If pain for peace prepares
Lo, what "Augustan" years
Our feet await!
If springs from winter rise,
Can the Anemones
Be reckoned up?
If night stands fast -- then noon
To gird us for the sun,
When from a thousand skies
On our developed eyes
("If Pain for Peace Prepares," by Emily Dickinson)
The boys were playing a game of fox and geese in the courtyard, the same way boys in The Mark had done for hundreds of years. Théoden did not have to look too hard to spot the signs that these boys had been playing since the cradle: the instinctive way they turned toward the sound of their partner, perfectly attuned; the tread of their footsteps on the grass, stepping just so to achieve better traction; the ring of their calls and laughter--just that perfect mix of Rs and Ls that had given him so much trouble to master. He'd had to learn it all late, as best he could despite the challenge, for the wind blew in another direction here carrying noises differently and, no matter what they said, the grass in Rohan was not the same as its gondorian counterpart: the blade was thicker and bigger, easier to bend yet more hardy, but too soft to step on steadily, much less run. For the foreign lilt in his accent that he had never been fully able to hide, he blamed his father. Thengel should have thought a little better before entirely rejecting the customs of his youth and having his children do it with him.
Soon enough he spotted whom he sought standing against a pillar, arms folded against his chest, watching not the game but Éowyn, who cheered the boys a few paces from him. Théoden had never been able to see the striking resemblance between the boy and his sire that everyone marveled at: where Éomund had been stout, Éomer already looked to have the makings of a tall, slender man, if not for the broad shoulders; where Éomund had had thick, hay-blond hair, Éomer was rich-gold like a lion; where Éomund had had green eyes the color of emeralds, Éomer's resembled the dark pools of Anduin near his own grandfather's home in Lossarnach; and the laugh... the laugh--if he ever laughed again--that was Théodwyn's.
He was on edge, Éomer. Théoden could tell by the angle of the hip as it tilted to the side, by the way the arms did not rest but wrapped around himself, as if trying to contain all the unbounded restlessness that always threatened to burst out from him. Why, Théoden wondered, since he was amongst friends here. The many possible answers troubled him deeply, though he could not exactly say why--did not want to admit why.
During that year that he had had the siblings with him, he had been happier than he had been in far too long a time. The thought itself sickened him, for his happiness had come about through such misery and had likewise ended with the passing of his beloved sister. Death followed him, it seemed, and it was now stalking the children.
A loud cheer interrupted his thoughts. The game was over as quickly as it had begun, and the crowd of innocent youngsters erupted into applause. He could clearly distinguish the ring of Éowyn's laughter among the din of voices, lilting through like a stream skipping over pebbles until it finally makes its way to sea, clear, bubbling, but with that note of ferocity that had begun to trouble him. Éomer, as he had expected, had remained aloof and observed the proceedings with a frown. When someone tripped on Éowyn, he unfurled like a big cat and was upon her in a leap, snatching her away, far.
That brought him back to himself, to this room where Eáhlmund's words still rang in the still, pregnant air between them both, long after he had said them: "He is his father's heir."
True enough. And the boy's father lay under a mound, mangled and torn to pieces. He would die first before letting either of those children suffer such a fate. No more death! He was done with it.
"He is his father's heir," Théoden said, turning to the other man. He did not realize, until too late, that he had drawn himself up, entirely the wrong thing to do if he wanted to break through Eáhlmund's stubbornness. He scratched his chin, sat, thought for a moment of something Théodred had said about treading carefully, and tried, "By that, of course, you mean your heir as well."
"By Béma, I do. He is my heir, the master of his house when I am gone before him. All I have is his."
"What about your daughter?"
"Her children inherit from her portion, just as Éomer and Éowyn inherit from my son's portion. But Éomer will have to step up for his father-- step up for me--when I am gone. Unless you intend to strip me of my title."
Théoden chuckled a mirthless, annoyed chuckle, and looked Eáhlmund in the eye. "Why would I do that for? Do you think me a primitive, who cannot take criticism for what it is worth?"
"You are blinded by your grief."
"So are you!" Théoden cried, snapping in a way he knew to be dangerous for his self-control, and only half-heartedly ashamed of it. "All this year the children have been in my care you have wearied me with petitions to send them back, as if you doubted my capacity to care for them."
"Look again, Théoden, for Éomer is hardly the child you think him to be. I see a man standing out there--sharp-witted, sullen, and mistrustful--and shame on you for letting it happen so early! He did not deserve--"
"A lot of things happened we did not deserve. That is how this world moves and I cannot do a thing about it. Nobody grieves my sister more than I."
"That is questionable, but hardly the point. Théodwyn loved Aldburg."
"If she had stayed here she would have been gone quicker."
"If she had stayed here she may have had to find the will to fight."
"Her will was gone after your foolish son got himself killed on a whim."
"A whim? A whim! Whom do you call foolish?" cried Eáhlmund, rising to a rage Théoden had only ever seen lurking beneath the surface. He was red-faced, his eyes bright, wide, and his jaw so set that it quivered, his voice low and cold, cutting. "If it were not for my son's foolishness, the Orcs from the mountains would have already invaded Edoras long ago."
"If it were not for your son's foolishness, my sister would still be alive and those children would smile with their eyes again. Look at them!" he cried, pointing forcefully to the view outside his window. "Éowyn only ever laughs at other people's prowess now, and Éomer has so withdrawn unto himself that he has forgotten how to play; he's angry! All he does is watch the men train. Théodred caught him copying their moves behind the barn."
That gave Eáhlmund pause. Frowning, he looked out the window, and Théoden could tell the exact moment when the older man's gaze fell on his grandson, for the anger vanished into an expression of profound sadness. The perfect moment to come clean.
"I wish to take them."
"You already have," Eáhlmund said in a whisper.
"I mean, oficially take them with me. Make them my son and daughter."
Eáhlmund turned slowly at that, eyes fixed on him, keenly studying him in a way that Théoden could not read, that bothered him like few things managed to do.
"I know it is a hard thing to ask--"
"You cannot possibly know what you ask. Béma grant you never do. A son is your own flesh, a part of yourself. I would have died a thousand deaths rather than see him die tortured like I saw him that la--" Eáhlmund could not finish. He turned from him and walked toward the window, gripped the shutter tightly. "You do not know what you ask me to give up."
"I can give them a good home, help them to forget--"
"And do you think that will be the best for them?"
"It worked for me before," Théoden said, surprisingly bitter. "They will lack nothing."
"They lack nothing here; this is their home."
"Is that why Éomer stays apart from the other boys?"
"If he does so it is your fault for taking him away and coddling him," Eáhlmund snapped, rather than said. "No matter what you do, life for that boy will never be the same again. It tears my heart to pieces, but that is life; it will not get any easier for anyone, not from now on. The times are dark, the world is not bright like it used to be."
The world had never been bright for him, but it would give him no advantage to point that out. "Is that what you wish for your grandson?" he asked, instead, trying to appeal to a father's sensitivities. "A life of misery and hardship?"
"Wish it or not, that's what he'll get, the way the world is going. You know this Théoden, better than anyone, and if you deprive him of the chance to learn to cope, you're crippling him."
"He is only a boy!" Théoden cried, in time he pounded with his fist on the nearby table, upsetting a tray of fruit and cheese and strewing its contents all over the floor.
"Whether you like it or not, he will one day be the master of Aldburg, and you would uproot him from those he will rule, just like you were yourself uprooted? Have you learned nothing after all these years, after all the suffering and doubt? Shame on you, Théoden-King!"
"Yes, I am the King!"
"Are you ordering me to surrender my grandchildren to you?"
"Would you rather leave them here to wilt also?"
"Edoras did not help your sister any."
"Neither did Aldburg."
"At least here he would be amongst those he knows, who knew his father, who can show him how it's done."
"Yes, those who will feed him lies of glorious exploits that will make him go out, seek trouble, seek revenge, get himself killed early for lack of training?"
"You cannot deny him his right."
"I can make sure he is ready, when the time comes."
"And who gets to decide when the time is right-- You?" Eáhlmund cried. "He will know when the time comes!"
"Like your son did?"
After that, there was nothing more to say. His brand of gondorian diplomacy always seemed ruthless here, but he had never cared for that long-winded rohirrim way of getting things done. There would be time for regrets later. He would make sure that regrets rested solely with him.
Some had thought him too young to be a Marshal and, in his head, he had to agree, though his heart always had known that he could do it. It was that same heart that gave him trouble when he stepped onto this courtyard, that hallway, through this very room that had been his sire's sanctuary and that now claimed him too like a mearas claims a master. He would die for Aldburg but, by Béma, he had no love for it. He looked out the window onto the cobbled courtyard, back to the door where, just outside the frame, he had thrown his two sacks--his baggage--for fear of bringing it in, back to his father's shabby desk.
"Let's get out of here, Éothain."
"Somewhere the windows don't face east."