn't be so dirty if you'd done your washing chores. You'd be squeaky clean."
"Are you squeaky? I don't think so. I think I should check--"
The boy pounced, dragging the squealing child across his lap and tickling her mercilessly. In the courtyard behind them a few heads turned at the commotion, then shook with tired amusement and returned to whatever work they'd been attending.
Emnetburig was a cavalry post, not a town; only a low boundary wall marked it as more than a herders' camp. From the west you could look out over the rolling green pastureland of the Mark. However, if you stood on the east wall and shaded your eyes and peered toward Rauros and the Anduin, you could sometimes spot foul mists rising from the marshes beyond. You could not see Mordor, but you knew by the chill in your bones that it was there.
Children did not notice such things. Few were raised on the eastern border, and the riders treasured their laughter. It was a rare gift in hard times. And of late times had never been harder.
The doll flew out over the wall as the wrestling youngsters tumbled off the other side, landing in a heap three feet below. With a yelp, the boy instinctively curled around his sister on impact -- she bounded right up and scrambled over the piled stones to retrieve her toy. He groaned and didn't follow. Unable to roll as he'd been taught to fall from a horse, he'd hit the ground with a jarring thud.
Sometimes, he reflected ruefully, keeping up with her was harder than breaking a colt. Mainly because he wasn't allowed to use rope. Perhaps she'd wandered off to play with her doll...
No such luck. Almost immediately she popped back up above him, the sun a golden halo behind her head. She looked like a dandelion -- a bad case of lice three weeks before had earned her a shearing. He'd teased her mercilessly, of course, until their father had threatened to do the same to his son's prized ponytail...
A chill ran down the boy's spine. He had no time to dwell, though, as his sister shouted "Catch me!" and threw herself down at him.
The day was well past noon when he finally called a halt to their games. Wrestling had turned into a game of tag and then into hide-and-seek and then, once he'd tracked her down by the giggles, back into wrestling. It was hot, there was no breeze, and he was tired. There were circles under his eyes from too many sleepless nights.
"Enough," he tried, but instead he choked on hay as his sister pulled half a bale down on him. Exploding from the drift, he caught the seven-year-old and swung her upside down and (accompanied by her merry shrieks) bounced her like a butterchurn. "'Wyn! Enough! Truce. Rest. Have mercy. Stop trying to bite my knees or I'll feed you to the invisible goblin in the rafters!"
"I don't believe in that any more," she protested, but she subsided with a sulky look and made a good show of straightening her skirt when he set her back down upright. By then he'd already flopped out on his back in the hay. She shuffled a bit then, surprisingly, lay down and stuck her hands behind her head in passable imitation.
For a few minutes they were both quiet. Somewhere in the distance hooves stamped and tack jingled; one of the patrols was in, or just leaving. Nothing special. The boy sought shapes in the few clouds overhead and allowed his mind to wander. He thought his sister was doing the same, or perhaps dozing off, and so he was surprised to hear her soft voice murmur his name in his ear.
"Eeeeomer?" she said again, a little louder but meekly polite and with a cute musical drawl. Which meant she wanted something.
He sighed and replied, still staring up at the sky, "What?"
"I want to see Mama."
Her brother winced. "Maybe tomorrow--"
"Everyone keeps saying tomorrow. I want to see her today. Please?"
"It's not really my place--"
"Plllleeeeeaaaase?" And before he could refuse her again, she stuck out her lower lip and played her piteous trump card: "I didn't get to see Papa before he went away."
"That...that's not fair." The chill was back like a hammer to his heart; two weeks ago, two weeks, had it only been two weeks? They had not brought back Eomund's body. Everyone knew what that meant. Or almost everybody. Children were not supposed to know...but Eomer Eomund's son knew. Late at night, when his sister was curled innocently asleep with her thumb in her mouth, he lay awake unable to stop thinking about what orcs did to dead Riders...
Eomer closed his eyes and fought to keep his voice steady. "We did say goodbye. When they all rode out that morning. Just like we always do."
"That's not the same. We didn't mean it."
"Yes, we did. That's why we're supposed to say it every time. In case...well, in case. Sometimes...sometimes Riders don't come back. It's just one of those things that happens. That's all. You know that."
"I know. But this isn't the same."
He knew what she meant by "this." He knew she meant their mother, hidden away in a dark room, pale with a wasting fever, falling farther and farther away with each passing day. Yesterday she had not recognized him...
Eomer could not turn his head to meet his sister's furrowed gaze. "You're right, it's different, but...she's sick, 'Wyn. You wouldn't like it in there. You can go see her when she's better."
"What if she doesn't get better? She's been sick for an awful long time."
"She'll get better."
"I..." He couldn't. And he couldn't think up a lie fast enough to cover his hesitation. "'Wyn, it's not that...um...you see, I..."
Hay rustled and suddenly little Eowyn was snuggled up against his side. She flung her arm over his stomach; without thinking, he brought his own down to cradle her more comfortably. Her fluffy hair tickled his chin and her light quick heartbeat pattered a counterpoint to his own.
At moments like this that he knew he could never say no to his sister, and she knew it, and he knew she knew it, and so on.
"...I'll see what I can do," he finished weakly.
She squeezed his ribs and opened her mouth to say something else, but then she shot bolt upright and listened. Equine sounds were so woven into life on the plains that they often went unnoticed, but this chorus of excited stamps, squeals, and whickers held an unusual note.
In a flash both sister and brother were out of the hay and running towards the front gate -- actually it was a ten-foot gap in the stone boundary, but it served the same purpose. As they rounded the last corner Eomer caught Eowyn by the tunic and pulled her into the rough-built cabin's lee. She protested, but he let go only when she stopped struggling.
The strangers were Riders, on horses of the same stock as their own and with armor of the same design. They carried their swords strapped to the saddle, and bore no spears. Eomer frowned. No man of Eastfold would risk riding out without sword on hip and spear seated firmly at hand. The newcomers had to be from the Westmark; orcs rarely skulked so far--
A stray breeze swirled through the encampment. In proud reply, cloth rippled and cracked overhead. One of the newcomers bore a standard, a white horse on a field of green. The royal banner! The children exchanged an excited glance. They knew they were kin to the king of the Mark, but Eomer only had dim memories of a booming voice and a friendly hand ruffling his hair. Eowyn did not remember him at all.
The entire town had turned out to greet the party -- it was nowhere near large enough to be called an eored -- and the newcomers were dismounting in a jangle of chain and the dull squeak of leather. The king was easy to discern, by his carriage and by reactions to his presence. Though hale, his dark-blond beard was shot with silver; he looked older than any man assigned to the eastern border. He had a kindly look, but when he swept off his helm even children could see he looked drawn and worn. It was not age or even the long ride; he wore the expression of a man who had lost a loved one.
Or, Eomer knew with a sudden sick certainty, someone who knew that a loved one had not long to live.
After a quick hushed conference the king was already striding across the hard-packed mud towards one of the larger structures in Emnetburig. Towards Eomund's hold...where their mother lay dying.
Eowyn gasped and scampered after him. Eomer tried to catch her arm, but she wriggled free like a fish. She would have caught up to the king, too, had not one of the king's Riders intercepted the little girl and scooped her up. That unfortunate Rider promptly found himself assaulted by a squealing, pummeling, howling dervish.
"Eowyn--! Stop it!" Mortified, Eomer abandoned the safety of the shadows and pelted over, his face aflame. Some of the other Riders were chuckling and some looked sympathetic but none were moving to rescue their comrade. "I'm sorry, here, I'll take her, she's just--"
"Why does he get to see Mama and I don't?!" Eowyn wailed as she rained small vehement blows on any part of the unfortunate Rider she could reach. "It's not fair it's not fair it's not fairrrrrr!!!"
"'Mama'...?" the king's Rider repeated. "Oh. Oh, I see."
To Eomer's surprise, the man immediately sank to his haunches and set Eowyn's flailing feet back on the ground. He did not release her, but by locking an arm around her waist and ducking sideways he managed to remove his helm. He was younger than Eomer had expected, in his twenties perhaps, with a pleasant smile and darker hair than most men of the Mark. Oddly, there was something familiar about him -- his eyes, the shape of his chin, the way he tilted his head...
Eomer suddenly understood. He looks like Papa. Except for his sun-streaked brown mane, this young man looked like Eomund must have appeared years before.
"If this is Eowyn, you must be Eomer," the Rider said kindly. His voice...his voice, too... "I'm Theodred Theodensson. I've heard of you."
Eowyn kicked him soundly in the shin, and to her credit she did not yelp as her bare toes struck riding boot.
Theodred sighed. "I don't think you've heard of me, though."
"'Wynnnn...!" Eomer hissed despairingly, and this time she paid attention. She froze just long enough for her brother to dart in and pry her away from this young stranger who looked far too much like their father--
Only then, with his sister safely in his arms, did he consider the full meaning of Theodred's introduction. "You're the king's son. King Theoden's."
Theodred rocked back easily on his heels. "You heard me a'right. Your mother is my father's sister, and my mother was your father's. We're doubly cousins, you and I."
Eowyn had pressed her face against Eomer's stomach, but she was keeping one baleful eye locked on the Rider. "Was?" she said, muffled. "Did something happen to your mama?"
Eomer flinched but Theodred only nodded. "A long time ago."
Now the child's entire attention was focused on him, and the fire in her gaze was fading. "That's really sad."
"I suppose it is. I know it's sad for my father. But...I never knew her."
Eomer couldn't help casting a glance towards his own mother's chambers. Theodred noticed. "I'm sorry we didn't come earlier. We didn't know Theodwyn was..." He glanced at Eowyn. "That she was so ill," he finished lamely, seeing no way to dodge the subject.
"It's all right. You can talk about it. I know Mama's gonna die too," the little girl replied. Her brother felt his stomach drop, but she surprised him with the calm conviction of her next statement: "And I will go see her right now.
"You can come with," she added magnanimously.
The boy and the man exchanged a look over the child's ragged blonde head, and to his surprise Eomer felt a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "I guess we can't stop her."
"No, I suppose not. And...it would be good for you to meet my father." Theodred clapped his hands against his knees and gracefully unfolded to his feet. Eowyn tugged free of her brother's embrace and ran towards the long-cabin. This time, no one reached out to stay her.
Theodred glanced at his other cousin, hoping for a word alone, but the boy avoided his eye and hurried to catch up.
She was nearly gone. He'd nearly arrived too late.
Theoden's first instinct was to settle on the edge of the straw mattress, but she looked so fragile that he feared to risk disturbing her. Instead, he hunted around until he located a stool. His riding leathers creaked as he sat next to the bed -- it was not a sound he usually noticed, but in the darkened room it seemed terribly loud.
It didn't matter. She didn't open her eyes, and her breathing remained shallow and steady even when her brother removed his gloves and took her hand in both of his. Softly but clearly, he called:
No response. Nothing happened. The fingers he held were warm, but the arm was limp and the thrum of her pulse was frighteningly faint.
He felt he should banish the silence somehow, but what was there to say? Nothing seemed appropriate. The room was cool and dim and quiet and somehow very, very remote. For the past three days he'd been a driven man, thinking only of reaching Emnetburig in time; now he was here, and he found himself helpless.
He was suddenly so bone-weary that he could not keep his head from sinking to his breastplate. Theodwyn, beautiful sweet brave Theodwyn, was the last of his sisters. One had died young; another had died very young. The third, a tall blonde hellion who'd wielded a sword as well as any man, had not lived long enough to wed her beloved.
As for Theoden's own beloved, she'd slipped away into the dark twenty-four years ago even as their firstborn drew his first breath.
Three sisters dead. No parents. No wife. Aside from his son, Theodwyn was all he had left. Was her life too much to ask? How much more--
The door scraped and his head immediately snapped up, his dark musings disrupted. With his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could easily examine the small child who'd edged into the room. She was squinting around, trying to get her bearings, and his hold on Theodwyn's hand tightened convulsively as he realized how much she looked like his siblings had at her age...
"Eowyn," he said softly, because he knew this had to be his sister-daughter. He hadn't seen her since she'd been in swaddling clothes. "Come in. Come over here."
The child did not move. "Why?"
"You mother's sleeping," he replied, and it was not entirely a lie. Perhaps it was sleep, of a sort -- the kind from which sleepers never awoke. "You can help me watch over her, if you like."
"Is she having a bad dream?"
"I don't know." Her manner, he could tell, was not shyness but instead a wary distrust of this stranger at her mother's side. He slipped one hand from his sister's unresponsive grip and reached out, palm up; after a thoughtful moment, the child accepted his offer and reached back to him. He smiled in a fatherly way and drew her to the bedside.
"She doesn't look sick," she observed with a frown. "Can I talk to her?"
Theoden felt a strange tightness in his throat. "If...if you know what to say," he said.
Eowyn favored him with the "stupid grown-up" look that his own son still, sometimes, used when he thought his father wasn't looking. "Of course I do."
She pulled her fingers from his, leaned across the mattress on her elbows, and whispered something into her mother's ear. As the king watched in bemusement, the child tilted her head as if listening for a response.
Then she turned away and determinedly began to clamber into his lap.
Startled, Theoden released his sister's limp hand to help his niece climb up. She rested her head against his shoulder and, like a far younger child, started chewing on her thumb. She said nothing, and suddenly he found that he did not want the silence to return. Silence was for the dying, and the dead. He -- and his son, and his sister's children -- were alive, and this was far more important than cursing fate for what was lost.
I've never had a daughter. And now I will.
The revelation struck without warning, deep and hard and irreversible. Without conscious thought his arms tightened protectively around his new ward.
I'll protect them both, Theodwyn. I swear.
"What did you say to her?" he asked aloud, hesitantly. Of course, he really meant was What should I say to her? He was not expecting an answer, but he received one nonetheless. Eowyn shifted in his arms to pop her thumb out of her mouth.
"I said goodbye," she told him. "That's all I needed to say."
And she was right -- that was all that needed to be said.
The sun was setting, casting each blade of grass on the plains into sharp relief. The western horizon was ablaze with oranges, pinks, and a lowering purple; the Eastmark was beautiful at this time of the evening.
Eomer, however, was not admiring the western view. He was sitting against the opposite wall with his arms wrapped around his knees, nearly invisible in the shadow of the cold stones at his back. He was gazing east, into nightfall, trying to envision what lay beyond the border. He knew the names, of course, although he had never been there. First and closest were the low hills of Rauros, cradle of the great falls, guarded by the towering statues of long-dead kings. Then the harsh stone wilderness of Emyn Muil, and the fetid swamps. And beyond that...
Boots thudded on dirt and someone sat down next to him. Guardedly, he glanced over and found the intruder was his newfound cousin. His heart lurched. "Is something wrong?"
Theodred shook his head. "No. I just wondered where you were. After your sister went into the--"
"Why did you look for me?"
Puzzled, Eomer shifted to regard him directly. The king's heir was still bare-headed, and somewhere along the line he'd set aside his heavy riding leathers. His simple grey tunic was marked with rust and dried sweat from the long ride. In shadow his uncanny resemblance to Eomund was muted, and that was a comfort.
Theodred raised an eyebrow at Eomer's disconcerting stare. "There's something wrong with being concerned about you?"
"I'm fine," Eomer said flatly. He laced his fingers together on his knees and rested his chin there. "I just needed room to think. About...about all this. About all that." He tilted his head toward the darkening lands.
"What about it?" Theodred prompted when no further information was forthcoming.
"I'm not sure what to do about it."
"Ah...what 'it'? What do you mean?"
Eomer seemed to sink into himself, bony shoulders hunched around his ears. A sheaf of pale-blond hair fell loose across his face as he glowered over his interlocked hands. "That. Out there. Mordor, and Isengard, and the orcs. All that. My father died out there, and his father too. I don't know what to do. But I have to do it, don't I?"
Theodred opened his mouth then closed it again. He fought a sudden urge to laugh, which would not have been appropriate at all. "You don't think-- Eomer, you are not responsible for your father's duties."
"But I should be. I'm supposed to be." The boy's voice was dull and sad. "Couldn't Papa have waited, somehow? Been more careful, or, or something...? It's not fair. I'm not ready yet."
"No, you're not. But you will be in a few years, I'm certain of that," Theodred hastened to add as Eomer glared daggers. He hesitated, then plunged ahead: "There's something else I must say. Your mother..."
"No! No, not yet. But your healer says she may not see the dawn, and...and I should let my father tell you this, but...you'll be coming back to Edoras with us. You and your sister."
Eomer recoiled as if he'd been struck. "No. No, we can't. Eastfold--"
"Will still be here when you are grown."
"It may not be!" The boy's fists clenched, his legs now gathered under him as if to spring. "You're safe in the Westmark, in Edoras! It's different here! You don't know...you don't understand...I need to be here! To protect--"
Theodred met his flashing grey gaze with one of steel. "How? Who? Your only job is to protect your sister. And ours, as your kin, is to protect you. My father will not abandon helpless children out here for even one day -- and neither will I."
"You're calling me a helpless child, aren't you," Eomer said very, very quietly.
Theodred regarded his eleven-year-old cousin's untidy mane, sun-bleached, half-caught in a knotted thong. He noted the dark-half circles which shadowed desperately defiant eyes, and the fine-boned hands clenched on bare coltish knees. Eomer was terribly young, but he didn't seem to know it. Or perhaps he did...and just didn't care.
Behind his stern countenance Theodred's heart nearly broke.
"If you're too small to wield a longsword and short enough to haul over my saddlebow tomorrow morning, then yes," he replied. But he softened the sting with a playful lilt. "Cousin...you know you can't do this without training."
Tired or no, Eomer still managed to look affronted. "I have been training. My...my father said I'm better with a shortsword than he was at my age."
"That's a good start," Theodred said gently, "and perhaps in a few years you'll be able to thrash me for daring to call you a child." He chuckled and leaned close as if revealing a secret. "Maybe not even that long. My father says I have a long way to go before I'm better than him with a sword at any age."
"He...he really said that?"
"In front of my men. At least once a week." Theodred was glad to see the incredulous ghost of an answering smile. "So yes, I'd say with a little work you'd stand an excellent chance of knocking your cousin on his arse in the dirt. A few years isn't so long. Believe me."
The faint smile faltered. "But...Mama..."
"Is my father's sister. He told me that he swore to guard you both. Would you make my father break his last oath to her?"
Eomer stared at his knuckles and said nothing.
Roughspun cloth whispered on the wall above, and Eowyn abruptly dropped to the ground between them. Without sparing a glance for Theodred she burrowed under her brother's arm and wrapped herself around his waist. Her eyes were squeezed tight shut. She looked like she'd been crying.
Eomer didn't blame her. Wordlessly he pulled her into his lap -- though she spilled over like a newborn filly -- and rocked her against his chest. Helpfully, Theodred reached out to stroke the child's soft pale-golden hair. Though his touch was gentle his hand was strong and well-calloused, and again Eomer was painfully reminded of his father.
What would his father done? What would Eomund have said about this? To run away from Eastfold? To let others stand (and fall) against the orc raiders in his place? Just because some uncle rode in out of the west and thought he knew what was best for--
Suddenly Eomer knew exactly what their father would have done.
"Theodred?" he said softly. His cousin glanced up. "You said your father wants us to go to Edoras."
"Would you say..." He hesitated, considering his words with great care. "Would you say that he, uh, was ordering us to go there? As the king?"
"I wouldn't say..." Then Theodred understood. "Yes. This is definitely a royal order to...to report to the Golden Hall. For training and assignment."
Eomer nodded, deep in thought. His arms tightened around his sister. "Then I guess as loyal Riders of the Mark, we'd have to go. Right?"
"Right," Theodred said without the slightest irony. "So perhaps you should pack. I don't know when we're leaving, but--" he eyed the back of the little girl's downy head and swerved to a neutral phrase "--it may be quite soon."
Eowyn stiffened and tried to pull away from her brother, scowling. "Leaving? Who's leaving? Where are you going?!"
"Away," Eomer told her. "But not for long, and you're going with me. Don't worry about anything. And stop squirming or I'll drop you on your head."
Stifling a yawn, he levered himself up with his sister still in his arms. It was an effort; she was getting almost too big for him to carry. Theodred rose and wordlessly offered to take her, but the fierce protective gleam in the boy's eyes told him this wasn't such a good idea.
"I'll take care of her," he said stoutly. "I'll always take care of her."
And Theodred believed him.