Many Guises and Many Names
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Protector of Horses: 4. Skeleton Company
It was Eothain's openness and honesty that had made such an impression on Theoden, as he looked back at it. Those back in Gondor remained, by comparison, close and reserved, their friendliness wary and all underlaid with a constant awareness of the Shadow. Eothain spoke openly of his worries even in the presence of the children, and Theoden still remembered how much it had set him at ease to know just what it was that everyone worried about.
Theoden unsaddled his horse and turned it out into the enclosure just beyond the city wall, where the errand-riders' horses were at their leisure in the short grass. Aldburg was a comfortable place. Had been. Magge was still the Lady here, but without Eothain it wouldn't be the same. He collected his saddle-bags and walked through the open gates, considering the staffing problem he had been sent here to work out.
Thengel had lost two excellent captains almost at once, when Eothain fell and Thorongil abruptly left to seek his fortune in Gondor. Thorongil had left behind an excellent written report detailing the strengths and weaknesses of the territory, the strengths and weaknesses of the various men who had served under him, and an odd assessment explaining the need for greater cooperation between Gondor and the Mark. Eothain had been replaced with one of his captains, a fellow native of the region who was a distant cousin of some degree. Haleth was the man's name and Theoden was not as convinced of the man's worth as Thengel was.
But it mattered little; Thorongil had been a good trainer of lieutenants and captains, and there was no shortage of capable men in the Eastfold now. Haleth's true grit was unlikely to be tested anytime soon. And Aldburg remained stable as a population center, under the wise and watchful eye of the formidable Magge.
Magge herself greeted him at the door. He embraced her warmly; she was everything his own mother was not, and he loved her for it. She was thinner than he remembered, and drawn; she looked unwell and felt amost frail in his arms. Her age had suddenly descended upon her, it seemed, and she was careworn as he had never seen her. "Magge," he said, shocked. "Have you been ill?"
"Ill," she answered quietly, and shook her head. "Theoden, I must speak with you before you leave. But now is not the time for business. You must be hungry. Come in and wash up. I had just been getting supper put on the board."
He gave her arm a worried squeeze, and she smiled wanly at him and bustled off. He obediently washed himself up, wondering what could have Magge in such a state. Well, he thought wryly, there is the small matter of her husband's tragic death and the abrupt and inexplicable desertion of a very close longtime family friend. Thorongil had stayed at Aldburg for a large amount of time during his eleven years in the Mark, and had been very close friends with Eothain and Magge's three children. Especially the little boy.
Eomund. Theoden paused in his washing. Eomund. He had to be fifteen or sixteen now. He must have taken his father's death very hard. That was a very sensitive age. And to lose Thorongil as well-- Theoden was suddenly certain that he knew why Magge was so peaked. If it were a problem with Haleth she would be more angry and less weary, and he would certainly have heard about it before now.
Haleth was in the Wold with several patrols, as Theoden had expected. He had already conferred about the staffing problem with Haleth and had come to Aldburg to follow up with Haleth's second, Balfor. What he hadn't expected was for a skeleton company to arrive just after the midday meal, bearing a number of injured men.
"I didn't think any action was expected," Theoden said, going out to the courtyard as he heard of the patrol's arrival from the guards of the gate. Balfor shook his head.
"There's usually some action," he said. He was counting the injured. "But not this hot." He shook his head. "Theoden, I am no longer sure we can spare you many men. This many wounded means a lot of dead."
Theoden nodded grimly. "This much action in the East," he said, "means it won't be quiet in the West either."
Magge slipped past him and came out to help the healers. One of her daughters followed, sparing Theoden a glance. Theoden returned her look, and paused, struck forcefully by some indefinable quality in her eyes. She held his gaze for a moment, her eyes cool and blue, and a smile touched the corner of her lips.
Theoden closed his mouth and smiled back, and was about to say something when Magge let out a cry. Her daughter turned, her expression slipping to worry, and she ran across the courtyard to her mother.
Theoden followed slowly. Magge was sitting on the flagstones holding a wounded man in her arms. Theoden at first could only make out shaggy blond hair and a bloodstained bandage, but as he drew nearer his heart sank as he realized that it was just a boy, too young for a beard. Finally he saw the face, blood-spattered and pale. Eomund looked up at him, looking grim, stubborn, and half-dead. Magge was weeping. Her daughter was kneeling beside her, both of her hands over her mouth.
Eomund's eyes traveled up Theoden, alighting at his face. They were Eothain's blue eyes, set in a cold grim unmoved veteran's expression, in a face far too young to bear it. The bandages were soaked through. He had been injured in the side. It looked as though ribs were possibly broken, from his slightly hunched posture. He was bled white and too weak to free himself from his mother's grip, though he evidently disdained it.
Theoden turned his head and looked at Balfor. "He is a scout," Balfor said. "He insisted. He's served us three years."
"I am a Rider," Eomund said, his voice weak but sullen. He was probably sixteen, and six feet tall. But his limbs were a bundle of sticks in a narrow body that hadn't yet filled out, and his cheeks were thin and beardless. "The Marshal made me a Rider last month."
"You are right," Balfor murmured. "I had forgotten. I am sorry."
Two of the healers came to take Eomund from Magge, and she released him, wiping her face. "He'll live, lady," one of the healers said kindly. But Eomund gasped in pain as they lifted him, and his eyes rolled back and his neck went limp as they carried him away. Magge buried her face in her hands, and her daughter put her arms around her and wept on her shoulder.
Theoden helped the two women up and walked back to the hall with them. "I cannot lose my son," Magge said, wiping her face and trying to compose herself. "Theoden, that is what I wanted to talk to you about. I cannot lose my son."
"Why is he a Rider already?" Theoden asked. It was not unheard of for a boy to become a full-fledged warrior so young, but it was not common either. Usually a man became a Rider once he was full-grown, and that was usually at eighteen or nineteen. Theoden had been a Rider since he was seventeen, but it was different for the king's son. And he had not seen any serious action until he was twenty.
Magge shook her head. "I cannot control him," she said. "He took arms when he was thirteen and I have not been able to keep him home since then. The captains will not deny him, and counsel me to accept this. But he will be killed, Theoden. He will die. I cannot lose him."
Theoden shook his head. "Magge," he said.
"He will listen to you," she said. "He thinks he personally has to avenge his father. You must help me, lord. You must. He would listen to you."
"What can I do?" Theoden asked, shaking his head. "I cannot order him not to fight. If his Marshal has seen fit to make him a Rider who am I to gainsay him? I cannot spare him, Magge." His voice was gentle, and sympathetic; her tears upset him, but he could see no other way.
"Take him away," the girl said suddenly. "Take him away from here." Her voice was low and intense, and she stared at Theoden with something like desperation.
Magge's face crumpled. "No," she said quietly, tears sliding down her cheeks. "Don't take him away."
"Yes," the girl said. "Mother. It's the only way. If he is not here, he will not face the same dangers he faces now. His father's ghost will no longer gnaw at him so intensely."
Theoden looked at her, and she had tears in her eyes. Her eyes were a beautiful dark blue, her heart-shaped face symmetrical and flawless. He nodded slightly. "I need men," he said quietly. "I need scouts, and errand riders. I need an aide. I need someone who can read and write."
"He can do all those things," the girl said. "He can do much more than stop Orc-pikes with his chest." Her face twisted with grief as she said it. Theoden put his hand on her arm, to comfort her.
"I will not ask him to stop Orc-pikes with his chest," he said. "You are right that the action is fiercer here. I can take him away from that."
Magge's chin trembled, but she wiped her eyes. "Yes," she said. "Please." Her voice wavered. "But bring him back sometimes," she whispered.
"Yes," Theoden said. His eyes went to the girl. "We will visit."
Elfhild. That was her name.
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