The news had spread through Edoras – and the rest of Rohan, for all I knew – as fast as a brush fire in the dry season, though the shock and the black murmurings were kept to a whisper at most. We – I – could see the hand of Wormtongue in this, though no one dared say a word. The order had been issued from the king's own lips – there was no question about that – but it still stank of Worm.
I stood now, in the dark and dampness, wondering which way I ought to go. I had spent a day poking around the Golden Hall until I discovered the way down below to the prisons, but I now found myself at a loss. Smoking torches disappeared down three corridors – one leading left, another right, and the third straight ahead – but no other sign was given. The place was as silent as one of the burial vaults outside the city. I shivered. Just what, exactly, was I planning on doing once I found him? I wondered. What could I do? I was only a boy…
My fists clenched and I stuck out my tongue in the near darkness – Éomer would not listen to such thoughts, I was sure. He was above such doubts as mine. He was the golden captain, a lord among men…
With such thoughts in mind, I struck off to the right, hugging the walls and hoping no one would see me; I was not supposed to be down here. Especially not to see him.
From a few doors ahead of me, there came a sudden thump followed by a loud and angry curse. I froze and my heart leapt into my mouth; what other sort of men might be imprisoned down here? Thieves and murderers and worse…
I scowled and crept on. They're behind locked doors; they can't hurt me. Don't be such a baby.
At the door from whence had come the sound and the voice, I halted. I'd never know unless I tried. 'My… my lord?' I called hesitantly, ashamed of the quiver that I heard in my words.
'Who goes there?'
The voice was sharp and full of anger – but it was the one I sought.
'It is I – In – Ingild… the stable-boy,' I stammered. Would he even know me?
There was a silence; footsteps approached the door and a face looked out through the metal bars above my head. His bright, clear eyes glittered strangely in the semi-darkness, anger smoldering on the surface. 'Ingild?' he said, staring at me, recognition dawning on his face. 'What are you doing here? You should not be here.'
I stared down at my feet. 'I…' My voice trailed off as I realized what had just happened. He knows who I am! For a moment I could not speak; my mouth seemed to have forgotten how to move.
He made an impatient sounding noise in his throat and I hurried to finish my sentence, keeping my eyes on the tips of my shoes. 'I came to see you, my lord.'
I could feel his eyes drilling into my skull and I hung my head even more. What was I doing here? I had broken the rules – and I had come to see one who upheld the rules. My face felt hot and I squirmed uncomfortably beneath his gaze.
'You should not be here,' he repeated.
'I know,' I mumbled in a small voice. I'd catch it at home if they found out where I'd been.
He barked a laugh, then. 'Well since you are here, lad, I'm not going to tell you to leave – I would not mind the company, if only for a little while. I told my sister to stay by the king's side… and anger is not a very satisfying companion. I have little else to do but contemplate how soon I may run my sword through the Worm's guts – and even that grows stale after a time.'
My shoulders sagged with relief and I raised my head a little. My knees were trembling and I knew that unless I sat down, I would humiliate myself by falling down in front of him. 'May… may I sit down?' I asked.
He snorted. 'You need not ask me permission to sit, lad.'
I sat down hurriedly, my back against the other wall of the corridor.
He seemed faintly amused. 'The earth, I fear, is not the most comfortable of seats, but I cannot offer you anything more.' The amusement left his eyes and he turned away from the window. 'Nor is a cell beneath the earth the most comfortable place to spend my days – not when there is wind and sky above me that I cannot taste and see.'
He disappeared from my sight, and I heard him cursing loudly. Then there was a crashing noise and all was still.
I wrapped my arms around my knees and stared at the small window in the door, feeling my eyes widen. I could hear him muttering to himself and moving around the cell. At last he returned to the window – and when he looked out again, I recoiled at the hopelessness I saw in his eyes. He was… afraid? But…
'How are the horses?' he asked abruptly, his eyes narrowing.
I swallowed hard and tried to shift my mind back to the situation at hand. 'The… horses?' I said slowly and he nodded once, impatience written across his face. 'The horses are… as well as they always have been, my lord. And Snowmane will no one handle him except Anlaf.'
He chewed on his lip. 'The hay is good? And the water? None of the horses have conveniently fallen ill, have they?'
I shook my head, hair flopping into my eyes. 'Anlaf watches over all the feed for the horses; he is very careful – my lord,' I added hastily.
One hand came up to grasp the bars on the window and even in the dim light I could see the dried blood covering his knuckles. Sudden anger surged inside me; they had dared to harm him? 'You are hurt!' I blurted, scrambling to my feet.
Éomer glanced at his hand and flexed the fingers. 'Aye; I've been taking out my frustrations on the wall.'
'Oh.' I sank down to the dirt floor again. 'I thought…'
'Eh?' He smiled thinly. 'No, lad, it's my own fault – which is not to say they've been coddling me, mind.'
Somehow… somehow this was not what I'd pictured. I didn't know what, exactly, I'd thought – a heroic struggle, perhaps – but I had not expected to find his hand bloody through his own means any more than I had expected to see despair in his eyes. It just… it didn't fit with the image I'd had of him in my mind. I felt… uncomfortable.
'I… I'll bring you something to put on it,' I stammered, trying to think of something to say.
He shook his head. 'Don't bother – I've suffered worse… and you are not supposed to be here, are you?'
The heat crept up my neck, and I was certain that my face was bright red; thankfully the shadows cast by the flickering torches hid me well enough that he would not see.
'Firefoot,' he said suddenly, coming back to the horses. 'My horse, Firefoot – what's become of him?'
'He is well, my lord,' I answered, grateful for the change in subject.
'No one has taken any… undue interest in him?'
'No, my lord.'
His eyes grew cold and he beckoned me forward; I shivered, wondering if this was how he looked at his enemies in battle. 'Y-yes?'
He remained silent for a moment; when he did speak, his voice had an edge to it. 'Ingild, I want you to promise me something.'
My mouth felt dry and I wet my suddenly cracked lips. 'Yes, my lord?'
His face was grim. 'I want you to promise me that you will keep the Worm away from Firefoot.'
I nodded hurriedly. 'I will; but, my lord, he is afraid of the horses and -'
'I trust him no further than I can throw him,' he cut me off, 'and I do not believe that he is as afraid of them as he appears. Regardless, he has poisoned the mind of the king, and I've no doubt that he has succeeded in twisting the minds of lesser men. Ingild, take charge of Firefoot. No one but you is to tend him.'
For a moment I only stared at him. 'Take charge of Firefoot. No one but you is to tend him.' I wet my lips and tried to speak but no sound came out; he had just given me the world! Could I do this? I did not want to let him down; not him, of all people… I was… I was just a stable-boy – this was Firefoot! His horse! 'M-my lord, are you s-sure?' I stuttered. 'Surely -'
'Firefoot is a horse, Ingild – and you know how to care for horses, do you not?'
'Then do so. With the exception of my sister and Anlaf, you are the only other I would trust near him.'
…you are the only other I would trust near him. I gaped at him. 'But… me, my lord? Why?'
He leaned close to the bars and eyed me seriously. 'I watch what goes on in the stables, lad – you can learn much about a man by the way he treats a horse, especially if the horse is not his own. I have watched you and all the other stable boys and grooms… and I from what I have seen of you, I believe that you are one I can trust.' Then his voice sank and his eyes grew distant and a little glazed. 'These are evil times and dark have been my dreams… the Worm rules at Edoras and I do not know that we will ever be rid of him.' He swore and kicked at the door; it rattled violently, and I jumped. Then he seemed to deflate; he leaned his head against the bars and his eyes became dark. Too dark. 'Where now the horse and the rider?' he murmured, his voice unusually quiet.
I shivered and felt my heart grow cold; he sounded like a man who had lost all hope. But… he was my captain. My… he was my hero. Heroes did not despair; they never did in the stories, at least. I sniffed, fighting the tears that were suddenly lurking in my eyes. He was not the way I had thought… not the way I had seen him, so many times, riding into Edoras at his cousin's side, singing, with the sun beaming down and making his hair shine like gold. I sniffed again and clenched my fists.
'Ingild, why are you here?' he asked wearily.
'I came to see you,' I answered in a small voice, wiping a fist over my nose as I stared at my feet; the knees of my pants were filthy.
'Ingild.' I looked up again and found his eyes studying me sharply. 'Why did you come to see me?'
I squirmed uncomfortably but I could not look away; he was waiting, and I did not think he would let the matter drop. I shifted uneasily; I did not want to answer (though I knew I must) because I suddenly felt… ashamed? Ashamed that he did not measure up? I chewed hard on my lip and felt the skin break.
'Ingild.' Something hot trickled down my cheek and I scrubbed it away impatiently, ashamed of myself this time: I was twelve years old, no longer a child. 'I… I came because… because you're my… hero,' I whispered in the end.
He sighed, as if I'd confirmed what he feared. 'And what do you think of him now that you truly see him?'
The tears I'd tried so hard to keep inside fell now, and I found I couldn't stop them – even though I tried. I didn't want to tell him… not now. I just, I didn't… I sniffled miserably and rubbed my fist under my nose. I couldn't lie… he'd see right through. 'You… you're different. You're not supposed to be… afraid,' I said hoarsely. I felt uncomfortably warm beneath his gaze and I dropped my own, unable to look at him any longer.
He was silent so long I risked a glance up again – and immediately wished I hadn't. He looked so sad. I'd never seen him look that way before and it made my insides feel queer and sick. My lip was bleeding, adding a salty, metallic taste to my mouth and making me nauseous.
'Ingild, lad,' he said at last, 'look at me.'
I looked – but I did not want to. I did not want to look in his face and eyes and see the sadness and the hopelessness. I did not want to… but I did.
'From whom am I different?'
'From the heroes in the tales,' I managed, my voice squeaking strangely.
'Then you've been listening to the wrong tales,' he said quietly. 'I know which ones you speak of, for I listened to them myself when I was a boy.'
He nodded. 'I did. But I learned to tell the difference between a tale and the real people who lived in them. Ingild…' He paused, thinking. 'Eorl knew fear; he was human. He knew fear, he knew sadness. The heroes in those tales were only human, nothing more. As am I.'
I sniffled. How could I reconcile the two images that now lived in my mind? I had always thought Éomer above such emotions…
'Ingild,' he said again, and I could not look at his eyes, 'I cannot change your heart or your mind… but listen to me when I tell you that if you take away my ability to fear, you also take away my ability to know joy. I am human, Ingild. Do not make me into something that I am not.'
I nodded miserably. 'Do… do you truly have no hope, then?' I asked, my voice rasping against my throat.
He leaned against the bars. 'I know not where my hope lies,' he said. 'Perhaps it rides towards us, perhaps it does not come. I know not, lad, I know not.' He grimaced and stepped away from the door. 'Off with you, now,' he said. 'You should not be here.'
I nodded once, reluctantly, and turned away.
'Ingild?' he called, abruptly.
'Yes, my lord?' I asked, turning to face him again, my fingers clutched together. 'You will not forget about Firefoot?'
I straightened. 'No, my lord.'
'Good. Now find your way out.'
I crept away slowly, scowling in disgust at my tears and rubbing my fists in my eyes. At last, I stopped where I was and sat down on the floor, my back to the wall, and hugged my knees.
…if you take away my ability to fear, you also take away my ability to know joy… Do not make me into something that I am not.
Eorl knew fear.
…you've been listening to the wrong tales…
Setting my chin on my knees, I closed my eyes and screwed up my face and tried to think.
My captain knew fear.
My captain had lost hope.
And yet… and yet he had still threatened death to Wormtongue in the king's hall. He had ridden forth to attack the Uruks crossing our land – without the king's consent.
I chewed on my lip, breaking the scab that had begun to form. Was it possible, I wondered, to fear and still do great deeds?
I am human.
I opened my eyes and stared at nothing. Perhaps… perhaps it did not matter? Would he be as… Would he have been as beloved by Théodred if he were not? As beloved as he was by the Lady Éowyn? Perhaps it did not matter. Perhaps there were some things that mattered more.
I remembered the sadness and despair in his face and eyes and I cringed, my insides twisting. He had lost hope… but he had not given up. He had not lain down to die. Surely that meant something…?
A noise sounded in the corridor, somewhere before me in the shadows, and I jumped. Holding my breath, I squeezed myself as close to the wall as I could, my heart pounding. If I were caught down here…
A man appeared, though he seemed to merge with the darkness, and glided down the corridor his black robes rustling. I could not see his face, hidden as it was by the hood of his cloak, but I knew who walked before me. I shuddered as he passed by. A few minutes later, when I dared to move, a loud and angry oath floated up to me from the shadows: Éomer had received another visitor.
I scrambled hastily to my feet; however long the Worm stayed, he would come back this way sooner or later and he might see me – and I did not want to find out what the consequences of that would be.
I began walking again, keeping close to the wall, when I heard a crash behind me. I started violently and broke into a run; I did not stop until I was out of the prisons and standing beneath the open sky.
Courage, I realized suddenly, as I stared at the soft shades of evening and the pale stars above, meant something different than what I had always thought. He knew fear yet he rode willingly into battle. He had no hope, yet still he fought.
I am human.
Somehow… it didn't matter anymore; I thought I understood what he had been trying to tell me.
Across the plain I saw the wild horses running free, and I was reminded of my duty.
Take charge of Firefoot. No one but you is to tend him.
Turning towards the stables, I ran.
I would not fail my hero.
Hennaid to my lovely beta Marta and to Tanaqui for pointing out that Ingild's original name sounded Gondorian as opposed to Rohirric. It's reasons like *this* why I should learn Elvish... ;)
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.