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Another Man's Son: 5. prequel chapter V: prince and steward
The healers didn't want to let him go. They were full of dire predictions about him re-injuring himself. The injury was bad, and he was very tempted to simply remain in bed. Theodred would never forgive him if he did, he knew, and so he took several deep breaths, trying to steel himself for the effort of standing up.
"You can do this," he said aloud to himself. "You can do this. You can get to the Citadel and not faint in front of the Steward."
A soft laugh startled him, coming from the doorway, and he turned his head carefully to look at the man standing there. His first impression was that it was Faramir, but he quickly realized that the man was at least twenty years too old to be the Captain of Ithilien. "Denethor has that effect on me as well," he said, moving away from the doorway and entering the room. He was tall and narrow-built, like Faramir, but his face was softer and he wore no beard. He was dressed as a lord, not as a soldier, though Eomer could see by his stance that he was a warrior.
"I flatter myself that I would not be so unsteady if I were whole," Eomer said with a laugh. "But I am currently paralyzed with terror that I am going to stand to make my report and instead fall straight over onto the floor. The King did not send me here to make an ass of myself."
"No," the man said. "My daughter gave quite a comprehensive report on just why your king chose to send you."
"Ah," Eomer said. "You are the Prince of Dol Amroth."
"Yes," the man answered, smiling. He bowed slightly. "Imrahil."
Eomer bent slightly, unable to incline his head. "Your daughter is a force to be reckoned with," he said. "Will she be sitting for you on the Council? I would venture a guess that the Steward does not intimidate her."
Imrahil laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "No," he said, "I wouldn't unleash her upon the Council just yet. But she is my secret weapon. If all else fails I will release her upon them."
"She informed me that Denethor is creepy, and is a mean old man," Eomer said.
Imrahil's eyes widened, and then slowly closed. "She said that," he said.
"Not too loudly," Eomer assured him. "She made clear to me that she is perfectly capable of discretion and secret-keeping and all sorts of things like that. But she has decided she does not like being a spy."
Imrahil opened his eyes. "Ah," he said. "I hope you didn't mind that. I couldn't send her out of the room because she had behaved wonderfully, but I couldn't let her stay either. So Boromir was good enough to give her a mission."
"She understood that," Eomer said, "and explained it to me. I didn't mind at all. I bear Boromir no ill-will at all and would wish that matters stood better between us. I have only respect for him. Not least for his expert handling of eleven-year-old girls, who I know are not trifles to be dismissed. I have a younger sister myself, and she could have conquered Isengard at that age if we had let her."
"Lothiriel is destined for great things," Imrahil said, "of that I am certain. Would you have reason for wishing to conquer Isengard?"
Eomer looked up at him, pressing his lips together. "That is something I had hoped to discuss with the Council, yes," he said. "Not conquering Isengard, certainly, but..." He sighed.
"Which is why you were so insistent that the Council be held while you could attend, instead of sending your lieutenant in your stead," Imrahil said.
"Yes," Eomer said. "Ah, could you help me stand up? I don't know if I can."
Imrahil regarded him with a strange, unreadable expression, his eyes grey like his daughter's, and his mouth twisting slightly to one side. It might have been sympathy. He held out his hands, and Eomer set his teeth and pulled himself up with the Prince of Dol Amroth as a counterweight.
He was ferociously dizzy, and the pain was terrible. He gripped Imrahil's arm tightly as the world tilted and rocked around him. Imrahil stood still, and when his vision cleared the man was watching him with concern. "I'm fine," he said, blinking hard. "Lost some blood. Dizzy. Be fine in a minute."
"Take your time," Imrahil said softly. He still bore that strange look that wasn't quite sympathy or sorrow but seemed to contain both. "I will walk with you, and they won't start Council without me."
"Good," Eomer said a little breathlessly. "Good. I am ready. Thank you."
Denethor took his seat at the Council table, and gazed around it keenly. Two empty chairs. Imrahil was missing. Who else? He narrowed his eyes, tallying those present. Imrahil was the only regular Council member missing. Even Faramir was here.
The door opened and Imrahil came through. Denethor stood. Imrahil was leading another man by the arm, a stranger. From Rohan, by the look of him. Ah, the captain of the Rohirrim. The man looked drunk, and Denethor appraised him keenly. No, not drunk, but injured badly. So Imrahil had said the night before.
Imrahil carefully helped the man to the other empty chair. Denethor watched, sizing him up. He was tall, taller than most of the Rohirrim-- indeed, Denethor thought he might be as tall as Faramir, which would be tall indeed. But he was young. Imrahil had said nineteen. The young man looked older than that, his face ashen and tight with pain. But he was rawboned, a little gawky-- he was not yet at his full growth, at least not width-wise. He was thin now but would certainly fill out into a very large man indeed. If he lived that long. He looked as though he were at death's door now.
He swayed as Imrahil released him, and the Prince pushed him down into the chair, whispering something. "Dol Amroth," Denethor said. "Good of you to join us."
"I am sorry," Imrahil said, setting a glass of water by the young captain's elbow and moving away to take his own seat.
"It is my fault," the captain said, his voice weak. "I underestimated the distance."
"You are forgiven, Captain Eomer," Denethor said. "'Twas but a few minutes after all." He sat down as Imrahil did, and exchanged glances with Imrahil. Imrahil was amused. He spared Imrahil a half-smile. Imrahil was young enough to still find politics amusing.
Denethor watched the captain trying to compose himself as Council began. Boromir had been greatly taken with his command presence, with his physical bravery, and with his head for strategy, while Faramir had praised his wit. He looked anything but impressive now, his hand shaking slightly as he sipped from the glass of water, his straw-gold hair hanging in thin strips around his pale and sweaty face, but the fact that he was here at all spoke volumes about his determination and devotion to his assigned task.
Imrahil had related the bulk of the information his daughter had collected, last night over dinner. He had found it amusing, but Denethor had found it interesting. This was the king's stepson, son of a slain warrior, trained by the king's son, already distinguished in military service before the age of twenty. Denethor sensed the implication that the young man was more favored by Theodred than Theoden, and wondered what it meant. He was certainly impressed with Lothiriel for her astute interviewing, and still more astute summary of what she had learned. She would be still more formidable once she matured and could bring her as-yet-nascent sexual magnetism to bear. She reminded him of a Finduilas with a wider ruthless streak.
Denethor wondered, watching the young man biting his lip to stay conscious, whether it were devotion to his king or to his cousin that had dragged him the long painful way from the Houses to the Citadel. There was blood on the glass where the boy's lip was bleeding from him biting it. But he was managing to take notes now and then as the others spoke. If Denethor's suspicions about Saruman were correct, Rohan was going to need strong and dedicated men like this. He had already taken Theodred's measure and found him sufficient. But Theoden... Theoden was old. Theoden was proud. Theoden was true, but Denethor could not assess the man's strength or acuity from here.
Denethor motioned to Boromir. Boromir stood and made his report. Denethor watched Eomer's blue eyes come into sharp focus suddenly as he turned to watch Boromir and listen. Boromir spoke briefly, but made a point of mentioning Eomer's role in the planning and execution of the attack. Eomer did not smile, but nodded. The blue eyes were suddenly keen on Denethor's as Faramir rose to make his report. Denethor held his gaze, and Eomer's eyes finally blurred and he looked away.
"Captain Eomer," Denethor said as Faramir sat down. "I assume you have some comments to make on the proceedings as well."
Eomer looked up at him again. "Yes," he said, and visibly collected himself to rise.
"Please," Denethor said. "I will not have you falling over. Your injury is serious enough that I am sure it will not offend the Council if you remain seated."
Eomer glanced around the table. "If there are no objections," he said. "I do not like to break protocol but the Steward is right: I cannot stand long." He managed a chuckle as the members of the Council murmured and shook their heads, agreeing with Denethor. "I will be brief anyway."
He took a deep breath and collected himself. He was still pale, but he no longer looked on the verge of unconsciousness. "My lord has instructed me to say that he is well aware of the danger re-awakened in the East. He has not forgotten the oaths upon which our nation is founded. Indeed he was born in Gondor and has never ceased to think upon it. And so he has sent us, in token of that. The men I brought with me are from the Eastmark, and well we know how much your watchfulness spares that region." He paused, and looked around the table.
"But he would remind you that not all threats come from eastward," Eomer continued in a moment. "We are faced with increasing uncertainty to our north and west." He paused suddenly, his face going white, and closed his eyes. Faramir, sitting beside him, put his hand on Eomer's arm. Eomer shook his head tightly, and collected himself. "I have spent the last four years," he said, his voice strained, "serving in the west. We are seeing increasing activity from Dunland, including raids that seem to be more organized than they have ever been. We are also seeing Uruks. Not little mountain goblins, but Uruks, man-high some of them, and well-disciplined. They cannot have come all the way across our country from the east. We don't know where they come from." He swallowed hard, his voice fading, and paused to breathe deeply.
"I am sorry," he said in a moment. All color had drained from his face and he was staring blankly at the table, unseeing. He was about to faint.
"We will adjourn," Denethor said. "Take an hour. There will be food in the antechamber."
Faramir and Boromir pulled Eomer from the chair with practiced ease as the Lords filed out, glancing curiously at them. Faramir took Eomer's hand in his and chafed it, and Boromir moved the chair to put Eomer's lower legs on it. Eomer was not quite unconscious, his eyes half-open and his mouth moving. Faramir put his hand on Eomer's forehead.
Denethor bent beside him. "Son," he said in Rohirric. "Shall we have you taken back to the Houses of Healing or will you recover?"
Eomer's eyes opened wide, unseeing, and he blinked several times, hard. "Lord," he said, "I will recover." He took a deep breath and let it out, switching back to Westron. "I moved unwisely. I will be all right."
Denethor pulled a small flask from a pocket in his robes, and opened it. "Brandy," he said. He tipped a little into Eomer's mouth, and the captain swallowed it with a grimace.
His eyes opened, immediately clear. "Powerful," he said.
"Headache remedy," Denethor said with a small smile. "Healers can't improve on this."
Eomer made a wry face and chuckled ruefully as he returned to himself. "I just fainted in front of the Council," he said. "And the Steward."
Denethor returned the smile. "At least you didn't embarrass yourself," he said. "Faramir has done it far more dramatically than that." Faramir rolled his eyes silently as he helped Eomer to sit up.
At Denethor's behest Eomer drained the rest of the flask. Although it left him a little dizzy, it was a different sort of dizzy, and it dulled the pain. Denethor bade the others leave them once Eomer had been helped back up into his chair, and Denethor sat beside him.
"We have a little time," he said. "I would hear from you more about what threatens your country."
Eomer blinked, dismayed. "My lord Steward," he said, "now I am not only infirm, but drunk as well. If I say something ridiculous you cannot blame my lord."
"I would not," Denethor said. "I speak to you as to a captain, not to an ambassador. What do you and Theodred think threatens Rohan?"
Eomer regarded him warily. "In truth we do not know," he said. "All I can say for certain is that the Wizard does not keep the Gap free of enemies as he has done in the past. We do not suspect him of direct involvement. But it seems to us that there is some organizing force at work in that region, which he should have some knowledge of, and perhaps warned us of."
Denethor nodded. "I have my doubts about wizards at all," he said. "I would not trust in them more than I must." He sighed. "I am glad to have met you, Captain Eomer. Dark times are ahead, very dark times, and it seems to me that the younger generation of commanders in Rohan must be the ones to stand against it. You may come to a trial of your loyalty, Eomer, and it would be well if you considered well to whom you owe your fealty: your lord, or your country."
Eomer stared at him, a grim set to his jaw. "I do not like the sound of that."
"I like the sound of little of it," Denethor said. "Think well on this, captain."
Imrahil turned the goblet around and around in his hands, revisiting moments of the Council in his mind, and reflecting on the conversation afterward with Denethor. They had spoken at length of Rohan, and of Eomer. "He is not an ambitious man," Denethor had said, with something like approval Imrahil thought. Denethor had skillfully quizzed the man, a little unfairly Imrahil thought given his state, about Eomer's own career. The young captain had explained that he was not high in his king's favor-- he was beloved by the king, but Theoden viewed him through the filter of his dead father. It was expected by most people, especially the people of the Eastfold, that Eomer would assume the Third Marshalship. But Eomer himself did not expect that Theoden would promote him. What pleased Denethor was that Eomer seemed to harbor no bitterness over this. "He will do what is needed," Denethor concluded, "and no more, and no less."
Imrahil had a great deal more to worry about, from the reports of the other Council members. But he returned to think on Eomer from time to time, with a feeling he could only describe as fondness. Something about the man's very existence and continued survival comforted him. Good men were the only wall against darkness that had any hope of standing, and without them all other walls were useless.
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