1. For the Dark
Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising…
It is a good song, I know without vanity, and it is fitting for the one who is gone. Théoden burned fiercely all his life, save when the cunning one briefly quenched his spirit, and he is in the bright halls of his fathers now.
Here the night has fallen, and I am left behind in shadow.
* * *
I became fast friends with Théoden fifteen minutes after we first set eyes on each other. Those minutes, it is true, we spent rolling and grappling in the muck of the stableyard, where Théoden had pushed me after I called him a Mundburg weakling without hair enough to make a man's braid.
Despite the shortness of his hair, he attacked me with sufficient ferocity to put the lie to any boy of Edoras who might name him soft. And, after the manner of boys that age, by the time stablemen had come running to pull us apart we were eager to turn from enemies to allies.
We grew together, rode together, fought together from then on. By the time Théoden took his father's throne we had already been close as twins for more than a score of years. I rode in the King's eored, and followed the White Horse banner over the fields of the Eastfarthing, hunting the Orc vermin that began to trouble us so sorely in those years.
Then came the day my Lêoma was gut-shot with a poisoned shaft and fell, crushing my leg beneath him before I could leap clear from the saddle. I remember Théoden stood over his neck, black blood sliming his blade, forcing the Uruk-hai back. I remember nothing more until I woke in Edoras as a cripple.
My thigh-bone had been shattered so completely that the healers would have cut my leg off quickly if they had believed I had any chance for life. But none did, and so they merely dosed me with poppyjuice to let me sleep without pain until, as they thought, death would take me.
I did not sink into the darkness then, but awoke to find that I was no longer a Rider. Indeed, a full year passed before I could even walk more than a few paces with a staff, for my right leg was withered and shorter than my left. I would never fight again.
It was not so very long ago that the Eorlingas still followed the old ways of the north. A man or woman who became a burden to the people would simply walk out into the broad miles of grassland and not return. I asked Théoden to take me up behind him – the shame of that request alone burned my tongue, for I had never ridden pillion since being weaned.
He looked at me levelly and refused. "Why should I give up one of the best men of the Mark, simply because he is fool enough to believe he's useless?"
"But I am useless, lord," I said bitterly. "Tie me to the saddle when next you ride out, and I might be able to hold on long enough to kill one Orc before being brought down. There is nothing else I am good for."
"You have a mind and a voice. I've heard you use both. Your hands are not maimed, either; you can still play the pipes as you used to do around the campfire of an evening. Why not take up the harp as well, and become a singer?"
I laughed. "Why not grow wings, and fly?"
His ice-blue eyes grew sterner still. "You are still my thegn, Gléowine, and I demand your service for a year. You know the old songs and the old tales better than most. Sing to me, tell them to me for one year. If at the end of that year you still desire doom, you shall have it at my hand. Do I have your word?"
"You do, lord," I muttered ungraciously.
That year passed, and I no longer desired death. But then the King's strength failed, and Gríma took on so much power that it was dangerous for anyone to defy him openly – as Eomer learned. Others such as Háma, older and more politic, withdrew, and although I saw the wisdom of their course it maddened me. To draw back just when the King was in most need of a shieldbrother! Well, I stayed; I would not desert him, as he had not me.
Gríma let me be, for what could a cripple do? And he was right, in the end. When only Théoden and his sister-daughter were there to hear I would softly sing lines of the saga of Helm, or another song of ancient days. His eyes sparked, his visage firmed, and he seemed to grow tall once more… but such moments never lasted. Gríma would return, and Théoden would dwindle back into a peevish, muttering old man.
* * *
It is pleasing to see so many high and noble folk, of the Mark and Mundburg both, here at the death feast to honour Théoden. Even the new King of Gondor himself has come, with his fair queen and some of her unearthly kin.
After the names of the Kings have been told, and the healths drunk, I get up from my place and leave the hall quietly. There is no-one I need bid farewell to, save he who is past hearing it. In my chamber, I lay my harp carefully on the bed. It has a fine voice; I hope that someone else will take it up after I have left. I have no kinsman to give it to; they have all passed before me into the halls of our ancestors. Nor have I fathered a child who might inherit it, for my heart never turned towards a woman of the Mark. I have never sought out men, either, though once I wished that Théoden might turn to my embrace… but there was Elfhild, whom he loved.
I still cannot walk as far as needed, so I must take a horse. I choose Drygaers, one of Lêoma's get – like all of that line dun-coloured, short-coupled, and stubborn. He is canny enough to return safely to Edoras on his own.
At first I worry that he will refuse to carry a rider who can only grip him with one leg, but after a few irritated flea-hops he allows me to stay on his back. We ride through the postern gate set in the mountain-wall to avoid being seen, then turn down the slope, passing outside the double line of barrows. I rein in Drygaers and look for a long moment at the last one on the eastern side.
* * *
There was no dawn that morning, and the Riders gathered round the standing stones of the Firienfeld were only dim shadows, except for the pale gleam of Snowmane. He fretted impatiently at the bit, scenting battle in the air, as he had not for many years. I stood at Théoden's stirrup, both glad and grieved beyond measure that I had lived to see this day.
"I asked you for one year, Gléowine, and you served me faithfully for many more. Do not think I have forgotten your steadfastness." He smiled, and it was as if the young King were present again, the only difference his braids touched by frost. "But I have oft wondered, and now that I ride out again for what may be the last time, I will risk the question. Did I do wrong to force you to stay? Should I have done as you wished, and given you release?"
"Nay, lord. I would not have foregone any of the years I gave you."
* * *
Dismounting is even more awkward than I feared. Drygaers snorts and sidles, keen to be rid of his unsteady burden, and I land heavily on my lame leg, hissing through my teeth.
I slip-knot the reins over his neck and slap the dusty flank. "Go on, get." Drygaers pushes his nose into my hand, but when he realizes that no bit of apple or turnip is forthcoming, wheels about with an indignant snort and lopes away towards Edoras.
The sun is sliding beneath the western rim of the world, and I see the familiar peaks – Irensaga, the Starkhorn, the Hall of Storms – outlined as sharply as a blade against the red sky. That seems as good a direction as any.
I set my face to the west and limp away.
* * * * * * *
Alas for the bright cup, the armoured warrior,
the glory of the prince. That time is over,
passed into night as it had never been.
-- from The Wayfarer, as translated by Richard Hamer.
Many thanks to Dwimordene and Lyllyn for thoughtful beta comments.
Thegn is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning retainer, warrior, or servant.
The title is taken from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Act 5 Scene 2: "the bright day is done, and we are for the dark."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.