Théodred kept a close eye on Éomer and Éowyn as they rode through the gate and down the road between the barrows of the kings. Éowyn had not spoken since her angry outburst in the stables. Éomer, on the other hand, had laughed and talked with a couple of boys standing near the stables as they rode away. Now, though, he too was subdued and Théodred cast about for something to say or do that might get the two of them at least talking with each other. Féle snorted, his head bobbing up and down as he tried to spit out the bit.
“Stop that,” Théodred scolded sternly as he pulled on the reins while at the same time patting and rubbing the dark red neck of his horse. He continued to speak soothingly to the horse and after several more snorts and a last shake of his head, Féle settled down once again. At least he hadn’t tried to buck him off, thought Théodred with an inward sigh. He probably should have ridden one of his other horses, but Féle was young and needed to be ridden often, even on what promised to be a short, easy ride.
He twisted in his saddle to look at Éowyn. “Hmmm?”
“Where are we going?”
“I thought we’d ride down the river to a place where we could eat lunch.” Théodred tapped the bag he had attached to the pommel of his saddle.
“That’ll be nice,” she replied politely as she looked down toward the Snowbourn River. Éowyn vaguely remembered going there with her mother the only other time she’d been in Edoras several years ago. She glanced back at her cousin. “I-I’m sorry I was so loud in the stables.”
“I know you are. You were,” Théodred hesitated, looking at Éomer from the corner of his eye but the boy seemed to be ignoring them. “You were provoked to anger.” He held up his hand to stop Éomer’s protests. “However, you know better than to yell around the horses.” She nodded. “Still,” he turned to look at Éomer, “I would ask both of you to remember that the stables are not a place for jesting and playing. Neither Renward nor I will allow you to work with the horses if you do so.” They both nodded without looking at him and he grimaced. A sudden memory of him and his father having a very similar discussion crossed his mind and he let out a short laugh.
“Forgive me,” said Théodred when he saw their crestfallen faces. “I’m not laughing at you. I was remembering when my father told me much the same thing - that I could not go in the stables because I was being too loud.” He grinned and first Éomer and then more slowly Éowyn smiled back.
“Are we going to walk the whole way?” asked Éomer as he shifted from side to side in his saddle.
“At least until we’re off the hill,” Théodred replied. “There are several nice long stretches between here and the river where you can show me how fast Cempa can run. And, Ósle,” he added with a glance at Éowyn.
“He’s not very fast,” she said with a mournful sigh as she ran her fingers through his black mane. “He’s too old.” Ósle snorted and shook his head. Éowyn giggled as she leaned forward and hugged him around the neck whispering softly to him as she did so.
“Cempa’s fast. He beats all the other boys’ horses. I mean all the boys in Aldburg. I-I don’t know about here,” he added with a worried glance back at Edoras.
Théodred gave the boy a thoughtful look, remembering the boys he’d been talking with back at the stables. “I imagine he’s faster than many of them, Éomer. He’s a fine horse; I remember your father riding him when I was a member of his éored.”
Éomer beamed. “I’ve had him for two… no, almost three years now, ever since father saw that I’d outgrown my last horse. He decided I should have Cempa and he started riding the younger horse he’d been training. He was a beautiful horse”. His voice trailed off as he wondered, as he often had, if the orcs that had killed his father had eaten the horses that they’d had to leave behind. The surviving members of the éored had barely been able to retreat with the bodies of their fallen comrades.
“He was, Éomund always had a keen eye for horses,” Théodred said. “I think we can ride a little faster now, do you not?” Both children nodded eagerly and he pointed to a small jumble of rocks in the distance. “Meet me there.” He urged Féle into a trot. Éowyn and Éomer grinned and took off, quickly bringing their horses to a canter and then a full out gallop. Théodred laughed out loud as he watched them. He could hear them yelling, though he had no idea what they were saying. Urging Féle into a canter he smiled at the memories of his own childhood that watching his cousins brought to mind.
“Look at this.” Éowyn held out the pretty rock she’d dug out from the edge of the swiftly moving river.
Éomer grunted as he glanced at it before wading a little farther into the water and away from the small pebbly beach. “It’s all right. But I’m looking for ones that’ll skip across the top of the water and they need to be flat.”
“Oh, I’ll help you.” She clenched the water-smoothed white rock tightly in her hand as she bent down to find rocks for her brother. She decided she’d give it to Wynléas or maybe Uncle Théoden, knowing that they’d like a pretty rock. “How’s this one?” She held up a large flat rock.
“That’s too big,” Éomer said as he eyed the hand sized rock his sister held. “But,” he hastened to add at the scowl she gave him, “it’s flat enough. They need to be about this size.” He held out the three rocks he’d already collected which were the perfect size for him to hold between his thumb and first finger. Dropping them into the pouch he wore on his belt he continued his search, exclaiming happily when he found another rock. “Here’s one!”
Éowyn looked up, frowning. Maybe she should leave him to find his own rocks and do something else, though she didn’t know what else she could do. Théodred didn’t seem to want to play, he just sat under a tree and watched. She looked around. Although there were trees and bushes lining the river on both sides, she spied one unusually large willow tree upriver. Between the long dangling green branches that swayed gently in the slight breeze, she could see that its roots were sticking out at odd angles above the ground and she decided to go and explore the area around it. She’d only taken a few steps when Théodred spoke.
“Where are you going?” he asked, standing and brushing the dirt from his breeches.
“There,” said Éowyn pointing to the tree. “I thought it’d be fun to play in the roots.” She wondered why it mattered, it wasn’t that far and her mama would have let her go.
Théodred glanced at the tree and then at Éomer, a slight furrow creasing his brow. “Éomer!” he called sharply. The boy looked up and grinned. “Come back toward the bank. The river runs too swiftly.”
The grin fell from Éomer’s face and, scowling, he moved two small steps closer to the shore. “It’s not that fast,” he protested.
“Two more large steps, Éomer,” Théodred ordered his cousin who reluctantly did as he was told until the water was swirling around his shins. The boy did not look up as he continued searching for the right size rocks. Théodred turned back to Éowyn with a thoughtful frown. “Éowyn, you need to find something to do here. It’s too far away and I couldn’t see you well enough from here.”
“Then come with me,” she said, almost, but not quite pleading.
Théodred shook his head. “I can’t. I won’t leave Éomer alone here.”
“B-but, I want to play there,” Éowyn protested, fighting back tears. “Can’t you make Éomer come with us?”
“No. The bank there by the tree is too steep for him to play in the water. I’m sorry, Éowyn,” he said gently.
“All right,” she whispered as she walked away, her feet dragging through the small pebbles on the shore.
“Éowyn,” he called. She stopped but didn’t turn around. “We can go there after we eat; we don’t have to leave right away.” She nodded and walked on to sit on a small rock near Éomer while Théodred resumed his seat, a look of dismay on his face. Feeling something hard pressing into the palm of her right hand, Éowyn slowly opened her clenched fist. She stared down at the pretty rock for a moment and, then, flung it away with all of her strength. It briefly flashed white in the bright sun before it plopped into the water out in the middle of the river.
“What was that?” Éomer exclaimed turning and looking toward where he’d heard the splash. “Was it a fish?” he asked his sister, his eyes shining with excitement as he briefly glanced over his shoulder.
“A rock,” he repeated. He turned and looked at her. “You threw a rock that far? It went a long way,” he said as he eyed her carefully. She shrugged. “What’s wrong, Éowyn?”
“Nothing,” she replied in a voice so low that he barely heard it over the sound of the rushing water. Frowning, Éomer tossed aside the rocks he’d so carefully collected and splashed through the water to the shore where he crouched down next to her.
“Éowyn, what happened?”
She looked up at her brother then. “He won’t let me play in the tree. Mama would’ve let me.” Éomer gave her a blank look.
“Won’t let you play in a tree?” he asked hesitantly, looking up and around at the trees that surrounded them. Why wouldn’t Théodred let her play in a tree? wondered Éomer as he glanced over at his cousin who was staring straight in front of him. Though Éomer had the feeling he was well aware of him and Éowyn.
“Not just any tree,” Éowyn said sharply as she sat up and pointed upriver. “I wanted to go up there… to that tree.”
Narrowing his eyes against the shimmering reflection coming off the water, Éomer looked to where his sister was pointing and he gave an approving nod. “It’s a good tree. Why can’t you go? It’s not that far and, you’re right, mama would’ve let you go.” There was a moment’s pause. “At least I think so.”
“Théodred said it was too far and he didn’t want to leave you here alone.” She looked down again reminding herself that it was not Éomer’s fault.
“B-but…why not?” he asked, surprised enough that he sat down hard on his bottom. “Ouch.” He reached beneath him and pulled out a sharp stick and threw it aside with a scowl. Éowyn giggled and after a moment he grinned back. He returned to the subject at hand. “Why would he not leave me here? I’m eleven!”
“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging.
“We’ll go together,” he said with his own shrug. “I don’t mind.”
“Théodred said we can’t do that either. The bank is… wrong… or something. I don’t know, but he said you can’t play there.”
Now Éomer just stared at his sister with his mouth wide open, not believing what he was hearing. He snapped his mouth shut and he thought furiously as he looked over Éowyn’s shoulder to where their cousin still sat. If Théodred wouldn’t take them to the tree, then they’d have to go by themselves. They just needed a way to get past him undetected. Once they were in the cover of the trees they could sneak through the bushes to Éowyn’s tree and play on the far side of it – out of Théodred’s sight. Maybe there’d be an even better tree on the other side of it. He unconsciously lowered his voice when he spoke even though Théodred was too far away to hear, especially over the sound of the river.
“We’ll go by ourselves, then. We don’t need him; we’ll have more fun without him anyway.”
It was Éowyn’s turn to stare. “B-but we can’t do that, Éomer. We’ll get in trouble,” she said, but a smile began forming on her lips.
Éomer grinned and shrugged. “Why not? What’ll he do to us? He’s just our cousin.”
“How do we do it without him seeing us?”
“Pretend you need to relieve yourself… over there,” he gestured with his head a little upstream and on the other side of Théodred, “and I’ll say I’m going to get my knife I left in my saddlebag. When I’m in the bushes, I’ll circle around Théodred and get you and we’ll go to your tree.”
“You’re wearing your knife.” She stared at the knife belted to his waist.
“I-I brought father’s, too.”
Éowyn was not really surprised he’d brought the knife that meant so much to him and she stared down at the ground for a minute, thinking. It might work, but even if it didn’t, it would be fun to try. She looked up at Éomer and smiled. “All right, but we’ll have to do it quickly because he won’t be fooled very long.”
“I know,” he replied, shrugging. “Go on.” He made a shooing motion and with a deep breath his sister stood and ambled off. She didn’t look directly at Théodred as she walked past him, glancing at him from the corner of her eye instead. The slight smile on his face made her wonder what he was thinking but Éowyn didn’t ask and she was startled when he spoke.
“Where are you going now, Cousin?”
“I’ll be right back,” she replied without slowing, “I really need to go…” she gestured vaguely in the direction ahead of her and Théodred nodded, still with a slight smile on his face.
“Don’t be long,” was all he said as the she disappeared into the bushes. Théodred chuckled under his breath and turned his gaze toward Éomer. The boy was digging into his pouch and, after a moment, he pulled out three rocks which he quickly tried skipping across the water. The first rock sank immediately but he took more time with the other two and they fairly flew across the top of the water and he let out a loud whoop after the second one. After a moment he turned and, whistling tunelessly, headed for the spot where they’d left their saddlebags and the bag of food in the coolness of the thick bushes.
Théodred watched Éomer leave without saying a word and as the boy also disappeared into the bushes his smile widened into a grin. Shaking his head, he wondered if they truly believed they’d fooled him. He stood and went to the river where he knelt and poured a handful of water over his head, trying to cool himself off in the heat of the day. After running his fingers through his hair and squeezing the water from it, Théodred drank several handfuls before he set off in search of the children. Not that he didn’t know exactly where they were. He could hear Éowyn’s slight movement not far from where she’d entered the bushes that grew close around the willows that lined the river, and while he couldn’t hear Éomer, Théodred assumed he’d be joining Éowyn on their way to the tree.
Deciding to let his cousins have their fun, Théodred strolled upriver. He listened for the children and knew when Éomer finally met his sister by their quiet whispering and the rustling of the leaves. It was then he decided that Éomer needed additional lessons in woodcraft to go along with his sword work. Arriving at the tree that Éowyn had her heart so set on, Théodred looked it over carefully and smiled. She was right. It was a tree that any child would enjoy playing in. Settling himself comfortably on one of the roots and leaning back against the trunk, Théodred waited.
It took the children longer than Théodred originally thought it would to work their way through the bushes and he amused himself by whittling and watching a sparrow attacking a squirrel in a nearby tree. Only once was he concerned with having his cousins out of his sight and that was when the children were quiet for what seemed like five minutes, though it realized it was probably far less. But, eventually they moved on and he relaxed. As they neared the tree, Théodred sheathed his knife and tossed aside his wood as he pondered whether or not he should try to scare his cousins a bit by hiding. He knew that as soon as they reached the tree they’d be looking back downriver to see if he was still sitting where he’d been earlier. If he wasn’t there, Éomer and Éowyn would be left wondering if something had happened to him. In which case there was no telling what they might do. But hiding also seemed a little bit like playing and even though he was letting them have their fun, he knew he was going to have to scold them at the very least. Théodred decided to remain in plain sight and see what happened when the children came into view. He didn’t have to wait long.
Éomer appeared first as he cautiously poked his head out of the bushes and looked around. Théodred was hard pressed to keep his expression stern and his amusement hidden at the look of disbelief that crossed Éomer’s face when he saw him. The boy sighed and a sheepish grin appeared as he crawled out of the bushes before turning and beckoning his sister to join him. When she didn’t immediately come out, Théodred called to her,
“Come on out, Éowyn.” He paused and then added dryly, “I do know you’re there.”
There was another moment of silence before the little girl stepped out. She didn’t look at her cousin as she vigorously brushed twigs, leaves, and dirt off her tunic and breeches. Théodred waited until she’d finished before speaking again.
“Are you hungry? Should we eat lunch now?”
Éowyn’s head shot up and she looked at him suspiciously. Why was he not punishing them in some way?
“I’m hungry,” Éomer said slowly and with a slight frown as he was asking himself the same question his sister was asking. He darted a quick glance at Éowyn but she was staring at Théodred.
“Éowyn?” Théodred inquired with an arched eyebrow when she didn’t respond to his question. She nodded and without another word he stood and made his way back down the river bank. The children exchanged confused glances before quickly following him. No one spoke until they were almost back to where they’d been earlier.
Éowyn’s curiosity finally got the best of her and she asked in a low voice, “Ar-aren’t you going to punish us, Théodred?” Her cousin took several more steps before he stopped, turned and gazed briefly at her and then at Éomer for a long moment before his intense bluish-grey eyes settled on her.
“Do you need to be punished?” he asked, keeping his voice gentle. She shifted uneasily on her feet and Éomer took her hand and started to speak. “I was asking Éowyn,” Théodred said sternly with a quelling glance at the boy who subsided with a startled look. But he didn’t move away nor did he release her hand.
She shook her head. “No! I won’t do it again, Théodred,” she promised earnestly. “I’m sorry,” she added, biting her lip.
“I accept your apology, Éowyn, and trust that you’ve given me your word,” he said, nodding, satisfied that at least Éowyn wouldn’t be sneaking off anytime soon. He turned to Éomer. “Did Éowyn tell you that she wasn’t supposed to go to the tree?”
“Yes, but I thought we’d…”
“That was a yes or no question.” Théodred winced inwardly as he interrupted the boy hoping he wasn’t being too harsh with him. But, he remembered his own father speaking to him in a similar tone and he kept in mind that when Éomer joined an éored he would be expected to obey any direction given and could not sneak off at his own whim.
“Yes.” Éomer stared at the ground, the hand not holding Éowyn’s curling into a tight fist.
“Then you should not have taken her there against my express wishes, Éomer. As her older brother she looks to you and will follow you wherever you lead and while nothing ill happened this time, who is to say that it might not on some other occasion; especially if an adult is not with you.” Théodred paused at the grimace that crossed the boy’s face at that point. He remembered what it felt like being talked to by his father in this manner, but he didn’t know how to make it easier for his cousin – not if he was to learn. However, Théodred laid his hand on Éomer’s shoulder and the boy looked up, his blue eyes showing a mixture of embarrassment and anger.
“Éomer,” Théodred continued in a softer voice, “I’m not speaking to you simply because you disobeyed me – even if it was indirectly - you knew it was wrong and you did it anyway, did you not?”
“Yes, but… yes, I did.” His head dropped back down.
“I’m speaking to you because in a few short years you’ll be joining an éored and you’ll have to obey any order that you’re given whether it makes sense to you or not. You cannot just decide that you know better than your captain and take one of your friends and go do what you want…”
“I wouldn’t do that!” Éomer protested. He shrugged out from underneath Théodred’s hand and stepped back away from him, scowling fiercely.
“Éomer would never do that!” Éowyn jumped to his defense without even blinking and contrary to her brother, she stepped closer to Théodred causing him to take a hasty step back so she wouldn’t step on his feet.
“Peace,” said Théodred, holding up his hands; he was amazed once again at the way they protected each other. “I know you would never intend to do such a thing, but if you get in the habit of disobeying you might have a hard time when you do join your éored.” He watched Éomer think about that for a moment before he added with a wry smile, “It will also make living with my father much easier.”
The children glanced at each other with wide eyes and finally Éowyn looked up at Théodred and asked in a small voice, “Are you going to tell him what we did?” The thought of their uncle, who was also the king, knowing she’d disobeyed was frightening. She couldn’t imagine what he might do to them.
Théodred scratched his beard along his left cheek as he stared down at her for a moment; a brief glance at Éomer showed him that the boy seemed to have the same fears as Éowyn and he shook his head. “No, I’m not, Éowyn. You’ve given me your word that you won’t do it again and while Éomer hasn’t, I think…”
“I won’t either, Théodred!” Éomer interrupted, eager to once again be in his cousin’s good graces.
After studying the boy for a moment, Théodred smiled and nodded. “Good. Then we’ll say no more about it. Now, let’s eat and afterward we’ll head home.”