"Oh, no, you don't!" Aetheldred cried as she saw the red glow up the hill. In one swift motion she tossed her *knots and reached for a robe as she left her room. "If those dull-witted boys have been burning those weeds again, I swear--" but was rendered speechless at the spectacle before her. Eomer's stables were on fire, with men running up and down the low hill for water from her well. The horses were afraid and, hard to control, threatened to stampede. She had to do something or else they'd lose the animals and the house.
"Send for Aldwulf," she called to Helda, her most trusted lady. "We'll need all the men, water. And send for Brydda. We might need her salves."
"What has happened?" she asked to the first person she encountered in her run up the hill.
"A fight, m'lady. The horses were lost, and Eldberth slapped Wulf. They fought--"
"How were the horses lost?" she asked, a little breathless, as she ran up while attempting to braid her hair.
"Orcs. At the pasture. Two of my master's black studs were stollen."
Aetheldred's blood froze. Black horses stolen could mean but one thing.
Her messenger had reached Eomer at noon the following day and now they sat at her hearth after having assessed the damage. The ale she served them tasted of bitterness.
"All in all," her brother finally said, "it could have been worse. Aldorf lost a whole herd a few years back, remember?"
"That is not the point, Eothain!" she cried, unable to control herself any longer, tossing her cup and rising as she spoke. "Nobody has a right to steal anything, much less horses! Who knows to what ends they will be put to? Not to mention the expense, the years of work..."
"What's done is done, Dred, what use is it to fume about it now?"
"Of all people, Eothain, I would have thought you'd side with me! Does it not anger you how we are being cornered like hens in the barn? It is not to be borne!" She vaguely registered she had begun to pace, though stopping was beyond her now. "They think to mess with our horses; what comes next? As if we bred our horses purely for their sport. It irks me beyond belief the mere suggestion to sit back and watch them plunder our most valuable assets. Well? Well, say something!" But, instead of replying, Eothain's eyes flicked briefly to Eomer, full of anxiety and apprehension. "I see what is afoot here. You are afraid Eomer will be rash and go after them? Is that it?"
Her tone must have been harsh and unfeeling for Eothain's eyes widened and, for once, he was rendered speechless. When his glance flicked the other way, she was reminded of Leof who sat still, watching. Her cheeks burned, as they so often did lately whenever he was around. Annoyance, indeed! What could he possibly think of her outburst? And that foolish Eomer still sat hunched over his cup, silent. Fool! None of this would have happened if he manned his home the way he was supposed to. Let old ghosts finally lie, they needed him here!
She turned back to her seat by the hearth, but did not bother to retrieve the cup which had, as fortune would have it, fallen to Leof's side. She felt him reach for it, fill it, and extend it to her. It took all of her self-possession to make herself reach back and meet his eyes. When the judgment she expected was not there, she thought she hated him. Fighting him would have been easier than fighting Orcs from miles away. Perhaps he knew that, too, withheld criticism on purpose, but her eyes stung, nonetheless.
As if all the powers in the world had combined to vex her, Eothain asked, "What say you, Leof?"
She could not help fixing eyes on him at that. His did not depart from hers for a moment as he reached for his own cup and took a slow, long drought.
"Actually, what troubles me is why they dared come so close," he said in that low baritone of his. "Many things in life are not fair, but think of the losses if we were to give pursuit. And for what? This was a taunt. It serves nobody to become riled up and play into their hand."
"So you would do nothing?" she asked.
"Not if by doing something you mean chasing after those Orcs to get the horses. The horses are gone."
"But, Leof, it's not right--"
"You heard him, Dred," Eothain cried, "now, stop it, you're making it worse."
"Bur, Eomer!" she cried, a last attempt to rouse him, "Surely you see that by letting them go we signal our weakness--"
"And what would you have me do?" he finally said, lifting eyes to her, cup clutched firmly between his hands. "What would you have me do? Summon the eored? Give chase? Lose one, a couple of riders, maybe give a horse or two as Orc-meat and then be called son of Eomund indeed! I've been trying all my life to escape that fateful tendency to rashness and believe me when I say it is awfully difficult right now even without your help."
The tirade felt like a physical blow against her chest and she almost lifted arms to brace herself against it. Never had her cousin spoken so forcefully, so bitterly to her, and it hurt more than she could articulate. Her eyes stung and the funny, fluttery feeling rose to her throat as she fought for something to say and could find nothing. Eomer himself must have realized it, for he muttered under his breath and, making himself release the cup, flexed his fingers many times before looking back up at her. When he did, his eyes were full of remorse and that low, simmering anger that she had begun to see lurking under the surface since he became **Liutenant to the Second Marshall.
"I would give chase myself right now. If it had only been the Worm alone commanding me to stay my hand I would have done it more so to spite him, but Eowyn begged me before I set out. And Theodred forbade it." The way this was added in that low voice, that look to the side, spoke of how much this vexed him. "I owe my allegiance to the First Marshall, don't I?" he said, rising from the circle and departing into the darkness of the hall.
Everything was silence for the next few heartbeats. An owl hooted outside, then a rustle of leaves, then nothing.
"Now you've done it," Eothain snapped as he rose. "Do you think, for a moment, that this is easy for him? The quarrel with Theodred made it all the worse--having Theodred command him as a Marshall!-- and now you accuse him of cowardice? How selfish can one be, Aetheldred?"
"You speak of selfishness, when you leave for months on end without so much as a passing inquiry on the state of your hall, leaving me even to sort out Eomer and Eowyn's affairs at the big house because they are too sensitive to go back there, and have the gall to be angered when I wish to defend my own? †You know not what it's like here, trying to hold this land and this people together!"
"And you know not what it's like in Edoras," he said, almost spat, before sauntering away, but turned after a few paces to say, "Do not make the mistake of thinking you fight this battle alone. For every breath you take comfortably in your sitting-room there are hundreds of men out there putting their lives on the line. Losing a couple of horses seems so trivial after some of the things I've seen in the past few months."
"It's not about the horses," she said as she rose, walked to him. "It's about what's right: Defending our land, our own."
"The times are dark, Aetheldred. Strength at arms is not everything to win."
The way his shoulders haunched at that made him look like a lad again. Eothain had always been her closest sibling, even closer to her than her sisters. Why was he doing this now?
"Will you give up, then? Will you let them get away with it?"
His look seemed almost full of pity, a haughty pity that she found utterly unbearable.
"There are things more important than winning at stake."
"I will never give up," she cried, and walked past him into the night.
Her disbelief knew no bounds when she saw the men laying the foundation for a fence. "King's orders," they had said when questioned, and disbelief turned to anger that those she counted on to help would settle for such a ludicrous measure.
"The better pasture is to the other side," she cried when guards tried to make them lead their herd elsewhere. "Our livelihood depends on the quality of our horses," she said through gritted teeth.
"Easy for you to say, lady," said one of the men with a chuckle, a West-folder she did not know, "but I'd bet the month's wages you don't risk that pretty black of yours past the mark-post. It's easy to rouse other men and let them take the loss."
"It has never been about the horses!" Aetheldred cried. "It's about our freedom. If we retreat every time they strike, soon we'll all be cowering in Edoras, homeless and frightened."
"King's orders are: horses stay back."
"The King is wrong," she said, dismounting BlackWind and letting it be led along with the rest of the herd, following those who would still stand strong.
"You're on your own, then."
"I always seem to be, these days."
When news reached her of the raid, she rushed out of the house and ran, without stopping, until she got to the last section of the fence left to be completed. She sank to the ground upon arriving, she was so exhausted, but she would not touch that fence, not even for support.
"It wasn't a full pack," she heard. "Still, they did plenty enough damage."
Looking up, she saw two horses' bodies driven in wains, one of them, black, had been torn in the struggle. She walked frantically up and down the column, assessing the damage, which seemed mostly in horseflesh, but no human lives lost. In vain she searched for BlackWind among the returning herd, though her heart told him she would not find him. Her last memory of her father. Gone.
The emptiness that settled over her oppressed her like a shroud.
Her brother's wrath was well-deserved, †and welcome. He spoke of risks, and danger, the cost in human lives, and he was right about it all. She had been everything he had said: selfless, childish, capricious, vain, but this had effectively shown her how little she was--how little and powerless they all were in this fight against the shadow-- and the fear that gripped her heart at this realization had sapped her of her hope.
Eomer was more subtle in his condemnation, simply wrapping her in an embrace that seemed to say, "I know. I fear it too, both past and future. I'm with you," but the sadness in his eyes told her the truth: "We're all on our own now."
She would not even look at Leof. She was too dispirited, too abashed, too hopeless and grief-stricken to face him, unsure she could endure his judgment.
To her right he stirred, rose. Each step that took him to reach her felt like a sentence of doom and then, silence. He sat beside her and took her hand in his.
"I'm sorry about BlackWind," he said. "I know what he was to you."
She had to try a smile at that. "No one had thought to say anything about the horse. Believe me, no one could reproach me more than I do myself. I feel keenly what I've done; I had no call to risk anyone. If I wished to make a stand, I ought to have done it alone."
His hand gripped tightly then, urgent, and for a few moments he said nothing. Only once he was able to release her did he speak again.
"It was madness, but bravery usually is, however miscalculated."
"You can berate me all you wish, but there is nothing you could say to me that I have not already said to myself."
He rose. "I cannot give you what you want."
Angered at finding herself hopeful, she lifted her eyes to his, only to see that keen yet tender expression that she had always cherished.
"Will you not judge me, then?"
"I would not know how to rule," he confessed, stealing a glance at his boots while scratching the back of his neck. "I'm torn between the anger and worry you've caused me and the admiration I feel at your courage. I wonder whether we are not partly to blame."
"Because we failed to understand you," he said, turning back toward her small window that overlooked her herb garden. He muttered a few things in a low voice that she could not make out, †shook his head and continued, half to himself, half to her, "I thought by now I knew every look and expression, but there was something else that night I could not read. It frightened me. I did not know... We should have explained." Then, walking back to her, "You have not had time, nor opportunity, to learn."
"That it matters not if you do not win all the battles, so long as you win the important ones." Softly, he hovered his palm over her cheek before letting it fall beside him. "You have been given this lesson, harsh as it is, for a reason."
"Not all battles are won on the field." Silence.
"Stay safe to fight another day, and another, until we win."
His look was earnest for a moment, holding her in place, then he was gone.†The way her stomach flip-flopped made her slow, yet she managed to rise and follow him to the corridor.
"Do you think we'll win?" she called after him.
His grin was both wild and self-assured when he turned to say, "Never doubt it."
And she never did.
*Knots: I can't remember whether Tolkien said that the riders did not have a written system, or that they preferred not to use it. I'm borrowing the knots from the ancient Inca Quipu which was made of a main rope with dangling vertical ropes that were knotted, an early counting device.
**Liutenant to the Marshall: I'm sure you all realize this is a made-up rank but I figured it fit, and the Marshall needed to have a second-in-command. The story takes place some years before Eomer becomes Marshall himself in 3017 T.A.