1. Hope of the Mark
Westu Théoden hal!
The whispers of happier times echo in my footsteps as I pass through silent Meduseld. In times past from chamber to king’s hall had been the merry way to the sounds and smells of good cheer. Now woe spurs me, and has for many long months, each time I go to beg the king’s consent to ride out against the orcs encroaching upon our borders.
Sometimes I would be unleashed and the wind would sing in my hair. Many more times I would be bound to this hall, able to do naught for I would not gainsay my lord and father. But now my scouts have brought precious news; though not a man of nimble tongue I must make my king hear and loose me, however unyielding of late he has been and heedful only of the counsel of Wormtongue.
My steps firm as I approach the hall and the king’s presence. The battle begins now.
Twenty-one bold strides I count to the foot of the throne. As I rise from my bow my heart hurts anew. So withered and weary and old; this is not my golden father, the beloved Lord of the Mark, who for five long years I have hoped will return to us. But the hope is fading.
Will you not acknowledge me, Théoden King? No, my lord’s eyes are bright but unseeing as he sits with his great snowy head ever cocked to the murmurings of the man seated at his feet. Wormtongue glances at me- his eyes sicken me, like mushrooms stewed over long- as I force myself to patience.
Hard it is to but stand here. My willful mind balks at idleness and does not heed me, bearing me down roads I do not wish to travel. My poor Éowyn, that you must endure this each day! I am grateful that for once you are absent. I would not burden you more should my endeavor go ill for I know you feel the humiliation of my rejections more strongly even than I.
Muttering worm, gladly would I smite you. But be no fool, prince of the Mark, and be still.
It is well Éomer is not here; while I am not a placid man yet I at least can curb my rashness.
Wormtongue licks his lips, as he ever does before he spits a fresh torrent of words in my lord’s ear. Such a small gesture but always it draws my eye. I am a grown man hardened by war but- Béma, I am shamed! Shivers master me at the thought of that tongue and I cannot look further.
Scaly and forked, or the innocent pink of a normal man’s? I do not know which I dread more.
Will he never cease his whispering?
The hall is dark, lonely. Perhaps it is time to bring a bride to Meduseld- a lady to ease my nights, soothe father with gentle hands, and be friend to Éowyn. Yet to wed a woman whom I shall see but seldom is a sad thing. I must think further on this when I-
At last the worm falls silent! Théoden King looks upon me with fever-bright eyes, his voice a mockery of the great roar beloved of the Eorlingas. “Théodred. What would you have of me?”
Curse my clumsy tongue! “My lord, my scouts tell of a gathering of orcs and axemen before the Gates of Isengard. As yet they are not great in number, and I deem they will not attack before a fortnight has passed. Saruman has stumbled. With the strength of the éoreds that await me we may crush them before they are prepared. My lord, give me leave to ride out.”
The king stares at me, brow furrowed. His eyes are so bright, they should not be so empty! My heart sinks as he slowly turns to Wormtongue. “What say you, Gríma son of Gálmód?”
“It has ever been your policy to show restraint, my lord.” The soothing wash of Wormtongue’s voice touches even me but I close my ears.
“Restraint? Are we of the Riddermark pet dogs, to roll tamely upon our backs for our bellies to be scratched while others make free of our lands, our horses, our people?”
“What harm may a paltry gaggle of beasts ‘not great in number’ do?”
I must not yield to my fury. “I will not bandy words with you, son of Gálmód. My scouts are skilled; grievous will be our wounds if we do not face our foe at a time of our choosing.”
“You counsel restraint, then, Gríma?” The king gently nods, his eyes half-closed.
“Would you waste your men against so few, my lord?” A cat should purr as Wormtongue does, and sink claws into my flesh as he does when he adds in louder, pitying tones, “Can it be that Théodred takes fright like the greenest youth?”
I have failed. I have failed. I can think of no more.
“No.” To my astonishment the king’s voice is stronger than I have heard in days. He shakes his head. “No, Gríma, Théodred is well versed in war. He would not mistake this danger.”
Stunning are my king’s words, yet less so than Wormtongue's. He bows his head to me, his voice strangely meek as he replies, “Your pardon, wise lord, for my overcaution. Théodred son of Théoden is indeed a mighty man of war as foolish Gríma is not. Heed him, Lord of the Mark!”
We mighty men of war know when to seize the advantage. “My lord, Gríma son of Gálmód has given you his counsel; I have spoken; will you now give me leave to ride out?”
“Prince Théodred would not seek to lead you astray.” Wormtongue nods.
Why do you smile like that, son of Gálmód? And yet, I hear naught but sincerity from you.
“Indeed I may trust Théodred in all things.” All else becomes as nothing to me as the king straightens on his throne. Wisdom shines anew in his eyes as at last he truly looks at me.
“Théodred son of Théoden, I charge you to gather those éoreds you deem needful and ride forth against those who would cross our borders to bring us ruin. Go with all haste!”
For but a moment I cannot breathe, then swiftly I kneel before him. “Your blessing, my lord!”
My father smiles upon me as he lays his gnarled hand upon my head, though all too soon his hand falls away and I look up into his weary face once more. Yet I am not disheartened, for I have seen my father returned to me, however briefly. It is a beginning.
I catch a last glimpse of Wormtongue on his lowly roost, head bowed upon his breast and oddly silent. No matter; my father has exerted his will at last. Éowyn shall rue missing this.
But a few eager strides take me to the great doors, which shudder beneath the force of my blows. Upon my shout the door warden rolls them back, letting in the fresh morning air.
How bright the sunlight is after the closeness of the hall! I flinch as the glory dazzles me, blinds me.
The darkness does not last. We of the Mark know this. However fell and cold the winter, however long the nights, the spring always returns. The late winter sun warms my upturned face; for the first time in months my heart is light and I laugh. At last I may dream of a future.
Loyal Hama grins as I run down the steps toward my waiting éoreds. Behind me I hear the hollow boom as he closes the doors, shutting my father within the gloom once more, away from the sun and wind-kissed grasses and the musical jingle of harnesses.
But not for long. A new day dawns: Théoden King has heeded me, and has smiled upon me with clear eyes. My father’s strength will prevail; the White Horse shall shake off its loathsome bridle and shall race again upon the green.
“We ride!” I call to my Riders. I don my helm and swing into my saddle amidst the tumult of the gathering. At last we shall break the wizard’s hold. “Saruman, feel the wrath of the Eorlingas!”
My arm aches to feel the heft of my spear. Would that Éomer were here to be in on the hunt!
“My lord!” Grimbold calls from where he heads his éored. “Whither do we go?”
“To victory!” And to the hope for a future in which Meduseld shall shine brightly once more.
My men begin to sing and I laugh again as my banner is raised high, to fly proudly in the freshening breezes. I wheel my mount and signal my herald to wind his horn as I call out.
“To the Fords! To the Fords of Isen!”
Théodred’s scouts had warned him of a mustering of troops before the Gates of Isengard…he himself passed over with the main strength of the cavalry: eight companies and a company of archers, intending to overthrow Saruman’s army before it was fully prepared.
But Saruman had not revealed his intentions nor the full strength of his forces…
(Unfinished Tales, The Battles of the Fords of Isen)
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