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Another Man's Son: 1. prequel chapter I: setup
Theoden was in the ring working with his new colt when Theodred arrived. He recognized the lanky figure leaning against the fence from the corner of his eye, but finished his session with the colt before giving his attention to his son.
"He looks good," Theodred said, gesturing at the colt with his chin as Theoden dismounted. "Have you worked him long?"
Theoden pulled the reins over the horse's head, and patted the animal's shoulder. "Not long," he answered. "He's the one of Lightfoot's from last year but two."
Theodred looked thoughtful a moment. "By old Thunderbolt?"
Theoden nodded. "This one is Snowmane. I like his eye."
Theodred smiled. "He has got an eager look." He handled the horse's nose carefully, regarding the animal. "A pleasant enough animal," Theodred concluded. "He should serve well."
"He's a little unsteady," Theoden said. "But he's young yet. I imagine he'll settle down when he's grown up a bit." He moved to the gate and let himself out. Theodred fastened it behind him, and Theoden led the horse to the barn.
His son perched on the stall rail as Theoden unsaddled Snowmane. "You sent for me," Theodred said at last.
"Aye," Theoden agreed, nodding. Theodred watched him, waiting patiently for more. He had his grandmother's eyes, steely but patient, and Theoden smiled a little to himself at the thought. His grandmother's eyes, his grandfather's chin, but sweetest of all was his mother's smile. Theodred looked tired just now, a little dusty from his long ride. It was months since he had visited Edoras, and he looked thinner, and his weariness made him seem older. "Have you eaten?" Theoden asked suddenly.
Theodred blinked a little, and then smiled. There it was, Theoden thought fondly. "No," he said with a little laugh. "Is it time?"
"You look hungry," Theoden said. "Come, we will sit and eat, and talk. I did not summon you for a visit, though such a thing would please me."
"I did not come for just a visit," Theodred said. "I too would enjoy it but I have no time. I have confidence in my second but I am uneasy in leaving him alone for too long during this season."
Theoden nodded and put Snowmane away. "Come then," Theoden said. "Let us derive what pleasure we can from business."
Theodred followed him up to the hall, and they sat down over a modest dinner once both had washed themselves. Theoden sighed.
"I would rather speak of lighter matters," he said, "and hear if you have found yourself a girl yet. How goes that, Theodred?"
Theodred regarded him grimly. "I have little to do with women in times like this," he said. "I see more widows than maidens."
"I thought that the Westfold had quieted," Theoden said mildly.
Theodred pursed his lips. "Calm before a storm," he said. "The land holds its breath and awaits a strike. I teach lads to wield pitchforks and chivvy blacksmiths into melting down ploughshares for swords."
Theoden shook his head. Theodred had a grim streak in him that widened by the year, and it was Theoden's biggest regret that it seemed to be necessary. He sighed. "Well," he said. "Your lighter matters are as dark as my heavier matters, so it may be just as well to simply move on to the reason I summoned you."
"It may," Theodred said, a little sadly Theoden thought, and the steely eyes fastened themselves upon Theoden's face as Theodred ate.
"Denethor wrote me," Theoden said.
Theodred raised his eyebrows and took a drink. "Denethor." It was a question.
"Yes," Theoden said. "Steward of Gondor. He wrote me a letter, a rather long letter." He sighed. "Most curious."
"And you wished to discuss this with me?" Theodred's face was carefully neutral, waiting for Theoden to make his meaning plain. He had a hunter's patience.
"Yes," Theoden said. "Denethor had many things to say, most of which were phrased in his uniquely obscure style, so that I had to dedeuce his meaning myself, and couldn't claim to have been actually told anything by him. But he did in his way impart a great deal of information. Somehow he has gathered intelligence that has led him to believe Saruman may no longer have the best interests at heart of either Rohan or Gondor."
"Saruman," Theodred said, and his face settled into a grim cast. "Isengard is... a difficult part of our borders," he said. "I have known this since I assumed command of the Westfold. But Saruman has ever kept himself to himself."
"Denethor counsels us to regard him with suspicion," Theoden said.
"Suspicion." Theodred took a drink, and picked at the food on his plate. "I would say I have been wary of him a long time, and I would be inclined to agree with the Steward that perhaps suspicion is warranted. But what action can we take against this? Is Saruman actively a foe, or merely no longer an ally? With whom is he allied?"
"Denethor was deliberately unclear on that," Theoden said. "He is ever unclear when directness suits him not."
"Then what use is his caution, but as confirmation of our wariness?"
"Confirmation," Theoden said. "Denethor has access to many sources of information we do not, even on matters that concern us more closely. What concerns us concerns Gondor, and the opposite is just as true, as seems to have been the point behind Denethor's writing."
"Denethor wants to be sure that we will uphold Oaths, then?" Theodred said, raising an eyebrow, his lips thin. "Was that his purpose?"
"Largely, I am sure," Theoden said. "His primary stated purpose in writing was to ask for the loan of a company of cavalry," he went on. "Gondor's cavalry has ever been weak, and he has need of horses for a particular errand."
Theodred regarded Theoden. "What kind of an errand?" he asked. "I could spare a company but only if I were assured I would get all of them back, and quickly. The raiding season will be upon us in another two months, and I have seen many indicators of trouble approaching."
Theoden nodded. "No," he said. "A military errand. Denethor wishes to conduct a raid of his own."
"Risky?" Theoden said. "Are we likely to see any of them again?"
Theoden looked wry. "He says he anticipates light losses, but brisk combat. The company would be backed by both regular soldiers of Gondor and Ithilien Rangers, which makes for an interesting action. Almost I wish to go myself, simply to see such a thing." A smile curved his lips at the thought.
Theodred laughed humorlessly. "You will not go," he said. "Certainly we cannot spare you."
"Nor you," Theoden said. "I had thought to send a company from the Eastfold. They benefit most directly from the watchfulness of Gondor. I have received a report already from the Third Marshal, and he says he could easily spare a company, but has no captain I would choose to send with them."
"Ah," Theodred said, "and the choice of captains could be crucial. We are sending them the aid they request?"
"Yes," Theoden said. "Their enemies are our enemies."
"Of course." Theodred nodded thoughtfully.
"But the captain I would send must be suitable," Theoden said. "Must be someone of high rank, and must be someone who can understand Gondorians. I need someone who can observe them and report to me of the true state of their minds. He must make a good impression on them both with his command and with his perceptiveness. He must be able to convey my real intentions convincingly, while perceiving theirs."
Theodred nodded. "Ideally someone raised to understand Gondorians," he said. "It would have to be someone highborn. And someone young wouldn't hurt-- it could be an ideal opportunity for a young man to prove himself."
Theoden narrowed his eyes. "You've someone in mind."
"Yes," Theodred said. "One of my captains. He has been serving in the Westfold for four years now with me, but he is originally from the Eastfold and was quite well known there. He could command a company of Eastfolders and their loyalty would be assured." There was an odd gleam in Theodred's eye, and Theoden thought a moment, suspicious of what could bring that out.
"Not Eomer," Theoden said, surprised.
"Yes," Theodred said. "Eomer. He will do well. He is valiant, certainly, and I have had him leading a company for more than a year now. He can be reckless at times but that won't matter if he is under the command of the Gondorian captain. In fact it would endear him to Boromir, if the Captain-General is indeed as involved in this as I think." Theoden nodded, scowling. He could not see as much potential in Eomer as Theodred did, and they had quarrelled over it ever since the boy had begun training. He was a good fighter, yes, and charismatic, but Theoden had not found much of a head for strategy, and was continually haunted by Eomund's reckless and irresponsible death. The apple in this case did not appear to have fallen far from the tree, and Theoden wearied of Theodred's ceaseless championing of the boy. Theoden loved his nephew, to be sure, but was not convinced he should be trusted with command responsibilities until he had matured a great deal.
Theodred was undeterred by Theoden's cool regard. "Eomer is highborn. He speaks their tongue well. He will not be offended by their manners and will give no offense with his. He is dutiful beyond doubt, and battle-tested. Think on it, Theoden. Which others of your captains would you blithely send to Denethor's table?"
Theoden cringed. Theodred was right; Eomer was well-bred at the least, when he put his mind to it. And he was quick-witted, likewise when it suited him. "But he is young," Theoden said. "He is not yet twenty. They will be insulted by his youth."
"They would be fools to be insulted by our sending aid when they request it," Theodred said, a dangerous flash in his eyes.
Theoden rubbed at his beard thoughtfully. "He is young and untried," Theoden said.
"He has proven himself to me repeatedly," Theodred said. "You are not accustomed to questioning my judgement."
"No," Theoden admitted. "No, I am not. But you are not accustomed to differing from me so strongly. I worry that affection has clouded your judgement."
"It has clouded yours," Theodred said. "You see him as his father's child. I see him as the man he has grown into in his own right. He is capable, he is proven to me, and he has tremendous potential if you let him prove yourself to you."
"This is more important than a boy's chance to prove himself," Theoden said. "This is the alliance upon which our nation's existence is predicated."
"I realize that," Theodred said. "But who else would you send, who you have more confidence in than I have confidence in Eomer?"
Theoden rubbed at his beard with some irritation. The best officers couldn't be spared. "Anyone older and more sensible is already indispensable in one position or another," he said, hissing through his teeth as he contemplated the roster of captains he kept in his head. "You would be perfect but the Westmark cannot spare you."
"I trust Eomer absolutely to represent me," Theodred said. "And if you recall, I was not so suitable as an ambassador to Gondor not long ago. I would lay money to wager that Eomer has better success at winning Boromir's respect than I did."
Theoden thought about it. Reluctantly he agreed. "Fine," he said. "You are right, Theodred. There are none better to send, and Eastfolders will follow him. He cannot go too far wrong in battle, under Boromir's leadership-- whatever else you think of the Captain-General, he has experience-- and he will not make any more of an ass of himself in front of Denethor than any man would."
Theodred dazzled Theoden with another of his mother's smiles, though there was something a little fierce in this one. "Good," he said. "He's here with me already. He could be at Aldburg by sunset. They could leave tomorrow."
It was two days before Eomer set out from Aldburg, a little dazed by all the information Theoden had poured into his ear. He had led a company before, to be sure, but traditionally a company was a quarter of an eored, and the Third Marshal had organized his eored so that a company was a third. It was a difference of ten men, but Eomer found it distracting.
The men recognized him immmediately, which moved him-- it had been more than half a decade since his father had been killed, and he himself had changed a great deal in appearance since then. But after five different men had exclaimed to him how much he looked like his father, one of them a teary-eyed survivor of Eomund's fatal battle, he had come to the conclusion that his appearance was one that inspired confidence among Eastfolders. It was interesting to note, he thought, that while Theoden blamed Eomund for his own death and that of Theodwyn, the people of Eastfold, including those present for the aforementioned deaths, all remembered and revered Eomund for his bravery. The very trait Theoden blamed for the deaths.
Eomer settled himself comfortably in the saddle of his aging charger and picked up the reins. He gazed up at Aldburg, noting the spot where he'd stood in the guard tower by the gate when he had watched the tattered remnants of his father's third company riding back with his father's mutilated body tied behind a saddle. He shivered, wondering whether he would ever find Aldburg a peaceful place again. The Third Marshal was an old man named Haleth, who stood at the gate now watching them leave. He would be old enough soon that he would step down and a younger man would take his place. Theodred had mentioned that he planned to recommend Eomer for the position. It would be poetic, keeping Eofor's line in position at Aldburg as it had been for five hundred years.
But Aldburg was haunted now, and Eomer knew Theoden was haunted by it as well. Eomer doubted he'd be a Marshal under Theoden. When Theodred became king, he would serve then, and that was enough for him. Perhaps by then Aldburg's ghosts would have moved on.
He suppressed a shiver as he turned away, ruthlessly squashing the thought that it was an ill omen for this mission. With his forty men he thundered over the Great Western Road to Minas Tirith.
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