12. The Heir - III
Théodred enjoys Lord Dúnhere's presence, for the man is a friend as well as an able captain, and they have not spoken in far too long. However, in the meetings Dúnhere has with the King, it is clear to Théodred that Dúnhere is shocked by Théoden's appearance. Théodred can also see that Dúnhere is taken aback by Gríma Wormtongue's involvement in such meetings, for the Worm does not limit himself to offering a bit of sage advice here and there, as he has done in the past. Quite the contrary - Gríma speaks as if he has the power to approve or object to any actions taken by the éoreds, and this attitude is reinforced by the King's disjointed murmurings.
After one such meeting, Dúnhere approaches Théodred.
I do not wish to overstep my bounds, my Lord Théodred , but I am concerned by the way Gríma brushes aside my concerns as to border security. He seems to imply that my concerns are baseless. Does he truly believe that Dunland is no longer a threat to Rohan, simply because they have been quiet for a number of months? I think it far more likely that the Dunlendings have gained an ally who does not at present wish them to harass us. Perhaps if I spoke to the King without Gríma being present --?
Théodred does not know how to answer this without completely undermining any faith Dúnhere has in Théoden King. Yet he agrees with Dúnhere's assessment of the situation. Théodred has long resisted confiding his suspicions of Gríma to any lord of Rohan, though Éomer has oft pressed him to do so; but now, facing a worried Dúnhere, Théodred knows that he must communicate something of these suspicions to the Lord of Harrowdale. The security of the borders is of utmost importance. They must be protected at all costs.
It is rare that Gríma is not present, Dúnhere, and I am not certain that a private audience would be of any use. I will speak to my father; in the meantime, I would advise that you do what you deem necessary to protect your lands. Defense of our borders is vital to the continued safety of Rohan. Use your best judgment. I have every faith in you.
Dúnhere regards Théodred for a long moment, as if uncertain he has heard the king's son correctly, and Théodred has time to wonder if he has made a terrible error. Finally Dúnhere speaks, and it is clear that he has understood what Théodred did not say. I thank you for your advice and confidence, my lord. Do not hesitate to call upon me if you are in need of support.
Théodred is aware, of course, of the other reason for Dúnhere's visit. He knows that Dúnhere is hoping that his daugher Salthaga will catch Théodred's interest. She is a pretty girl, to be sure -- all golden curls and bright hazel eyes, with a delicate way of moving and talking that is likely appealing to many men-- but she is younger than Éowyn, still just a child, really. Additionally, Théodred has no use for delicate women. He does not mind delicate manners, but Salthaga seems as if the wrong word might shatter her to pieces, and he would not want that in a wife. However, Théodred knows what is expected of him in these situations, even if he has no interest in Salthaga, so he is exactly as attentive to her as he needs to be. Fortunately, Éomer seems to find Salthaga genuinely appealing, so Théodred is relieved of much of his duty in the matter.
At the farewell banquet, Théodred dances with Salthaga. She is a skilled dancer, but this barely registers with Théodred. He is trying to keep his mind from rebelliously counting all the ways Salthaga is different from Eledher, for he has not danced properly since Midsummer. Salthaga is slender as a reed, Eledher is all generous curves; Salthaga's hands are soft as lamb's wool, Eledher's are roughened by a lifetime of work. Salthaga's voice is airy and bright; Eledher's is low and drawling. These are obvious differences that any man would notice, of course. Less obvious is the fact that Salthaga does not move Théodred in any way. He smiles pleasantly at her, but she does not make him smile; as they circle the dancefloor, her body against his causes not even the faintest stirring of interest in Salthaga as a woman; he has no desire to know what her honey-coloured hair feels like, no curiousity as to how she might respond to a kiss placed on the back of her hand. It is almost as if he is dancing with Éowyn, rather than a potential bride.
He is sternly berating himself for such distracting thoughts when he sees Eledher watching from the darkened corridor with Éofor's wife. He risks a furtive wink and the barest nod of his head, and, to his confusion, Eledher turns her back on him and disappears into the shadows. He is only puzzled for a moment, then he understands what the stricken look on Eledher's face signified. She is jealous. Yet Théodred thinks he cannot be right, for Eledher has never displayed any proprietory behavior. But he does not know what else would cause the strange combination of anger and confusion he saw in her eyes.
He is deeply irritated. She has to know that what is between them cannot be permanent. Eledher is not a fool-- she must know that one day he will have to put her aside and wed. And he is expected to dance and show such courtesies to a visiting noblewoman, no matter what age she might be. Surely Eledher understands that. Simply seeing him dance with a far-too-young girl cannot possibly be the cause of such a reaction in a woman who has never shown the slightest signs of possessiveness.
Then Théodred's annoyance fades. After all, she has never seen him with any woman other than Eowyn. And he has not dallied with another woman since Eledher first came to his bed. In truth, he has not had the inclination, for she pleases him well. If she is jealous, he has no one but himself to blame, for he has held faithful to her since spring, and she knows this. Thinking of the token he has been carrying in his tunic for days, Théodred has to reluctantly admit that he finds her jealousy peculiarly gratifying.
When the dance is finished, he leads Salthaga back to her pleased parents, and almost immediately, Éomer approaches and claims the next dance, as Dúnhere and his wife follow suit. Théodred is left alone for a few peaceful moments, giving him time to mull over Eledher's behaviour.
It grows late, and presently all seek their beds, for Dúnhere wants an early departure the next morning. When Théodred goes to his chamber, he is not entirely surprised to find his bed, and in fact his entire room, empty. Quickly divesting himself of his formal attire, he goes to his father's apartments. Théoden, having retired sometime earlier, is already sound asleep in the inner chamber, and Eledher sits on the low-backed bench before the fire in the outer room, mending. As he quietly approaches her, Théodred realizes that Eledher is only pretending to sew. When he speaks her name, she does not look up, but her shoulders tighten at the sound of his voice.
He sits next to her, purposefully making certain there is at least half-an-arm's length of distance between them, and speaks quietly, almost apologetically. I will have to wed one day, leofost.
She still refuses to look at him, does not acknowledge the endearment, and her voice is a resigned whisper. I know, Théodred. I have always known.
He studies her for a moment, trying to determine what it is that draws him so strongly to her. She is not learned, nor light-hearted; she is closed, and does not often willingly share herself with him other than physically. Certainly that is part of it, the unashamed pleasure she takes from him and gives him in return. But that is not all of it, and Théodred is becoming aware of this. Perhaps it is her strength, for he knows what it must have taken to survive her past. Perhaps it is that he finds his fiery nature is often calmed by her cooler one. Perhaps it is all of these things, or none of them. It does not matter, he decides, and reaches inside his tunic.
Eledher glances sideways at the motion, and now Théodred can see marks of recent tears on her pale face. She sees what he is holding on his palm, and she stares up at him, disbelieving. It is only a simple, braided bracelet, made from the tail-hair of his horse. It does not signify betrothal, or any permanent promise; it does not even necessarily indicate fidelity, though usually that is implied. It means only that an affection is being openly acknowledged, rather than assumed.
She looks at him closely, and he cannot even begin to interpret the expression on her face now. You…you do not wish me to stay away?
Théodred blinks at the odd tone in her voice, and realizes that he has blithely assumed she would be accepting of this gift, when there is the chance that Eledher would rather not continue their association. He ignores the pang he feels at this possibility. Do you wish to stay away?
Her jaw tightens, and she stares down at the shirt in her lap, hands white-knuckled. At length, Eledher answers, the words seemingly forced out, as if she is afraid they will do her harm. No. I do not.
Momentarily Théodred is overcome with relief, and he reaches out to take her arm. She turns her head to watch as he deftly fastens the bracelet around her right wrist. Left is for mourning. Once it is secure, he takes her hand, and she entwines her fingers with his.
Will you come to bed? It is late.
When he wakes in the morning, Eledher is already gone, which is not uncommon. On the pillow next to him lays a narrow braid of her copper-tinged hair.
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