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Untold Tales of the Mark: The Banishment of Éomer - The Rewrite
Disclaimer: All characters and settings belong to the Tolkien estate. I've only borrowed them for a little entertainment.
Rating: T for some fighting and violence, and overall darkness…
This very AU-story was initially posted more than a decade ago on this site. I was never really happy with the banishment-scenario in the movies (come on, will someone who gets banished be able to take his entire éored with him? He would always be a danger!) In the beginning, it was only a picture in my mind of Éomer standing in the snow, in the process of being surrounded by an éored, not sure how they would respond to encountering their outlawed marshal. I thought that perhaps, there would be 30 pages I could fill with that idea. Well, in the end, it became quite a bit longer... :-)
The original story won the 2008 MEFA AWARDS (Category: Alternate Universe: General)… and now it is being partly rewritten, since I composed a prequel for it ("A Red Sun rises", also on fanfiction dot net and now completed), and some parts will have to be tweaked to make the two stories blend together seamlessly (hopefully). I expect that there will be quite a lot of rewriting be done in the early chapters, and hope it will gradually lessen in the course of this fic, but who knows? I'm definitely open for any ideas that might hit me with unexpected developments along the way! If any of you are new to the "Katzilla-verse", I'd definitely recommend reading "A Red Sun rises" first.
I first started to upload these new chapters over the old ones, but then realised (with some help from Katia0203), that the changes - so far - are rather substantial (over 3,000 more words in only the first four chapters!), and this version would probably be better served being posted separately.
As always, I would be much obliged to read your thoughts on this rewrite (i.e. for those of you who read the original: How does it measure up to the old version?)) and look forward to our exchange!
And so it begins (again) ...
CHAPTER 1: THE VERDICT
Éomer woke to the same flickering twilight to which he had become accustomed over the last days, but something was different today. This was the last day he would ever wake to. These were the last breaths he would ever draw. The thought jumped at him as soon as he opened his eyes to see the iron bars before him, and it took all of what was left of his self-control to not succumb to instant panic. Yet tension had already taken a firm hold over his body. It constricted his lungs and barely allowed him to breathe.
With cold hands, Éomer wiped the sleep from his eyes…to find his face wet from tears he had apparently shed in the night. Puzzled – and embarrassed – he smeared the moisture over his probably filthy face, while he tried to remember what he had dreamed. It was easy and came to him at once, for the dream had been incredibly vivid. And it had been a good dream for once…
His parents… he had seen his parents. They had met in their old home in Aldburg. An Aldburg that seemed to not yet have been ravaged by war. It had been warm and cloudless, and the sun had spent the golden light of a late summer day, his favourite season. He had wandered through the streets, and the people he met had smiled at him and greeted him with an air of carefreeness he had never experienced for as long as he had dwelt there. Children had chased each other through the streets in their wild play, and in their paddocks, the horses had run alongside the fences, testing their strength and speed and enjoying the sensation of the warm summer breeze as it caressed their skin and let their manes fly like banners. It was an ideal version of Aldburg, a city that had never experienced dread or sorrow.
In wonder, Éomer had walked up the hill to the marshal's house where he had grown up until his parents had died, and where he had later returned to when the Eastmark had become his official ward, when he had suddenly been assaulted. A great, hairy beast had jumped at him and almost knocked him off his feet, yipping and whining in a shrill voice that seemed absurd for something so large, and a wet tongue had furiously licked across his face.
Yes, it had been their dog, a gigantic beast of untraceable decent, which Éomer had loved dearly in the days of his childhood. Hryppa had been his companion and protector wherever he had walked, and the day when old age had taken him had been one of the blackest events in the boy's memory. Overjoyed over their reunion, Éomer had sunken to his knees and buried his face in the dense fur as he embraced his old friend, laughing and crying at the same time.
"Hryppa? Who is it?"
It was a familiar voice that asked this question, a deep, commanding voice, and it had stunned him at once. With his arms still locked around his dog's neck, Éomer had looked up… and into his father's face. For the longest moment, they had stared at each other, speechless and too moved for words. Then things had turned even more surreal when a female voice had called out from the house. A voice deeply enshrined in his earliest childhood memories. A voice that had caused new tears to blur his vision when the slender silhouette had appeared in the doorway, but Éomer had not needed to see his mother to recognise her.
Somehow, he had suddenly found himself in his parents' embrace, all three of them crying in the overflow of happiness while Hryppa jumped around them with joyous barks. It had been an incredible moment; a moment of sheer bliss, something Éomer had never expected to experience in his life again. He had revelled in it, allowed it to carry him away, never wanting for it to end.
But it had ended, and Théodwyn had laid a loving hand against his cheek in caress.
"Look at you, Éomer! You are a man now! A warrior! I never thought that I would get to see you like this. You look so much like your father!"
"And he, too, is Third Marshal of Riddermark..." Immense pride had shone in Éomund's eyes when he regarded his son. "I always knew that you would walk in my shoes one day, Éomer. Even as a boy, one could see that you had everything you needed to rise to this position. But at such a young age… Safe Éorl the Young, I doubt that there was ever a warrior in the Mark who rose to marshal at only 24."
Not knowing what to say, Éomer had, for a moment, looked awkwardly to the side.
"I thought I would never see you again… Mother… Father… How… how can this be?"
"You are dreaming, Éomer." The smile on Éomund's face had slightly faded, and melancholy replaced the pride in his gaze.
Sudden realisation of what was about to happen to him in reality had then swept away Éomer's happiness.
"Is this… the afterlife? Already? But I do not remember having died."
Compassion had been written all over his mother's face.
"No, léofa. It is not. You are still in your cell. This is only a dream. Perhaps it came to you because you want to know what we think. It is important to you, and you fear that we might not accept you here." A sad smile had briefly crossed Théodwyn's lips. "You can lay those concerns to rest. We are immeasurably proud of you, Éomer, and we know that all you ever did was for the protection of our people. We will gladly open our door for you, should it come to that. Of course, it would also break our hearts, because it would be long before your time. But perhaps, there is no need for sadness, yet. Perhaps, something will happen that delays our reunion, as much as I would love to welcome you here."
To this, Éomer had furrowed his brow.
"The three strangers? Will they arrive in Edoras, at last?"
"We do not know more than you, son," Éomund had said. "But we have not lost hope yet. Things are in motion, and no one can predict the outcome. For what it's worth, you need to continue the fight. It is too early yet to give up."
"But I am sitting in a cell, Father," Éomer had replied. "I can barely walk… and in a few hours, I will be hanged, unless a miracle happens."
"And yet sometimes, they do happen," Éomund had shrugged. "The history of the Mark is full of such incidences where all hope seemed lost. Why should it not happen this time? Have faith, Éomer…in fate as much as in yourself. You are capable of much more than you think."
His voice had sounded distant all of a sudden, like an echo from the past, and with dismay, Éomer had realised that their meeting was about to end. He had not wanted for it to end, had wanted to remain right where he was.
'All I have to do for that to come true is wait and do nothing,' a voice in the back of his mind said matter-of-factly. 'The question is: is that what I really want? Have I given up?'
"Believe in yourself, Éomer!"
Which was the point where he had woken.
Once more, Éomer wiped his eyes with the balls of his thumbs. It been such a comfort to meet his parents after all this time, even if it had only been in his mind. The hole their death had left in his soul ached all the more all of a sudden, but Éomer told himself that, if what he had seen in the dream was real, his parents were occupying a realm far better than the one he himself was currently part of.
'So why should I even fight getting there?'
The distant noise of an opening door brought him back to grim reality. He sat up.
'They are coming. Get a grip!'
Several deep, guttural voices could be heard now, and the steps of at least three or four men. They were indeed coming to get him. Unwilling to face them sitting, Éomer slowly rose to his feet. To his relief, his body obeyed him. Apparently, the effort he had made only last afternoon, when he had paced the inside of his small cell in tight circles for as long as he had been able to, had restored his balance, and at least a little of his strength. His head and torso were still throbbing in the aftermath of the beating, but the pain was more distant now, and certainly manageable. He was as ready as he ever would be for what was about to follow.
Would the Worm truly dare to have him executed right before their people's eyes? No matter what lies the counsellor had been telling the Royal Court about the crimes of which he had been judged guilty, Éomer was certain that the open execution of a member of the royal family bore the risk of sparking long-overdue rebellion. He could not imagine that the filth would risk that… and yet these men were not coming to simply release him, this much was certain.
Bracing himself for the confrontation as the flickering glow of several torches finally reached his corridor, Éomer involuntarily stepped back to the wall. Even though his eyes watered from the painfully bright firelight as the group halted in front of his cell, he could see that he had assumed rightly that Gríma would not risk using Théoden-King's guards for the task of retrieving him. The six henchmen on the other side of the bars were Gríma's own, part of an ever-increasing group of crooked men that had been invading the city over the course of the last months.
"Well, there he is, our mighty marshal!" Felrod roared with a broad grin upon his face. "Isn't he a sight? Come out, rat, it's time to meet the cat!"
Éomer forced himself to remain calm.
"As you apparently saw the need to bring five men with you, Felrod, it would seem to me that it remains open for discussion who of us is the cat ... and who the rat." He raised an eyebrow. "How is your ear, by the way?"
The halfblood narrowed his eyes at his rebuke, and the fingers of his free hand worked at his side as if he could barely wait to wring his prisoner's neck.
"My orders say to bring you to the hearing in unspoiled condition, because my master does not want people to get angry over seeing you wounded. But if we break your ribs, they might never know it. Keep that in mind when we open the door now, forgoil." A short nod at the door. "You will step forward now and lay your hands on the crossbar."
A derogatory smirk pulled at Éomer's lips.
"Why? You've got five men with you, and still you are afraid to open my cell door?"
"Keep making this difficult, strawhead, and you will pay for it. You have my word. They're all waiting for you up there; if you keep them waiting, I doubt it will do you any good." He gave a little dirty laugh. "Not that there is anything good coming your way now, but still… things are never so bad that they cannot be made worse."
For a brief moment, Éomer considered resistance. How wonderful would it feel to unleash his accumulated frustration and rage against these men, even if they were not his main adversaries. He denied himself the pleasure. In his current condition, he would stand no chance against them. Not yet knowing what Gríma had planned for him, it would be best to conserve his strength for the time being. If they brought him up into the hall and the Worm then announced his execution, he could put it to better use by snapping the filth's neck before they killed him. And this time, he would make sure that he succeeded. They would not thank him for this deed right away, but perhaps, he would be regarded as a hero again in the end.
Squaring his shoulders, Éomer stepped forward and did as bidden, his eyes fixed on the big halfblood in silent threat. Daring Felrod to open the handcuffs.
From a ring with many keys, the brute fingered for the right one and found it after two vain attempts. His gaze on his prisoner, he growled: "Make one false move, forgoil, and you will regret it."
Up close, Éomer saw that the man's ear appeared to be badly inflamed, and so he only smirked with satisfaction and remained silent while his adversary opened the locks.
"Now turn around and put your hands behind your back," Felrod barked, annoyed. No doubt had he understood the amused glance his prisoner had given him. "Dorlâk, shackle his feet!"
Éomer followed his orders. This was bad. It was uplifting to see them still so very afraid of him, but with those additional chains around his ankles, and his hands fettered on his back, there was indeed little left he would be able to do. Certainly, he would not be able to snap the Worm's neck chained like this.
"All right," Felrod growled. "Now step back deeper into the cell and turn around."
The rusty door screamed in its hinges as it gave way, and for moment, the seven men stared expectantly at each other. Nothing happened. Felrod drew his sword.
'His sword? He must have taken it from our weapon's chamber, the thief!'
"Out with you. If you try something funny-"
"—I will regret it." Éomer nodded. "Aye. I understood that the first time you mentioned it."
With a deep breath, he left the small, uncomfortable rectangle he had occupied these past days and nights. All of a sudden, the relative safety it offered seemed much preferable to what would be awaiting him upstairs. His situation was about to change, and quite likely, not for the better. Swallowing his sudden anxiety, Éomer stepped forward.
One of the ruffians poked him between the shoulder blades with a club he had no doubt brought along in hope to use it, and Éomer continued down the corridor, his steps sounding hollow in the darkness of the hill's intestines, and the rattle of his chains incredibly loud. The halfblood gave him a condescending grin as he passed him.
"Now will you look at this? Dorlâk? Guthlaf? Not only is the noble son of the great Marshal Éomund not a cat, he is not even a rat! Indeed I think that our once proud warrior here is nothing but a little scared mouse!" He spat. "Disappointing. I was hoping I'd get the chance to sweep the floor with your ugly face!"
Éomer bit his tongue. An acid reply lay upon its tip, but it would not improve his situation. Best not to listen to anything his captors said. The important fight was the one in the Great Hall, not this petty skirmish with dimwits. He walked on silently, much to the amusement of his guards.
Up the stairs. The effort made him feel temporarily lightheaded. Before them, the heavy oaken door to the dungeon was opened from the other side, and Éomer squinted as daylight assaulted his deprived eyes. It was only the filtered light of the hall, but after days in the weak twilight of a single torch, even this hurt. Still he recognised one of the Royal Guards. The man's eyes widened slightly at the unruly sight of his disgraced marshal, yet he dared not speak out. Éomer granted the man a dark, accusing glance that made the guard avert his eyes.
"In here, filth," Felrod's gruff voice suddenly rang out from behind, and unceremoniously, Éomer was shoved into one of the empty guest chambers. "Dorlâk, get a piece of cloth." The brute grinned as he eyed his prisoner. "I fear we must first clean up our noble rider, before we can lead him before the King. He is filthy." He sniffed the air. "And he stinks!"
He waited for a reaction, but Éomer remained silent, instead of rising to the provocation choosing to look out of the window. It had been a clumsy attempt, and he knew better than to listen to it. Behind him, the door opened and closed as the other guard left, and heavy silence filled the room. It seemed to snow outside.
"Afraid, traitor? You should be. Your oh-so-noble blood protects you no longer. You will soon be fodder for the crows. They're already waiting for you."
Again, the son of Éomund forbade himself to do what the ruffian wanted. The stick was poked against his back again.
"Swallowed your tongue, strawhead?"
"You are not worth wasting my breath. I will speak with my King, and with my King only. Spare the effort." A strong gust howled around the hall, and all of a sudden, Éomer understood why it had been so cold in his cell the last days.
"Here is the cloth, Felrod."
The big man grunted.
"So… let's teach our pig-lord about cleanliness. Hold him!"
Éomer's arms were violently seized. He offered no resistance when the wet cloth was roughly wiped over his face, followed by a dry, coarse cloth. When this was done, Felrod's broad, ugly face appeared in Éomer's vision again, grinning as if this was the best day he had ever experienced. It probably was.
"Ah, isn't he pretty again? How the maids will swoon over his handsome face when we lead him out! Perhaps we should gift them with his head later on. They would surely appreciate it."
Finally averting his gaze from the window, Éomer stared the halfblood full in the face. There was frost in his voice when he said: "You will get your just reward for this, dog. But it will be a different one than you expect. I might not be around when they skin you alive and use your hide for a doormat, but wherever I may be by then, I will see it… and I will laugh."
A dangerous spark glowered in Felrod's dark eyes. His fist with the stick itched to make use of it.
"We will see about that, forgoil. I have a feeling that we might meet again much sooner than you think… and then we will see who skins whom!" He walked around his prisoner and rammed his hand between Éomer's shoulder blades, shoving him towards the door.
"Let's go and hear what your King has to say to you. I doubt that it is what you are hoping for."
"It is time. The prisoner is on his way. Bring him out."
It was Wormtongue's voice, and Éowyn narrowed her eyes in disgust when her adversary entered the King's chamber, followed by Gamling. Her heartbeat accelerated as she straightened. She was furious.
"He can barely walk this morning, Counsellor, let alone speak! When Théoden-King visited me yesterday, he was in much better condition. He was stronger, and hale. Now look at him and tell me that it is not your doing that my uncle has – again – been reduced to an unresponsive, hollow shell over night!"
"My Lady, unfortunately we have no time to discuss this for yet the hundredth time. The court is waiting for its king. Your uncle clearly overexerted himself yesterday, for he was already in bad shape when he left your chambers…, which makes me think that you must have played a part in his relapse! When I visited him in the evening, the King asked me for a sleeping draught… which I provided to him. Nothing more happened."
"You imply that I damaged the King's health? How dare you!"
"We can discuss this later, if you like, Lady Éowyn, but right now, the King is needed in the hall!"
"It is utterly unthinkable that he will be able to pass sentence in this condition!" Éowyn wrung her hands and looked pleadingly at the Captain of the Royal Guard. "He barely knows his own name, or where he is! The session must be postponed! Captain, just look at him! Say something!"
The old man's gaze was greatly distressed as he regarded his feeble King, but before he could voice his concerns, Gríma cut him off.
"It is not in Captain Gamling's power to stop these proceedings, my Lady," he sneered. "I remind you that, in the case of the King's illness, it is I who was instated by the Council to speak and act in his stead! Of course, we can do so, if you insist: we lay the King in his bed, and I will pass sentence on your brother. Is that what you want? You only have to say so!"
Horrified, all Éowyn could do was stare back at his vile, pale face. Unable to find the words for an appropriate reply. Unable to think. How could she have actually believed that perhaps, things could still turn for the better after her uncle's visit? Stunned, she shook her head.
'Please, do something, Gamling!' she implored the guard silently. 'Can you not see what he is doing? Where all this is leading?' It was written in his pale blue eyes that he knew it… and yet his hand remind idly on the heft of his sword.
If Gríma had noticed their little exchange, he did not let on.
"Either Théoden-King will sit on the throne to pass sentence on your brother, or I shall do it. The choice is yours, Lady Éowyn."
He turned and left.
As they left the guest chamber, Éomer's guards first led their prisoner alongside the left wall, towards the Golden Hall's exit. For protocol to be followed, the accused man had to walk through the cordon in the middle, right through the members of the court who had betrayed him.
Sensing the crowd's overpowering presence, but refusing to give in to the almost suffocating feeling of dread by turning his head to look, Éomer walked on. He pressed his lips together. Before him, the door grew ever greater, torturing him with the false notion that escape was still possible, that all he would have to do was get rid of his guards and make a run for it.
'Unarmed and with chained feet and hands. Certainly.'
He had to avert his eyes. Not wanting to look at his feet, as it would make him seem guilty, the son of Éomund chose to stare into a distance far beyond the hall instead. His expression was bland. For as long as possible, he would keep his emotions locked inside an inner vault. They would not help him here. If he followed his impulses, he would shout and insult everyone in the room. If he still wanted to avoid the gallows, that mode of action was forbidden.
He heard the mumbling of the crowd as they beheld his deranged state and followed his progress, but deliberately ignored them as they reached the far side near the door and turned around. Now for the most excruciating part…
The door to the King's chambers opened.
"Honourable members of the Court of Edoras…behold Théoden son of Théngel, King of Riddermark!" Háma's voice rang out from the dais.
The great hall fell silent. Slow, scuffling steps could be heard from the other side, approaching.
His view still blocked by the crowd, Éomer could not help tensing, and his heartbeat accelerated. The sound of this did not bode well. Last time he had seen his uncle, Théoden had appeared like his own ghost. What he was hearing now seemed to fit that last image perfectly… which meant that the old man's condition had not improved. Was he still that wraith-like creature that had done so much damage to his realm? And would that wraith-like creature condemn him to die now?
Straightening in the grip of his captors, Éomer lifted his chin. Whatever followed, he would face it with dignity.
There was movement now before him, in the gap he could see through the crowd. Gríma, slowly making his way over to his usual place on the dais, on the right side of the throne. And behind him…
Éomer froze. It was Éowyn who was helping Théoden up the three steps, assisted by Gamling. She had not left! She had remained here for him, and the Worm would claim her as soon as he was dead! She would see him die in a horrible way!
´Why, Éowyn?' Éomer thought in despair. 'Why did you do this? Do you not know what will happen now? This makes it so much harder for me to go!'
"Théoden-King," Háma's voice could be heard again once the members of the court had found their place on the dais. "…here comes Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of Riddermark, to be judged for his deeds. Will you see him, my Lord?"
Before them, Wormtongue bent toward the King, whispering into the sick man's ear. Then straightening again.
"The King will see him, Háma son Hárlond," he answered, and Éomer felt the short hairs on the nape of his neck rise in reaction. "Bring forth the prisoner!"
A stick was poked into his back, and involuntarily, he took the first step. The rattle of his chains seemed incredible loud in the leaden silence as he slowly walked down the cordon on legs that felt as if they were made of wood. They all turned to stare at him. It felt like a nightmare.
His blood a river of ice, his breath caught in his throat, Éomer looked at the men who formed the corridor. He knew all those faces. Most of them belonged to the Royal Guard, and they were clad in their whole attire and armed with spears and swords, thus underlining the official nature of these proceedings. Among them were the Council members. Lord Aethelmaer, Lord Aldhelm… He looked them in the eye as he passed, and one after another, they averted their gaze, and their expressions became distant and went right through him as he searched for a sign in their features that they were still on his side. His heart sank.
On the other side, the members of the Royal Household stood and watched. Here at least, Éomer detected dismay and horror on their pale faces, and more than one of those people he had known for most of his life was crying silently. What a wretched display this was!
At last, the corridor ended and Éomer stepped out before the crowd to come to a halt in front of the dais, flanked by his guards. His gaze went up to his sister.
Usually of an already pale complexion, Éowyn's face looked ghostly white as she stood behind their uncle, her fingers unconsciously digging into the fabric of her garments. Her eyes were unusually red. There were dark circles underneath them telling of sleepless nights and nightmares, and for the sight of her distress alone Éomer felt tempted to jump forth and strangle the darkly-clad figure at Théoden's other side. His eyes narrowing in disgust and resentment as he slowly dropped to his knees before his king, the son of Éomund finally faced his true adversary.
Seemingly ignorant of the prisoner's hate-filled stare, but secretly casting him a smirk that lay only within his eyes, Gríma raised his voice.
"Honourable members of the Council of Edoras and of the Royal Guard, we have assembled here today to pass sentence on this man who has been brought before you. Most of you were present when Éomer son of Éomund admitted that he planned rebellion with the help of the three strangers he had met on the plains and withheld from his report. His disobedience to follow his given orders put the heir to the throne of the Mark into his grave. And last, but not least, you were there to witness his attempt to murder a high-ranking member of the Royal Court."
Gríma inhaled, and allowed his portentous glance to travel over the listening crowd.
"For all those reasons, the Council of Edoras saw it fit to forego the customary trial. The guilt of the man before you has been proven beyond doubt. The sentence that is now going to be announced has been reached unanimously. Before it will be proclaimed, however, protocol decrees that the accused shall be given opportunity to speak for himself."
The focus of the pale blue eyes came to rest on his kneeling adversary.
"Rise, Éomer son of Éomund."
Slowly, Éomer came to his feet… His hazel eyes blazed as he stabbed them against his tormentor's. If it had been possible to kill a man with his stare alone, Gríma Wormtongue would have dropped dead there and then.
"This is your moment to speak, Marshal. Is there something you have to say for yourself?"
Éomer glared at his opponent a moment longer. Breathing in… and out. Trying to bring order to his thoughts. He looked at Éowyn, and in her eyes, he found overwhelming horror, and sadness, and compassion. He granted her the smallest, sad smile in thankfulness for her loyalty. At last, his gaze came to rest on his uncle. He had once loved that man like a father. But there was nothing left of him in this aged, hollow imitation of the King of Rohan. Théoden seemed to look right through him, his eyes veiled by a mist and his gaze turned inward. Éomer could not even tell whether the King even knew where he was, and what was happening around him. Addressing this living corpse would be worthless. But aye, there was something he still had to say, and it was important to him. He turned around to address the waiting crowd.
"Aye, Councillor, there is." His gaze wandered along the rows. They were all staring at him, listening. He inhaled… and raised his voice.
"So…you have all found me guilty of the crimes Councillor Gríma recited… or rather, you decided to see my actions as crimes. In your eyes, it is a crime to honour the oath I took to protect the people of the Mark against their enemies… In your eyes, it is a crime to fight domestic influences whose interest is not the wellbeing of the people they once swore to serve. It is a crime to act in the face of evil, while everyone else only watches paralysed, like the rabbit before the snake, how the realm of Éorl the Young is brought to ruin."
His eyes narrowed, and his tone sharpened.
"But it is not a crime to watch idly and then later, lament the death of those who could have easily been saved by a different cause of action. It is not a crime to look evil right in the eye and recognise it for what it is, and still remain silent… out of cowardice, or whatever personal reason. It is not a crime to punish those who still put their lives on the line and risk everything to bring change, and restore the Mark to what it once was."
Éomer nodded bitterly… and was that shame he saw in some of those faces before him? Good. He lifted his chin.
"Be assured that Béma sees what you are doing. Your forefathers see it. And from the course this is taking, it is certain that you will have to answer to them one not-too-distant day. You can order my execution now, but I will walk to the gallows with the knowledge that my ancestors will welcome me in the afterlife…which is more than you can hope for... Rot in hell!" He spat.
Commotion followed his words, outraged outbursts by the so accused, an ear-splitting din directed at the man before them, who could not have cared less as he turned his back on them. There was something wolfish in the Worm's smirk now, something predatory. Éomer did not care for that, either.
"Bravo, Marshal!" Gríma congratulated him, sarcastically clapping his hands. "You certainly know how to make them all weep for you. Now hear what the Council of Edoras has decreed."
He lifted his hand to stop the noise. "Silence! It is time for the King to announce the verdict!" Not everyone heard him, and so he lifted his voice. "Silence! I will not say it again!"
By and by, the shouting subsided, and they all looked at him, some of them with red faces from breathless exasperation. Feeling their full attention on himself, Gríma bent down to the King.
"It is time, Sire. Your subjects await your verdict. In the case against Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of Riddermark, what is it that the Small Council decided?"
With considerable effort, Théoden rose to his feet. For a moment, his milky eyes seemed to clear as he rested his gaze upon his nephew, surprising all who saw the transformation. His voice was low, but it was loud enough to carry through the hall.
"I once welcomed you in my house when you were little and orphaned, Sister-son. I raised you as my own child. I showed you kindness. But it seems that unwittingly, I invited a serpent into my home. Cursed be the day when our bloodlines were united: first your father killed my sister, and now his son has killed my own kin!"
Murmur rose from the crowd. Éomer did not hear it. His attention was exclusively focussed on the man before him; the man whose words were like well-aimed sword strikes. They went straight through his defences, cutting, no, shredding his innards, his soul. Severing whatever tiny rest of kinship he had still felt with his uncle. The hall began to spin around him, but Théoden was not done yet, as he lifted a feeble hand to point at his nephew.
"Be gone, ungrateful curse to my house! You are no longer welcome in this hall, nor in this realm. You are herewith banished from the Kingdom of Rohan, under pain of death should you ever return."
He stumbled, grief-stricken, and only Éowyn and Gríma prevented him from falling down the dais. They helped him back onto his throne, where he slumped, utterly bereft of strength. Hiding his face behind his shaking hands, so that he would no longer have to look at his nephew's aghast expression, Théoden mumbled: "Take him away. I can no longer bear to see his face."
He began to weep.
For an endless moment, the silence in the room was deafening as none of the present dared to breathe. For what felt like an eternity, Éomer continued to stare at his uncle, paralysed. He hardly even registered Wormtongue's voice when the counsellor took over.
"You spoke well and true, my Lord. It was about time this wolfling heard the truth, although I wished you had been in better health for this most unfortunate business." He cleared his throat and turned first to the crowd and then to Éomer.
"The current rules of the banishment were written over a hundred years ago, and so far, it was never necessary to apply them. So for your information and understanding, I shall repeat them here now: the banished will be given his horse and five days time to leave the Mark. Should he be detected within our realm afterwards, he is to be executed without trial and without delay. On his way to leaving the Mark, the banished is not allowed to approach any cities or settlements, on pain of death. Likewise, anyone found helping him in whatsoever fashion, whether by arming him, hosting or feeding him, is to be executed."
Triumph sparkles in Gríma's eyes now as he stared at his adversary's thunderstruck mien, yet his voice remained neutral.
"From this day forth, the banished's name is not to be uttered in the Riddermark ever again. The punishment for doing so will be ten whip lashes… at the first offence. It is to be doubled each time the offender repeats his or her crime. Upon the fourth time, the offender will be incarcerated indefinitely… Lastly, the banished will be lead to the city gates in a public 'Walk of Shame'. All citizens are to be made aware of it at once, and are to gather along the path. No excuses will be accepted. As he passes, each man, woman and child shall turn their back on the banished. Failure to do so is likewise to be punished by ten lashings."
Wormtongue halted. His audience looked suitably stunned. Very well, so they understood the sincerity of these rules.
"These proceedings have already been organised. All cities and settlements were informed, and as we are speaking, the people of Edoras are being called together by the bell, to be instructed. The 'Walk of Shame' will commence in an hour. As mentioned, not being there will have consequences."
Éomer was unable to react. A deathly cold froze his body. This was a nightmare. So he would not be hanged. He would live… as an outcast. In a realm where he did not belong and where no one would welcome him, never to return to the ones he loved and cared about. Where he would remain a stranger until the end of his days. Somehow, this was worse… much worse. They would uproot him and delete his entire existence from their people's memory. He would become a ghost… less than that. Given the choice, he would have gladly walked to the gallows instead. What reason was there for him to live on? What was left for him to fight for?
He looked at Éowyn to see how she took the verdict, and the sight of her anguish mirrored what he was feeling himself. Her eyes were closed, but the tell-tale stream of tears upon her far-too-pale face could not be overlooked. Her pain was too great to be expressed in words…
Théoden, too, was still weeping behind his lined, shaking hands, no longer looking at him.
One more time, Gríma raised his voice.
"According to the law, the banished man has to be escorted by the Royal Guard up to the gate, to demonstrate to the people of Edoras the official nature of the verdict. So I am now asking its members to do their duty. Captain Háma… Captain Gamling…you will take the traitor away and relieve us of his unbearable presence. Make certain that your men are ready for the procession in an hour. My personal guard will accompany you and assist in whatever way you need them."
Wormtongue pierced the two stunned captains with his hard stare.
"I will meet you outside in a moment, but first I need to tend Théoden-King. I fear that the strain of these past days has been too much for him. He needs to rest… I hereby declare this session over."
Éomer hardly felt it when Felrod and another member of his guard grabbed him and shoved him in the direction of the exit. He heard neither their voices, nor the muffled muttering of the crowd. He did not see the stunned faces of the Captains of the Royal Guard as they took up their place beside him, or the council members, or the staff of the Royal Household, although he was led straight through their midst.
Reality had ceased to exist. There was only numbness, the feeling that he had been cast into a nightmare from which there would be no awaking…
UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISHMENT OF ÉOMER
Chapter 2: Leaving Edoras
It was all too much. Éowyn could no longer look at her brother's shocked expression, nor bear to see the triumph sparkle in Gríma's pale face. She shut her eyes, but it did not stop the flow of her tears. This was worse than any nightmare she had ever suffered. They were shredding Éomer's soul right here, under her very eyes. Perhaps she ought to be thankful that they had not decided to kill him, but she knew her brother well enough to understand that being expelled from the land he had given everything to protect from the first moment when he had held a sword in his hand was quite likely an even worse punishment. Added to that the dreadful words their uncle had uttered…
Involuntarily, Éowyn had distanced herself from the throne on which the old man sat slumped. She had helped him back onto it when it had seemed that he was about to fall down from the dais, but it had been nothing more than a reflex, and she had immediately let go of him once Théoden sat safely on the massive wooden chair. She could tell herself again and again that it was the Worm's poison that had made him say such spiteful things, and yet her heart had broken when she had seen Éomer's reaction to the scathing accusations.
Now they were leading him away through the dispersing crowd, and Éowyn knew that time was running out. If she ever wanted to speak with Éomer again, it would have to be now, before the horrible procession the Worm had announced took place, and her brother would be expelled from the Mark – and from her life – permanently.
Quickly, the daughter of Éomund made her way down the dais and all but ran after the guards, ignoring the Worm's calls. If Gríma needed someone to bring the King back to his chambers, he would have to find someone else. She did not feel up to it… and had far more important things to do.
Up ahead, Éomer's tall frame was still visible as she moved through the crowd, and Éowyn hurried to follow the procession of guards and their prisoner.
"Éomer! Éomer, wait! Háma! Captain!"
The small group came to a stop, and Éowyn thought that she saw wariness in the eyes of the man she had trusted for most of her life, as she approached them. The big, dark-haired guard next to him glowered at her in warning, but she chose to ignore him. The Captain of the Royal Guard was already shaking his head to deny her whatever she would ask of him, his mien uneasy in the presence of Gríma's personal henchmen.
"Lady Éowyn, I am afraid I cannot allow you -"
Éowyn's glare promised the Captain of the Guard consequences if he did not let her pass, and her voice sounded dark and outraged.
"You do not want to tell me that I cannot speak with my brother, Háma, do you?" Her blue eyes tore into those of the broadly-built warrior she had known for many years. "You do not want to tell me that Éomer will be banished, and you will not even let me say farewell to him? Has it come so far that you, too, will do the Counsellor's bidding without using your own judgement? I used to know a different man under the name of Háma, son of Harlond… a decent, compassionate man."
Visibly ashamed, the warrior averted his gaze. It was obvious that conflicting emotions were tearing the man apart inside, but at this moment, Éowyn cared little. Her brother had been banished, and what was even worse, she feared that their uncle's words had destroyed what will to fight Éomer had left. The Gods alone knew how strong her urge was to leave these men standing and run to her chambers, throw herself onto the bed and cry her eyes out, but she would have to withstand the impulse. It would not help Éomer, and she could not afford to show weakness to their enemy, especially not now that her last protector was being chased from these halls.
"You can say farewell to him right here," Felrod snapped at her from behind Háma. "What's keeping you?"
Lifting his hand to silence the brute, Háma glared at the man.
"You are addressing a member of the Royal family, Felrod! You will not speak with the Lady Éowyn in this manner! Not while I am standing beside you! Be silent!"
Turning back towards her, the Captain of the Royal Guard gave her the small nod Éowyn had been hoping for. Behind him, Éomer still stood impassively amidst his guards, his gaze directed at the doors of the Golden Hall, and she doubted that he was even aware of her presence.
"I apologise, my lady," Háma said. "You heard the Counsellor's words yourself… but I suppose that there is indeed enough time to grant your request." He invited her with a gesture to step closer, but she shook her head.
"No, not out here. At least let us be alone for a moment." With her chin, Éowyn gave a brief nod to the nearest door, and sighed in frustration when she saw once again hesitation in the guard's eyes. "Háma, what do you fear we could do? I beg you, grant us this brief moment of privacy, please! I did not hear the King specifically forbid it, and you are still the Captain of these men; a man of power yourself. Surely there is still enough authority left to your position to honour my request?"
With a deep intake of breath, Háma finally nodded… and stepped aside, motioning for his men to release their hold on the prisoner.
"I am sorry, my Lady. These are dark times we are living in, and with each passing day, it becomes harder to make the right decisions. I will grant you this moment you ask for, but be quick."
"We will not cause you trouble. You have my word, Captain. My heartfelt thanks."
With a meaningful glance at Éomer, Éowyn stepped over to the door Gamling held open for them, and he followed her inside without any visible emotion.
"I must protest!" Felrod bellowed out behind her. "I will have to bring this before the Counsellor, Captain!"
"You do that, Felrod! This is my decision, and I stand by it! You have no authority in my presence."
The voices of the two combatants were instantly muffled when the door closed behind them. Heavy silence filled the little anteroom as Éowyn turned toward her brother. The rigidity she had displayed in front of the guards melted away when she took Éomer in her arms, gently at first, but then with growing intensity as the dam of her restraint threatened to break.
"Oh Éomer… I do not know what to say. This is such a nightmare!"
The fact that his hands were still chained behind his back and he could not return her embrace made it even worse. He felt rigid in her arms, unresponsive. As if he was still not aware of her. It ached her more than she could say.
"We will find a way through this, Éomer! Whatever it takes, we will somehow defeat them. Please, don't give up!"
"Does it matter?" Éomer finally spoke, but his voice sounded dead, and his eyes, which had always carried that spark of defiance and willpower, were now two open wounds, wide-open windows to his bleeding soul. "My own uncle calls me a curse to his house. I am expelled by men who have known me for most of my life, and who understand that what is being done to me is wrong. Yet they do not speak up. Whether it is out of cowardice, or hope for some personal gain, I cannot say." He swallowed visibly. "It hurts, Éowyn… more than death. Given the choice, I would have chosen the gallows over this."
Éowyn's eyes widened in dismay as she cupped his face with both hands, forcing him to look at her.
"Do not speak like this, Éomer! Please, you must not let yourself be fooled! That was not our uncle speaking! He was with me only yesterday morning, and he was clear and hale! We had an argument about you, and he promised me to think about it! This wraith on the throne… that was not him! The Worm must have done something to him again over night, to ensure that he got what he wanted! In your heart, you must know this!"
At last, some emotion returned to her brother's eyes, but it pained her to see that it was bitterness.
Éowyn swallowed and stepped back.
"You should, at least, after all those years we have lived here. Is your rage so great that you cannot remember the man our uncle once was? How he comforted us when we first came here? The kindness he showed us? He is a weak, ill man in the claws of a dangerous traitor; he is not an evil man himself."
Éomer looked down on her from his superior height and slowly shook his head.
"He accused me of treason before. He believed Gríma's insinuations that I wanted the throne for myself, even against his own son's repeated protest, and he was hale then." He shook his head. "No, Éowyn, I lost Théoden's favour long ago. He meant what he said."
His dispirited reply punched the breath right out of Éowyn's lungs. For a while, she could only stare at him.
He inhaled and lifted his chin.
"Let's assume, for a moment, that you are right, Éowyn: then why is nobody thinking of killing the man who gives him that poison? Or at least, why not let me do it when I attempted it?" He narrowed his eyes. "But they all preferred to stand back and throw me to the wolves! The Worm cannot have poisoned them all!"
"There is a reason for that," Éowyn explained hesitantly. "You were not here when it surfaced. I meant to tell you upon your return, but… I had other things to think of when I saw you in your cell that night." She looked into Éomer's deeply sceptical eyes.
"The potion that makes Uncle the Worm's pawn… he will die if he is denied it. Gríma, of course, keeps calling it a 'strengthening potion', or a 'sleeping draught'. Anyway, while you were gone, Gamling and I quarrelled with him, and it got to the point where I succeeded in removing him from Uncle's care, although the Worm threatened that we were endangering the King's life. To prove his words, he withheld the draught from Uncle for almost two days."
Her voice began to tremble.
"Uncle almost died. It was not until we apologised that Gríma relented. Believe me, it is tearing Gamling and Háma apart to see you treated like this, but they must maintain their position. If they, too, are replaced, there will be no one left to stop Wormtongue."
Èomer was not impressed. He snorted.
"Well, they are certainly not doing anything to stop him now, while they are still in their positions of power. They are nodding to everything that crooked liar can conceive, and sooner or later, they are going be replaced by his minions anyway… and they will have done nothing to prevent it."
Éowyn's shoulders sagged.
"You were not here. You did not see how Uncle suffered."
"But I see how our people are suffering." Éomer inhaled. "I swore fealty to lord and land, Éowyn. And as my lord seems no longer capable of providing safety to the people under his care, it might be time to separate the two and decide who is more important: a single man, blood-kin or not, or many thousands." Éomer lifted his chin, and his expression hardened. "I made my decision. What about you, Éowyn?"
She studied his mien and shivered. He meant it. And after what had happened these past days, it was not as if she could hold that against him. She knew no longer what do say.
Éomer saw how lost she was and told himself to calm down. How could they fight if this was perhaps the last time they ever saw each other?
He lowered his voice.
"Come with me, Éowyn. I do not know what awaits me out there, but I also do not want to leave you behind. You know what will happen once they close the city gates behind me."
She looked at him, contemplating. He could see that she was tempted… and afraid of the things he had hinted at. But there was something else, as well, a familiar stubbornness, a streak of rebellion. The same character traits that also defined his personality. It was good to see them, for it meant that his sister had not yet given up… and at the same time, they dismayed him, for he knew what she would say before she opened her mouth.
Éowyn shook her head.
"I cannot, Éomer. Part of me wants to, but I cannot. Someone has to continue this fight."
"Even if that means placing yourself at Gríma's mercy?" He lifted his eyebrows. "Do you honestly believe that the Captains of the Royal Guard and the members of our Council will protect you from that filth?"
A sharp knock at the door interrupted them. Éowyn's eyes widened in dismay. There was more she had meant to say, and it was important.
"Just one more moment, please!" Her tone grew even more urgent. "That is a chance I must take. But Éomer, listen: I will send someone to bring you your weapons, or any weapons I can get my hands on. Ride to our old hiding place and wait there until darkness, and I will see that the weapons are stored in the little niche underneath the rock. Promise me you will wait there! Do not ride into the wild like this, because that is what Gríma wants. Then make for Gondor. It is possibly the safest place for you right now, and their Captain knows you. That way, we can stay in contact, until we have found a way to dispose of the Worm!"
Éomer granted her a sad little smile.
"I do not know how you can still have hope… but I will be there. Just be careful, Éowyn. If the filth caught you at helping me… I don't know what he would be liable to do. I could not take it if anything happened to you. I'd rather you did not do this."
"But I will, Brother. I have to. I could not live with myself otherwise." Once again, Éowyn embraced him, and finally, her emotions were too powerful to be held back. Tears streamed down her face as she pulled Éomer close, revelling in the sensation of his warmth and scent for maybe the last time.
"Do not worry for me. I can hold my own. I have done so for many years. But you must promise me to be careful out there. You are a great warrior, but you stand alone now, and must weigh your actions more carefully than ever before. No man, however valiant, can defeat all the hosts of his enemies alone. Hide, and only surface when the time is right. Do not let your pride lead you into an early grave, Éomer. There will come a time for payback, but we need to be patient for now."
"I promise you that I will be as cautious as I can." Éomer inhaled deeply. "Until we are united again, I will not stop worrying for you, Éowyn." After his heated outpouring of sentiment, he suddenly felt utterly spent and choked on his emotions as he kissed his sister gently on the brow.
"Lady Éowyn," Háma's voice reached them from outside. "I'm afraid we must leave. Will you please come outside?"
He had barely finished when the door was suddenly thrown open and Wormtongue's armed guards stood in the entrance. Behind them, Éomer beheld Háma's distraught face. With a derogatory sneer, Felrod seized Éowyn's arm to pull her away.
"Aw… What a sweet farewell! It brings tears to my eyes. But now it's time!"
A second later, he gasped when Éomer rammed his shoulder into his stomach, and landed unceremoniously and undignified on his behind, gulping for air like a fish while the former marshal towered over him like a god of wrath.
"Touch her again, and you'll lose that hand. Do you understand me, dog?"
"Stop! Stop it, both of you!" Throwing his full authority into the situation before it could spin out of control, Háma pushed through the group of quarrelling men. "Éomer, Felrod – apart! I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour." He eyed Éowyn with concern. "Are you all right, my Lady? Did he hurt you?"
"It is nothing. Just see to it that this brute won't touch me again, Captain!" Éowyn rubbed her arm and glared at the squarely built halfblood, who was just now beginning to draw shallow, painful breaths again. Háma's whole insides twisted into a painful knot by the knowledge of what he would have to do now. With a deep sigh, the son of Harlond shifted his attention back to the man he had regarded as a brother-in-arms for many years… and would now have to cast out.
"Marshal, will you follow me peacefully, please, as I would much prefer to lead you out unchained?"
Éomer's narrowed eyes were still fixed on his adversary.
"As long as this piece of horse-dung keeps his filthy fingers away from my sister…"
Felrod huffed as he picked himself up from the floor and wiped his trousers clean. Incredulous, he glared at the Chief of the Royal Guard.
"Captain, you cannot seriously consider leading this man through the city unchained! The gods know what he will do! We both -"
"I have known the Third Marshal for most of his life," Háma retorted forcefully, his tone for once determined and his piercing gaze indicating that this time, he wasn't about to back down. There were limits to what Gríma could ask of him. "No matter what you say, Éomer is an honourable man. When he says he will come peacefully, then there will be no need for chains. This is my decision to make, Felrod, and if you like, you can run to your master and complain about me, but this you will not change. Take them off!"
On the marketplace, the bell's ringing had already drawn together a great crowd. It had been long since it had last been rung, and the people of Edoras had gathered in the snowstorm clad in their warmest clothes and wore gloomy, wary expressions upon their faces... or what could be seen of them.
From one of the alleys near the stables, Éothain hastened together with Aedwulf and Anlaf, all three men dreading to find out what was going on. That it would be bad tidings seemed to be a given, and inwardly, the young Captain decided, he had already expected for something to happen. His father's summons had been too strange to not be part of the Worm's plan. He had already told his brother-in-arms about it, and they had concurred.
"Perhaps, we should make for the stables right now," Anlaf suggested, under his breath. "Get our éored together and surprise them."
"And then what?" Éothain furrowed his brow as he plodded through the snow. There was a procession of guards snaking down the path towards the marketplace, heavily armed. The sight did nothing to calm his frayed nerves. "With my father's men gone, what could we do? We are not enough to act, no matter what happens. The Worm saw to that."
"The element of surprise would be ours, though. With it on our side, we might just be able to overcome them."
"I repeat: then what?" Éothain stopped and turned around. "Do you want us to slaughter the Royal Guard? Right before the people's eyes? Do you think they would cheer us for that? That it would improve the situation?"
Anlaf's mouth became a thin, firm line.
"Not 'slaughter'. Unarm them, perhaps."
"And then storm up the hill to free the Marshal? It would make us outlaws, and it would turn all of Edoras against us. We would not only have to fight the Royal Guard and the Worm's men, but also the people we are doing it for. That is not the way... aside from the fact that we could not hope to win such a battle with only a hundred men."
With a heavy sigh, Éothain turned back. Meanwhile, the guards had formed a circle around the speaker's platform in the middle of the marketplace, and someone – was that truly Gríma Wormtongue himself? - had already demounted and approached the stairs. The coldness that suddenly settled in his stomach had nothing to do with the conditions. Quickly, the three men joined the rest of their éored when they beheld them in the crowd.
The bell's din stopped, and in the ensuing silence, only the gusting wind could be heard. For a moment, the Counsellor stood on the platform and looked around. In his dark, flapping coat, he looked like a bird of ill omen, a storm crow. Then he began to speak.
"Citizens of Edoras! You were summoned by your King today to hear the verdict he has proclaimed only this morning against Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of Riddermark! Of treason against the Crown and the people of the Mark, as well as of assault on a high-ranking member of the Royal Court, the Council of Edoras unanimously found the accused... guilty!"
The Worm's words stole Éothain's breath. So, it was happening here and now. He was aware of his captains' stunned stares, but found it not in himself to return them.
Muttering rose from the crowd now, some dismayed and some approving shouts as the people digested what they had heard.
"Where is Théoden-King?" a voice called out over the din, and all turned toward it. "Should it not be he who makes this announcement?"
"Théoden-King is, unfortunately, still not able to leave the Golden Hall," Wormtongue answered the man. "While I am happy to report that his health has improved these past days to the point where he was able to partake in the Council's meeting as well as proclaim the verdict just this morning, it is still a long time from allowing him out in these severe conditions. The Council installed me to act in his stead, so you would do well to listen on, as I am bringing matters of consequence before you!"
"Éothain!" Anlaf whispered forcefully. "What will we do? We must do something!"
"Listen!" Éothain hissed, as Gríma continued.
"Against Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of Riddermark, the following was decreed: the offender is stripped of all titles! His succession in the Armed Forces will be determined as quickly as possible. For the severe nature of his crimes, our law usually calls for the death penalty, but Théoden-King chose to be merciful and banished him from the Mark instead! He will be given his horse and is expected to leave this realm within a time frame of five days! After that, he is to be executed at once and without trial, should he be seen within the confines of our land. On his way, he is forbidden to approach cities and settlements, and anyone found helping him by arming, hosting or feeding him will be treated as an enemy of the Mark, and executed on the spot!"
The crowd gasped, and excited murmuring again drowned him out. The three captains stared at each other in shock.
"What now?" Àedwulf asked, his eyes wide with dismay. "Éothain, what can we do?"
Éothain's mind raced. His father's words echoed through his mind while he studied the reactions of the people before them. These worried him, and he understood that his father had been right: they could not count on the majority of the citizens of Edoras to be on their side. Which made open rebellion impossible. Stunned by this insight, he slowly shook his head, but before he could say anything, Gríma continued.
"There is more, and I implore you to listen closely now, because there will be heavy consequences for all who violate these rules!" He made a dramatic pause, and once again, silence ensued. "The name of the banished will henceforth never be mentioned again, whether in private conversation or in official discussion. Negligence to follow this rule is punishable by ten lashings. That number will be doubled with each repeated offence. After the fourth time, the person in question will be incarcerated."
More muttering, and many distraught faces around them now. Yet Éothain did not dare to hope that the Worm's drastic threats would sway the people's view. He swallowed.
"In thirty minutes, the Royal Guard will guide the banished towards the city gate to expel him. Attendance is compulsory. Anyone not seen lining this path when this procession takes place will likewise receive ten lashings. As the banished passes, you will be expected to turn your back on him. Each of you – men, women and children. Failure to do so... will, again, result in ten lashings. I can only warn those among you who think that they will not be seen if they don't comply. There will be eyes on everyone, for the entire proceedings."
He looked around and somehow, as if by coincidence, his colourless eyes found Éothain. For the longest time, the two adversaries stared at each other. Involuntarily, Éothain ground his teeth, and underneath his thick coat, he began to shake with barely suppressed rage. It took all of his restraint and common sense not to push through the crowd, storm the platform and kill the Worm right where he stood.
At last, Wormtongue released him from his focus.
"Now go home or see to your various errands, but be back in half an hour. Someone will notice it if you are not here, and you are going to regret it. I thank you for your attention... That will be all." He granted the crowd a curt nod and then made his way back down, into the safety behind his heavily armed guards. He remounted his horse, and quickly, the line of riders disappeared up the path again.
For a moment, the people watched their departure with stunned expressions, silenced. Only when Grìma and his men had passed out of sight did the heated discussions begin, and the crowd started to disperse. Éothain turned around.
"All right, we make for the stables. When they cast Éomer out, we will follow him!"
He saw relief in Anlaf's and Aedwulf's eyes, and grim nods from the riders behind them. With great strides, the riders of the Aldburg éored hurried along, using the cover of their people to escape the attention of potentially watching eyes. But when they rounded the next corner, they were in for a surprise.
There were more armed guards there, and they were all positioned at the stable-door... which had been locked with a thick chain. As the riders approached, bows were lifted and arrows aimed at them in unmistakable threat. Lifting a hand to hold his men back, Éothain stepped out of their midst.
"What is this?" he inquired, and his piercing gaze locked on the guard's captain. The powerfully built man,whom he didn't know by name, countered his stare coolly.
"It's exactly what it looks like, Captain. Go home, and tell your men to do the same. No one will be leaving Edoras today, safe the banished."
"Èomer, you mean."
The guard smiled thinly.
"You may find your provocation earning you unexpected pain, Captain. You just heard the new rules."
"I shit on those rules!" Éothain growled. "I am never going to forget the name of a friend, and no one, and certainly not your crooked master, is ever going to keep me from uttering it! Now step aside, or you are going to regret it!"
He made another angry step towards the man, and the bows before him were drawn.
"It will be you who is going to regret things, Captain, if you do not back off!" The guard's tone sharpened. "None of you is armed. Upon my signal, you could lose twenty of your men in the wink of an eye. And twenty more before you reach us. Is it worth that? It's your decision."
Éothain inhaled deeply, fists balled by his side. Who were these men? He had never seen any of them. Were they indeed enforcing Théoden-Kings will? By threatening their own riders? Shaking his head, he took the first step back. Then another one.
"This is not over, yet," he promised his adversary. "I will bring this before the King!"
"You do that," the guard countered, unfazed. "Just do not forget to tell him what you wanted to do in the stables – desert and leave with your disgraced traitor-friend, is my guess! If you don't report it, I certainly will! For the last time: go home, and take your men with you! And if you are thinking about returning here with your bows and swords to force entry, you will find that they have been confiscated for the time being!"
"What?" Éothain felt heat rising into his face. He could not remember ever having been so enraged. The man before him remained calm. This had been long-planned, the son of Céorl understood with increasing helplessness. It seemed that the Worm had outsmarted them all.
"Don't huff. These will be given back to you once you've proven yourself trustworthy." A sarcastic grin appeared on the guard's face. "I'm afraid that right now, your ruler is rather dubious of your allegiance, and you are under close observation, Captain. I would be extremely cautious in everything I do, if I were you. Now leave!"
At last, Éothain could think of nothing more to say or do. After another deep breath, he lifted his finger at his opponent.
"This is not over..."
A curt nod at the men of his éored communicated silently that this time, they had been beaten. With dark glances, the riders turned to leave.
In the Royal Stables, Éomer stood and watched with grim satisfaction how his four-legged grey demon gave the men who dared to approach him a piece of his mind. It seemed that Firefoot was only too willing to do what his master was being denied – namely unleash his accumulated frustration against his opponents. Again and again, the grey's hooves banged against his stall door in unmistakeable threat whenever one of them stepped closer, and several times only a quick jump back saved the guards from a painful encounter with the stallion's teeth. At length, Háma turned around.
"We are losing too much time. Will you please calm down your steed, Marshal? Otherwise, I fear that you will have to walk down the path. You probably do not want that."
No, Éomer certainly did not want that. Without his weapons, Firefoot was the only means of protection they were allowing him to keep. So he approached his stallion's stall, and with only a few Rohirric words whispered into the flickering ears, achieved what they had been unable to. Large dark eyes met his gaze, and with quivering nostrils, the horse drunk his scent… and at once gave up his threating posture. Stroking the soft skin beneath Firefoot's dark forelock, Éomer murmured reassuring words too low for the surrounding people to understand, until at last, the great grey stallion stood quietly like a statue. A sad smile flickered briefly over Éomer's face. Here, at least, was one whose loyalty was his until the end of his days.
He turned back to the silently waiting Captain. From outside, the bell's renewed din reached his ears. It was time. His insides clenched into a tight knot at the thought of what would follow.
Satisfied, but still barely able to look him in the eye, the older man granted him a satisfied nod, before he swung into the saddle of his own horse. They were ready.
"Come, Marshal. It is time."
There was no tack on Firefoot's powerful frame, but Éomer did not need it. With a fluent move, he climbed onto the grey's back, only holding on to the dark locks of the stallion's long mane. Before them, the doors were opened and their procession left the building with measured steps.
Éomer's heartbeat accelerated as he forced his gaze away from Hama's broad back immediately before him. It seemed as if the entire Royal Household was out there on the terrace and the stairs, staring at him. He saw tears on many of those familiar faces, before they did what they had been instructed to do and turned their backs on him… all except his sister. For another brief moment, their eyes met, and a strangled cry started to rise in his throat over the injustice done to him. With great effort, he swallowed it. It would not change anything. He would not grant his adversaries the satisfaction to see him weep, or hear him scream.
Then they had passed, and the path to the lower regions of the city lay before them. Éomer's heart sank when he beheld that that, too, was lined on both sides with their people. Briefly he wondered how they would perceive him. When they looked at him now, they would see a dishevelled looking man in deerskin breeches and a torn, woollen tunic underneath his grey riding cloak, filthy after his last undertaking in the north, and reeking of sweat and horse. His golden mane was a stringy, unkempt mess flying in the gusts of the winter storm, and his overall wretched appearance no better than that of an ordinary thief. If he was lucky, they would not even recognise him. But of course, the Worm had instructed them who would be led down the hill to be expelled. His 'Walk of Shame' had begun, and there was no question that it would be an excruciating experience.
Refusing to let his rising despair show in his bearing, Éomer involuntarily straightened on Firefoot's back, sitting perfectly balanced and proud despite the lack of a saddle. Their procession snaked down the steep path in ghastly silence while a mixture of snow and sleet was blown into their faces by the icy gusts, stinging like needle pricks.
'Even the sky is weeping', he thought numbly as they slowly made their way down toward the city gates, and his innards twisted at the sight of the sometimes doubtful, sometimes satisfied, and sometimes outright dismayed expressions with which the people they passed averted their gaze.
Before they turned their backs on him, Éomer caught glimpses of hopelessness and despair in many of his countrymen's eyes, but none of them dared to raise their voice in protest. Halfway down the slope, he decided that he had enough of the sad spectacle and chose instead to look at the thatched roofs of the cottages they passed, and beyond them, at the snow-covered peaks of the Ered Nimrais, and he could not suppress the thought that, in all likelihood, this was the last time he was granted this view. The urge to turn his head and look back at the Golden Hall, too, was almost irresistible. He defeated it. He did not want to let them know that he thought this to be final. That what they were doing to him here was tearing him apart inside. Showing strength to the enemy even in defeat, that was all that was left to him now.
Shortly before they reached the large place before the gate, a loud shout to his right woke him from his contemplation.
He knew that voice, it belonged to a friend... his best friend. It moved him deeply, for he knew what it would cost Éothain to shout his name. But if he looked now, he would lose it. He could not do that... and perhaps, it was better for his friend this way, too. Who knew what Éothain was liable to do if he felt encouraged? He would not be responsible for his death. It would be more than he could bear.
"Open the gate!" a shout rang out from atop the watchtower. "Open the gate for the traitor!"
The pain this caused him this was unexpectedly sharp. And yet Éomer managed to keep his gaze firmly fixed on the two wings of the gate as they separated under the screaming protest of their rusting hinges. Behind them, the wide vale of the central Mark stretched along the jagged mountains all the way to the horizon, under a thick blanket of snow, and the full force of the storm drove the tiny crystals into his face. Éomer frowned. It would make disappearing without a trace much harder, but of course, there was nothing he could do about it. Hopefully, the storm would cover his tracks before anyone could think of following him.
All around him, the riders of the Royal Guard turned aside. They regrouped behind him, waiting for him to leave... all except for Háma.
"Well… this is it, I am afraid," the man he had known for most of his life said, and Éomer barely heard him over the roaring storm. The older man turned his steed around and then, as he passed him, added, under his breath: "Be careful out there, Marshal. There will come other days, and we still need you. Know that not all are against you..."
His words sent a sudden spike of adrenaline through Éomer's veins, and he could only barely refrain from looking back at the man. To indicate that he had heard, he granted the Captain of the Royal Guard an almost imperceptible nod, his eyes still fixed on the empty land beyond Firefoot's ears. Following a sudden impulse, he turned to face the crowd behind him.
They all stood there and regarded him warily. Waiting for him to do something foolish? He was not about to do that. With a last disgusted glance, the son of Éomund kicked his heels into his horse's flanks, causing the mighty stallion to rear, before he threw him around and into a gallop that took them away from the city at breakneck speed.
The thick-falling snow soon dissolved their silhouette.
UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISHMENT OF ÉOMER
Chapter 3: A Game of Chess
On the terrace before the Golden Hall, Gríma Wormtongue watched until Éomer was swallowed by the diffuse winter light, his hands unconsciously balled into fists inside the pockets of his heavy cape. It was done. At last! His most dangerous adversary was gone. He felt an intense wave of satisfaction, although he was – at the same time - very much aware that it was far too early yet for him to relax. As long as the son of Éomund was alive, he remained a threat, and having him expelled from Edoras had only been the first step towards victory.
Gríma harboured no illusions that Éomer would attempt to leave the Mark within the five days he had been given. No, he would take cover somewhere, presumably in one of the many hideouts he knew from his forays into the wild, and from there plot his return. There was no telling what the wilful young man would do if permitted to roam Rohan uncontrolled. Even though Gríma felt that he had succeeded in sowing doubts in Éomer's reputation among the people, that last procession had vividly illustrated to him that too many still held the son of Éomund in high esteem – especially the Armed Forces.
So, before this day was over, he would have to concern himself with that pesky friend of Éomer's. His entire éored had, in fact, rebelled against the new rules by not turning around during the procession, and by calling the marshal's name. Gríma could not afford to let these things slide, although it was hardly possible to have one hundred men publicly whipped. He already had an idea how to deal with this insubordination. The vital part was that the consequences would be demonstrated to the people of Edoras today, to kill off even the faintest thought about further rebellion in their minds. They had to understand that their rulers were dead serious about those newly implemented rules.
Shifting his attention from the plains below, the son of Gálmód suddenly beheld the King's niece on the other side of the terrace. Staring in the direction of the mountains although her brother could no longer be seen, the White Lady of Rohan ignored his presence, yet the rigidity of her posture told Gríma that she was, in fact, well aware of him.
Motioning for one of the guards near him, Gríma turned his back on the view and said in a loud enough voice for Éowyn to hear:
"Dorlâk, when the Lady Éowyn has had enough fresh air, you will guide her back inside to her chambers. Under no circumstance is she allowed to leave Meduseld. Do you understand me?" From the corners of his eyes, he saw the object of their conversation turn around, and her expression was that of someone who did not believe her ears.
"You cannot lock me up in Meduseld forever, Counsellor! I am still a member of the Royal Family, and I will no longer accept orders from either you or your men, unless I hear my uncle voice them himself!"
"These were your uncle's orders, actually. He is resting now, but if you insist, we can go and disturb him," Gríma replied evenly, keeping his features and voice neutral. He indicated a little mocking bow. "I suggested to the King that you should be kept inside the hall for those five days until your brother has left the Mark, for your own protection. Théoden-King is well aware that – as the resourceful and brave sister of our former Third Marshal – you will of course feel inclined to help your brother in his predicament even if this action would make you a traitor under the law yourself."
He shook his head in feigned sympathy.
"I would hate having to throw you into the dungeon, too, my Lady. And I am certain you would dislike being there. It is no place for a lady of noble blood, but you would leave us no choice if you chose to betray your King."
He bowed once again and extended his arm to gesture Éowyn in the direction of the portal.
"Be wise, my Lady. Accept my apologies for this inconvenience, but surely five more days spent in the comfort of your chambers will be much more pleasant than sitting in the darkness of a cell underneath the hill, or following your brother into this horrible storm…."
Wormtongue squinted as a gust of wind blew ice crystals into his face, and only barely managed to keep the smirk that wanted to accompany his words from his lips. Of course, there had been no way for him to know, but seeing the banishment of his adversary fall together with this winter's presumably last severe snow-storm was an additional satisfaction. It was as if the gods wanted to reward him for his well-executed plan.
Éowyn narrowed her eyes, and from her balled fists and widened nostrils Gríma could easily conclude how enraged she truly was. He threw a quick glance at the nearby guards. With the hot-headed children of Éomund, there was no telling whether the fair maiden would think twice before she assaulted him to scratch out his eyes. The bruises her brother had left on his body had still not faded, and he had no desire for further injuries.
When Éowyn spoke, her voice was even colder than their surroundings.
"And if I tell you to take your good advice and choke on it, and then walk down to the marketplace despite your order, what will you do then, dear Counsellor? Convict me?"
Gríma regarded her gravely, his expression leaving no question that he meant what he said.
"I am afraid I would have to, my Lady. But I honestly hope that you are wiser than to force me to this measure."
The moment stretched between them with the nearby guards uncomfortably shuffling their feet, and at first, Gríma was certain that Éowyn would put him to the test… but then, with a huff, she haughtily lifted her chin, turned on her heels and with great, unladylike strides, stormed back into the building. Following her path with his eyes until the doors closed behind her, Gríma then turned back to the guard he had been instructing.
"I want a guard positioned in front of her chambers at all times. She will not leave them without my permission. Instruct your men accordingly."
"Aye, Counsellor. But what if…" The dark-haired man interrupted himself, not daring to look his opposite in the eye.
"What if what?"
"What shall I say if Lord Gamling or Lord Háma inquire about this? I am not in the position to—"
"If these two noble gentlemen want to know more about this special order, you send them to me. I am sure they will understand. After all, it is only in the lady's best interest. Now see that you get ready; Felrod and his men are already waiting for you. We must not give the Marshal too much of a headstart."
Standing at the window that overlooked the plains to the west with unfocussed gaze, Éowyn bit her lip, and her fingernails unconsciously dug into the wood of the sill in silent frustration. It was hard to believe what was going on in Meduseld these days, and the impertinence with which the Worm had dared to send her to her room like a disobedient child once again left her with the deep desire to unsheathe her sword and take it to that black-robed snake. Perhaps Éomer had been right, after all; perhaps she should have accompanied him. If Gríma could do this without any of the other men objecting, what else would they permit? What if he locked himself in here with her, and…
It took her great effort to shove the ugly thought away. No matter what happened, she would sooner die than allow herself be used in that way. She still possessed the hidden dagger she had been carrying for years, ever since she had first become aware of the counsellor's intentions. If he ever made the mistake to think that he could have her, he would taste it, whatever threat he uttered against her or her family.
'Oh, Éomer… where are you now? What are you doing?'
Again her lips tightened to a bloodless line as she stared at the swirling white world behind her window. Somewhere out there, alone, without the protection of his éored and unarmed, was her brother. He depended on her. There was something she had promised him, and although her initial attempt had been intercepted, Éowyn was determined to keep it. There was another way, although she felt hesitant to resort to it.
Reprimanding herself to keep a clear head, Éowyn turned away from the window and made her way over to the door. Swallowing her indignity, she knocked against it, and heard the key turn in the lock. A moment later, the guard who had been detailed to stand watch in front of her chambers looked at her. He had to be one of Gríma's men, she concluded, because she could detect no trace of discomfort in his expression. Most of the men she had known among the lines of the Royal Guard for most her life would not have dared to look her in the eye after making her suffer this indignity, but the orcish-looking brute before her seemed to have no problem with it. Although he stood a head taller than she did, Éowyn felt far from intimidated as she haughtily lifted her chin.
"Send for my handmaiden, guard. I need her here at once."
"I am not permitted to leave this door," the man grumbled, "You will have to wait until-"
Her furious look silenced him.
"You tell me to wait? Who are you that you think you can talk to me, a member of the Royal Family, like that? I know there has been much going wrong in these halls since that worm seized command, but trust me that the King will hear about it if you do not get me Maelwyn this instant! Maelwyn!"
The young woman Éowyn had spied further behind in the twilight of the hall hastened her steps and looked questioningly at the two combatants. The tension between them was thick, and not knowing the reason for it, the handmaiden lowered her head as she dropped into a quick curtsy.
"What can I do for you, my lady?"
Her eyes still shooting daggers at the guard as if she dared him to object, Éowyn pressed: "I will speak with you inside my chambers. I see no need to discuss my private life in public, nor did I hear the King forbid me to have visitors!"
"I don't know-" the guard began, but Éowyn interrupted him.
"Leave the thinking to those of greater wits and simply do what you have been told: guard this door, and leave me alone, guard! I do not wish to be disturbed!" She nodded at the younger woman and followed her back inside her chambers, flinging the door. If they insisted to keep her like a caged animal, she could at least make it a miserable time for them, too.
Realising that her unusual explosion of temperament had made her the object of her trusted handmaiden's scrutiny, Éowyn took a deep breath. She needed to calm down, or she would forget something vital and Éomer would have to pay for it.
"My Lady? What can I do for you?"
Maelwyn was only slightly younger than the woman she served, but seeing her mistress in such emotional turmoil made her sound like a frightened child. Four years in her service had not yet prepared the quiet but compassionate and reliable woman from the Eastmark for such a flare of her lady's temper. It was unlike Éowyn to shout or throw doors. Her brother, yes; Éomer was known for his heated temper, but also for his sense of justice. Whoever he shouted at, usually deserved it. It had always been easy to determine how the Third Marshal thought about something or someone, whereas Éowyn remained an enigma to most members of the Royal household up to this very day.
While many incidents hinted at the fact that the White Lady was possessed of the same strong will and stubbornness as her brother, she usually remained in the background, observing. Hiding her thoughts from all she did not trust, and the way things were, the people she still trusted could be counted at the fingers of one hand. Right now, her angered expression slowly melted into one of exhaustion, worry and regret as Éowyn gestured toward the chairs.
"I am sorry, Maelwyn. It was not right of me to make you witness that. But it is hard to remain calm while our honourable counsellor gets away with deeds that would formerly have been unthinkable." She made her way over to the sitting group and lowered herself into one of the armchairs.
The younger woman smiled at her.
"You need not apologise, my lady. I understand that these past days have been very hard on you. They have been hard on us all." Looking into her mistresses' sad eyes, Maelwyn spontaneously added: "Your brother is a mighty warrior, Lady Éowyn. He will not be helpless out there."
Èowyn was thankful for her effort to cheer her up, but unfortunately, she understood their adversary's black soul better than this innocent young woman before her.
"I know, Maelwyn, but I fear that Gríma is not done with Éomer yet. They hate each other, and he knows that Éomer will remain a danger to him for as long as he lives."
The grey-blue eyes in front of her widened slightly.
"You mean he will attempt to have him killed, my Lady? But… that would be against the King's orders!"
"That may be so… but Gríma cares nothing for the King's orders, and my uncle is too ill to see how his orders are executed."
Éowyn shook her head, and a great silence followed her words as she gazed unfocused in the distance. Seeing how her mistress seemed to ponder over a thing of great import, Maelwyn dared not interrupt her. Finally, Éowyn's attention returned to her, and the piercing look she was given caused the handmaiden's heart to jump into her throat.
"Maelwyn, what I tell you now must remain among us, you must promise me this. Please know that I have always trusted you, but in these days of madness, it seems that even the walls of Meduseld have ears. You must speak to no one about what I will tell you now."
The young woman shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
"My Lady, I do not understand-"
"Promise me, Maelwyn, or I cannot tell you. And I need your help!"
It caused Maelwyn almost bodily pain to hear her mistress beg. It also left her feeling deeply uncomfortable. What would be demanded of her?
"Didn't you entrust me with many secrets over the years I have been in your service, my Lady? You know that your secrets are safe with me."
"Yes, but this is different, Maelwyn." Éowyn lifted her brows. "Lives depend on it this time, my brother's and mine if word gets out, so even though I know that I can trust you, I still need to hear it from you again."
Éowyn had never sounded or looked more intense, and the younger woman's discomfort grew. What had she gotten herself into this time? Lowly, almost in a frightened way, she said:
"I promise, my Lady. I will not speak a word about it."
"Except to one man." Taking a deep breath, Éowyn began. This was the point of no return. She hated having to drag the innocent girl into this net of lies and intrigues, but there was no other choice. She had to save Éomer. "Maelwyn, I need you to deliver a message for me to our blacksmith. It is very important that he receives it as quickly as possible. Will you do that for me?"
"To our blacksmith? Bergfinn?" The handmaiden furrowed her brow in confusion. How could a message to a blacksmith be of any greater import?
"Yes, Bergfinn. I need you to see and tell him to send his eldest son to our old hiding place. Élric will know what place I am speaking of; he accompanied us there many times. Tell him to pack a knife, a bow, and, if he can, a sword, and perhaps some food, too, and deposit them for Éomer. He knows where. It is of the utmost importance that he is not followed!"
Éowyn tensed upon seeing hesitation in the younger woman's eyes. Maelwyn's complexion was always rather pale, but now it seemed as if all blood had departed her face, and her reddish freckles were the only colour left.
"But… wouldn't that be against the King's orders? Wouldn't I become a traitor then, too?"
"To betray a traitor is no crime, Maelwyn. It is, in fact, our duty. And Théoden-King's order was to banish Éomer, not to kill him; in fact, this was not even his order. It was his voice that uttered these words, yes, but they were not his words." She shook her head to herself, seeing how the girl got even more confused by her explanation. "I only want to ensure that the King's orders are obeyed, Maelwyn. It was not his wish that Éomer be killed."
"But how do you know then that is the counsellor's intention… if I may ask this?"
"I know that man, Maelwyn. Trust me, I know him."
Suddenly deciding against telling the girl too much, Éowyn fell silent. The inner urge to share all her worries and frustration with someone she trusted was almost impossible to resist, but she would have be more careful than ever. She stood alone now in Meduseld, and the Law of the Hall was not the one being followed in these evil times. The less Maelwyn knew, the better. She drew a deep breath.
"Will you help me, Maelwyn? I cannot deny that there may be a certain danger involved in the action, but it should not be too great if we do this smartly."
The young woman looked miserable, and from the way her hands were clutching each other until her knuckles turned white, it was very easy to see her discomfort. Maelwyn had done nothing yet, and already she looked guilty. Gríma would have to be blind not to notice that look upon her face. Yet if she staged a diversion, Éowyn thought, perhaps he would not pay attention if her handmaiden slipped out of the Golden Hall…
Maelwyn's voice was barely audible when she finally answered, not daring to meet her mistresses' gaze.
"I would love to help, Lady Éowyn, truly. I am not blind to what is going on, and I would very much like to see that horrible man gone from Edoras, but what if I am caught? I have two small children to take care of. I must think of them first… and of my husband. "
"You will not be caught. I have a plan, Maelwyn. It is impossible that Gríma learns of it if you do it right."
"Please, I'd rather not, my Lady." The grey-blue eyes were pleading now. "The thought frightens me. I am only a servant, not a shield maiden. I am not a person possessed of great courage. I am not one of those people who can make a difference."
Éowyn's expression hardened, and she lifted her chin.
"The people who make a difference are not usually those possessed of greater skill, they are those who decide to make a stand, Maelwyn. Alas, there are too many among our people who think that what is happening to them is destiny, that they cannot change the course of things. It is this belief that allows Gríma to act as he wishes. It is comfortable to lean back and let others do one's fighting, but it opens the door for those who are determined to take fate into their own hands… and not to the good of others."
Éowyn allowed those words to sink in, coming to her feet and starting to pace the room as she was overcome by her own restless.
"I do not believe in fate. It is I who decides how I live, and no one else. There is no fate but what we make. And if we all decide to do nothing, Éomer will die, and the Mark will fall to ruin before long," she said matter-of-factly. "My brother, Maelwyn, was sent out into the wild with no weapons, and no food, and without the protection of his men. The verdict forbids the people in the settlements to help him, and a snowstorm harrows the plains. He needs not even run into orcs to perish under these conditions." She swallowed. "Éomer has given his blood repeatedly for our people, and now those same people he rescued lean back and do nothing. Isn't that most unfair, Maelwyn?"
This was her last weapon, her last resort, and Éowyn despised herself for using it on this innocent, frightened girl. She had no right to endanger the mother of two young children and wife to a young, hard-working man, but she could not bear the thought of losing her brother.
Before her, Maelwyn hid her face in her hands, terrified by the decision that had been laid upon her shoulders. The trembling in her voice indicated that she cried.
"Of course it is, Lady Éown, and I wish I could do something to help him! Your brother was always kind to me… he and the Prince. They never treated me like a lowly servant."
"Well, you are no lowly servant, Maelwyn, you are a member of the Royal Household, dear and trusted. And you are in the position to make a difference now. The danger involved may not even be great, at least not for you. If you are caught – which, I guarantee you, will not happen – you were simply following orders. As my handmaiden, you are not in a position to deny my orders, so the blame would be mine, and the consequences mine alone to face."
Seeing how the younger woman battled with herself, Éowyn fell silent. Maelwyn was her only hope; what she would do if she denied her request, the daughter of Éomund did not know. There was no one left within these halls she trusted enough to pour out the contents of her heart to, and yet her heart missed a beat when the woman before her suddenly looked up. Although there was still fear in her gaze, there was also new resolve, when Maelwyn said with a trembling voice:
"All right… I will do it, my Lady. For you and your brother. And for the Mark, perhaps. I cannot deny that the thought still frightens me, but I see the wisdom in your words. I come from a large family, with eight sisters and brothers. We never had much, but my parents taught us that we could overcome all difficulties if only we stood as one."
She took a long, trembling breath, and then looked Éowyn straight into the eye, her fists balled at her sides.
"It is time now for the Mark to stand as one, isn't it? If we all hold together, surely no evil can ever overcome us." It sounded more like a desperate question than a statement, and yet the sincerity of it nearly broke Éowyn's heart as she stepped forward to embrace her utterly surprised handmaiden.
"Thank you! Oh, thank you from the bottom of my heart, Maelwyn! I wish there had been a different way for me to help Éomer, but I know you can do this. I have a plan, and Gríma will never know about it."
Two hours had passed since the procession, and upon the guard's ominous remark that their weapons had been confiscated, Éothain and his captains had returned to their places and found that, indeed, Gríma's men had taken everything from their swords to their bows, down even to the smallest dagger. His mother had been in a state of utmost alarm when he had entered, and unable to prevent that the men had ordered her aside to search her house. The realisation that such an action was possible had deeply shaken her.
Many of the riders had gathered in the tavern to discuss their further way of action, when the heavy door was opened from outside and a large number of guards spilled in.
"Captain Éothain?" their leader barked, and his gaze travelled over the tavern's patrons in search for the culprit.
"I am here," Éothain let him know, and slowly stood up. Aedwulf and Anlaf, who shared his table, followed his example, although they were only too aware of the fact that, without weapons, their implied threat was only theoretical. "What is it?"
"You are arrested for disobedience. Come forth, and no one will be harmed."
"What about the rest of our éored?" Anlaf inquired with a piercing stare into the guard's eyes. "None of us turned around when the Marshal passed. If you want to punish someone for that, should it not be all of us?"
The question earned him a grin.
"If you are volunteering to be whipped, be my guest. I'll gladly even do it myself. Yet my orders only said to apprehend your captain."
Éothain lifted his hand in an attempt to calm down his seriously enraged brother-in-arms.
"It is good, Anlaf. I will gladly accept the punishment for mentioning Éomer's name. I shall bear these scars with pride."
The guard's grin deepened.
"That's another ten, Captain. Keep this up, and your back will be a bloody mess for the next weeks."
"If you think you can spare me for so long…" Éothain lifted an eyebrow. "I'm not certain how understanding Théoden-King will be if Edoras is overrun by enemies, because the éored assigned its protection was rendered ineffective by the removal of its commanders."
"You seem to think you're indispensable. I bet the Marshal thought the same…" The man's hand petted the hilt of his sword in expectation. "So, Captain… are you coming freely or must we resort to bloodshed? It doesn't matter to me."
For a moment, strained silence spread in the room as the riders regarded their captain with a sense of foreboding. None of them would have believed it possible that one day, they would be forced to witness such scenes. Finally, Éothain nodded and stepped out of their protective crowd.
"Do what you must do," he said calmly. "Just be aware that there will come a time when all your deeds will be remembered… and paid back."
Two of the guard's men grabbed him roughly.
"Oooh, I'm shivering…," his adversary said, and his grin reminded Éothain very much of a hungry warg as he turned back to the waiting éored. "The bell will call you together in about thirty minutes. Be there, or we will see who else among you wants to taste the whip!"
Once again, the citizens of Edoras found themselves gathered at the central place, and if possible, their expressions were even darker. It seemed to them that this nightmare of a day would never end, still hoping for it to be only a horrible dream from which they would wake groggy, but thankful to escape it.
A sense of unreality had spread through the city, and certainly, the son of Céorl felt it the strongest as he followed the armed guards to the platform, hands chained behind his back. For a moment, he hoped that his father's éored would return in just time to witness this madness and put an end to it, but of course, he was also aware that that would quite likely also be the start of something much bigger and worse. Still, how could anything like this be happening? How could Théoden-King allow this? Did he even know about it? And did the Royal Guard?
Once again, the bell's din stopped, and with it, the dismayed murmurs of the crowd. Heavy silence fell over the marketplace as the guards' captain climbed up the stairs to the platform.
"Citizens of Edoras! Only a few hours ago, you were informed about the new rules! You will witness now what happens to those who think that not following them comes without consequence! It does not matter whether you are a blacksmith, a baker, a servant… or the commanding captain of an éored; all will be punished in the same way, so look closely and ask yourself whether this is what you truly want!...Bring up the accused!"
Gasps could be heard from the crowd as the people beheld just who it was they would see being punished right before their eyes, and dismayed shouts rang out. A great press started for the platform. For a moment, Éothain hoped – and feared – that the spark of rebellion would catch at last, that their people would not permit these ghastly and formerly unthinkable proceedings… but then the sharp sound of swords being drawn reached his ear, and the crowd recoiled.
"Make no mistake!" his adversary shouted. "Anyone who comes within reach of my men will taste their steel! This is your only warning!" His piercing gaze found Éothain. "If you do not want for these people to get hurt, perhaps you should say something, too, Captain…"
"Stand back!" he shouted over the din, and horrified faces looked up at him. "I appreciate your concern, but please… stand back. This is not the day for rebellion."
'It will come, though, and sooner than you think!' he communicated silently as he turned his attention back at his opponent. There was an amused spark in those curiously dark eyes for a moment, then the guard nodded at the two men at his sides.
"Very well… Chain him to the post!"
Bracing for what was to come, Éothain closed his eyes for a short moment.
'This is for Éomer…'
His handcuffs were briefly unlocked… and then fastened to an iron ring an armlength above his head. A ring that looked curiously new and as if it had just been hammered into the wood a few minutes ago. 'It probably was…'
The guard stepped behind him while his two henchmen stood back at the corners of the platform, ready to act upon the slightest sign of a disturbance.
"I will enjoy this…' the Worm's guard whispered into his captive's ear… and suddenly, a cold draft hit Éothain's body as his coat was torn from his shoulders and cast aside, and with a ripping sound, his tunic and shirt were cut away. The silence around them deepened… and then the whip cracked, and its leathern tongue plunged the son of Céorl into a world of pain. He did not even hear the gasping crowd, for there suddenly seemed to be a river of fire descending his back, and his body became rigid.
For a moment, Éothain detected his captains' dismayed faces behind the guards. 'Let it happen,' he thought, hoping they would understand. 'Don't challenge them…'
Another crack, more searing pain. He gritted his teeth, grunting. Not wanting to give his tormentor the satisfaction of a cry.
"Three!... Four!... Five!"
The torture went on, each lash worse than the one before. The pain so enormous that it drowned out everything else… the shouts of the people around them, the voice that continued its merciless count to thirty, always followed by that dreaded crack.
"Twelve… thirteen… fourteen…"
Éothain's knees buckled, but the short chain kept him upright. At one point, it became too much, and his grunts turned into anguished screams. The sound the leather made as it bit into his back changed to a wet slap, and little droplets of his own blood sprayed into his face when it was withdrawn… again… and again… and again.
"Twenty-one… Twenty-two… twenty-three…"
His vision caved in and he slumped. A loud buzzing sound in his ears drowned out even his tormentor's voice. 'Yes… please…take me…'
Silence. On the very edge of unconsciousness, Éothain hung in his chains, head on his chest and eyes closed. Waiting for darkness to be granted to him…
The repercussion of heavy steps on the platform, approaching him. Warm breath upon his left cheek. A hissed threat was whispered into his ear.
"Now you know the pain, Captain. Remember it well. The next time you're feeling rebellious, it will not be you who suffers the consequences… it will be one of your recruits."
A cold shudder raced down Éothain's spine, but he could no react to the atrociousness he had just heard, could not even lift his head. He could only hang there, in agony, hoping that unconsciousness would grant him a merciful respite. His wish was granted when the locks of his handcuffs were released and he dropped onto the platform like a sack of meal, sinking into grey nothingness…
UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISHMENT OF ÉOMER
Chapter 4: First Moves
On the fringes of the Ered Nimrais, high above the central plains, Éomer sat in the sheltering niche above his favourite hiding place, and the gaze of his hazel eyes swept the empty landscape below with hawk-like intensity. Somewhere behind these low clouds and the falling snow, there stood the lonely hill of Edoras; and it was his home no more. He swallowed, still not acquainted with the pain this thought caused him. The past morning's horrible events were still too fresh to have settled with all their considerable implications in his mind. Fact was: the Mark was no longer his home; he was no longer welcome here. And his own kin considered him a curse.
With a sharp intake of air, Éomer forced the image of his uncle and the sound of his voice back into the vault of painful memories inside his mind. There was no doubt that they would escape from there again as soon as he let down his guard, but right now, he had to deny them the pleasure of tormenting him further. There were more important things he had to concern himself with than submerging himself in a sea of self-pity, like... his immediate survival.
Once outside the city walls, it had taken the son of Éomund a while to decide where to head. He had been fully prepared to die on the gallows, and the new development had taken him entirely by surprise. He would need a while to think about his further course of action, even though Éowyn's suggestion to head for Gondor had sounded reasonable at first. There was just one thing she had not known: Captain Boromir was dead. Aragorn had told him that. It was highly questionable that someone recognised him once he crossed Gondor's well-protected border.
„Come on!" Théodred had laughed at him from that place in his mind he had chosen to occupy. „They will see from leagues away that you are a man of the Mark and not an orc spy! Do you honestly think they would kill you?"
This was probably true, but then again, who knew what else the Worm had instigated? If he had notified all their settlements along the way about his imminent banishment, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to let one of his messengers continue all the way to Gondor with a letter full of lies. What if he had written that the son of Éomund had plotted the Prince's demise? Théodred had been well known and respected in Gondor, not least of all through his friendship with Boromir. If they were out to apprehend the man supposedly responsible for his death, he would jump out of the frying pan right into the fire.
No, Éomer had concluded, his situation required further considerations... and first of all, he needed his weapons. So the decision had come to him to make for this little hanging vale, which was not too far away from the place Éowyn had mentioned. After a wide berth that had taken him out of sight from the city, he had approached the foothills of the mountains from the west, using a little fast-running creek to hide Firefoot's tracks for most of the way. The final ascent along a narrow, rocky path was tricky, especially in the gusty wind, and no rider who did not sit on the back of a calm, experienced horse could hope to master it. Éomer doubted that Gríma's henchmen would be able to follow him here, even if they miraculously found his tracks in these conditions. For one thing seemed certain: they would hunt him. The Worm could not afford to let him get away.
To his intense relief, he had found his hideout undisturbed upon his arrival, and his stash untouched. The clay pot he had stored here last autumn contained stripes of dried meat and fruit, and there were also a full waterskin, an old pan, flints, dry gras and kindling for a fire... and a fishing pole. As soon as he had established that no one had followed him, he intended to go and enrich his sparse provisions with a fresh-caught trout.
Which brought him back to the present. The land beneath him still looked empty and bereft of life, and Éomer decided to leave it at that and head back. Carefully, he crawled behind the shelter of a massive rock before he stood up and began to make his way down the narrow switchbacks. Finally, out of the wind! After a short descent, the massive overhang came into view. The deep recess below was his current refuge, almost a cave, and a low whicker greeted him as he approached it. Éomer could not help smiling when Firefoot's head appeared out of the opening, nostrils flared.
„Hello, Grey One," he chuckled. „Are we comfortable yet?" A hearty snort was the reply he received, and with a clap on Firefoot's muscular neck, Éomer slipped into the twilight of the cave and, after a lengthy swig from the waterskin, began to concern himself with the fire. Soon enough, flames crackled in the little niche and provided him with warmth and light. From the pile further behind, he took a few thick logs and carefully placed them into the blaze.
With a sigh, the son of Éomund sat down and leant his back against the rock. After the ordeal of the last days, the effort of the ride and preparation of his camp had already exhausted him, and yet the demanding rumble of his stomach served as a reminder that there was one more chore to see to before he would be able to rest.
From the bag, Éomer dug up two old, wrinkled apples, which he threw over to his stallion, keeping a third one for himself. Some of the meat stripes went into the pockets of his cloak. He stood up, feeling light-headed for a moment, and grimaced. The hard ride to the Entwood and back and the days in the dungeon had apparently cost him dearly. He would have to be careful with what strength was left to him.
A particularly strong gust of wind howled along the sharp angles of the mountain, blowing down a little avalanche from the overhang. With a deep sigh, Éomer stepped out. Hopefully, the fish were hungry… A threw a brief look back at Firefoot, who regarded him with his ears pricked up, awaiting his commands.
„Relax, my friend," he said with another little smile. „I'll be right back..."
Only a short while later, two good-sized trouts sizzled in the pan and spread their mouth-watering smell in the sheltered niche, and although he had already eaten the apple and the meat, Éomer could barely await the moment when they would be ready. For the moment, things were about as good as they would ever be in his current precarious situation.
He leant back against the rock, wondering what Éowyn was doing right now. Had she succeeded in securing his sword and bow? Was someone already on the way to their old playground near the Snowbourn? It would be such a good feeling to know that he would be able to defend himself in the case of an attack! If this worked out, he would be deeply indepted to his courageous, resourceful sister. But if it didn't, it would mean that Éowyn was in deep trouble...
„So... have you already decided on a path, Cousin?"
He sighed. Of course, it had only been a matter of time until this question reared its head again. He needed at least to have an idea before he headed out to collect his weapons. Another look at the pan revealed that the trouts were ready. He pulled them from the fire.
„Gondor seems risky," he mused. „I cannot rule out that the Worm spread his lies all the way to Mundburg... and it would be near impossible to do anything from there."
„Something... like planning a rebellion?"
Éomer stuffed the first pieces of fish into his mouth. They were delicious.
„It is the only thing that makes sense, isn't it?" He licked his fingers. „What would I do in Gondor? Even assumed they would allow me to stay there... I would remain a stranger all my life. I would stick out like a sore thumb. I am a man of the Mark with every fibre of my being, Théodred. I belong here. I could not live anywhere else. There would be no point in that... and it would also mean that I would have to watch from afar how the realm of Éorl the Young is brought to ruin. I could not bear that."
Béma, how he wished that his cousin were actually here with him! He had always had his best ideas in his discussions with Théodred. Éomer inhaled, and a frown appeared on his face.
„On the other hand, I am also tempted to let them taste the consequences of what they allowed to happen. Those cowards from the Council and the Royal Guard... they had it in their hands to change our fate for the better. All it would have taken was for them to stop that filthy halfblood and let me kill the Worm. Was that too much to ask?"
„If you do that, whatever befalls the Mark will also affect Éowyn," Théodred stated matter-of-factly. „And other people you know whom you probably do not want to see hurt... like the riders of your éored... or Elfhelm."
Éomer sighed and scratched his chin.
„I know. Which makes it even more complicated. Will Éothain and the others leave Edoras and join me, what do you think?"
„I fear that I cannot say, cousin. The situation is far too complicated and fragile. I, too, think that something must be done, and probably, going east would be your best bet for now. The Eastmark stands firmly behind you; I doubt that this has changed. And yet even if they follow you, the consequences for the Mark could be catastrophic if Erkenbrand and Grimbold think differently."
"Béma, what a mess…"
For the rest of his meal, Théodred's voice remained silent. At last, Éomer put the empty pan aside and fed his fire another two thick logs, before he wrapped his cloak tightly around his frame and lay down. Time to rest. He would head out once it was dark, thereby granting Éowyn more time for the fulfilment of her promise.
"I will start with arming myself tonight," was his last conscious thought before exhaustion claimed him. "And I will take it from there, step by step."
When Gríma son of Galmod left his chambers after his midday meal, he was in for a surprise. On the other side of the hall, before the door to Éowyn's chambers, it seemed to him that most members of the Royal Household had gathered to discuss... what exactly? Purposefully, he directed his steps over to them. Soon, he was able to discern bits and pieces of their agitated conversation.
"Is it serious?"
"What is the matter with her?"
"But she was outside on the terrace only two hours ago, and there was no sign that—"
„What is the matter here?" he asked in a piercing voice, and the excited din around him stopped cold. All turned around and stared at him in sudden dread, as if he had caught them at something forbidden. Well... had he?
„The Lady Éowyn has fallen ill, Counsellor," a familiar voice answered him sharply – and somehow accusingly - , and when the household members cleared a path in their midst, Gríma beheld Captain Gamling in front of the White Lady's door. He narrowed his eyes. Something certainly smelled funny here.
„She appeared to be in good health only a short while ago," he replied. „What is her condition, is it known?"
"As the healer is not here yet, I cannot say much, but apparently she suddenly developed a violent fever and has trouble breathing. Whether it is a result of the grief she has suffered today or something else, I dare not say. Yálanda will find out. I sent her handmaiden to fetch her."
„Did you, now..." Gríma fell silent, and behind his perfectly bland mask of indifference, rage began to build up.
Was this Éowyn's way of defying him? Was this why Théoden-King had looked so shocked that morning after they had sent him out to discuss... what exactly? That she would kill herself if anything happened to her brother? That she would rather die than become his plaything? It could not be! She could not deny him his reward for all these long years of living in danger, having plotted the end of the Èorlingas right beneath their noses! His execution had been masterful, and so it was only just that he was given the one thing he really wanted. She could not take that away from him!
But of course she could! It was no secret that Éowyn despised him and let no opportunity pass to demonstrate her hatred. And yet, although he had always enjoyed their daily battle of wits and words, Gríma had somehow reached the point where it was no longer possible to deny the truth: that his attraction to King Théoden's niece was not born from the desire to torment the proud nobles of this land who had forever looked down upon him for his mixed ancestry; an act of vengeance. No, to his own surprise, he had found that it was genuine longing for a companion; a need to love and to be loved in return, something he had almost given up on.
Oh yes, certainly he had had his share of women over the years, but he could not pretend that they had shared his bed because of his engaging personality. There was no doubt that he could be charming, certainly, very much so, but he was even better at corrupting, and so what had drawn those women between his sheets had either been fear or greed, a lust to feel the power of a man whose words were commands even to the king of their land. The service they had provided him had been enough to satisfy his bodily needs, and yet it had not stilled the yearning deep within his soul, a yearning the son of Gálmód had long denied to feel at all. There was only one who could quench that thirst; and she could not depart and leave him behind unfulfilled!
With forceful steps, Gríma made his way to the door. First, he would see for himself what was going on, and then- Someone stepped into his way. Gamling. His mien was stern. The red-haired older man seemed uncharacteristically determined to remain an obstacle in his path, and Gríma wondered briefly what caused the bout of heightened protectiveness. Did the man truly think that he would try to take advantage of the situation? That he would try to bend Éowyn to his will while she was weak and unable to defend herself?
It was a good idea. But no, no matter how minuscule his chances of still gaining the heart of the woman he desired had become, this was not how he intended to make her his'. In his dreams, she came to him willingly, as only that way would lead to the fulfilment he longed for. He understood her better than even her own brother; he appreciated her wild spirit, but she just would not see it. Regarded with the bidden realism, it seemed far more likely that if he wanted to have her at all, he would have to take her with force, and it would be the acknowledgement of his failure if it came to that. It would be domination, not love. What a shame!
Waking from this brief inner discourse and its grim prospects, Gríma met Gamling's grim gaze in a show of righteous anger.
"Will you please step aside, Lord Gamling? I believe I should see first-hand what has befallen the White Lady, to report it to the King."
He creased his brow as the Captain of the Royal Guard showed no intentions to move.
"The Lady wants to see no one, Counsellor. Hildegard is with her now, and the only other people I am going to allow in are her handmaiden and Yálanda. This day has been very hard on the King's niece, and it would be best not to aggravate her further."
Wormtongue stared at the door as if he could see through the wood. The notoriously mistrustful voice in the back of his mind was whispering unintelligible words, and he could not help feeling a vague twinge of unease.
„When did you send Maelwyn for Yálanda, Captain?"
"Only a little while ago. The smithy is not far, she should be back very soon. All the more as she knows of the urgency of her errand."
Creasing his brow in deep thought, Wormtongue cast a long, pensive look at the doors of Meduseld. He had instructed his men very carefully, now he could only hope that they had heeded his words and paid close attention to what Éowyn's handmaiden was doing out there. Éowyn was usually of remarkably good health and not lightly cast down by illness, which made this little unexpected bout all the more suspicious.
With a deep breath, Gríma straightened and looked the old warrior straight in the eye.
„I will go and await her on the terrace. Keep me informed should anything change about the Lady Éowyn's condition, Captain."
He turned away, feeling an unfamiliar nervous flutter in the pit of his stomach. Any delay in the conveyance of information could prove fatal to his plans. If his men had failed, not even the Gods would protect them from his wrath...
Her heart beating in her throat so loudly that it drowned out even the roaring storm, Maelwyn hastened down the steep path from the Golden Hall to the first cottages, one of which was the smithy and the home of their old healer Yálanda and her husband Bergfinn. She could hardly believe her luck that she was still alone, for even though Éowyn's plan had sounded proper, the young handmaiden had been sceptical whether she would be allowed to leave Meduseld on her own. To her immense surprise, the guards had permitted her to pass without a word of protest.
Apparently, they had forestalled the counsellor with this course of action, but as she ploughed hastily through the snow, Maelwyn still feared that a guard would be sent after her, and made hardly five steps without confirming with a glance back over her shoulder that she was not followed. The snow was still falling thickly and visibility poor, but she seemed to be alone yet.
Slightly relieved, she clutched the collar of her cape and slung it tighter around her neck as she turned toward the noise that emitted from the building next to her destination. It was Élric, she saw with sudden joy – the man she had come to see. He looked up as he sensed her approach; a tall man in his beginning middle-years, strong of build as a result of his hard work and with the blue eyes and flaxen hair that would give his Rohirric ancestry away even in a great crowd of people.
"Élric! Élric! Quick, where do I find your mother?"
"Maelwyn?" He squinted at her against the onslaught of the snowflakes, his expression overcast with sudden concern and the instrument in his hand temporarily forgotten as he sensed the urgency in her voice. "Is aught wrong? Is it the King again?"
"No, it is not the King. A sudden fever has befallen the Lady Éowyn! We need your mother's service very urgently."
"Éowyn?" The blue eyes widened in dismay, and Maelwyn remembered that her mistress and her brother had been well acquainted with Bergfinn's family for a long time. "My mother is in the house. I will get her immediately," He turned toward the main building, which he shared with his wife and their parents. "Come with me!" Another look over her shoulder confirmed to Maelwyn that they were still alone, but still she could not help feeling as if all eyes in Edoras were directed at her every move. "Do you reckon it is something serious?"
"The fever seems to be very high and struck her without warning. Apart from that, I'm afraid I cannot say." She had to tell him now, the opportunity would never be better. Taking her heart in both hands as Élric shoved the door open and called for his mother, Maelwyn laid a hand on his arm. "And Élric, there is something else."
"Something else? What do you mean, Maelwyn?" He drew his eyebrows together in confusion and then looked down the corridor again as he heard no answer to his call. "Mother? Where are you?"
"My Lady asks for your help in an urgent matter. She made herself deliberately ill by taking a special potion so that they would send me for your mother and allow me to leave the hall. By telling you this, I lay both mine and my lady's life into your hands, Élric! Please, help us!"
She stared into bewildered blue eyes and fell silent when the sound of steps approached them from the kitchen. A moment later, the old healer rounded the corner, and the woman's wrinkled face turned to her in alarm.
"I am right here, Élric. No need to be so impatient. Is that Maelwyn I see there? What is the matter, child? Who has fallen ill now?"
"Alas, it is the Lady Éowyn," the young handmaiden reported dutifully. "She has a violent fever and trouble breathing. They sent me to fetch you."
Snorting angrily, Yálanda turned to take her old fur-cape from the hook.
"I knew it was too much for that poor lass! All this grief she had to endure over the last days had to lead to something like this sooner or later. I hope Counsellor Gríma is proud of himself now." She bent to look for her leathern healer's bag, and then laid a hand on her brow as she suddenly remembered where she had left it. "Béma, what a forgetful old woman I have become! Wait here, child, I will be right back!"
She disappeared into one of the rooms at the far end of the corridor. Still confused, Élric turned back to his unexpected visitor.
"Are you saying Éowyn took poison? Was she trying to kill herself because of what they did to Éomer?"
"No," Maelwyn whispered back with the same intensity. If only she had been granted more time for her task! "She wanted to ask you herself to help Éomer, but the Counsellor wouldn't allow her to leave Meduseld, so she sent me instead. The Counsellor must not know about this!"
Incredulity was written all over the blacksmith's broad features as he stared at her.
"The counsellor forbade Éowyn to leave Meduseld? But he has no such—"
"Things are getting worse within the Golden Hall each day, Élric, but that is not why I am here. My Lady asks you whether you could ride out and deposit weapons for Éomer at their old hiding place, underneath a certain rock. She said you knew of what place I am speaking."
Élric narrowed his eyes.
"I do indeed."
"When they banished the Marshal, they took all his weapons. He is out there all by himself and unarmed, and Éowyn fears some foul play by the Counsellor." From the far room, they heard Yálanda rummage through her things and talk to herself.
"Ah, here it is. I wonder why I left it here."
Her eyes one great plea, Maelwyn shifted her attention back to Élric. Was that a shadow she saw on the other side of the path?
"Please, I cannot say more, and there is no more time! Will you help? Can I tell my lady that she needs no longer worry?"
"Does the Counsellor know you are here?"
"He knows I am here to fetch your mother, and I must return with her, or I will wake their suspicion. Please, tell me, Èlric, what should I tell my mistress?" The shadow was gone, or perhaps it had never been there. Its absence calmed her not.
Following her gaze into the grey-white swirling snowstorm with pensive features, Élric mused: "It would raise questions if I rode out in this weather without a good reason." Deep in thought, he scratched his beard, his thoughts leagues away. The sound of his approaching mother brought him back, and finally, to Maelwyn's utmost relief, he gave her the little nod she had been hoping for. "I will think of something. Tell Éowyn that I will see it done."
He looked at her strangely.
"Of course today. Éomer needs his weapons, doesn't he?"
Thankfulness lighting up her eyes, Maelwyn was already in the midst of throwing her arms around Élric's neck when the sight of the healer behind him stopped her. Yálanda's lined face wore an expression of mild bewilderment as she regarded her son and their visitor, whose demeanour seemed to have abruptly changed from gloomy to exultant, but then she shrugged it off and squeezed through the little opening in the door frame her son left.
"Come, child. Let us help the White Lady before it is too late."
Chapter 5: Counter-Measures
Twilight had fallen when Éomer woke and despite the thick cloak he had wrapped around himself, he felt at once that the temperature had again dropped. A lazy trail of vapour rose from his mouth with each breath, and as he lifted a hand to wipe eyes which were still heavy with sleep, his fingers brushed over a thin crust of ice that had formed in his beard. Disorientation washed over him while he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
As he straightened, his stiff body creaked and groaned in reaction to the movement, and he grimaced. The various aches from the beating were still there, not yet entirely overcome, and especially his shoulder joints felt sore. But at least, the weakness and raging hunger that had plagued him for the last days were gone after the comparatively sumptuous meal he had enjoyed, and new energy coursed through his body. Éomer had a strong suspicion that he would need it. At last, he remembered where he was, and settled back against the wall of the recess with a low groan. This was not the dungeon. They had not found him yet.
There was movement in front of him, and a jolt of anxiety raced through him, hand grasping in vain for something to use as a weapon… but it was only Firefoot who was returning from outside. With a hearty snort, the great war-horse shook its head and sent the long mane flying, painting a quick smile upon its master's face. If the big stallion felt so relaxed, there could be no trace of danger in the air.
"Hello, lad," Éomer greeted his animal companion, and laid another two logs into his low-burning fire before he put the flints and some kindling into the pockets of his cloak. There was no reason not to thaw himself out for a bit before they headed out again, but first, he would risk another glance around.
With another groan – this one not so low – Éomer rose to his feet and stretched. There were some nasty kinks in the muscles of his neck, and he massaged them with gritted teeth until the knots slowly dissolved. All the while Firefoot regarded him with pricked ears. The big Grey knew what his master's activity usually meant and signalled that he was ready for action. On stiff legs, Éomer walked over and buried his face in the thick fur, rubbing the strong neck and shoulder.
"Soon, my friend," he mumbled, enjoying the warmth upon his face. "Soon. First, I have to take another look. Enjoy your rest while you can. Béma knows for how long the respite will last."
With another clap on Firefoot's powerful hindquarters, Éomer stepped out into the open… where a surprise waited for him. The storm had stopped. The little vale lay silently before him under a thick blanket of snow. The son of Éomund regarded it with mixed emotions. Snow was enjoyable only for as long as one had a home to return to once the fun of frolicking around in the white wetness was over and one's limbs were numb from the hours in the cold. In his current situation, it was both a blessing and a curse: as long as he remained where he was, the snow was his friend, for it covered the tracks they had made and muffled all noise, both his own… and those of potential foes. And as soon as they left this hideout, it would betray their whereabouts to anyone looking for them. Well… there was nothing to be done about that.
He turned around and climbed up the steep path once again, carefully choosing his footing on the snow-covered rock. A broken leg could easily end in disaster if he slipped and fell; he would not even need orcs or Gríma's henchmen to finish him off. The cold would do their work for them. At last, the view opened before him, and Éomer got down on hands and knees as he crawled out onto the ledge. His piercing gaze swept over the snow-covered plains.
To the east, a stripe of inky blackness began to rise in the sky. Night was on its way and the first stars already out, tiny little jewels sparkling on black velvet. Due north, the greatest of them, marking the eye in Felarof's outline on the nightly firmament, cast its cold light onto the frozen Mark. Later, the waxing moon would add its silvery light to the sparkle and reflect on the unspoiled blanket of white that covered the ground. It would be a very bright night, a beautiful night, but Éomer did not feel in the mood to appreciate its wonders.
It would be too bright for a man in his situation, and the low temperatures would likewise work against him as they inevitably meant visible clouds of breath. At least that would be a disadvantage he shared with his hunters... if he really came across them. He did not expect Gríma to know of his secret hiding place on the fringes of the White Mountains, but even if he did, the small grove of trees and the reed-covered edges of the Snowbourn would make for an interesting, deadly game of hide and seek. A game he was quite good at.
He wondered who his hunters would be. Orcs? Dunlendings? Or Felrod and his companions? It would be too good to be true. Despite everything that he had been through these last days, Éomer felt confident that he still had what it took to make short shrift of Gríma's henchman - once he was in possession of his weapons. The mud-blooded filth was strong, no doubt, but the light in his head shone not too brightly. How satisfactory it would be to stick Gúthwine into the dirt digger's stomach and leave him lying in the snow while life slowly ran out of him!
Once again, his gaze travelled over the twilit plains without finding anything alarming. So far, so good. Éomer crawled back behind the rock and rose to his feet. Time to move out and cover most of the way before moonrise. Making his way down again, Éomer gave a sharp whistle…, which was instantly answered by a powerful neigh. And there he came, his beloved Firefoot, his head held high and ears pricked in his master's direction, eager to do whatever would be asked of him.
A thin, humourless smile wandered over Éomer's face as he watched the stallion's approach. There was another good side to the snow: it hid his horse well, dissolving the dappled dark and light grey form as it moved through the night like a ghost. He snorted. It was about time that something worked to his advantage for a change.
"Good lad. Good lad. What would I do without you?" He descended the last few steps and rubbed the stallion's brow. "Say, oh Grey One, do you feel ready for an adventure?"
A guttural noise answered him and the way his horse clamped his teeth shut around the folds of his cloak told Éomer that for once, Firefoot would probably have preferred the shelter of a warm, comfortable stable, a manger filled with oats and a good rub-down instead of his offering. He raised a brow in apology and patted the muscular neck.
"I am sorry we are out here, Firefoot, but it seems that it cannot be helped for now. Let us pick up my weapons first, and then I will pay my debt and find you a warm, cosy cave for the rest of the night, what do you say?" With a last friendly clap, Éomer seized a handful of the thick mane and swung himself onto the destrier's back. Beneath the overhang, his fire was flickering merrily, but the son of Éomund felt too impatient to return to it. "Let us be on our way then. The sooner we are finished with this business, the sooner we will be warm again."
It was the crackling of the fire that Éothain heard first when he slowly rose from the depths of sleep.
'I'm home… in my bed.'
He attempted to open his eyes, but found the lids still far too heavy. Which was strange. It did not feel like a normal awakening to him. Something was trying to pull him down again into the thick fog from where he had risen, and in an effort to escape from its clutches, Éothain twitched… and gasped when his back exploded into pain.
"Sssssh," a nearby voice soothed, and gentle fingers caressed his cheek. Someone had just sat down on the edge of the bed next to him. "Lie still, léofa. All is good, I'm here."
"Mother?" With infinite caution, Éothain turned his head… and looked into her eyes. The sad expression in them told him that she had cried. "What… what happened? I feel as if my mind is stuck in quicksand…"
"I gave you some milk of the poppy," Glenwyn answered him, and everything became clear to him. "The men of your éored brought you home, and Anlaf was kind enough to get it from the healer." She exhaled. "I do not know if this was worth it, Eothain. Éomer will never know that you did this for him. And I don't think he would have wanted for you to get hurt."
"I don't care." Éothain took a deep breath. His back felt as if rivers of fire were running over it. "They will never make me forget my best friend's name, or bring me to turning my back on him. It is something I just cannot do."
The fingers combed gently through his hair with a butterfly's touch.
"They will continue to punish you each time you resist them, though, and I am not sure that I could bear to watch more of this. It was bad enough this time, Éothain. Please, do not give them a reason to repeat it. There must be a better way to help your friend, and to honour his memory."
'The next time you're feeling rebellious, it will not be you who suffers the consequences… it will be one of your recruits.'
His torturer's words suddenly came back to him, and Éothain grimaced. The two recruits in his éored had not yet seen eighteen summers, they were almost children. He could not do this to them. 'Bema…'
"Is father back yet?' he whispered into his pillow, changing the subject.
"His riders are back," his mother said. "Most of them, anyway. Your father is on the way to Aldburg."
"To Aldburg?" Éothain furrowed his brow. "What it is he doing in Aldburg? He wanted to return as quickly as possible in case we'd have to act." 'It's too late now, anyway…'
Glenwyn nodded sadly.
"I know, léofa. Apparently, they told him more about Gríma's plans at Snowbourn. Aelfric was here while you slept, and reported to me. What your father learned at Snowbourn made him decide to head for Aldburg to speak with Marshal Elfhelm."
Her words sent a tingle of excitement through Éothain's body.
'So things are finally in motion…'
He sighed, understanding at length that he would have to reign in his temper in order to be able to partake in whatever uprising was going to happen once his father returned. He could not afford to still lie on his bed while outside, his men were fighting. As hard as it seemed, he would have to do everything in his power to heal as quickly as possible, which meant... remaining motionless and inactive for the time being.
"Your captains told me to let you know that they will keep an eye on things," Glenwyn said, apparently having read his thoughts. "Whatever happens, you will hear about it quickly… Now rest, léofa. Give yourself the time to mend. There is nothing you can do right now, anyway. Do you want some more milk of the poppy?"
Éothain hated the leaden tiredness the medication had plunged him into, but he, had to agree that his back would probably be best served if he remained motionless for the night.
"Aye, mother. Thank you. I suppose you are right. Hopefully, things will look at least a little better by tomorrow."
A mug was carefully placed against his lips, and Éothain swallowed. The sensation of his mother's loving caress was the last he felt before the quicksand swallowed him again.
"Now sleep, léofa. I will watch over you. Sleep…"
A very distinct feeling of anxiety had befallen Élric. At first, it had been but a vague notion of danger that had nestled in the pit of his gut even as he rummaged around his workplace to find the items he would pack for Éomer. He had thought nothing of it, had even shoved it aside to concentrate on the task at hand. His unease was easily explained; after all, he was preparing for an undertaking that would be regarded as an act of treason if he was caught, an undertaking that could easily cost him his head. For the briefest of moments, a voice in the back of his mind asked angrily why, of all the powerful people she knew, Éowyn had sought him out for her dangerous errand. He was no warrior. He knew how to wield a sword well enough from sparring with the White Lady and her brother, and because his profession as a metal-worker and weapons smith required such knowledge, but the truth was that he had never held a weapon of any kind against a living being with murderous intentions. How could she ask this of him?
The voice was abruptly silenced by the one he had been listening to all his life: the siblings were his friends. They had grown up together, and the fact that he had been eight years older than Éomer had mattered little because in certain regards, their minds had been alike. As the eldest of three brothers, Élric had displayed the same streak of fierce protectiveness toward his younger brothers as Éomer had toward his sister, and extending his protection to the King's nephew and niece had not even been a conscious resolution but something that had simply happened. At first, Éomer had seemed irritated by it, but soon he had learned to take advantage of the situation by teaching his older and strongly built friend the finer rules of swordplay before passing Élric off to his uncle as a valiant protector he would rather take along on his forays outside Edoras instead of a member of the Royal Guard.
And so it had happened that as a commoner, Élric had spent an unusual amount of time with the two royal siblings, learning their secrets and hiding places as their friendship gradually deepened. It was friendship which had landed him in this pickle, and if the son of Bergfinn the blacksmith knew one thing, it was that friendships were proven in hard hours, not on days where the sun smiled down upon them. It had been a while since his sword lessons with Éomer, but Élric was nevertheless determined to be a good friend, a friend whose loyalty would not waver under any circumstance. Thus here he was, riding out into last gusts of a snowstorm all by himself even though it could cost him his head in more ways than just one. What if he ran into orcs? What if something happened to his horse and he would be unable to continue to Snowbourn before nightfall? And what if his departure had been noticed by the wrong people? The guards at the gate had initially been unwilling to let him depart, but when he had told them the little tale he had thought up once he had become aware that Captain Céorl's éored had returned, they had finally relented.
For the umpteenth time since he had left the city, Élric's gaze went back over his shoulder, and his heart missed a beat when this time, he discovered six shadows to his far left, almost invisible behind the thick curtain of falling snow. The cold hand of fear tightening its grip on his stomach, his mind began to race. It could simply be a coincidence; after all, he was still on the road. Perhaps those riders had nothing to do with him. But what if? Should he try to outrace them? In these conditions of poor visibility, it might indeed be possible for him to disappear. But no, Élric dismissed the thought almost instantly. In addition to being a few years past his prime, the heavy-boned gelding he rode was not built for speed. And what use was there in shaking his pursuers if he had been identified and would be interrogated upon his return to Edoras? Fleeing would be an acknowledgement of guilt. No, the only way to handle this situation would be to keep to the plan he had made before his departure.
Quickly the shadows grew more solid which each of the horses' leaps. Their riders were here for him, Élric noticed, because even though their mounts could have easily overtaken him at the slow pace he was keeping, they remained level with him for a while before they were suddenly directed toward him, encircling him. Fighting against the panic thatrose in his chest as he recognised the heavily cloaked guards, Élric pulled on the reins and brought Gaér to an abrupt halt to keep him from running into the rider who blocked their way.
"Excuse me, my lords, is aught wrong? Has a danger been reported on the road, or-"
"It is I who asks the questions here, blacksmith," the rider before him growled impatiently, and Élric recognised him by the bushy black eyebrows as the man seen most often in the company of the King's counsellor. "Whereto are you riding in this storm? I gather it must be rather important for you to leave the city under these conditions."
They were all around him now, so close that Gaér fidgeted in discomfort at the other horses' proximity. Fighting with his mount as well as his own rising fear, Élric drew his eyebrows together in an attempt to appear righteously angry over the intrusion.
"I am on my way to Snowbourn, sir. When Captain Céorl's éored returned today, they had a message for my mother, asking her for help because they were all out of disinfectant. They had a few riders wounded on patrol during the last couple of days, and they need it urgently."
"If that is so, then let's see it." Felrod held out his hand demandingly and wiggled his eyebrows. "Come on, blacksmith! Show me what you have there in your saddlebags!"
A distinct flutter of panic spread in Élric's stomach. With a slightly shaking hand, he produced the large bottle of medical brandy, but as soon as he held it out for the big man to inspect, it was suddenly whipped out of his hand and thrown into the snow behind them. He gasped.
"What are you doing? That is-"
"—not what I'm interested in." There was something predatory to Felrod's grin now as he leant towards his victim. He pointed his chin at the other saddlebag. "What's in there?"
'They know!' Élric realised with sudden dread. An icy chill that had nothing to do with the snow raced down his spine. 'Béma, how can they know?' He knew not what to say. The murderous gleam in the big man's eyes told him that in all likelihood, he would not return from this journey.
"What, blacksmith? You don't want to show me?"
The ice-encrusted eyebrows twitched meaningfully while the other men laughed, then suddenly, there was the flicker of bright metal, and Élric found himself in the snow, his feet still in the stirrups of his saddle which had slid from his horse's back. With a single fast swipe of his sword, the guard had cut his saddle girth, leaving a bloody scrape in the side of the old gelding. With a panicked scream, Gaér bolted, and Élric suddenly found himself in the midst of an ever-tightening circle of restlessly shifting horses. Virtually at the last second, he withdrew his hand before a heavy hoof landed on it and crushed his bones. Deathly afraid and at the same time filled with mounting anger, he craned back his neck to glare at the leader of the pack.
"What have I done, my lord? How can you—"
"Look what's in his saddlebags, Dôrlak," Felrod ignored him, and his companion to the left quickly slid from his horse and drew his sword. "I got a funny feeling that we have found the first strawhead in the history of the Mark who is trying to tell us fairy-tales."
"You cannot do this!" Hastily, Élric freed his feet of the stirrups and crawled backwards, but his path was cut off by another rider. "You are in the King's service! You swore to protect us, not terrorise us, have you forgotten? What you are doing is against the law!"
"It is funny you should talk about the law, blacksmith," Felrod replied calmly while he accepted the heavy leather pouch Dôrlak held up for him. Once glance into it was enough to determine the contents. The guard's voice dropped to a dangerous snarl. "After all, you seem to be in the very process of violating it yourself in the most serious manner. Or do you want to tell me in all honesty that these weapons are for your own protection on the road? Hidden away in this pouch, where they certainly wouldn't do you a lot of good in the case of a surprise attack?"
He unsheathed the short sword he had found and pretended to examine it.
"Not a particularly kingly instrument. I assume it is for the healers of Snowbourn, too, to cut their herbs with, as they don't have any knifes there?" He threw it into the snow and took out a thin, sharp-bladed knife instead. "This is much better work, even worthy of belonging to a member of the Royal Guard. Thank you for this wonderful gift."
He kept it in his gloved fist as he dismounted, the threat in his bearing unmistakable.
"You cannot do this!" Élric repeated anxiously, finally succeeding in scrambling to his feet, but he fell again when the rider behind him rode into him, and suddenly the son of Bergfinn screamed when the horse's hoof stomped forcefully on his thigh, breaking the bone with an audible crack.
Running a finger over the glistening blade of the knife, Felrod came to a halt only a step away from their groaning victim and glowered down at the injured man with grim promise in his eyes.
"You have still not told us whose weapons these are, but that is all right, for I can easily guess. What I cannot yet guess is where you will meet with Éomer, but that is all right, too, for you will tell me!" He squatted down in the snow, his piercing gaze never once leaving Élric's face. "You will tell me, blacksmith, or I swear, even though it is cold now, I will make you sweat every ounce of pain that is in your body before I kill you. And upon my return to Edoras, I will see to it that your parents and that treacherous bitch the King's niece sent to you will be arrested and thrown into the dungeon. I doubt they would last very long down there. It is dark, and cold, and moist. In winter, most prisoners perish quickly from the infection to their lungs they catch there." He shook his head and grimaced. "They suffocate on their own matter. Some take days before it is finally over. It is a very ugly death I've been told."
"My parents have nothing to do with it," Élric breathed, horrified by the thought. "They do not know-"
"Do you honestly believe that I care, traitor?" The gleaming blade held directly in front of his victim's face, Felrod's voice dropped to a confidential whisper. "Tell me where you were taking these weapons, and they shall live. Lie to me – and I will make it true. It is your choice!"
The world behind the windows had turned dark grey when the old healer's expression finally lit up. In the warm light of the flickering candles and oil lamps, the woman's wrinkled face looked ancient to the frightened handmaiden who shared her watch over the King's niece, but for the first time since they had entered Éowyn's chambers, Maelwyn was certain that it was relief she saw reflected in those pale blue eyes. For hours, they had tended Éowyn, administering bitter teas and potions and wrapping the White Lady's calves and brow with cold, wet cloths to lower the fever that burned within her body until the first results showed.
Maelwyn had assisted as best she could by fetching and sending the other servants for the items and herbs needed, but overall, she had been forced to stand back and watch with a terrible feeling of helplessness how Éowyn restlessly shifted on her sweat-soaked bed. The secret she carried within about her conversation with the healer's son burnt on Maelwyn's tongue, and yet she dared not utter a word in the presence of the old woman for fear that Éowyn, who kept unconsciously mumbling to herself in her fevered dreams, would accidentally spill it herself to the wrong ears. How much she longed to tell her lady that her plan had worked and that help for her brother was underway; how much she longed to ease Éowyn's troubled mind, but although they seemed to be alone in these chambers, Maelwyn remembered all-too-clearly the glance the counsellor had given her upon her return to the Golden Hall.
As soon as his pale blue eyes had found her climbing up the stairs to the terrace, they had held her captive; piercing her like an arrow would pierce a deer's hide. It had seemed to her that he had looked right into her head, not seeing her treacherous thoughts clearly but sensing their distinct scent nonetheless. Luckily, Yálanda had quickly pulled her along and out of the dark man's reach, but even as the door had closed behind her, it seemed to the young handmaiden as if she could still feel the counsellor's stare on her back.
Éowyn's plight, however, had soon occupied her thoughts so thoroughly that Gríma had been forgotten. Strewn on her bed, her always pale face so ghostly white that Maelwyn had actually feared for a moment that they had arrived too late, Éowyn had seemed near death, too weak to lift her head or even speak as Yálanda began her work. This was not the situation her mistress had prepared her for. Yes, she had said that the potion would give her a fever serious enough to require the healer, but not that it would bring her to the brink of death itself. Éomer would be horrified if he ever learned that his sister had almost killed herself in order bring him help.
Only now that she felt encouraged by the healer's satisfied expression, Maelwyn dared to stand up from the chair in the corner she had occupied for some time, silently observing, and asked:
"Is the fever dropping?" She was granted a tired nod.
"Aye, child. She feels cooler to the touch. It seems to me that she has mastered the worst of it." Gently, Yálanda smoothed a wet strand of Éowyn's golden hair from her exhausted looking face, and her eyes registered with satisfaction the regular rising and falling of her patient's chest as she slid deeper into the arms of healing sleep. "Sleep well, child. We are here, watching over you." She turned to Maelwyn.
"I will remain in Meduseld for the night, Mistress Maelwyn, but I cannot deny that I am feeling fatigued myself. I believe it would be best if we split the night watch between the two of us. That is, if you could stay, too."
To the young handmaiden, it was not even a question.
"Of course, Mistress Healer. I would not want leave my lady in this state and go home; I could find no sleep myself that way. I already sent one of the lads home to tell my husband. He will understand." She looked at the peacefully sleeping Éowyn. "It was horrible to see her suffer so much. Do you truly believe that the worst has passed?"
"Aye, child. It looks to me like the White Lady is sleeping the sleep of healing now. I would be surprised if she woke before tomorrow evening. The rest will do her more good than I could ever do with all my herbs and potions. Do not worry, Maelwyn, I am certain that your mistress will survive this. – But tell me, could I ask you to keep the first watch? I am no longer as energetic as you, young lady, and fear that I need a few hours of rest myself before I can continue, as much as I would like to remain at Lady Éowyn's side."
Maelwyn smiled. "Of course, Mistress. Sleep well. I will remain here."
"I will be in the guest chambers should you need me, and will relieve you from your watch three hours after moonrise. But do not hesitate to wake me earlier should the need for it arise."
With considerable effort, Yálanda made her way over to the door, bent like an old branch. Touching the handle, she looked back. "Shall I instruct the kitchen to send you something? I cannot remember having seen you eat the whole day."
Maelwyn's smile deepened as she sat down on the edge of Éowyn's bed.
"That would be nice, Mistress. Now that you mention it, I do indeed feel hungry."
"I will tell them to send you some soup and bread. It is ill enough that the King's niece has been struck down by the fever; we cannot afford to have the few people of intelligence and compassion left in this hall weakened, too. It is we who hold the kingdom together these days."
The door closed behind her to a silence that was only interrupted by the crackle of the fireplace. With love and concern in her eyes, Maelwyn gently laid a hand on Éowyn's brow to feel for herself. Aye, the King's niece definitely felt cooler to the touch.
"Fear not, my Lady," she whispered confidentially. "Help for your brother is on the way."
Chapter 6: Hunters and the Hunted
Éomer heard the rush of fast-flowing water long before he saw the river's dark floods through the steady change of sparkling snow, tree shadows and thick undergrowth. With the merest pressure of his thighs and a slight tug at Firefoot's mane, he signalled the grey to halt, and breathlessly, both rider and steed reached out with their combined senses to listen to the voices of the night. Each rustle in the thicket of dead plants, each stirring in the crowns of the trees and each call that reached their ears was registered and identified: close by, the urgent sound of a rabbit breaking cover; from above, the almost inaudible rustle of air on feathers as a bird in the crown of the nearest tree stretched its wings, and from a distance, almost on the edge of Éomer's perception, the hesitant, careful steps of perhaps a deer moving through the deserted forest. There was no crunching of snow underneath heavy boots, or the distant whickering of horses left tied to a branch while their riders lay in a stakeout for him, nor muffled noises or urgent whispering giving away the presence of human visitors to this corner of the Mark. It seemed to Éomer that he was indeed the only human soul in this forest… and still he knew better than to trust first impressions. He waited, biding his time.
The blanket of white he saw over the stallion's pricked ears looked undisturbed except for a few animal tracks, yet further confirmation of his solitude since the snowfall had stopped hours ago. From the left, the rush of wings prompted Éomer to turn his head just in time to see a big owl land on one of the stronger branches of an old oak, and for a moment, wide orange eyes met his before the bird lowered its head to tear a strip of meat from the prey it held in its talons. A faint, unconscious smile wandered over Éomer's face at the sight of it. Owls were shy, elusive birds. If this one felt secure enough to feed, it probably meant that there was indeed no danger to be feared.
And still he waited for another moment before he dismounted, his senses now exclusively focused on his mount, and the experienced war-horse knew what his rider expected of him. The slightest twitch of the mighty muscles or even the lowest hint of a whicker from his throat would mean that Firefoot sensed the presence of others in their vicinity, but for now, his steed remained quiet. The dark eyes swept the silent forest as the stallion drank the chill air through his widened nostrils, tasting it for the scent of predators. At last, he shook his head and released the breathless tension with a heartfelt snort. Following his example, Éomer allowed himself to relax as well and patted Firefoot's shoulder as he slid from the horse's back.
He had decided to walk the last part of the way on foot. So far, the trees had provided them with excellent cover from potentially hostile eyes, but his old hideout lay closer to the edge of the river, well-hidden within a broad belt of dried reed. As children and even more often as young adults, they had sought refuge here whenever the days in Meduseld had been too dark and depressing to bear. Endless hours had they spent here together with Éothain, and on occasion also Élric, making plans and vows about what they would change as soon the necessary power was theirs. Although it had been their shelter, the memories Éomer held of this place were bittersweet.
Forcing himself to concentrate anew, he shoved away the distant images and assessed the situation: it would be difficult to move through the reeds without giving himself away. So far, Éomer had neither seen nor felt the presence of others, but he had not survived countless battles and risen to the position of a marshal at his young age because he underestimated the necessity of caution. This was not the time to rush things. Out here in the wild, even the smallest mistake could prove fatal. He had seen enough valiant warriors unexpectedly called to the halls of their ancestors because a single, brief moment of impatience, and he was determined not to fall prey to the patterns of behaviour expected of him. They believed him to be rash, inconsiderate. Very well. If they thought that, it would make his task easier.
"Wait here," he muttered under his breath to Firefoot, knowing that the stallion understood and would not stray far from the place he was left. On second thought, Éomer also slipped out of his cloak although he hesitated to abandon the excellent camouflage its grey colour provided it would render it impossible for him to move silently through the reeds. Laying the folded garment on a tree stump next to his stallion, the son of Éomund stealthily made his way over to where the last rows of trees granted him cover before the area of dried scrub, his eyes tirelessly sweeping his surroundings for eventual columns of frozen breath. The crunching of the snow beneath his boots seemed treacherously loud to his ears as he ducked through the undergrowth and halted. A brief flicker of movement in the shadows of the thicket to his left caught his attention and was quickly identified as a fox. Suddenly aware of the presence of his unbidden visitor, the beast darted away, a white blur in the nightly forest, and only its tracks in the snow remained as proof of its existence.
Savouring the sensation of crisp air filling his lungs as he took a deep, silent breath, Éomer suddenly noticed a first slivery sparkle on the water. The moon was about to begin its course over its silken black realm, and its pale light would soon reflect from the freshly fallen snow and illuminate the night; a combination favouring the hunters and putting the hunted at a disadvantage. No matter if he was indeed the only human soul out here, it would be best to hurry, as he had no intentions to change from predator to prey. Only one question still remained, and soon enough it would be answered: had Éowyn succeeded in sending his weapons?
With infinite caution, Éomer lowered himself onto all fours and began to edge through the scrub toward his destination. Skilfully using the cover it provided without causing the dried stems to sway and betray his whereabouts, he moved along; a cat on the prowl, the born hunter, his movements noiseless and fluent as he advanced and at the same time soaked up the noises around him. Nothing escaped his attention: not the low song of the mild breeze in the thicket of dead stems, not the low gargle of the river through the patches of ice which tried to hinder its waters from their journey south – and not the sudden flutter of wings as three small birds suddenly burst into flight before him.
Cursing soundlessly while his heart pounded furiously against his ribcage, Éomer sat back and held his breath. Anyone looking had now been alerted of something moving through the thicket, and so he waited anxiously for the noise of heavy boots in the snow closing in on him, or the telltale rustle of heavy bodies in the scrub. Yet it remained calm. Closing his eyes for a brief moment as relief almost became too great to bear, Éomer silently shook his head to himself and proceeded. It was about time he finished this and went on his way, for his nerves would not take many more of these incidents.
When he finally caught sight of the group of rocks he was headed for, a first wave of exuberance flooded his veins as he detected the single line of footsteps leading up to the biggest of them, the one with the small den underneath they had used as a storage for their provisions and later, messages. From behind, a lonely cry of the owl drifted into the night, unanswered. Encouraged by the silence, Éomer moved on, and as he approached, he caught a first glimpse of a heavy-looking leather pouch underneath the rock.
'Béma be praised! Oh Éowyn, I am forever indebted to you!'
His heart beating a frantic rhythm against his ribcage, he advanced, and the feeling of the first triumph over the Worm, even if it was only a small one, pushed him forward with renewed purpose. All of a sudden, his prospects seemed vastly improved: armed with sword, bow and knife, he would give the foes he met, orc or man alike, a fierce fight. His reputation as one of the Mark's most valiant warriors had scared away solitary enemies for a long time now; in fact it had been years since any of them had been willing to test their battle-skills against him in a one-on-one fight at all. As long as it was no army Gríma had summoned against him, Éomer felt confident that he had what it took to emerge victorious from this greatest of his challenges. With the object of his efforts now almost within reach and impatient to feel the encouraging weight of a sword in his hand again, Éomer pulled off his gloves with his teeth and reached out, his fingers closing around the pouch. It felt absurdly light as he pulled it out from the den, and he frowned as he unpacked the one item it contained: a stick. All of a sudden, the feeling of a sling tightening around his neck paralysed him.
'It's a trap!'
Frozen by the implications of his discovery – 'They caught Éowyn! Is she dead? How many- ' - Éomer stared at the gnarled parody of a weapon in his hand, until a sudden rustle in the scrub broke the spell. Reflexes honed by years of experience sent him to the ground and into a controlled spin before his mind had consciously realised the danger; the warrior in him taking over as, with a sharp thwack, an arrow embedded itself into the ground he had occupied only a heartbeat before.
Back on his feet, he instantly charged into the wall of reeds, not pausing once to look back and check how many foes there were on his heels or whether they were men or orcs. As cunningly as this trap had been laid, they had probably spread around him and even the slightest hesitation would buy him an arrow in the back. Abruptly breaking to the left, Éomer felt the current of air on his neck as another shot missed him by only the breadth of a hair.
From further behind where he had left Firefoot, a horse's shriek suddenly pierced the air, and Éomer cursed under his breath as he ploughed through the thicket in a hare's zigzag, performing another sudden switchback only to drop to his knees and breathlessly wait for his pursuers to give their positions away. How many were there? Would there be a chance to take one of them by surprise and acquire his weapons? Sensing movement to his right, he crouched deeper.
"Is he dead?"
"I missed. Rabid dog's faster than a snake! But he can't be far. Be silent!"
Two men so far. And at least another one back where Firefoot was. Silently praying that they had not killed his horse, Éomer laid a hand on his mouth to disperse the vapour of his breath as he cautiously exhaled. From behind him, the concussion of approaching steps caused his strained muscles to vibrate with tension. He was ready for the fight, but where was the other man? To his right, moving away, the distance between them growing.
Flexing his fingers, Éomer concentrated on the steps and tensed. His life probably depended on him killing the man silently. The darkness in front of him took shape as the reed parted, and he threw himself at his adversary with the velocity of a striking snake. The surprised man he crashed into barely had time to utter more than a breathless gasp before Éomer had him in a death grip and snapped his neck with a powerful jolt.
Alas, their brief fight had not gone unnoticed. As there was no point in easing the dead man soundlessly to the ground, Éomer dropped him where he stood and stooped to retrieve his knife, the rustle in the scrub already indicating that his foes were closing in on him again. Deciding to place his hope in speed rather than stealth, he bolted as an excited shout erupted into the night.
"Mordred, Gunthard, he is here! Hurry!"
The reeds whipping his bare face as he raced toward the forest's edge, Éomer somehow managed to collect enough air for a sharp whistle. It compromised his position but could not be helped, for there was but one thing left to save him now, and the furious shriek of his horse told him that he had been heard. Almost simultaneously, a pained shout rang out from the darkness of the forest, followed by the distant thunder of hooves.
More shouting, orders screamed regardless whether they were overheard. They felt certain that he was cornered and advanced from two sides now, cutting off his path to the cover of the forest. It did not change Éomer's strategy. They would not be able to shoot at him with great accuracy while they ran, so Éomer dashed toward the shadow closest to him; already switching his grip on the knife toward the blade. Only at the last possible moment, his ears told him that the man had already stopped and was probably aiming his bow in his direction, and he acted instinctively. A pained shout rewarded him as the knife he had thrown blindly found its mark, and with a dull thud, the arrow meant to kill him embedded itself into the ground at his feet.
Starting toward his adversary to retrieve his just won knife, Éomer parted the reed and froze: the thug was still on his feet, the heft of the weapon protruding from his left shoulder while he already held his sword in his other hand, looking both pained and eager to kill. With his comrades advancing fast, there was only one decision open to Éomer, and he ground his teeth and bolted, abandoning the blade with a heavy heart.
"Aye, you better run, filth! If we catch you, we'll skin you alive!"
The stallion answered him immediately, and suddenly, his great grey body broke through the undergrowth and raced toward Éomer. A rope dangled from his neck, but there was no one at the other end.
"Shoot! Shoot! He must not escape!"
In full run, Éomer shot out his hand, and his fingers closed around the horse's thick mane as he virtually threw himself onto Firefoot's back. A hail of arrows rained down on them, one even leaving a tear in his tunic, but by then Éomer had already found his right seat and the Half-Meara accelerated, leaving only little clouds of snow in his wake that had already settled while the hunters realised that their plan had failed.
Grinning at the sound of frustrated shouts behind him even if he could not understand the words, Éomer cast a quick glance over his shoulder to establish that his assassins had indeed stopped at the edge of the forest. A flood of pure energy raced through his veins, so intense it stole his breath. He had bested them. They had been waiting for him, five of the Worm's henchmen, heavily armed and with the advantage of surprise on their side, and yet he had managed to kill one of them and wounded another. For the first time, the stinking traitor in the Golden Hall had received a taste of what it meant to be at war with the sons of Éorl, and if it was in his power, Éomer was determined for this to be only a vague hint of what he had in store for Gríma Wormtongue and his minions.
The sensation of triumph was fleeting though, as the question of how those men had found out about Éowyn's plan sobered him quickly and thoroughly. He doubted that the Worm would actually hurt his sister, not while he still desired her and ultimate success was within his grasp now that all her protectors had either been killed or expelled, but still the question remained: what had happened?
Still battling with his unsettling thoughts, Éomer was suddenly cast back into reality by his stallion's enraged shriek, and from one leap to the next, Firefoot accelerated to full speed again. A moment later, a similarly angered answer clamoured from the thinning trees they were headed for, and there Éomer could make out the shapes of six horses in full tack. He had found his assassins' means of transportation. Acting on impulse, Éomer directed Firefoot at them with a malicious smile: here was his chance to buy himself some rest for the remainder of the night, possibly even longer.
His eyes watering from the icy wind in his eyes, Éomer blinked as they charged toward the small group and could not help feeling amused by the display of his own steed's fury. The way the grey stallion stretched beneath him, his hooves hammering the ground in a frantic rhythm at the other horse's challenge, it appeared that Firefoot - just like his master - was in desperate need of unleashing the accumulated frustration of the past days against someone. He wanted to fight, and the bay horse that presented itself to him by separating from the others was an ideal target. Yet as much as Éomer sympathised with his animal ally, killing those horses was not what he had in mind. If he instead succeeded in re-directing Firefoot's fury to chase the horses away and thus rob his hunters of their transportation, the manoeuvre would buy him valuable time. Perhaps, if he was lucky, Gríma's henchmen would not even make it back to Edoras on foot. The Mark was a dangerous place not only for the righteous men. Yes, this plan seemed sound. Now all that was left to do was convince his furious stallion of it.
"Hoh, Grey One, slow down! No need to scare them senseless! They are your kin, remember? You are not a warg, so stop behaving like one!" He tugged on the mane and shifted his weight to bring Firefoot alongside the other horses – and found himself ignored. "Hey! I am talking to you!"
Now forcefully attempting to hinder the Half-Meara from charging into the others like a ram, Éomer was almost unseated when, without warning, Firefoot performed a wild swing to the right. Clinging to the thick mane for all he was worth, Éomer – to his bafflement – suddenly heard a surprised shriek and caught a fleeting glimpse of a dark shape in their path before he felt the impact of Firefoot's hooves on something soft. Looking back as his steed continued almost without interruption, he saw the man collapsed in a heap behind them, unmoving. Of course. They would not have left their horses unguarded. Not finding it in himself to pity the man when he had come to kill him, Éomer regained his seat and shifted his attention back to the horses they had almost reached by now.
The bay which had challenged Firefoot had apparently come to his senses at the close-up sight of his steaming opponent, because he suddenly turned on his hind legs and bolted, taking the others with him. Swearing and seeing his stallion's ears twitch at his angered outcry, Éomer slapped the grey neck hard with his flat hand.
"Stubborn mule, now see what you've done! It could have been much easier!" Still angrily shaking his head to himself, Éomer decided he had enough of being only a passenger on his steed's back. It was about time he claimed back control. With a few rigorous commands, he threw Firefoot around almost in a circle, clinging to his back like burdock, before he allowed him to resume pursuing the other horses at a much slower pace. As soon as they were no longer spooked, he would ride up to them and grasp their reins, and then lead them far, far away…
UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISHMENT OF ÉOMER
Chapter 7: The Longest Night
Dawn was still distant when Maelwyn left the safety of her house after only a few hours of sleep. The cold was crisp and chased the sleepiness away as she made her way through the narrow alley, and instinctively, her fingers clenched in the fabric of her thick coat. An icy cloud of her own breath rose into the sky and made her realise that the storm had stopped. For a moment, Éowyn's handmaiden came to a stop and looked up into the sky. A little gasp escaped her at the sight of the full moon and the sparkling stars around it. It had been a while since they had last experienced a cloudless night, and its beauty took her breath away.
And then it came back to her: somewhere out there, in the wild, Lady Éowyn's brother fought for survival. She could only hope that Élric had succeeded in his mission, and that Éomer's chances had now greatly improved. She had not heard from him upon his return, but of course, she had spent the first hours of the night in her mistresses' chambers, and later, when the healer had taken over, Maelwyn had gone home to enjoy the comfort of her own bed for at least a few hours before she would head up to the Golden Hall again. There simply had been no way for Élric to inform her. Not without raising suspicion.
With a little sigh, the young handmaiden turned away from the path that would lead her up to Meduseld. There was something she needed to do, first, before she headed back. And although this was really not the time to disturb anyone, she had an inkling that it would be appreciated. No one would see her now if she headed over to Éothain's home to see how he was faring, and to inform him about Éowyn's state and her lady's organised help for her brother.
The snow crunched beneath her boots, and it sounded unnaturally loud to her ears in the otherwise perfect silence, but there seemed to be no one around to hear it. Nevertheless, Maelwyn used what shadows she could find for cover, and only a short while later, found herself standing before the home of Captain Céorl and Lady Glenwyn. Hesitantly, she knocked… and was astonished to hear quick steps behind the door only moments later. The door opened, and the face behind it looked tired and worried. Of course it did, although it did not appear to Maelwyn as if her knocking had woken Céorl's wife.
She curtsied quickly.
"I apologise, my Lady," she whispered. "I am on my way back to Meduseld, but so much has happened yesterday that I had no time to see how your son was faring. I heard what they did to him…"
An exhausted, but thankful smile lit up Glenwyn's expression, and she opened the door a little further.
"That is kind of you, Maelwyn. Please, do come in. He is awake, and I'm certain he would like to see you."
Thankful to be out of the cold, Maelwyn quickly stepped inside.
"Thank you, Lady Glenwyn. I also have news you will want to hear."
"Who is it, Mother?" Éothain's strained voice reached her ears from a room further back. He sounded pained, and Maelwyn tensed at its sound.
"It is Maelwyn," Glenwyn answered, and held a hand out for her visitor's coat. "Give me that, dear, I'll hang it close to the fire. It will be cosily warm when you put it on again. Would you like some tea, perhaps?"
"If it is not too much effort? I fear that I cannot stay very long; I'm expected back at the Golden Hall."
Glenwyn furrowed her brow.
"In the middle of the night? It is not even dawn yet."
"Aye." Maelwyn nodded. "That is also because of something that happened yesterday. I will tell you about it in a moment."
New concern stood in the older woman's eyes as she nodded and turned around to hang the coat.
"I suspect it must be something rather alarming, by the sound of that…" She took a deep breath and gestured the handmaiden to follow her. "I will be right back with the tea. I was just making some for Éothain and myself, so it really is no problem. Neither of us could sleep tonight. Here he is…"
She opened the door further and left, and hesitantly, Maelwyn entered the little room which Éothain used whenever their éored's path led them to Edoras. It contained no more than a closet, a chair and a bed in front of a fireplace. The fire appeared to have been stoked recently, and it was very warm in the room… a necessity, as on the bed, Éothain lay stripped to the waist, and the sight of his back stopped her breath. A crude criss-cross of thickly swollen welts and open tears marred his skin from neck to hips, and Maelwyn understood instantly that it would be quite impossible to tolerate even the touch of the softest fabric on those wounds.
"Oh, Éothain…" she whispered, and lowered herself onto the nearby chair. "I heard what happened, but I had no idea that it was so bad."
He gave her a tired little smile and stretched out his hand. She took it.
"I would do it all again, though, if the situation was renewed. I could not turn around when he left. I just could not do it."
She pressed his fingers.
"I understand. It was hard for me, too. But the Counsellor was right there, and I didn't dare…"
"It's all right, Maelwyn," Éothain interrupted her. "As his best friend, I felt a special obligation not to bow to the Worm's pressure, and I'm glad that I did this, even if it smarts. It will pass, and I shall bear these scars with pride. Have you come to see how I am?"
"Aye. I felt bad that I could not come earlier. There was an emergency." Maelwyn looked up when Éothain's mother returned and handed her a mug with steaming tea." Thank you, my Lady. I'm sorry, I'm occupying your—"
"Please, stay seated, Maelwyn." Glenwyn sat down on the edge of the bed. "An emergency? In Meduseld? Was it the King again?"
Maelwyn shook her head, well aware of the growing concern in both Éothain's and his mother's eyes. "No, unfortunately, it concerned the Lady Éowyn."
"Éowyn!" Mother and son exclaimed, and their eyes widened.
"Aye, but it was of her own making." Now they looked confused. Maelwyn inhaled deeply. Where to begin? "My Lady wanted to organise that her brother received his weapons at a special place at the Snowbourn that only they know."
"I know it, too," Éothain muttered. "Whom did she ask?"
"She was forbidden to leave the Golden Hall," Maelwyn elaborated, and found herself looking into stunned faces.
"Forbidden? Lady Éowyn was forbidden to leave Meduseld?" Glenwyn looked aghast. "And no one said anything?"
Maelwyn shook her head.
"Alas, there are things going on in the hall these days none of us would have thought possible, I'm afraid. They feared that she would try to help her brother." A satisfied smirk suddenly appeared on her face. "And that she did… with my help. But it required making herself ill, so that they would send me to get the healer. Unfortunately, it was a lot worse than my lady had calculated… but she is better now. You need not worry. When I left, she was sleeping, and the fever had dropped."
The stunned expression on her hosts' faces would not fade. She took a few sips of her tea.
"How… did she take some kind of poison, or…?" Glenwyn shook her head. "How desperate she must have been, to resort to such a measure! The poor lass…"
"And so you did what exactly when they send you for Yalanda?" Éothain inquired.
"I asked Élric, and he promised me to ride out and hide the weapons for Éomer."
Éothain furrowed his brow.
"But they said that no one would be permitted to leave that day. They even stationed guards at the stables, or our éored would have left with Éomer. How did Élric do it… without raising suspicion? They ought to know that the two share a special bond."
"I do not know, Éothain, but I'm certain that he found a way. I could not check on him, yet, but I intend to do it later today. I will gladly report it to you when I go home. Hopefully, there will be no need for me to spend another night at Meduseld." She leant back. "That is what I wanted for you to know, that help for Éomer is on the way, and that the Lady Éowyn is on the way to recovery. I did not know whether you had heard of her malady."
Her eyes travelled over to the window. It was still dark outside, but something in her begged her to hurry. There was no telling when the Counsellor's spies might wake, and when they did, she wanted to be back by Éowyn's side. No one needed to know that she had visited Éothain in the middle of the night.
"I'm afraid I must leave now. I promised Yálanda to be back by breakfast… and I also very much want to slip back into the hall before the Counsellor leaves his chambers. He looked ready to pull me aside and question me when I returned last night, but thankfully, I was urgently needed in my mistress' chambers." She swallowed. "I suppose he will find me later today, though. I will have to lie to him. I never did this before."
"You will not be lying, dear," Glenwyn stated emphatically, and her confident expression gave Maelwyn hope. "You will only leave something out. It is necessary to defeat our enemy, so it does not count as lie. You cannot defeat crooked men by telling the truth. Béma understands that."
She stood up and accepted the empty cup from their nightly visitor, placing it onto the rim of the fireplace, before she took the young woman's hands and squeezed them affectionately.
"Be strong, Maelwyn. What you and Éowyn did was brave, and it sets an example. Step by step, we will walk the path to victory. We must be patient and cautious, even if it is hard. But no one will be helped if any of us are caught at something forbidden. Please, come to us whenever you need something, or have news for us. Our door will always be open for you, day and night."
"Thank you, Lady Glenwyn. It helps being able to speak about these things. I promise to come to you with any tidings that I learn." She turned back to Éothain. "You can give yourself the time to heal, Éothain. I'm certain that the Marshal has already received his weapons, and we all know that he is a mighty warrior and not lightly overcome. Have hope!"
"Thank you, Maelwyn."
There was wonder in Éothain's eyes when he regarded her now, and for a moment, the young woman felt a chuckle rise in her throat when she thought about her new-found courage. Certainly, before last night, she would have never dreamt of being involved in rebellious activities… but it felt good. It felt right.
"I must go now… but I will be back later tonight."
Her coat felt indeed wonderfully warm when Éothain's mother held it for her to slip into, and even as Maelwyn carefully pulled the hood over her head, the older woman once more touched her hand.
"Be careful, Maelwyn. Every beginning is hard, but at least, something has begun now… and we will take it from here."
"Aye, my Lady." With a little affirmative nod, the handmaiden slipped out into the night. One look was enough to establish that everything was still quiet. "I will be back."
It was still dark when Éomer halted Firefoot with a slight tug at the reins. Following the loss of his cloak, he had literally clung to the stallion's neck for the better part of the ride to soak up the warmth his horse exuded, but inevitably the moment had come where it became impossible for him to continue his ride only in his shirt and breeches. To his misfortune, the horses he had abducted had carried neither spare garments nor blankets with which he could have substituted his thick cloak; likewise he had found no additional weapons in their saddlebags, only a few provisions. Together with a set of tack, they were the only things of use to him. Relieving the horses of their saddles, Éomer had put one of them on Firefoot's back and filled its bags with his sparse loot, then he tied their reins to a thick branch in order to prevent the animals from running straight back to their masters, as any well-trained horse of the Mark would do once he released them. To leave them a chance to free themselves if a danger should arise, however, he did not pull the knots very tight. It was a gamble, but the Mark needed its horses. About the dark bay whose bridle and saddle he had used on Firefoot, he could do nothing to keep him close, but thought not that the gelding would stray far from his companions. In any case it would be a long walk for Felrod and his band of thugs to reclaim their mounts.
Yet not even this amusing thought could lighten his spirits anymore. While the ruffians would simply be cold for a while, but were certainly in no danger of freezing to death, Éomer himself felt chilled to the bone. His teeth were clattering and he knew that he would not live to see the light of the new day if he did not take immediate action. Keen on making the most of the advantage he had gained by abducting his adversaries' horses, he had relentlessly pressed on to reach the mountains instead of seeking shelter from the elements, and only now that they had travelled where the snow had been blown clear from the rock for a while, Éomer felt secure enough to stop. Perhaps not for the night, but long enough to help himself to some shelter from the temperatures.
Looking back the way they had come, he registered with satisfaction that they had left no tracks and shifted back in the saddle to concern himself with the new challenge he was faced with: beyond Firefoot's flickering ears, a thin column of smoke rose lazily into the sky from a group of buildings. Éomer knew the hard-working people who lived here well, and felt miserable about having to drag them into this most unfortunate business, but he could see no other option. It was either freezing to death or… steal? Grimacing at the word alone, Éomer took a deep breath. Yes, he would have to steal indeed, for it would be the only way to keep the couple out of trouble. It was no secret that their people were anything but adept at lying. He did not doubt that Forlong and Théa would grant him everything he asked of them even if he woke them in the middle of the night, but if Gríma's henchmen somehow found out that he had disappeared in this direction, things could get very ugly. No matter what happened, he would not be the Worm's justification for killing innocent people. For once, it would be best to simply swallow his pride and take what he needed like an ordinary thief and be gone before anyone found out who had paid them a nightly visit.
Patting Firefoot's neck, Éomer slid from the saddle and ground his teeth at the discovery of how numb his body had already become in the chill air.
"I know you would rather be in that barn than out here, Big One. I would that we could stay, too, but it is something that we just cannot do." Narrowing his eyes as his gaze swept over the peaceful picture of the farmhouse and its stables and barn, Éomer clenched his jaw. "Stay here. I'll be right back."
The stallion's explosive snort sounded rather annoyed behind him as he advanced on feet he hardly felt anymore. Éomer listened into the night. He knew that the couple owned two fearsome watchdogs, a breed of wolfhound that was kept throughout the Mark as guardians for the stock, and scanned the patches of snow for their tracks without finding any. With luck, they would be kept inside the stables at these fierce temperatures, and his tired and freezing mind refused to come up with a solution in case they were not. After all he had been forced to endure these past days, wouldn't it just be fitting to be ripped to pieces by his own people's guard dogs? Surely Gríma would delight in such news, which was one of the reasons why he could not let it happen. Yet without weapons, what should he do if he was detected?
'Firefoot would come to my aid, even if he is cross with me at the moment…'
Éomer paused briefly in the shadow of the last tree before he would actually enter farm territory. There was still no sign of the dogs. Looking back, he briefly confirmed that his stallion was indeed paying heed to his order before he advanced again, treading even more carefully. There was no light anywhere in the house as he passed, but Éomer was still glad when it lay behind him. Now, where to go? Where would he find anything of use? Since entering the main house was out of the question, Éomer decided to try his luck first in the biggest building – the barn. What he would do if his search proved vain, he did not know, and he pushed the thought back as he stealthily approached the great wooden structure over the patches of ice in an attempt not to leave a trace and at the same time, not to slip.
From the long building to his right, the muffled noises of sheep could be heard, and their scent reached his nose with amazing clarity through the chill air. Still no dogs. He reached the barn and tilted back his neck to peer at the small window below the roof. To reach it, he would have to climb the pile of firewood stacked next to the building's wall, an activity he was not looking forward to as it would be quite easy to slip on these ice-covered tree trunks and send the whole pile tumbling and seriously injure himself in the process. Yet what else could he do? A quick check revealed what he had already assumed: the door was locked and secured with an additional iron-chain. No way to get in through there, so the window it was.
Flexing his numb fingers to get at least some feeling back into them, Éomer began the ascent by carefully placing his foot on the first trunk. It did not roll away underneath his weight, and encouraged, he moved on, swiftly and cautiously at the same time nearing the narrow rectangle above him until he was directly below it and able to reach the wooden frame with his fingertips. Another quick glance over his shoulder confirmed that he still had the night to himself, and he turned back and tensed, then jumped. His fingers closed around the middle beam of the window, and with a chin-up, Éomer pulled himself up to see a barricade in the form of a heavy-looking sack in front of him. Finding hold on the small ledge, he placed his shoulder against it and pushed cautiously, but persistently. Slowly, the sack gave way.
The first sensation as he squeezed through the window was that of warmth… and then the smell of the animals and the noises of their restless shifting trickled into his awareness as well. Stretching his neck to orientate himself in the semi-darkness from his elevated position, Éomer looked down on two rows of stalls holding cattle and two heavy-set horses. From their calm demeanour, Éomer concluded that the beasts had not yet picked up the scent of their unbidden nightly visitor, and so he used the moment to look around further. The flickering light of an oil lamp that enabled him to see stemmed from an even higher place opposite him, where two booted feet stuck out from underneath a blanket: a guard. He tensed, even though he had not expected to find himself alone in here. These days, no farmer could risk his stock by leaving it unprotected. He would have to be quiet.
With careful, conscious movements, Éomer silently advanced to the edge of the straw and peered down. There was still no sign of the dogs, but as he looked to his right, he saw to his excitement a couple of thick, fur-lined leather capes hanging from hooks at the wall underneath the sleeping guard's position. There was a small shed there as well, which probably contained work tools such as axes, hammers and sickles, things he could use well for a weapon in lack of a better option. His heart beating faster at the sight of this treasure, Éomer climbed down and came to stand on the stone floor only a moment later. A brief glance upwards confirmed that the guard was still asleep, and so he took his heart in both hands and closed the distance to the wall with a few fast and soundless steps, his fingers already digging into the thick fur to unhook the cape – when a sudden low, menacing snarl turned his stomach into a block of ice. Swearing inwardly, Éomer turned around. From the corridor between the two rows of stalls, a pair of glowing amber eyes was set on him, and even as he looked, the growl rose in volume, the flickering light now also reflecting from an impressive looking set of pointed fangs as the wolfhound they belonged to approached.
'Gods, I almost had it! Am I spared nothing?'
Lunging for the first thing within his reach, Éomer's fingers closed around a hayfork. He stabbed it menacingly in the direction of his attacker. Yet instead of jumping, the well-trained guard dog immediately retreated to wake the barn with his angry barking. The alarm was instantly picked up by the cows and horses and filled the building with an ear-splitting din impossible to overhear even in the distant main house.
'Morgoth's stinking breath…!'
Still holding the dog at bay single-handedly with the fork, Éomer seized one of the capes and started to edge his way back to the pile of fodder sacks, when a young frightened voice from above froze him in his tracks.
"Faestor? What is it? Is there something-" The light of the lamp started to move down the ladder, and with a sigh of resignation, Éomer retreated all the way to the wall while a burning feeling of shame twisted his insides. So it had come to this: the formerly proud Marshal of the Mark had been reduced to a petty thief who broke into stables at night to steal from the people he had once sworn to protect, and to scare their children. No longer attempting to escape detection, Éomer waited until the young lad he knew to be the oldest son of the couple saw him. "Who are you? And what are you doing here?"
The lad, no older than thirteen or fourteen summers, held a small axe in his hand, which he lifted now in pitiful threat upon the sight of the stranger in his barn. Not intending to scare the boy further, Éomer did not move a muscle.
"I mean you no harm, Hâlrod, relax. I only wanted to borrow one of your capes." Slowly, he lifted the hand with the garment. "I am sorry for the disturbance, but-"
"Who are you, and how do you know my name?" Holding up the lamp to see better while his still growling hound walked with stiff steps over to his master, Hâlrod looked confused at hearing his own name uttered. Yet before he could think of anything else to say, the sound of the heavy door being unlocked and pushed open interrupted his train of thought, and the next moment, a broad-shouldered, unkempt looking man in his middle-years entered the barn, a sickle in his right hand. Inwardly sighing to himself, Éomer looked down the corridor. So here came Forlong. Béma certainly seemed in a mood to spare him not even the least indignity these days. Holding up his own oil-lamp, the farmer squinted at him and when he spoke, his tone was harsh.
"Who are you, and what are you doing in our barn in the dead of night, thief? What did you hope to find here?" He squinted even more, and suddenly his eyes widened in disbelief. "No, it cannot be! Marshal? Marshal Éomer? Is it really you?"
Straightening to his full height and squaring his shoulders, Éomer swallowed his pride. His approach had not worked, so he would have to think of something else now, even if the thought of including the family in his act of disobedience against the banishment still caused him stomach cramps.
"Yes, it is indeed I, Forlong, even if I am no longer a marshal, and you must believe me that I am truly sorry about this. Circumstances brought me here in the middle of the night to try and borrow one of your capes." He took a deep breath and added in a low voice: "I would have tried to return it later."
"But…" The man obviously doubted whether he was truly awake yet, but his hand with the sickle sank. "…why did you not simply knock and wake us, my lord? We would have gladly given you everything you need." He paused as his memory slowly returned. "There was a rider here two days ago, telling us that… Oh Béma! They did not even leave you your coat? But that is murder!" Casting an angry glance at the still growling dog, the farmer shouted: "Silence, Faestor! Hâlrod, take him back to his stall before he causes the animals to panic. There is no foe to be found here."
With another insecure glance at him, the lad grasped his hound by the collar and did as bidden.
"It is a long story," Éomer sighed as he slowly relaxed. His hand with the cloak sank. "Of course I would have rather liked to ask you for this instead of simply taking it, but you know the rules of the banishment. It was not my wish to draw you into this any more than necessary."
"But is it true then that the Prince is dead? The errand rider said that he died in battle in Westfold."
A shadow crept over Éomer's face as Forlong's questions brought back the hurt of his own loss.
"Aye. Alas, I fear that it is so. It is not true, though, that I played a part in it. But as I said, it is a long story, and I cannot-"
"So the heir to the throne is gone. Alas; that we should live to see such days of darkness…" The farmer's expression told of his dismay. "And of course I know that it could not have been your fault, Marshal, you do not have to tell me. Although we live far from the court, we know better than to trust information coming from Edoras these days." He shook his head, motioning Éomer closer. "I would never have thought that I would say such a thing one day. But tell me, what is the matter with the King that he makes such strange decisions?"
"Gods, Forlong, will you look at the poor man?" another voice suddenly interrupted their conversation harshly from the direction of the door. "The Marshal is shivering like autumn leaves, and his teeth clatter. He must be half-frozen! Will you not ask him to come into the house for some warm broth and tea first? You can continue your talk there." Théa, the frail-looking, yet astonishingly resilient wife of the man before him stepped into the barn with an expression of irritation on her freckled face as she regarded her husband. "Marshal Éomer, please, it will be an honour for us to welcome you in our home."
"And I thank you, Théa, but I am afraid that I cannot accept your invitation, as much as I would like to. If I am found here, you will come to harm and I will not risk it under any circumstance."
Yet to his utter surprise and then sudden, secret amusement, the diminutive woman put her hands on her hips in a resolute gesture, seemingly far from intimidated by her high guest.
"I understand, Marshal. You would rather freeze to death out there. But how in Éorl's name is that supposed to help us?"
"You say you understand, Théa, but you don't. I was banished, which means that all who help me will be treated as traitors if it becomes known, and I will not be responsible for your death."
"There is no one here to see you. It is the middle of the night. There have never been many of the Armed Forces around here, not even when we really needed them… except for your éored. You and your men risked your lives for us many a time; it would only be fair to repay you for it now, even if we cannot do much, I'm afraid."
"If you could lend me this cape, it would be more than I could have hoped to find. That, and perhaps something I could use for a weapon, a knife, or an axe, should you have one to spare…"
"The cape is yours, let us talk no more about it," Forlong rejoined the discussion. "And before you leave, we will also find a blade or such for you as well, but for now, I fear I have to agree with my wife: we will not let you leave like this. We would see it as a serious insult to our hospitality." He paused and looked back. "Wouldn't we, Théa?"
"Oh, we certainly would." The woman was actually glowering at him now, Éomer noticed, torn between laughing and feeling annoyed over the couple's stubbornness. And yet, wasn't this the very character trait their people were famous for, the one trait which had ensured their survival through all those hard, violent centuries? "I even believe that I could feel insulted enough to take back our gift."
Incredulous, Éomer narrowed his eyes. Was he being blackmailed?
"I do not believe my ears. Are you forcing me to accept?"
"Aye," Théa beamed. "Thus I think it would be best for you to give in. We are two, after all, and there is only one of you… and of course, we also have the dogs."
Now Éomer could no longer help himself, the grin broke through as he slowly shook his head in wonder.
"I see. It is quite telling what happens to authority once one is stripped of ones titles. Very well, I surrender to your sheer power of conviction. But-" and he pointed the finger at the woman, whose face flushed with sudden satisfaction. "—I will move on before dawn, even if I have to fight you. I meant it when I said that I must not be found here."
"And we understood you," Forlong confessed. "But there must be time enough to thaw you out again. Come, we will let you sit before the fire and Thea will make you some hot soup and tea while I pack a few things for you. Aye, and I am certain that your horse might appreciate a few handful of oats as well, wouldn't you agree?"
Chapter 8: Dawn of the New Day
In one of the many chambers of the Golden Hall, someone else was experiencing a sleepless night, although he was not usually prone to extensive rumination. Waiting for his men to return from their secret errand, Gríma Wormtongue had stayed outside his chambers for a long time even after most of the court staff had gone to bed, Théoden-King even earlier than most. The ill old man had instantly fallen asleep, almost too quickly for Wormtongue to administer him the tea that contained the poison.
Every time he thought about it, Gríma felt astonished that it still worked so flawlessly. For the first months that he had used it on Théoden, his claim had been that it was a medicine against the constant ache in the King's joints; a rather natural condition that came from old age and exposure to the harsh climate of the Mark. By then, it had indeed been mostly medicine, the part of it that would make the patient dependant and at the same time opened his mind for manipulations minuscule. And the King had felt better quickly after he started taking it, and so had uttered no protest when Gríma had suggested that the potion would have to be taken each day to prevent the pain from returning.
Each week, he had given a small phial of it to Théoden's long-time manservant with the stern warning to never give the King more than five drops a day. After this show of concern, nobody had ever suspected that this was the very tool that would grant the spy in their midst access to power over the realm of the Riddermark. As soon the potion had been accepted by all as a given in Théoden's daily routine to the point that it had been forgotten, Gríma had altered the mix. Month after month, he had made it stronger, and while his master's joints still seemed in perfect condition, the old man's health and mind suddenly started to crumble.
As before and due to his initial success, people once again came to ask him for help, much to Wormtongue's secret amusement. Théoden's manservant had passed away in the meantime, an opportunity for Gríma to fill in for him with no questions asked. No word of suspicion was ever uttered against him, not even when in response to the other draughts he mixed for the Mark's ruler, Théoden-King's mental health was stripped away piece by piece to the point where he did not even recognise people anymore. When at last, all attempts of restoring the monarch's health had failed and Gríma claimed with convincingly feigned sorrow that the King's illness had to be a result to old age which not even the best medicine could reverse – they believed him and never once suspected that he was in fact the cause of Théoden's condition.
It was only the King's family, of course, who suspected differently, but since it was well-known that Éomer had hated him from the beginning, his blunt accusations made during the rare occasions when he was not roaming the Mark with his éored were not taken seriously by the rest of the Mark's court, and Gríma had shrugged them off like a horse that ridded itself of a pestering fly. And Éowyn was not taken serious by the man-dominated Council of Edoras. No, he was safe. But still, his cautious nature told him to only brew small amounts of the potion each time, so that in case that his treason would one day be detected, it would be difficult, if not impossible for the Rohirrim to dispose of him without killing their King at the same time.
Staring at the window, a far away, not at all pleasant smirk crept over the Counsellor's face. The Rohirrim's blind loyalty to their King was an amusing but, at the same time, extremely valuable characteristic to him. On some days Gríma himself was still astounded what foolish orders the warriors accepted unquestioningly from an old, weak man who could not even dress himself without help anymore– and much less had an idea of what was going on in his kingdom.
Still Gríma knew better than to overdo it. The keen strategist in him was quite aware of the fact that his hold on the Mark stood and fell with Théoden's life, and that all power would be lost if the old man died. These days, the King of the Mark was so thoroughly under his influence that all words whispered into his ears instantly settled in his mind as fact. At first, Gríma had been hesitant about forcing Éomer's banishment for fear that this extreme measure would perhaps stir up some part of the 'real' Théoden, the part he held prisoner and that would be horrified to learn what he had done to his people and family. So to ensure that the outcome of the hearing would meet with his expectations, Gríma had secretly sat all night by the King's bed almost until dawn of the day of truth, and he had filled his liege's mind up like an empty vessel with his words and images, pitilessly continuing even after Théoden had started to weep in his sleep at the repeated vivid description of how cruelly his son's had died. The effort had not been in vain.
So far, he certainly had reason to congratulate himself for a plan well executed, Gríma mused without real satisfaction. Finally succumbing to his restlessness, he once again came to his feet and directed his steps over to the window even though the darkness behind it hid the world from his view. Despite the chill night air, he opened the elaborately worked glass-wings and rested his elbows on the sill, impatiently listening into the night. Yet once again, he held out in vain for the sound of horses approaching the hall. Where were they? Creasing his brow as he watched the cloud of his breath rise into the air, Gríma grimly asked himself for the hundredth time what had happened to Felrod and his men.
How could it be that everything he delegated had a tendency to go wrong? He had chosen these men carefully for their strength, loyalty and ambition, and just as carefully had he instructed them about the observation of the King's niece and everyone close to her. Still, they had allowed letting themselves be fooled. Had it not been for his deliberate order to keep the smithy under close scrutiny after he had learned of Éowyn's handmaiden leaving the hall, no one would ever have thought of following that blacksmith's son. Was he to do everything himself? Perhaps punishment would make them heed his orders in the future. He had promised them positions of great power when he had taken them into his service, but power would remain unattainable for all of them if they did not fulfil their duty, and failure would come at a great price: Gríma harboured no doubts that his impatient master would get very upset if he heard that things in the Mark were not entirely under control yet, and what Saruman would do if angered was something his mind tried to shut out. No, one way or the other, he would have to remind his men what was at stake.
Which brought him back to his newest reason of discomfort: why had the men he had sent after Élric not returned yet? He did not doubt that they had intercepted the blacksmith's son as soon as they had been far enough away from Edoras to rule out that their actions would be witnessed, but what then? Had they found out what the man had been up to? Gríma's suspicion was that the marshal's sister had somehow tried to send help to her banished brother; either in the way of weapons or messages. Whatever it had been, Felrod and his men would have found out. Their victim was no warrior, and thus unacquainted with the persuasive powers of pain. Perhaps the meeting point with Éomer lay further away than they had suspected, and he was simply being too impatient. Perhaps, this very moment, the Half-Dunlending and his men were preparing their trap and waiting for their prey to arrive on the scene. But why then was there this insistently whispering voice in the back of his mind which he knew so well from experience, telling him that it might be different? That the hunters had failed, and that the son of Éomund – admittedly one of the Mark's most valiant warriors – had disposed of them and taken their arms and was now coming for his blood?
Forcefully exhaling at the image of an enraged Éomer storming up the hill to stick his sword into his flesh, Gríma suddenly slammed the window shut so hard that the glass almost shattered. It could not be. The marshal would never again set foot upon Edoras; for he himself, Gríma Wormtongue, had taken all precautions thinkable to prevent that the banished man would ever return. Even in the case of his men's failure, there would be others to execute his order.
Unbeknownst to them, Felrod and his companions were not the only ones hunting Éomer: as soon as Théoden had made it clear that he did not want his nephew's execution, Gríma had made the necessary arrangements, and now in addition to his own henchmen, each and ever one of the many orcs in the Mark was searching for the King's nephew. With their skill and by sheer number, Saruman's creatures had already succeeded in killing the heir to the Mark's throne, and now they would also slay the one man left in the kingdom who still posed a danger to his master's plans. With their superior hunting skills and sense of smell, it could only be a question of days until the message of Éomer's death reached him. No, Gríma concluded, as he settled back into his chair for the continuation of his night watch: there was no need to be nervous.
When Éomer stepped outside into the chill air, he could hardly believe that he had it made through part of the night only dressed in his shirt and breeches. Daylight's first messenger already coloured the eastern sky in pale grey, but it was still every bit as cold as it had been when he had first laid eyes on the farm. Involuntarily clenching his fingers in the thick cape he wore over his shoulders now, he knew that the garment would need a few moments to absorb his body heat before it would warm him.
Briefly halting in front of the barn to check for tracks and listen for the noises of approaching horses without detecting either, Éomer then shrugged off the sudden tension and exhaled. There was no sign that anyone had come in the vicinity of the farm except for him and Firefoot. And really, how could there be? The éoreds did not move at night, and the thugs sent after him had in all likelihood not even found their horses yet. He'd have to trust in the logic of this and learn to use these moments of relative safety to relax and conserve his strength for the moments when he would need it.
Firefoot…the corners of Éomer's mouth curved into an amused smile at the thought of his mount's eagerness to be out of the cold. Whereas the grey stallion usually enjoyed a well-earned reputation of being loyal to the death to his master, but feeling nothing but contempt for the rest of mankind, it had not needed Éomer's usual stern admonishment to let the Meara-Halfbreed allow their hosts' older son to approach him for a good rub-down – especially not after he had been bribed with a manger filled with oats. Horses… Éomer shook his head in amusement. This was not the first time that he thought that they were not much different from man. If he thought of all the comparisons that had been drawn between him and his steed…
"Good times you're thinking of, my lord?" Forlong spoke into his thoughts. "That is good, because it shows me that our efforts in lightening up your mood were not entirely in vain."
He pushed the barn-door open, and they quickly slipped inside.
"Aye, I feel indeed better, Forlong, even if I still do not approve of the means you used to get me into your house!" Éomer winked at Théa who accompanied them to bid him farewell.
"Do I hear you right, Marshal?" the tiny woman laughed, and since Éomer had hours ago given up on correcting her about his title, he laughed now with her. "You can feel you body again, you were fed, you are wearing a wonderful cape of leather and fur and the bag in your hands contains provisions and other treasure to no ends, and you still complain?"
"You know what I mean, Théa." He lifted the heavy bag. "I have no words to thank you enough for this, but I do not like the thought of having endangered you by staying. It is not my usual way to draw innocent people into conflicts."
"But you were not expelled and on your own before, at least not that we would know of." She turned to him, took his hand and pressed it gently, but insistently. "Be careful out there, my lord. And if you should find that there is anything else that we can do for you, please return and tell us. Remember, the people of the Mark are still on your side. Be not afraid to ask for their help, for they will be more than willing to grant it. That is something my heart is telling me, and yours should tell you the same. When in need, turn to the simple people. They know what you have done for them in the past and will be eager to repay you the favour. That may be the best advice I can give you."
"I will not forget it, Théa, thank you. And you, Forlong, know that you and your family restored some of my faith tonight. I promise you that I will do what I can to help the Mark, even though it is not officially my place anymore." He tried to think of something more to say, of other, more solid tokens of comfort that he could give them but the promise of a man expelled from these lands, but before the words would come to him, Firefoot's loud neighing woke the barn's occupants for the second time in one night. Smiling at the sight he was granted, Éomer turned to his stallion, who was munching on a carrot Hâlrod held out to him and looked his way with unmistakable wariness in his posture.
No, Firefoot was no more eager to leave this comfortable, warm place than his master, but his obvious disgruntlement was something Éomer would just have to ignore. On his patrols through the Mark he had quickly found out that staying too long in one place could easily get one killed. Deciding not to let the thought dispirit him when he had just enjoyed such warm-hearted hospitality, Éomer forced himself to a cheerful tone.
"It appears that I arrived just in time to prevent you from spoiling my hardened war-horse for all eternity, young man! Firefoot is not used to such attention, and after what you did tonight, I will probably have to bribe him with food from now on every single time that I need his service."
The lad beamed at him, aware that the admonishment was not a real one.
"He is a wonderful steed, my lord. I have never seen our war-horses up close, except for those few times when the éoreds rode through our farmland. No wonder everyone envies us for our horses if they are all like him."
Laughing, Éomer ruffled Hâlrod's hair.
"Béma beware, if they were all like Firefoot, our riders would never be ready to fight because of all the bruises their horses would give them!" Ignoring his stallion's indignant snort, Éomer opened the stall and threw the saddle onto the grey back. He knew that his horse was not keen on heading out again, but it could not be helped, for he intended to be far gone from this place even before sunrise. The mountain path to Aldburg he intended to take was rarely travelled by riders in winter, but its mouth lay in the vicinity of a settlement Éomer wanted to have passed once the day began. It would take him at least a day longer to reach Aldburg on it and lead him through rough terrain, but since the plains and thus the Great Road were out of the question, Éomer in fact welcome the additional time the lesser travelled road would grant him before he would eventually have to come to a decision of how to contact Elfhelm. It was not like he could simply ride up to the city gates and knock.
Occupied with his thoughts while the couple waited outside the stall, Éomer pulled the girth tight and saw Hâlrod already adjust Firefoot's bridle. Yet where the sight of a stranger handling his horse would usually leave him uncomfortable, it was easy enough to see that the lad had worked wonders on the grey, for Firefoot not only took the bit without resistance, but even lowered his head for the boy to reach up. Filling his newly acquired treasure into the saddlebags and fastening a thick woollen blanket the couple had also gifted him behind the saddle, Éomer raised a brow at Hâlrod in acknowledgment.
"Thank you, Hâlrod, and congratulations! It seems you've made a friend here. I have never before seen him like this." With a feeling of satisfaction and security, he fastened the knife Forlong had given him among other things to his belt.
"Ah, but I cannot believe that he should be so difficult with others, my lord."
"Trust me, it is not without reason that most riders of my éored suspect that the other half of his blood belongs to a mule." Éomer clapped Firefoot's muscled shoulder and took the reins from the boy's hand. "I believe we are ready."
Hâlrod laughed as he held the stall-door open for them.
"If you don't want him anymore, my lord, I would be glad to take him."
"I could not give him away even if my life depended on it," Éomer gave back as he led Firefoot outside, the sound of hard hooves on the stony ground very loud. He turned serious. "The big grey here saved my life many times, not only last night. I assume that gives him the right to be a little difficult."
Once more he patted his horse's neck and then turned around to the waiting family. Although they stood a few paces away, he could see their faces clearly now in the beginning dawn, and the concern in their expression moved him deeply enough to nearly choke him. Once more putting all his gratitude in his gaze, Éomer gave them a small, appreciate nod. "Firefoot was not the only one to save me last night. I am deeply indebted to you, and I promise I will do whatever I can to pay that debt off. No matter what happens, do not despair. All is not lost yet."
"We trust in you to set it right, Marshal, just like you always have," Théa said, the conviction in her eyes genuine. "We have endured for five hundred years despite of our many foes, and we will not vanish now. Not if we all stand united." She inhaled. "Be careful, son of Éomund, and know that our good wishes accompany you."
"I will return, Théa, and this time, it will not be in a secret, cowardly manner in the middle of the night. Our riders will accompany me, and we will rid the Mark of all its enemies once and for all, that I promise to you. The days of uncertainty will soon come to an end. Farewell and once again: thank you for your help!"
He nodded and then pressed his heels against Firefoot's flanks, sending the great stallion in a gallop that brought them out of the sheltered vale of the farm before the tiny crystals whirled up by his hooves had settled back onto the ground.
The pale light of a grey morning filtered through the frost-blinded windows when Maelwyn registered movement out of the corners of her eyes. Sitting in the comfortable stuffed chair next to the merrily crackling fire and basking in its warmth, the young handmaiden had allowed her mind to wander once the old healer had left the chambers to seek some rest at home. Maelwyn wished she could have gone with her to speak to Élric, but that would have been foolish. It would still be early enough when she left the Golden Hall around noon, when Hildegard would take over for her. She needed to be patient.
It still felt strange to know that she had become involved in a rebellion, but the more she thought about it, the better she felt about herself. It could not be wrong to be on the same side as the Marshal, and Éothain, and Lady Glenwyn. It could not be wrong to act when confronted with evil. What a sad existence she had led so far, just looking on like a frightened lamb while crooked men tormented the good people of the Mark. Maelwyn inhaled, and a resolute expression spread upon her young face. Well, those times were over! She was proud that Éowyn had confided in her, was counting on her, and she was ready now to do her part.
Another quick glance strayed over to the bed, where her mistress had lain unmoving for all these past hours, sleeping the sleep of healing, but as if Éowyn had somehow felt her handmaiden's attention, she suddenly shifted for the first time, and with a start, Maelwyn found that her eyes were open.
"My Lady!" Quickly she rose to her feet and was at Éowyn's side, relieved to see the lucid expression in those blue eyes and the faint smile upon her pale lips. "We were so worried! How do you feel?" Now that the King's niece seemed fully conscious again, she suddenly dared no longer touch Éowyn's brow to feel for herself. But the fevered flush that had coloured her lady's otherwise ghostly white face last night had gone, and neither could Maelwyn detect even the slightest trace of sweat at her hairline. Relieved beyond words, she beamed and found her joy mirrored in the exhausted face before her. With a deeply grateful smile, Éowyn took her hand, and her fingers felt cool to the touch.
"I am tired. And exhausted. But I suppose I should not complain, as that was what I was asking for." Rolling on her back and briefly closing her eyes, she added: "I had no idea the potion was so strong. I almost drank it all, because I thought not that…" Her words trailed off, and from the way her gaze swept the room to come to rest on the grey light of the new day beyond her window, Maelwyn concluded that she still felt disoriented. "How late is it? Is it the next day, or have I missed more than one day?"
"No. It was yesterday that you took the potion, my Lady. The fever began to drop during the evening, and since then, you've been asleep. Nothing much happened... except that Élric left Edoras shortly after I told him of your plea." Maelwyn's smile deepened when she saw the relief well up in Éowyn's eyes. "He agreed to help you at once. Your brother must already have received the weapons by now. Your plan was faultless, my Lady, even if it was more than daring. We all feared for your life. Oh, and Éothain sends you his heartfelt greetings. I spoke with him earlier this morning. If there is anything he can do for you, he wants you to let him know." To her surprise, the joyful expression on the White Lady's face quickly darkened to wariness.
"What did Gríma do after you returned from the smithy? I do not suppose that it escaped his attention that you left Meduseld. Did he send his men to the smithy to investigate after you were there, or did he question you upon your return? I can hardly believe that we should have fooled him so easily."
"Oh, the Counsellor definitely seemed to have a few questions when I came back, but Yálanda insisted that she needed me urgently to assist her and pulled me away from him." Still, the piercing gaze of the pale blue eyes had followed her even into her sleep, and Maelwyn shuddered at the memory. "And then I spent the entire day here in your chambers, and the Captain of the Guard wouldn't allow him in, so I wasn't summoned… yet." The thought extinguished her good mood like a bucket of water dropped into a fire. "But he will summon me today, there can be no doubt. I saw it in his eyes yesterday. He suspects something" She swallowed, suddenly and suddenly felt very sick. Her eyes wide, she sought Éowyn's gaze. "I have never before lied, my Lady. I do not know how to do it. What if he sees right through me? What if he asks me why Élric left so suddenly despite the harsh weather?"
"You say that he was already readying his horse when you saw him. And that you did not speak about his errand with him, so you know nothing." Despite her exhaustion, Éowyn's gaze had never been more intense.
"But what if we were seen talking?"
Grim resolution stood written in Éowyn's eyes.
"Then you say the truth: that you told him of my illness and asked him to call his mother for you. Gríma knows that Élric cares about me, and that he would enquire to hear more about my condition. There is no reason for you to be afraid, Maelwyn. Gríma cannot know. He may try to frighten you with empty threats, but the truth is that he cannot prove anything. All you must do is stay calm and tell him what I just told you. I know you can do this, Maelwyn. Yesterday, you said you were frightened of doing the thing I asked of you, and yet you not only overcame your fear, you succeeded. This is now the next step: we won an advantage, and now we must secure our victory!"
UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISHMENT OF ÉOMER
Chapter 9: Dismissal and Return
Èowyn was fast asleep again when with a knock at the door and Maelwyn's invitation, Hildegard, one of the older serving maids of the Royal Household entered the chambers. The young handmaiden was glad to see the older woman, for she had feared that her visitor was someone else… someone far less welcome. Half of the morning had already passed without the Counsellor's summons, and while she felt grateful for the respite, Maelwyn knew that it was yet too early to relax. Who knew why Gríma had not called her yet? Perhaps the evil man had fallen ill himself and couldn't leave his bed today? Oh, this was certainly too delightful a thought to be true.
With a deep breath, she rose to her feet, her body stiff and aching from the long sitting. As reluctant as she was about leaving, Maelwyn at the same time longed to go home. A long day and an even longer night of worry lay behind her and she missed her husband and her boys, for once feeling in desperate need of comfort and closeness herself. Was everything all right with them? They had slept when she had slipped into their house last night, and she had not wanted to wake them when she left again. Torben had sleepily inquired where she was going when she had gotten up again, and she had truthfully answered and told him to remain in bed. He had quickly fallen asleep again.
Maelwyn knew that her husband loved taking care of their little ones. And still somehow, the thought of her family having to brave the tasks of the day alone in these trying times, without her around, left her deeply uncomfortable. Without her cooking, what had they eaten? What if anything happened to them during the day? What if they fell ill? Inwardly shaking her head at herself, Maelwyn had to smile. What a silly wench she was! Were all women like her, thinking that the world stopped turning once they were not around?
"Good morning, Hildegard. I hope you had a good night?"
"As good a night as one can have in the servants' quarters," the older woman said grumpily, walking straight across the room to open the window for fresh air. "I hope there will be no need for the healer to stay again tonight. The old hag's snore is louder than even my husband's, and our house shakes already when he is asleep." She stopped herself when she realised that the other woman had probably had even less sleep than she, and turned around looked at Éowyn instead.
"How is the Lady Éowyn faring? Is there anything I need to know? Some special medicine she needs, or…"
Maelwyn followed her gaze.
"Béma be praised, her condition seems to have much improved over night. She was even awake a few hours ago, and I talked to her. She didn't want to eat yet, but at least she had some of the tea that I brought her. When you fetch her fresh tea, tell the kitchen to brew it from the herbs Yálanda left them for the lady. She will come and see her later, but I suppose until then, it would be best just to let our lady rest."
Turning around, Maelwyn picked up her woollen shawl and slung it around her shoulders. For a moment, her compassionate gaze rested on the sleeping woman's still features. It was not right that Éowyn had to bear such a burden. She was such a kind-hearted, gracious person once one had penetrated the hard shell she had erected around herself as a protection against the evil which had haunted her life ever since her childhood days. The Gods knew how she felt inside now with her brother banished, her cousin dead and her uncle fallen into shadow; and yet she still upheld the guise of strength to all observers. Such strength to Maelwyn was awe-inspiring. She knew that under the same conditions, she would have despaired long ago.
"When will you be back, Maelwyn? Just in case Éowyn asks me," Hildegard asked, stooping to feed the fire with a few more logs of wood.
"Later this afternoon, I think. I need to see what my husband and my boys are doing. They know I spent the night here, but they will be worried regardless." She grasped the door handle and depressed it. What if the counsellor waited for her outside? 'You do what your lady has told you,' she tried to calm herself. 'He cannot know. Just go. With a little luck, he is not even around.' "But if Éowyn wants to see me, let me know and I'll come." She opened the door – and looked into the grim face of the guard. "Good morning, Grimhart. I am going home for now. I will be back later, in case anyone should ask."
The man said nothing; he did not even repeat her greeting. Swallowing her mounting anger over the rudeness of the new members of the Royal Guard, Maelwyn directed her steps to the exit, for once glad to leave Meduseld. In the summertime, the coolness and shade of the Golden Hall were pleasant, but during the long, grim winter, the darkness inside its vast chambers was oppressive, and in the last months, its atmosphere of illness and unspoken despair had thickened to the point that it drained her spirit of all joy. No, she longed to be out in the open now, to breathe the fresh, clean air regardless of the cold.
Nodding her thanks to the wards who opened the heavy door for her, Maelwyn stepped outside, and the assault of the cold wind on her face instantly revived her spirits. The thick layer of clouds of the past days had been replaced by a mesmerising blue sky, and the sunlight's reflection from the blanket of white that covered the world was almost too intense to look at. From the city below, the sound of children's laughter reached her ears as they chased each other in their play; and horses and men hurried through the streets in pursuit of their endless daily errands. It was the sound of normality, and Maelwyn was thankful for it after her world had come unhinged for a day. Walking over to the steps to the beginning of the winding path home, the young woman suddenly froze when the door behind her opened again and her name was called by a familiar, most dreaded voice.
"Mistress Maelwyn, wait!"
Her heart suddenly beating wildly in her throat, Maelwyn turned around.
'He does not know. It is something else he wants! Stop behaving like a child caught with its hand in the honey pot! You will only make him suspicious!'
"Lord Gríma, what can I do for you? I am glad to report that the Lady Éowyn is feeling much better today. She is still asleep though, but I left Hildegard with instructions to-"
"That is well, because Hildegard will be the one tending the White Lady from now on," the Counsellor interrupted her brusquely, and his pale eyes skewered her like an insect. "You will not return here. From this moment on, you are released from your service to the Royal Family."
For the longest moment, Maelwyn was rendered speechless, the connection between her mind and her tongue severed. She could not even breathe as she stared in stunned shock at the man in front of her.
"Do you understand me, maid? Your service will no longer be needed in Meduseld. Go and find an occupation someplace else."
From somewhere, a single sentence came to her.
"But what have I-"
"You know perfectly well what you have done, wench! Do you wish to insult me?" Gríma hissed under his breath, his eyes narrowing in unmistakable threat. "If I were you, I would swallow whatever words were on my tongue and get out of my sight before I change my mind. I am aware that your mistress is the one mainly to blame for your actions of yesterday, but treason remains treason, and conspiracy remains conspiracy. Because I know that you were not its origin, and because of your family, I am yet willing to exercise mercy, but you do not seriously expect that I allow you to remain a member of the Royal Household after the breach of trust you committed, do you, Maelwyn? Even if you are just a lowly serving maid, you could not be so foolish!"
Maelwyn felt with all distinctiveness how the blood drained from her head. She could literally feel herself turn white under the Counsellor's hostile stare, and a strange feeling of light-headedness overcame her, so powerful that she feared to faint right here on the stairs. And wouldn't it be just what that horrible man would wish for if she fell and broke her neck? Somewhere, she found the strength to push the sudden weakness back, and her vision cleared again, but still she could not help it that her legs felt like lifeless sticks and that her voice barely made it through her dangerously tightened throat.
"But what about Lady Éowyn? She is ill and needs tending. Who-"
"That is no longer one of your concerns, maid. Be gone, and see to it that you never come under my eye ever again, or I swear, I shall bring the full weight of the law down upon you, and you will be punished for your treason, family or not." Gríma lifted his chin and looked down upon her from his elevated position with contempt and finality. "Am I making myself clear, maid, or would you like to test me?"
Suddenly shivering violently, though not in result of the temperatures, Maelwyn feverishly tried to think. How much did he know? Had he only seen her talking with Élric, or – Béma beware – was he even informed about their plan to send the weapons to Éomer? And if he was – had he intercepted Élric? What if by her failure, she had become responsible for the death of both the blacksmith and her lady's brother? The thought of them lying lifelessly strewn in the reddened snow made her want to cry out in despair. Gods, it could not be! Why could she not wake from this nightmare?
Her mouth working although she did not consciously think of the words, the young woman breathed a low: "No, Counsellor. I understand. And I thank you for your mercy. I…"
She broke off, at last at a loss for words. The sudden rush of her blood in her ears drowned out all other noises, and again she wondered whether she would faint. Perhaps breaking her neck would be preferable to learning about what grief she had accidentally caused by ever agreeing to Éowyn's plan. All joy of having been a part of the resistance left her. Now there was only dread.
Gríma's expression indicated that he was finished with her.
"Go then. And remember what I just told you. I swear to the Gods, I meant it."
Leaving her standing, Wormtongue slung his cloak tighter around his body and retreated into the sheltering warmth of the hall. Numb and feeling hollow, Maelwyn staggered down the remaining steps to the path with unseeing eyes. How could she ever have hoped to fool that man? His eyes and ears were everywhere; there was no escaping his attention. Had she been utterly mad to agree to be a part of this?
From further down the path, a sudden din of dismayed cries suddenly woke her from her thoughts of despair, but when she detected where the shouts were coming from, Maelwyn realised that reality was about to get even grimmer: the wails rose from the smithy, and the voices crying out in despair belonged to Bergfinn and Yálanda. Slowly rounding a gentle curve and walking toward the first buildings below Meduseld on legs she didn't feel anymore, Maelwyn's stunned gaze fell on a group of riders in the work yard. Their captain just now opened his arms to hold the old healer as she collapsed sobbing against his chest, while Bergfinn, who wore the expression of a man who no longer understands the cruelty of the world upon his face, slowly extended his hand to take the reins of a white, unsaddled horse with a long gash in its side.
The full meaning of the scene before her eyes stole Maelwyn's breath away. So her worst fears had become reality: for his horse to return riderless, Élric had to be dead, and if he was dead, it was likely that Éomer too, had been killed as well, or – unarmed and alone as he was - would be dead before long. Éowyn's plan to bring him help had failed, and two men had died because of her own inability to carry out her orders with the bidden secrecy. Feeling sick to her stomach, Maelwyn suddenly met the captain's pained gaze as he cradled the sobbing Yálanda in his arms, and in that moment, all hope died in her heart.
It felt good to come home, Elfhelm thought upon the sight of the mighty wooden fence that guarded his hometown of Aldburg, and yet it was a strangely empty sort of joy. 'Relief', would probably have been the better word for it, because how could he truly feel joyful after the horrors they had witnessed on the battlegrounds of Westfold? So many men had lost their lives at the Fords of the Isen. Of the one hundred and twenty riders he had led westward as soon as Prince Théodred's call for aid had reached them, battle had claimed twelve, and ten horses. And yet they had been lucky. The éoreds of his western brothers-in-arms Erkenbrand and Grimbold had sustained much greater losses, while the Prince's Riders had been all but erased even before reinforcements had arrived. Again the Mark had lost hundreds of riders; men leaving behind families and friends; men who would never again roam the plains of the Folde, or the Westemnet. One could despair just thinking about it.
And for what, Elfhelm wondered wearily as he directed his long-legged bay stallion over to the city gates where the road ended. Only to throw back the enemy over the Isen for a few days at great cost, until that evil wizard in Isengard replenished their ranks and even multiplied the number of his warriors, so that next time, it would be even harder to stand against his army. Yet more men would die, and in the end, they would have to relinquish control of their side of the river altogether. For a long, dreadful moment just after they had joined the battle, Elfhelm had feared that this was already the day that would see them defeated. After three days of hard riding, men and beast exhausted even before the battle, they had arrived too late to save the King's son and most of his men, and the blood of the dying or lifeless bodies on the battlefield had reddened the waters of the Isen.
Only then they had seen the enemy, a vast, dark army of orcs and Uruk-hai greater than any horde Elfhelm had encountered so far; an evil army empowered by the will of the White Wizard, moving with the single-mindedness of one being and slaughtering Riders left and right. At that moment, Elfhelm had believed this battle would be their last, but after hours of hacking, slashing and skewering, and countless cries of men and horses wounded and dying, the combined forces of West- and Eastfold had at last thrown the remainder of the enemy back across the river. None of them rejoiced in the taste of their victory though, because even then it had been clear that triumph would be short-lived. The Isen would not be a hindrance for the wizard's foul brood for much longer, and what the orcs would do once they roamed the plains at their will was a thought that made the Marshal's blood run cold.
Anxious to be out of the saddle, Élfhelm shifted his weight. At the age of forty-three summers, the resolute marshal was one of the Riddermark's most respected warriors and expected to be promoted in the hierarchy very soon. Elfhelm himself cared little for titles, and so had not objected when the King's nephew had assumed command over the Eastmark despite his obvious youth. In his opinion, the young man was exceptionally skilled and fiercely dedicated to the protection of their people and had rightfully earned this honour. They all fought for the same side, anyway.
As they approached, a shout could be heard from the guard-tower above the gates, and it briefly woke him from the dreadful images that repeated themselves endlessly in front of his inner eye.
"Who are you, and what business brings you to Aldburg?"
Thankful for the distraction, Elfhelm tilted back his neck.
"It is I, Elfhelm, your commander! Open the gate!"
His voice barely made it over the wind, and when at first there was no answer, his riders looked at each other quizzically and wondered whether they would be granted entry to their home after their long journey, but then the groaning and creaking of frozen hinges rewarded their patience as the gates slowly swung inward. In single file, they passed through the opening before the massive wooden wings closed again and cut off the punishing gusts for the first time since the warriors had been on the road. Wearily shaking their heads, their horses tried to free themselves of the thick crust of ice that covered their faces, and the men on their backs imitated their efforts by knocking off the accumulated snow from their garments and beards.
"It is the Marshal! Marshal Elfhelm is back! Béma be blessed! Our riders have returned!"
Barely hearing the relieved shouts or the sudden din of the bell that announced their return, Elfhelm straightened for the first time in hours and grimaced. All day the wind had assaulted them from the front, and although he had hidden underneath his hood and wrapped a woollen scarf around his head until only his eyes were left uncovered, the marshal felt half-frozen despite his additional attempt to hunch over and take cover behind his horse's neck. Needless to say, his effort had been vain, and in addition to feeling like a block of ice, his back had now joined the chorus of pain from the numerous bruises and scrapes he had received in battle. And still, Elfhelm thought, who was he to complain? Compared to the injuries many of his Riders had sustained, his' were merely an inconvenience. He was alive and relatively unharmed, that alone was reason enough to be thankful after what they had gone through.
Surfacing from his black thoughts to find the captain of the guard approaching him, Elfhelm inhaled deeply. The man smiled, probably assuming that the situation couldn't be too grave when most riders of their éored had returned. How much Elfhelm would give for such blissful ignorance now!
"Please excuse the delay in opening the gates, Marshal Elfhelm, I did not recognise you at first under all this clothing and the ice," the guard said, his gaze travelling over the weary riders as they dismounted. "I know that our horses to not allow orcs or Dunlendings to ride them, but I still wanted to be certain before—"
"There is no need to apologise, Gaewolf," Elfhelm interrupted him, not ready to exchange more words than absolutely necessary. He was aching to be home now and anxious to perform his necessary duties before he could likewise retire for the day. "I'd rather wait outside for another day even in this weather, than have you open the gate to enemies. Speak no more about it."
With a grimace, he looked at the streets which were only just beginning to fill with people anxious to greet their loved ones. Some of them would search in vain. The thought of what he would have to tell them sent a sharp pain through Elfhelm's gut. He turned away from their sight and dismounted himself.
"Éorlingas! See to your horses, and then you are dismissed. Get some rest, and those of you in need of a healer, come to the hall and you will be tended! The Mark and I thank you for your service. Béma knows that this errand wasn't an easy one." He nodded in acknowledgment to the men passing him and then shifted his attention back to the guard at his side. "How were things here, Gaewolf? Any trouble?"
"Nowhere close to the city, but Findaràrras' éored had a skirmish with a group of orcs who tried to steal their horses." A satisfied expression spread over the man's face. "None of the filth survived, and all riders returned unharmed, Béma be blessed." Silently walking alongside his commander toward the stables, Gaewolf's smile suddenly dropped. "Word already reached us about how the battle at the Fords went. The messenger spoke of great losses… and of course the people are devastated to lose Prince Théodred… especially now, with Éomer banished. It seems that -"
His words stopped Elfhelm in his tracks.
"Éomer… banished? What are you saying?"
Gaewolf's eyebrows went up in surprise, and for a moment, he looked at the approaching figure of Findárras, Elfhelm's second-in-command, who had held control over the city for the time their riders had been away and had now been called down from the Great Hall by the sound of the bell. He turned back to Elfhelm.
"You mean you were not informed about it yet, Marshal? But they sent riders everywhere to spread the word! I cannot believe that they should have missed your éored on the road."
"No, not missed…" Elfhelm muttered angrily, his lips a bloodless line as he tried to grasp the implications of what he had just been told. Éomer… banished? "I assume it is more that they deliberately avoided us, because that snake in Meduseld knew that I would have taken my éored straight to Edoras to wring his neck once I heard of it." Nodding his greetings to the red-haired Findárras, he looked at the overcast sky. "I doubt it would be wise to ride out again today. We would not make it all the way to Edoras in this weather, and the men and horses need a rest. I will ride out tomorrow and take only a few men with me. This is something we cannot allow anymore. Has the King been stricken blind, deaf and mute to let the Worm do this, or have all members of the Court lost their minds?" He clapped his second-in-command's shoulder. "It is good to see you, old friend. Do you know more of what happened?"
"Word is that Éomer was punished for disobedience against the King. The verdict even spoke of treason, but I must confess that I know no details. Captain Céorl, however, arrived a few hours before you, and he will probably know much more. He is waiting for you in the guest-quarters. I did not think it would be advisable to discuss this subject in the Hall."
The red-headed warrior cast his commander a meaningful look.
"What do you mean?"
"The King, or shall I rather say, his counsellor, sent a group of advisors down here to assist you in your decisions now that Éomer is no longer Third Marshal. In the two days since they have been here, they have done nothing but asking questions and turn up at councils or wherever a larger group of people gathered to drink, or eat, or talk. I assume we can safely call them spies."
"Of course," Elfhelm snorted, nodding as he passed their stablehands on the way to his horse's stall. "Now the Worm will concentrate on removing me, and Grimbold… and Erkenbrand. Once he has rid himself of us as well, there will be nobody left to speak against him, which makes my little visit tomorrow all the more important."
Findárras scratched his beard pensively while he waited for his brother-in-arms to free his bay of his tack. As weary as he felt himself, Elfhelm could easily have delegated the duty of seeing after his horse to one of the stablehands, but after the loyalty Éon had once again proven to him on the battlefield, the warrior felt it his obligation to tend the stallion himself.
"Would you deem it wise under these circumstances? What if the Worm only sees it as an invitation to rid himself of you right there?"
With a groan, Elfhelm lifted the heavy saddle off the bay's back and onto its stand.
"I need to see for myself what is going on in Edoras, Findárras. I am tired of hearing – or not hearing – everything through messages and errand-riders, and I also need to speak to Éowyn. If Éomer was indeed banished, she remains the only member of the Royal Family with a sound mind in Meduseld. She might be in danger. – Can you get me a sack of oats, please, and a bucket of water for my friend here?"
"Of course. Anything else you need?"
"Some apples or carrots, whatever you can find. He was of great help on the battlefield to me yet again; we burnt the corpses of at least three orcs whose skulls were smashed in by his hooves, not to mention the dozens he incapacitated so they could conveniently be killed." Freeing his mount of his bridle, Elfhelm clapped his neck. "Perhaps I should rename you, Éon. 'Orc-Fiend' might be a more suitable name for you." He took the heavy sack Findárras dragged into the stall and began to fill the empty manger with oats. After he had accomplished that and seen to it that the stallion would lack neither water nor food, he hand-fed him the apples Findárras had obtained, briefly enjoying the sensation of the horse's soft lips on his hands.
"When you are done here, I was told to accompany you to the council. They want your report." Findárras inhaled and raised an eyebrow. "What shall I say to them?"
Rubbing the white star between Éon's eyes for a moment of silent contemplation, Elfhelm's weary gaze at last found his patiently waiting second-in-command.
"Tell them that there is nothing to report apart from what they already know. Tell them that our éored suffered the loss of twelve riders, and tell them that as their commander, I will first speak with the men's widows. I will not tolerate being rushed while I am occupied with this task, and it will probably be well after nightfall before I will be finished." The Gods knew he wasn't looking forward to this task, but it was something he owed to the families of his riders. "And as I am wearied myself, I will then go home and get rest. If they deny me that, Aldburg will soon have to find a new protector."
Findárra's lips curved into a knowing smile.
"And I suppose you want me to say that you will deliver your report tomorrow morning, and when you don't show up because you are already on the way to Edoras, I will tell them that there were reports of an attack on a settlement up north and that you had already left to investigate. Is that true?"
Elfhelm looked weary beyond belief, but his grin was genuine when he replied: "There is a reason for you to be my second-in-command, Findárras. Thank you for demonstrating it to me every time I need reassurance that there are at least some of us left who know about the value of loyalty and friendship."
The wiry warrior nodded his acknowledgement.
"Glad to be of service. What should I tell Ceorl? I assume you will see him later today… at your home?"
"Aye. After nightfall, under cover of darkness. Perhaps he can grant me a few hours to restore myself to a condition where I will be able to think again. Aye, and it would be good if you were present, too. I don't know when the Worm's weasels will go to sleep, but in each case, we should not meet until their presence can be accounted for in their chambers. We must take precautions to keep our meeting secret. Do you think you can do that for me, old friend?"
Findárras gave him one of his wryest smiles.
"Would I be your second-in-command if I couldn't?"
UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISHMENT OF ÉOMER
Chapter 10: Gríma's Game
Once daylight had faded again, the temperatures dropped fast, and it was with relief that Éomer finally detected the narrow, steep path that led up to another one of his secret hideouts. He directed Firefoot there with a slight nudge of his thighs. The stallion complied, the weariness of his steps indicating that he needed rest urgently after a day of moving through rough, dangerous terrain. Many times, Éomer had dismounted and led his steed along the steep, ice-covered ridges, careful not to slip into the deep drop-offs. Progress had been slow once they had entered the path, and Éomer was well aware that no rider in his right mind would ever have chosen to travel it under the current conditions. His boldness could easily cost them their lives if he had misjudged the situation. So far, his daring had paid off; except for a few birds, they had not seen another living soul all day, neither man nor beast, and no tracks either. It seemed that they were all alone out here in the eastern fringes of the Ered Nimrais… the way he had hoped it would be.
Once again Éomer shifted in the saddle, and his gaze swept the stark, forbidding landscape for the umpteenth time searching for signs of his enemies. Visibility had grown poor in the thickening twilight, but a dark shape moving over the snow would be easy enough to detect. Yet nothing moved. Satisfied, Éomer turned around again as Firefoot abruptly rammed both forelegs into the ground and snorted in protest at the dark shadow in front of them. Sighing, the son of Éomund ran a hand over the stallion's neck. He understood his steed's reluctance, as it was not in a horse's nature to seek shelter within a cave where escape would be difficult in the case of an attack.
"Aye, Grey One, I know that you do not like this place, but it cannot be helped," he whispered, checking the bare rock in front of the cave-entrance for signs that his shelter was already occupied by unbidden guests. "It will be easy to heat, though, and it will only be for one night anyway, so stop complaining." Grasping the short-handled axe Forlong had given him and enjoying the feel of it in his hand, Éomer slid from Firefoot's back to investigate. The stallion, for once content to remain where he was, followed his master's stealthy approach with pricked ears and flared nostrils.
All senses strained, Éomer edged closer to the narrow opening and his fingers involuntarily renewed their grip around the handle of his weapon. Orcs reeked of death and decay, and even with the wind not blowing into his face, he could usually smell them before he saw them. Yet he detected no trace of their vile perfume in the air before the cave, and no sounds indicated that his hideout might be occupied. Lifting the axe, he advanced further, hesitating at the sight of the pitch-black entrance that granted him access into the mountain he had travelled alongside for the last part of his journey. But deep inside, Éomer already knew better. It was almost dark now, the preferred time of orcs. If any had been in here at all, it was likely that they had moved out with the beginning of twilight and were long gone by now.
Half relieved but still knowing better than to walk into the dark cave blindly, Éomer looked back to Firefoot, clicking his tongue and smiling thinly as the stallion obeyed his command with an all-too-human expression of indignity. From his saddlebags, Éomer carefully removed a clay pot that contained still red glowing embers and lit the oil-lamp the couple had given him behind the shelter of a rock, safe from potentially hostile eyes. Once again he proceeded into the cave, and one look in the flickering light was sufficient to establish that the place was as deserted as it had seemed. Inspecting the walls and the ground, Éomer lifted the lamp… and tensed at the sight of prints left in the fine layer of sand. Some had been made by booted feet, and some featured claws and indicated that someone had dragged himself along rather than lifted his feet. Orcs. His lips a thin, bloodless line, he squatted and brushed his fingers slightly over his find. There was no way of telling how old these prints were, but the discovery that the filth had found one of his best hiding places darkened Éomer's mood as he stared at the hideous forms. They seemed to be the tracks of three or four creatures, one of them substantially bigger than the others – or perhaps it had just bigger feet; it was impossible to tell. It seemed that there was no end to the variety of the foul creatures' forms.
Rising again, Éomer proceeded deeper inside to cast a glance into the second chamber of the cave: the pile of dried wood in one corner had definitely been touched, and the amount of ash in the fireplace in the middle of the sheltered niche had likewise changed. Also, the ground was covered with the bones of small animals, neatly stripped of all meat. From their sheer number, Éomer concluded that the orcs had used the caves repeatedly, not just once because they had accidentally stumbled over them. His expression darkened further as he looked back toward the entrance, considering his options. What could he do? It was definitely not wise to stay here when the enemy knew about this place. The remains of their meals, however, looked old. He furrowed his brow, uncomfortable with the realisation that he had not much of a choice left. With the terrain as treacherous as it was and temperatures dropping far below freezing since sunset, moving on in the darkness would be a shortcut to the halls of his ancestors. Éomer looked forward to seeing his parents and Théodred again, but he had not planned to do so in the near future. No, as much as he hated to admit the fact to himself, it looked as if he was trapped here for the night.
Having made up his mind however reluctantly, he gathered some of the straw from the ground and together with two logs of wood, arranged them in the fire pit. Carefully and patiently nurturing the flames until they settled in the thick wood and danced merrily in the darkness, Éomer then rose to his feet again and went to fetch Firefoot.
In the outer cave he stopped and clicked his tongue, rightly suspecting that he would have to drag the big grey in like a stubborn mule. Not that he could blame Firefoot when he himself felt reluctant about staying. The only thing he could do about his unfavourable situation was stay alert and set out again with earliest dawn, just in case the orcs returned from their nightly forays to seek shelter from the sun. Even if the evidence of the creatures' presence looked old, he would not commit the mistake of falling asleep in the wolf's den. Although he had already gone almost without sleep the night before, Éomer knew that another long, lonely watch lay ahead of him. He sat the lamp down upon a protrusion and stuck his head out of the opening, seeing Firefoot lift his head.
"I know you heard me, Meara-mule. You want to stay here and give our presence away to our foes? Is that it?" Éomer reached for the reins and narrowed his eyes in beginning anger as Firefoot retreated. "Come on, you've been in here before. Stop making this so hard; Béma knows I've got enough problems without your bullheadedness already." With a quick move, he got hold of the reins and pulled. Surrendering only very reluctantly, the stallion followed him with stiff steps into the cave.
Darkness was complete when the expected knock at Gríma's door was finally heard. With a sharp twinge of both anticipation and anxiety, the son of Galmod opened it and found himself face-to-face with Felrod and Mordred, the two Half-Dunlendings in his service. The men looked wet, weary, dishevelled and half-frozen, but in their hands they held a large grey bundle that caused the Counsellor's heart to skip a beat. Still, what in the name of the Gods had caused their delay? To his experienced eye, they did not look as if their plan had worked flawlessly. Bidding the men into his study, Gríma closed the door behind them and turned around.
"What took you so long? I already feared the worst. Even the blacksmith's horse returned hours ago, so you can be certain that the tidings of Élric's death have spread through Edoras by now." His eyes became narrow slits. "He is dead, isn't he? He didn't escape you somehow?" The cloak in Felrod's hands told a different story, but Gríma knew better than to trust in anyone but himself.
Although the big halfblood felt miserable after his long exposure to the elements, he still somehow managed to produce a satisfied expression upon his hairy face.
"He is fodder for the crows now. We stopped him an hour's ride away from Edoras, and he spilled it all. He had weapons for the Marshal in his saddlebags and claimed that the King's niece had asked him to take them to a hideout only known to them. He also said that his parents knew nothing of this, but this little wench who serves the White Lady… she is involved as well."
He gave his master a frozen grin.
"I do not suppose that Élric shared the information willingly?" Again, Gríma's gaze sank to the grey bundle in his henchman's arms.
"Not quite." Felrod's grin widened. "It took a bit of convincing on our part, but we hid his body well away from the road. Nobody will be distressed by the sight of it, even though I doubt that it will be found before spring, and by then there will not be much left of it. Nobody will be able to say who it was or what has befallen him. That is also why we waited until nightfall to return. We wanted to make certain that no one saw this."
He unfolded the treasure in his arms to great effect and beamed in expectation of his master's praise.
"So he was there indeed…" Gríma muttered thoughtfully, surveying the damage done to the garment and the broad patches of dried blood around the large tears in the leather. There was no doubt that it was Éomer's cloak; he had seen the son of Éomund wear it many times. "How disappointing. I would have taken the Marshal to be smarter than this."
Even in the twilight of the room, he could see that the blood had soaked the material thoroughly. Whoever had shed it could impossibly be still alive. He extended a hand to let his fingers glide over one of the tears.
Felrod nodded, and his eyes were hopeful. No doubt was he already pondering what his reward would be.
"Aye, Counsellor. He turned up just like you said he would. A sitting duck would have been harder to miss."
"Is that so?" The stains were concentrated mostly around three jagged tears on the back, and the sight of them was somehow … wrong. Gríma frowned, and the omnipresent voice in the back of his head started to whisper its words of suspicion again while his fingers probed the slashes. "Those are from a knife, not from arrows." He looked up with cocked eyebrows, waiting for an explanation, but Felrod only shuffled his feet and avoided his gaze. No, something was definitely not right here.
"Will you not tell me what happened, Felrod? If Éomer walked right into your trap unsuspecting like you said he did – why did you not simply riddle him with arrows from a distance instead of putting yourself in danger by fighting him at close quarters? He is, after all, a valiant warrior."
He did not like how the big man squirmed under his scrutiny. Not at all. At last, Felrod cleared his throat.
"I… Things did not go entirely as planned. Somehow, the Marshal sensed us at the last moment and evaded our shots. We had to hunt him down, but in the end we got him." He pointed at the cloak. "Isn't that what counts?" The Halfblood seemed exceedingly nervous now, and Gríma's brow creased further. He could have told from a league away that the man was lying. He could almost smell it!
"So it was not like shooting a sitting duck at all, was it, Felrod? Did you hunt him down… or shoot him at your leisure? What is it you want me to believe? Or no, spare the answer, for I will believe neither."
Gods, was he glad that he had sent the orcs after Éomer! Somewhere in the deep pit of his black mind, he had known beforehand how this mission would turn out. It was slowly becoming uncanny even to Gríma himself how his intuition was always correct. The ruffian in front of him was now obviously at a loss, for his stammering could no longer be taken seriously.
"We hunted him down… but it wasn't very hard. There was no way he could have broken through our circle. And after we had surrounded him, I decided that-"
"You do not want to tell me, Felrod of Westland, that you killed Éomer of Rohan, admittedly one of the Mark's most powerful warriors, yourself and armed with nothing more than a knife? In a battle of man against man?"
Gríma felt an insane desire to laugh in the man's face. How much of a fool did that mountain of muscle take him to be? Yet incredibly, Felrod did not understand that his lie had been uncovered.
"We were five, my lord. He stood no chance." Desperate now to prove his point, Felrod tugged at one of the tears as if it explained everything. "You see what we did to him. I wanted to make this battle personal and kill him with my own hands. I knew I could take him down."
"And still I do not believe you. Your eyes are lying. Your voice is lying… and it is not so hot in here that you should break into a sweat unless you knew you were fighting a lost battle here." Gríma's voice dropped to a dangerous whisper. "What is it that you are trying to hide from me so inadequately? Éomer escaped, didn't he?"
"Did he get away? Yes or no, Felrod? I have no patience for your pathetic excuses! If he is gone, I must take immediate action!"
Thrown into submission, the big man stared at the ground and clenched his jaw.
"Aye, Counsellor. Aye, he did. And he killed Dorlâk. Broke his neck. Gartloff is wounded too, that grey beast the Marshal rides kicked him. Broke his leg." He inhaled deeply and, with an even lower voice, admitted: "And we had to leave Thorloff behind. He was guarding the horses and… was ridden down when that filth stole them."
"You mean that not only did he escape you, but he stole your horses, too? And killed two of your men in the process?" Gríma clapped his hands in morbid delight. Béma, could he have found men any more incapable of the task than these had proven to be? And now it also made sense why the man who accompanied Felrod stood so hunched over, not daring to look at him. "And you are wounded, too, I take it? Let me see!" The man straightened with a grimace and revealed a blood-stained tear in his cloak around the left shoulder. Since he had decided not to cry over the inadequacy of the men he had chosen, Gríma laughed. "So out of the six men I sent to kill him, six men who had the advantage of being armed as well as that of surprise, the good Marshal managed to kill two and wound another two. He stole your horses and provisions and has armed himself now, I suppose. I would call that a strong contender for the greatest failure in the history of the Mark, save perhaps the vow King Théoden swore to protect his people. Wouldn't you agree, gentlemen?"
Felrod's face flushed with embarrassment, and he ground his teeth in barely suppressed frustration.
"He cannot have acquired more than a knife, Counsellor. It will not give him much of an advantage."
"No. Not against what I am about to unleash against him now." With another pensive look at the cloak on the floor, Gríma turned away, the wheels of his mind already turning. There was still a possibility to turn this failure into an advantage if he played his cards right. He turned back to the uncomfortably waiting men.
"I must say I am disappointed, Captain. Not only did you fail to carry out your errand successfully, but even more seriously, you tried to hide your failure by lying to me. I must admit that I do not know yet what to make of this. I cannot think of a single thing at the moment that you could do to heal this breach of trust… Trust, as you know, is more important than ever these days. Tell me, how am I supposed to still believe in anything you say after this disaster?"
"You can trust us with anything, my Lord," Felrod rushed to say, his throat tight with fear. "Please, I promise that we will make up for this! We will hunt down the Marshal for you, and I swear, this time, we will not fail! We will bring you his head should you wish so."
Gríma shook his head.
"No. This time I have entrusted someone else with this most important of tasks, someone more capable. I took the freedom to alert them before I even knew of your failure, and I will let them know now where they shall begin their hunt. They will rid me of this problem once and for all. I am most confident of this." His gaze fell again on the bloody heap at his feet. "Yet I may have use for this thing that you brought me. It is, in fact, the only reason I will forgive you this time, Felrod, but do not fail me again and most importantly: never ever lie to me again! Believe me, you do not want to see me angry."
Under cover of darkness, Maelwyn felt finally secure enough to leave her house. Her quarrel with the Counsellor had left her deeply shaken, and for a while, she had holed up in her bedroom, afraid that the horrible man would send someone after her to finish her off… just as he had done with Élric. The thought of his lifeless, bloodied body in the reddened snow assaulted her again and again, drawing her tears and making her wish that Éowyn had never turned to her in the first place.
It had taken a mighty effort to force desperation back and finally pick up her little ones to accompany them to their riding lessons. Later that afternoon, Torben had come home and noticed at once that something had been off about his wife, and while her answer had been evasive, Maelwyn had at last admitted that she had been released from her service to the King's niece.
Now there was only one left who needed to know about these new developments, and in the shadows of the narrow alley, Maelwyn made it quickly over to the home of Captain Céorl and Lady Glenwyn. Éothain's mother answered her knocking quickly, apparently glad to see her.
"Maelwyn! Please, step in, dear. I was beginning to doubt whether you would come to see us today…" She creased her brow. "What is wrong?"
"Thank you, Lady Glenwyn." Maelwyn slipped quickly inside, glad to be out of the open. She took off her coat and handed it to the patiently waiting woman with a deep breath. "There were some new developments today, alas. I'd rather tell it only once, so…"
"Maelwyn?" It was Éothain she saw coming down the corridor with a questioning smile upon his face. He was clad in a very loose fitting shirt and moving cautiously, but it was good to see him on his feet again. "What is the matter?"
"Éothain! You are up again!" the young handmaiden exclaimed with relief. "That is good. How are you feeling?"
"Better." Gently, Éothain grabbed her hand, pointing to the living room. "Come, let's sit down. What are you saying about new developments? I take it they are not exactly positive?"
Maelwyn shook her head and followed him.
"No, they are not." She sat down at the table and beheld two plates with a partly eaten dinner upon it." "Oh my, you were in the middle of your meal!"
"Nevermind that," Éothain replied as he cautiously lowered himself onto the bench on the opposite side. His mother sat down beside him, deep worry lining her regal face. "Tell us what happened. We expected you much earlier."
"I am sorry." Maelwyn inhaled deeply. "I… I was afraid to go out after I returned from the Golden Hall this noon. The Counsellor… he found out about the Lady Éowyn's plan. And he knew that I was the one who sent Élric on his way. I was released from service, and he said if he ever sees me again, he will bring down the full weight of the law upon me." Once again, the tears came, impossible to suppress. Telling Éothain and his mother of that frightening encounter brought it all back. "I'm sorry…"
"No. No, Maelwyn, don't be." Quickly, Éothain got up and rounded the table, to sit down on her side and lay an arm around her. "I imagine that must have been terrifying. That man is a curse for us all. How could he have learned of Éowyn's plan?"
She sniffled and wiped a hand over her eyes.
"I do not know. But it seems that he sent someone after Élric, because when I left, there were some of Captain Céorl's riders at the smithy, and it seemed to me that they returned Élric's horse. It had come back without him, and without its saddle… and there was a long, bloody gash in its side.
Squeezing her shoulder, Éothain exchanged an alarmed look with his mother.
"Béma… poor Élric. He did not know what he was getting himself into…" Suddenly, his eyes widened. "That means also that they might have learned about his meeting point with Éomer. It means that they might have laid a trap for him!" His head turned in the direction of the door, and he seemed just about to jump to his feet and leave.
"Éothain!" Alas, Glenwyn knew her son only too well. He could be every bit the hotspur that his best friend sometimes turned into. "Éothain, you cannot help him! Stay!"
He furrowed his brow in disbelief.
"What do you mean, I cannot help him, Mother?" he squeezed out. "Perhaps he survived! Perhaps he defeated them! He could be wounded and needing our help!"
"Apart from the fact that your weapons have not yet been returned to you and that the stables are still sealed off, what do you think you could accomplish in your condition, Éothain?" Glenwyn's voice gained a sharp edge. "You can barely move!"
Éothain wrung his hands.
"But Father's riders are back! They still have their weapons! Could they not-"
"No, they could not, Éothain! They had to surrender their weapons, too! Aelfric told me as much when I met him at the market today. They had to give them up as soon as they entered Edoras… and their horses were confiscated, as well. Add to that that they would not take such a command from you. Your father is their captain, and if they would ever agree to such a precarious undertaking at all, it would need to be he who gives that order! Éothain, there is nothing you can do for now! We will have to wait for your father! He will know where the Eastmark stands when he returns. A rebellion without them will have no chance of success, and you know it!"
Breathlessly, Glenwyn regarded her son, aware of the stunned gaze their visitor was giving her. She could tell that she had gotten through to Éothain, the despair in his eyes told her so. Softening her voice, she slowly shook her head.
"I know it is hard to wait when our friends need us, léofa. I understand. But I doubt that Éomer would want that you endanger all your riders just for him. Please, wait before you act rashly. Your father should be back by tomorrow, I am certain. And then the two of you can discuss the situation and…"
"By then, it might be too late, Mother." Éothain's voice sounded hollow, and Maelwyn's heart went out to him.
Deep compassion stood in Glenwyn's eyes.
"There is nothing you can do for Éomer right now, Éothain, and you know it. We must be patient, however hard it proves to be. Please…" She could tell that she had won, although the sight of her son's dispirited posture ached her fiercely. With a deep breath, she returned her attention to Maelwyn, who had watched their brief dispute with unmistakable unease. "Maelwyn, you said you were released from your service to the Royal Household. That means you would need a new occupation."
The young handmaiden nodded hesitantly, while Éothain sat down beside her again.
"Alas, people are not ordering so much in these hard times. We cannot live from my husband's occupation alone."
"Would you have any reservations about working for me? I have many errands to see to each day. It would be a relief to have some help… and it would give you the perfect excuse to see us regularly." Glenwyn's gaze rested upon their guest in open question. "Not that you needed one."
"My Lady, that…I could not accept that!" Maelwyn gasped, utterly overwhelmed. The older woman cocked an eyebrow.
"Why not? You worked for the King's niece, why should it be unacceptable for you to work for me?"
"But…" Maelwyn slowly shook her head. "I consider Éothain a friend! How could I accept money from a friend?"
Glenwyn lifted her chin.
"You will not work for Éothain, but for me. I would be glad to have some help around the house and in my errands, and you need the money. You are capable and trustworthy, and in our home, you will be among like-minded people. Does that not sound too good not to agree, dear?"
Maelwyn could not help it, she had to smile.
"It does indeed, my Lady." She seized the proffered hand. "If this is what you want, then I gladly accept."
"Then we are in agreement." Glenwyn nodded, an unmistakable look of satisfaction upon her face. "If you want, you can begin tomorrow."
"I gladly will, my Lady. Thank you. I am looking forward to working for you."
It was late when Elfhelm had finally spoken with all the families of his fallen riders. With each of the grieving women, the captain had taken his time, never rushing, never hurrying, and when they had broken down in despair, unable to speak, Elfhelm had stayed with them and held them in his strong arms, speaking words of comfort which he knew would not help while the pain was still fresh, but which might be a source of comfort later, once the immediate shock had worn off.
When he finally directed his steps over to his own home, the afternoon of passing tidings of death had exhausted the Marshal of Aldburg to his limits. So much grief. So much suffering. What had the good people of the Mark done to deserve such misery? Had the Gods truly deserted them? Wearied to the point that not even the sight of Freela waiting for him in the doorway could lift his mood, Elfhelm approached the woman with whom he shared part of his life. She wasn't his wife and would never be. Both had decided after the loss of their first partners that they would never wed again out of respect for those they would continue to love when they met them again in the afterlife. Yet the temperamental artist and he were soul mates, kindred spirits who had found comfort in each other in the time of their pain, and he was glad that Freela had chosen to stay with him for the winter before the travelling folk she belonged to would set out again with the arrival of spring. He needed her now; her understanding, her comfort, her warmth, all she had to give.
"Freela…" Words failed him, but the compassion in her eyes was all he needed. Allowing himself to lower his guard at last and unleash the emotions he always held under tight rein in the presence of his men, Elfhelm sank into her embrace.
"Ssshh…it is all right. I am here," she whispered, holding him tight and stroking his head. He almost crushed her in his arms, but she endured it without a word. "Findárras told me what happened. That you lost twelve of your men… Who were they?" He told her the names, and as she remembered some of them, their earnest faces passed in her mind at Elfhelm's mention. Fighting her own despair, she kissed him, pained to see her warrior in such emotional distress. "You are not alone in your grief, léofa. Those men earned to be mourned." Gently, she moved backward, urging him inside. "Come. You did what you could for them, now you need to rest. Let me take care of you, Love. Come."
"I cannot rest. Not yet," Elfhelm breathed against her neck, his voice hoarse with emotion. "There is still more to do. I must speak with Céorl and decide what to do about the news from Edoras, and-"
"I know," she interrupted gently. "But later, not now. Now, you come inside and get some rest yourself, or you will not be able to lead your men for much longer. It is more important than ever that you conserve your strength." Freela closed the door and looked at him as he lifted his gaze, and knew she had found the right words. Still, it was so hard to look into those sad, pained eyes. What could a woman do against such grief?
"Aye. Aye, love, you are right." Elfhelm wiped a dirty hand over his brow and inhaled deeply, trying to force the weariness back. Kissing Freela once more, he then stepped back and put the sack with the contents of his saddlebags onto the bench. "I should do that first, or I will not be of much use to Céorl when he comes to speak with me later."
Trying to give him her most encouraging smile, Freela anxiously eyed the man she loved as he began to shed his cloak with cautious movements. The delay between the arrival of his éored and his homecoming had been nothing short of torture, yet she had not found it in herself to wait in the square with the others. Ten years back, in another life, she had done that for the man she had not only loved, but been bound to with her eternal vow, and he had not returned. She still remembered every detail of that dreadful autumn afternoon, how she had stood in the rain, the thunder of the approaching éored just outside the slowly opening gates… and then the shouts and cries of joy as the people around her recognised their sons, brothers and husbands... how her gaze had anxiously darted from face to face without finding the one she was looking for, her heartbeat accelerating with each failed identification. Then the joyful crowd had abruptly shifted with the first shouts of people who had noticed that their friends or kin were not among the returning riders. Freela had stood among them, unable to call out herself as the feeling of foreboding strangled her, seeing everything in perfect clarity: the foam-lathered horses rolling their red-veined eyes as they passed her, many of them wounded in the battle and the gashes in their hides gaping and raw, the warriors' dispirited expressions as they looked right through her in their own search for their families, many of them bleeding as well, and then she had seen the horses behind them, tied to the back of their saddles and carrying the limp forms of their fallen riders into the city, and Nightshade, her husband's black stallion, had been among them, the load he carried lifelessly dangling from his back…
It took a great effort to shove away the images and the emotions they stirred up. No. No matter for how long she had to wait at home for Elfhelm, she would never again stand in the crowd and listen to its unreal din of simultaneous joy and heart-piercing grief. She knew that she would not be able to bear a repeat of that darkest day of her life, and if she could prevent the death of man she loved now by not awaiting him behind the city gates, she would do so, no matter how foolish the thought seemed. Seeing him fight with his sleeve, she came to his aid.
"Come, let me help you with this." He grimaced, and Freela's heart missed a beat as she held the cloak for him to slip out. "Are you wounded? Should I call the healer for you?"
"It is not necessary," he declined, yet unable to suppress another slight groan as he freed his arm. "These are only bruises and scratches; I will have forgotten about them in a week."
Freela nodded, unsurprised. For Elfhelm to admit that he hurt, he would have to come back to her carrying his head beneath his arm.
"I see." She took the cloak and hung it on the hook by the door. "But would you fight me if I prepared you a hot bath with some of my special ingredients, and then gave you a good massage with the scented oil I bought in South-Gondor on my last voyage? The man said he got it in Harad, and that its scent is supposed to do wonders to a wearied man…" Under different circumstances, she would have lowered her voice suggestively to accompany her offer, but after the long anxiety of waiting and the dispiriting news of the éored's casualties, Freela felt just as emotionally exhausted as the man by her side "What would you say to that?" Once more, she slipped her arms around him, and her slender fingers caressed the long, winding scar alongside his left temple. So many wounds, and so many scars. Would the ordeal ever end? Would he return to her after the next battle? She dared not think about it.
"The bath sounds good, and the massage even better, but you will have to be gentle with me." Elfhelm gave her a tired, but honest smile, and she felt a little better. "You must excuse me, léofa, I'm afraid I am not the better for wear these days."
For him to admit that, he had to be close to collapsing.
"Are you insinuating then that I am not usually gentle with you?" Freela teased playfully in an attempt to uplift his spirits. The little smile in the corners of his mouth deepened, but then he winced as her fingers found a hard lump above his right shoulder blade. She cast him an apologetic glance. "I am sorry, but this feels as if I should have a look at it."
"There are more of this kind for you to look at later, woman, but right now, I would really appreciate the bath you spoke of… and then something to eat, if possible."
"Aye, and you shall have that, too." Reluctantly, she let go of him. He felt so good in her arms, the firmness of his hard, muscular body; his warmth; even his scent. Elfhelm had spent over a week in these clothes, he had gone through battle in them, and he had spent the entire time in close company with his horse. Others would have said he reeked, but it was his scent, and since Béma had chosen to give him back to her alive, Freela welcomed whatever sensation reassured her of his presence. Taking a step back, she motioned Elfhelm over to a chair. "Come, sit down here and relax with a mug of hot broth while I prepare the water for you. I promise that it will not take long to make you feel warm again."
"Ah, that must be Maelwyn now. And it is about time, too," Hildegard said in a tone of forced cheerfulness in response to the rap on the door. She looked at Éowyn, who sat in her bed with the pillows propped against her back and sipped her soup, looking much better than the evening before. "She said that she would return in the afternoon, and it is already late. Enter!" Eager to go home, the old serving maid came to her feet and gathered her belongings while her lady's gaze rested fondly on her.
"I suppose she needed to spend some more time with her family," Éowyn offered with a little smile. "Bidding her boys a good night, perhaps telling them a story to send them off to sleep… It is all right. I feel so much better already, I may not even need someone to sit by my side to watch me sleep tonight. I-" Her voice died in her throat upon the sight of her visitor. It was not her handmaiden. Alarmed by her lady's sudden silence, Hildegard turned around.
"Counsellor Gríma! I believed that you had already gone to bed, therefore I did not-"
He raised his hand, smiling amiably.
"There is no need to apologise, Mistress. I just wanted to see with my own eyes for once how the King's niece is faring. I told Théoden-King of the recent developments, but of course such statements are made with greater conviction when I have seen that of which I speak." He turned to Éowyn. "It is wonderful to see that you seem to recover very quickly, my Lady. Yálanda certainly knows her craft."
Suddenly feeling frozen despite the fire in the hearth and the warm soup in her stomach, Éowyn put the half-emptied bowl down on her nightstand, deliberately suppressing the violent shudder that threatened to make her hands shake. Her tone was chill when she replied: "Undoubtedly, Counsellor, and I am most grateful for that. However, I was just about to go to sleep myself, so I would greatly appreciate being left alone now that you have seen for yourself that there is no more reason to worry." Warily, she eyed the strange bundle Wormtongue held firmly tucked under his left arm. "Would you happen to know whether my handmaiden has already been seen in the hall?"
"I do indeed." Still smiling, Gríma inclined his head to the older serving maid. "Mistress Hildegard, I thank you for your service today. Please, do not hesitate to retire for the night. I just need a quick word with the White Lady before I go."
Clutching her shawl against her ample bosom, Hildegard lowered her gaze in obedience.
"Thank you, Counsellor. I trust that someone has already been assigned the task of sitting with Lady Éowyn tonight?"
"Your concern honours you, Mistress Hildegard, but rest assured that everything has been thought of. I bid you a good night." Gríma gaze followed the servant to the door and briefly his smile flashed up again as she turned around once more.
"Good night, Lady Éowyn. I will be back in the morning. And good night, Counsellor." Hildegard bowed her head and then quickly slipped out of the room. The silence in the wake of her departure seemed deafening.
All too aware of the fact that the man in her room and the guard outside, who was possibly one of his own, were likely to be the only waking people within earshot if Gríma tried to move against her, Éowyn tensed, her gaze briefly grazing the nightstand where she had hidden the dagger she usually kept under her pillow. Knowing that she might not be fully conscious once the potion took effect, she had hidden it in its heavy drawer before she swallowed the contents of the phial... out of her reach should she really need it now.
"You look tense, my lady," Gríma began at last, slowly stepping over to the foot of her bed. He narrowed his eyes and his gaze intensified. "Or should I say 'guilty'? Surely there would be no need for such agitation just because of my presence if your conscience was clear?"
"I do not know what you are insinuating, Counsellor," Éowyn forced herself to say, past the great lump that had suddenly formed in her throat. She sounded cold… and nervous. "By now you should have grown accustomed to my dislike of your person, so I don't see why my anxiety should surprise you. What is it you want?"
Gríma's smile broadened as he looked at the thing he had brought with him, patting it with his free hand before his attention found back to her.
"Are you not curious to learn what I have here?"
Angered by his impertinence, Éowyn lifted her chin. How dare the filth play games with her inside her own chambers!
"Would it be of any importance to me?"
"I would believe so," Gríma replied, taking the grey thing with both hands now and holding it out before him as it unrolled. Her mouth already opened for an acid rebuke, Éowyn suddenly froze and all breath left her lungs while a deathly chill travelled down her spine. Unable to avert her eyes, she felt herself blanch.
"I see you recognise it."
Gríma's cool voice seeped into her conscious from leagues away. It was as if all of a sudden, she had been cast into a different realm, a place devoid of air where she was trapped all by herself. She thought she was about to faint. 'This cannot not be! Éomer?' Could her brother be dead?
"I hate to say this, my Lady, but I fear that it was actually your little trick that lured your brother into our net. If I was a cruel person, I would in fact thank you for your help. However, since I do understand your distress…"
"You are not a cruel person, you are a beast," Éowyn spat, breathless with horror. It took all of her remaining willpower to tear her eyes away from the bloodied coat, and with the connection cut, her voice steadied. "You are worse than any orc could ever be. Orcs kill because it is their nature, but you thrive on causing misery. Your whole life is an endless quest to causing others grief and harm."
"If you say so…"
"But I don't believe you." Summoning what courage she had left, Éowyn looked at the torn garment again, clenching her blanket so tightly that her knuckles went white, and still her hands shook. "This is only his cloak. The blood on it may not even be Éomer's. Do you want to hear what I believe? I believe that your men stole this from him. They followed him and when he put it down somewhere, they stole it because they would never have dared to fight him, and then they slaughtered an animal on the way back to smear its blood onto it to make it look as if they killed him." She uttered a mocking laugh even though she felt dead inside. Could it be true what she said? Or was it desperation trying to make her believe in something even though the opposite was already proven? "It is but another one of your petty little ploys. You cannot fool me, carrion bird! Go and show this to the King, if you are so proud of it!"
Seemingly unfazed by her outburst, her adversary calmly rolled the cloak together and directed his steps over to the fireplace.
"Believe what you may, Lady Éowyn, but your brother is in my hands. He is alive yet, and in the hands of a capable healer, who might just help him survive his wounds… but if you choose to remain a nuisance to me, I might decide to tell him to withhold his help. I might even, in fact, tell him to cause your brother yet more pain. He is a master of the Dark Arts, he knows how to make your brother feel every ounce of pain he is capable of enduring for a long, long time. Trust me when I tell you this."
The trembling travelled up Éowyn's hands to seize her entire body as she stared in shock at Wormtongue, gasping as her adversary carefully laid the cloak into the fire.
"No! No, you will not get away with this! I will tell the King! He said nothing about killing Éomer, and nothing about torture! He will have you executed before the sun goes up tomorrow morning." Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed although she still felt weak, Éowyn ripped open the drawer of her nightstand and took the dagger from it. Alarmed by the noise, Gríma's head snapped around. He narrowed his eyes.
"I would not do that if I were you. If you think you can threaten me, I would advise you strongly to reconsider. What you did yesterday could easily land you in the dungeon yourself, my Lady. Or even worse, it could cost you your beautiful head. I have irrefutable proof of your treason. Several people saw your handmaiden talking to the blacksmith's son, which is why she won't return, in case you were wondering. I have no doubt that Élric himself will testify against you if he is being properly motivated… if he recovers, that is. I am keeping him somewhere close, as well, in the same place as your brother. They are both in my hands, and believe me when I say that I will not hesitate to make their lives even more miserable than they are now if you give me so much as the faintest reason!"
His gaze pierced Éowyn with open brutality, all pretence of friendliness or compassion long gone.
"And before you go and wave that dagger in my direction, or whatever else you might come up with to dispose of me, know that the men guarding your brother and Élric are under orders to kill them both in the most painful way they can conceive should they not hear from me each and every single day. Do you understand me?"
Gríma allowed himself a malicious smile at the sight of the young woman's helpless rage. Once more poking at the remains of the burning cloak in the fireplace to make certain that nothing remained of it, he straightened and put back the iron into its stand. Cleaning his hands on his dark robe, he walked over to the door without haste, and a victorious smile spread over his pale features as he depressed the handle and looked back over his shoulder. "Anyway, I do not have to remind you whose words the King really listens to these days, do I, Lady Éowyn? I bid you a good night."
The door closed behind him, and Éowyn no longer cared whether he could hear her as she threw herself onto her bed and gave herself over to despair…
UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISHMENT OF ÉOMER
Chapter 11:Plans in the Dark
It was not until well after most of the city's inhabitants had gone to bed and the lights had been extinguished before a secretive rap on the door was heard. Disorientated until she remembered that her valiant marshal had scheduled a secret meeting for the night, Freela blinked and sat up, wiping her eyes. Next to her, Elfhelm already stirred in his sleep, likewise woken by the signal. Knowing that they would have visitors some time later that night, they had gone to bed fully clothed, resting while they waited, and when the hours had passed uneventfully, had fallen asleep. Unwilling to leave her warm bed, Freela swung her legs over the edge and shivered at the sensation of the cold ground underneath her naked feet. A hand went back to gently shake her resting warrior.
"I heard it," Elfhelm muttered into his pillow. "Give me a moment." He groaned and rolled onto his back, moaning. Why was it that one always felt even worse upon waking up than before resting? For a moment considering going back to sleep, Elfhelm at last opened his eyes to the darkness of their bedroom.
Freela was already slipping into her shoes and made her way over to the door as the second knock came, not lighting a candle for fear that the light would be seen by hostile eyes.
"I am coming. I am here." She sniffled, the burden of sleep still heavy on her shoulders as she asked softly through the still closed door: "Who is there?"
"Findárras. And Céorl… and I also brought Thor."
She unhooked the chain and cast a quick, cautious glance outside before opening the door for the three waiting men. Running a hand through her unruly heap of dark red curls, Freela gestured fleetingly at the table in the living room.
"Elfhelm will be with you in a moment, gentlemen. Please, make yourselves comfortable in the meantime." They nodded at her and murmured their thanks as each of them took a chair in the darkness. "Can I get you something? Tea, perhaps?"
She could not help it that she still felt uneasy at the sight of the dark-haired young man among their visitors. She knew that Elfhelm trusted the Half-Dunlending who had joined his éored a few years before with his life, but Freela had witnessed more than one attack of his evil brethren of the other side of the River Isen. She would never feel entirely comfortable around their kin. They had taken Kélgard away from her, something she would never forgive them. Freela was grateful for the darkness, not wanting the scout to sense her hostility, but perhaps he did anyway, because after a long, questioning glance, he, too, averted his eyes.
"Tea would be wonderful, Freela," the tall, red-haired Findárras replied in the strained silence, and she gave him a quick smile, thankful for the reason to disappear before she seriously upset the warriors with her irrational behaviour. "If it is not too inconvenient for you? I realise that it is the middle of the night, but waiting until everybody was asleep seemed the safest way of meeting."
"Think no more about it, Findárras. It is I who needs to apologise for letting you all sit in the darkness, but that is the way Elfhelm wants it," she said, her eyes briefly resting on the third visitor; a grim looking man in his middle years with a thick, grey-streaked beard that was considerably darker than the hair upon his head. It was not often that Céorl came down to Aldburg. That he had undertaken this journey despite the unfavourable conditions only pointed at the seriousness of the matter he had come to discuss. Aware of her close scrutiny, the Captain's keen eyes briefly met hers and the powerful warrior acknowledged her with a barely noticeable nod as Elfhelm made his appearance.
"Céorl! It is good to see you, old friend, especially in times like these! Thor? Good that you are here, too. Findárras was right to bring you along." He nodded at the younger man, rightly guessing that the scout still felt like an outsider in the presence of the commanding Rohirrim. He would have to overcome his insecurity. Only a few years had passed since Erkenbrand had made Thor his responsibility, knowing that the survivor of a routed Dunlending raiding commando who had switched sides in the middle of battle would never be given a chance to prove himself in Westfold. Since then, the Halfblood had shown extraordinary promise and eagerness, and Elfhelm had seen no reason why he should not groom the man to be a captain. In a time when men died quicker than they could be replaced, the need for leaders was ever present, and once he overcame his incertitude, Thor had what it took to make people follow him. Of that Elfhelm was sure.
Still feeling every bone in his body despite the bath and the massage, the marshal extended his hand to greet the experienced captain of the central territories, who quickly rose to his feet to embrace his brother-in-arms.
"I apologise for the inconvenience of denying you your sleep when you have only just returned, Elfhelm, but with the Worm's watchdogs on my tail, I saw no way of doing this differently." Céorl's deep, full voice fit his impressive frame as he clapped his comrade's shoulder and sat down again while Elfhelm occupied the last remaining chair. "We heard about the battle from the errand riders, but I know that even their worst reports can only give a weak impression of what really happened." He inhaled deeply, and his brow furrowed in concern and compassion. "I assume that it was the worst you have been in so far?"
"Aye." Elfhelm's expression darkened. "Aye, it was, by far. The bloodshed was unbelievable. The waters of Isen ran red with the blood of our riders. I truly expected this to be the battle that would see us defeated. I feared that we would have to retreat to save our naked lives. It was only through Erkenbrand's and Grimbold's determination that we managed to throw them back at last, but I fear that next time, what is left of our armies will not be strong enough to keep them from entering the Mark. While we must fill our emptying ranks with men both too young and too old, that wizard simply breeds himself a new army in a matter of days and assaults us again." He clenched his teeth in helpless frustration while the other men listened silently. "The Mark is bleeding out, brothers. There are hardly enough able-bodied men left to fight in Westfold, and we cannot summon them from other parts of the kingdom because they are needed there, too. We cannot fight a war that comes to us from all directions at the same time."
"And not only do we have to fight foes from outside, but also those who seek to weaken us from within, as if our problems weren't great enough already," Céorl muttered angrily. He shook his head in frustration. "It has been a long time since I was able to understand the orders coming from the Golden Hall, but my patience has reached its end now. This newest act of foolishness cannot be tolerated. I never thought that I would one day speak against Théoden-King in this fashion, but it is no longer he who rules this land; it is this foul, crooked spy of Saruman's at his side. For how much longer are we expected to lean back and accept that he weakens us by forbidding us to hunt down those who assault us, or watch him kill or expel our leaders? I, for once, refuse to walk open-eyed to my doom! If I cannot change my fate, at least let me hew off as many ugly orc-heads as I can along the way!"
Nodding in acknowledgement of his brother-in-arms' passionate statement, Elfhelm changed the topic.
"What is known about Éomer's situation? Findárras said that he was banished for disobedience to the King. Why? What did he do? The punishment sounds rather drastic."
"He did only what each of us would have done in the same position: he rode out with his éored against Théoden's orders when reports of a great horde of orcs in the Wold reached us. Our scouts had seen them descend into the Mark from the East Wall. I would have gone with him, but he bade me stay behind to guard Edoras. I seems that the Worm somehow succeeded in convincing the King that Éomer left them behind without sufficient protection, and also that he was responsible for the death of Théodred, since he did not make for the Fords when the summons came."
"But that is nonsense!" Elfhelm exclaimed, enraged. "I was already on the way, and even I arrived too late! Théodred and most of his men had already been slain when we entered the fray. Éomer could have done nothing to prevent it! And there is no telling what that orc horde would have done to our settlements had it been allowed to traverse the Mark unchallenged! They had all deployed their riders to the fords. They were wide open for an attack."
"You know that, and I know that, and Éomer elaborated on that during the trial… but we both know who Theoden-King is listening to these days, Elfhelm. Still, I would not have thought that he would act so harshly against his own kin."
Exchanging a grim glance with Findárras as he tried to grasp the full meaning of Céorl's words; Elfhelm could only shake his head. It still sounded utterly unbelievable.
"What about Gamling and Háma? Did they not speak up?"
"Against the King?" Céorl raised an eyebrow. "From what I heard, it was Théoden himself who proclaimed the verdict. You know Gamling and Háma – they would never question their lord's words, even though they have to understand by now where the orders are really coming from."
Yes, Elfhelm knew the two captains of the Royal Guard well enough. Both were honourable men – and both would follow Théoden loyally until the end of their days. Given recent developments, that outcome seemed not too distant anymore. Fighting mightily against the bout of helpless frustration and anger welling up in him, Elfhelm asked instead: "Is it known whether Éomer has already left the Mark, or where he is?"
"Apparently, the Marshal was first incarcerated for three days upon his return, because the Worm needed the time to send his riders out to bring the tidings of his banishment to the people … Théoden had not even spoken the verdict then. They told me that at Snowbourn. They knew what would happen before the people of Edoras did." Céorl's hands balled into fist as anger overtook him anew. "They released Éomer yesterday morning. I left Snowbourn shortly afterwards to bring you these tidings, as I doubt that you would have heard them from Wormtongue."
"They sent him into the wild in the middle of a snowstorm?" Elfhelm asked incredulous.
"Yes. I am sure the snake found that little addition to the punishment very delightful. They chased Éomer away from Edoras unarmed and without provisions; you know the law yourself. He is forbidden to seek help from the people, and they are forbidden to help him, and in addition to that, the Mark is brimming with orc patrols. I would not be surprised if Gríma told them to search for Éomer. The question is now, what do we do? The way I see it, we must either openly disobey the law, or load shame upon ourselves and follow the verdict."
Heavy silence ensued, and the darkness seemed to thicken as the four warriors sat brooding over their possibilities. They woke from their dark thoughts only briefly when Freela placed steaming earthen mugs in front of each of them, and they muttered their thanks, their minds occupied with the problem at hand.
"We must do something," Findárras began hesitantly, twirling his thin, red beard. "I mean, we cannot just leave the Marshal to his fate, can we? With the Prince dead, who will lead us? Our riders look to Éomer, and it is still the House of Éorl they trust in the most. It would be devastating to them all to see the man who fought so passionately for the Mark discarded without resistance from us, their commanding officers. It is our duty to help a brother-in-arms in need. "
"Not to mention that we would be next, no doubt," Elfhelm added. "We… and Erkenbrand. And Grimbold. It would be foolish to assume that Gríma would stop once he has ridded himself of Éomer. He will not rest until he has replaced every single position of power in the kingdom with a man he controls."
"I left Edoras before the verdict was announced, but I told Éothain to wait before he does anything," Céorl admitted lowly, avoiding Elfhelm's questioning glance by staring at the table. "I'm certain that the men of their éored wanted to accompany Éomer into exile, but I told him that the situation was too dangerous for any rash actions… and also, with my éored gone, the city needed protection. I cannot tell whether this was the right decision or not, but if Edoras falls, it will be over for all of us. I felt uncomfortable about leaving it entirely in the hands of men we cannot trust; it would make it too easy for Gríma to fortify the city against us, or even take its inhabitants prisoner if we came for him. Éothain did not like my orders, but he promised me to wait. Yet we must come to a decision tonight, it can no longer be delayed."
"I fear you are right." Elfhelm furrowed his brow as he looked at his scout. "Is anything known about Éomer's whereabouts? Which way he was headed? I would expect him to ride in our direction. He must know that the people of Eastfold are still on his side, so even if he violates the verdict, he will most likely not be reported. Perhaps he will even try to seek me out."
"It will be difficult with the Worm's spies everywhere. I suppose Gríma expects him to head our way, too, or he would not have sent so many men to the Eastfold's major settlements. He does not expect Éomer to leave the Mark."
Céorl stared over Elfhelm's shoulder at the window. Beyond was only the darkness of the night, and still he felt uncomfortable. They were talking quietly, but simply by meeting in this strange, secretive way they had transformed themselves into suspects should the counsellor's spies ever find out about it. The urge to get up and check for potential eavesdroppers was almost irresistible.
"Of course he will not do that," Elfhelm agreed, lost in his own grim contemplation "Éomer would never leave his sister at the Worm's mercy. Gríma must know that he will plot against him for as long as there is a single breath left in him, no matter where he ends up staying." Elfhelm's eyes narrowed as the implications of his words began to settle in his mind, and his blood turned into ice-water. "The filth will try to have him killed. He must see the threat Éomer poses to him even now; he cannot allow him to live." The cold hand of fear seized Elfhelm's stomach as he followed his thought to the last consequence. "He knew the people would not have taken it had he ordered Éomer's execution, to have him killed right in front of their eyes, so he feigned to be merciful and made arrangements for his adversary to be killed in secrecy instead. I have to give the Worm that: his cunning knows no equal."
"Then we must protect the Marshal!" Thor let himself be heard for the first time. The others looked at him, and from their silence, the younger man concluded that he had voiced their own thoughts. "We must find him before his enemies do, and help him hide until we know exactly which path to take."
He fell silent, not knowing whether he had overstepped his boundaries. After all, he was just a simple soldier, and not even a pureblooded Rohír. Although he had already served for several years in Elfhelm's éored, Thor knew that - apart from their group of riders - people were still distrustful, the Captain's own woman an excellent example of their sentiments. There was nothing he could do about that but be patient and try to reassure them through his deeds, but although he was used to being given hard looks, their hostility was hard to swallow at times. Éomer, however, had been one of those who had given him a chance after they had fought side by side in battle. That alone meant Thor felt indebted to the man.
"That sounds reasonable, but I fear we will have to come to a decision about our further course of action tonight," Céorl pressed. "Gríma's influence gets stronger each day; we cannot afford to wait much longer. Perhaps the time has arrived when open rebellion is necessary. Think about it: what would the Worm do if you and I, and Éothain, and Erkenbrand, and Grimbold, too, and every captain in the Mark summoned the éohere to ride to Edoras and cast him out? What could he do if all our folk united against him? He could not defy ten thousand riders."
"It is a nice image, I agree, but apart from not knowing what Erkenbrand and Grimbold think about this, you forget that he still has power over the King," Elfhelm said darkly. "Béma alone knows what it is, but there are still many men among the Royal Guard who will enforce Théoden's will, no matter how strange his orders may seem to them. We have been brought up this way, Céorl. You and I… one of the first things we were taught when we were still children was never to question the King."
"But there can be no denying that Théoden has been led astray!" Findárras cried out, dismayed to hear his own voice say these words.
"Elfhelm is right, though." Céorl's expression darkened. "One can call Gríma many names. We call him a liar, a worm, filth, and it is all true, but he is also no fool, and his plan is faultless. There are more people than you would think who believe his lies. They believe that Éomer is responsible for Théodred's death. It was a horrible blow to the people to hear that he had fallen, you know how much they loved the Prince. And Éomer was in his youth known to be rash on occasion, reckless even. We who have ridden with him for years know that he has lost that weakness and has become a very shrewd strategist, but enough of the simple folk will believe that he disobeyed the King only to pick a fight." He exhaled, giving his words time to settle. "So, what will we do?"
Elfhelm leant back. He had made his decision. The path he had to take was clearly visible to him now.
"No doubt Gríma expects us to become active, and I would really hate to disappoint him." A nasty smirk formed around the corners of his mouth. "I have been a marshal of the Mark for quite some time, and so scheming is not entirely new to me. We will help Éomer, but we will do so in secrecy." He looked at his scout. "Thor, come dawn, you will summon our éored to the stables. I want them to form five independent groups and search the mountain paths. You are free to kill whatever orcs or other foul beasts you encounter along the way." With a wolfish grin, Elfhelm's attention returned to Ceorl. "You see, Captain, that I take the King's orders seriously. I protect our people and that is why we will go on an extensive orc-hunt tomorrow! We will clear the way for Éomer. I myself will ride to Edoras with a few chosen men to see for myself what is going on in Meduseld, and try to speak with Gamling, Háma and perhaps even the King. When I return, I will bring Éowyn with me. I am not comfortable with the thought of her in that snake pit. Éomer would want me to do that, and once I am back, we will begin to form the resistance."
Céorl nodded and straightened in his chair, visibly relieved like the other men around the table.
"Aye, and I will accompany you on the way, old friend. We will see whether the snake dares to defy us entry. If he does, I might as well take the opportunity to kill him myself. It is time that the Mark is returned to the hands of men who have its welfare in mind and not its destruction…"
"How do you plan to contact Elfhelm… if he has returned from Westfold by now. We both know the Worm. I would be surprised if he did not send his spies to all major cities and settlements to wait for you to show up… especially at Aldburg. He will expect you to head there. Are you certain that it is not a mistake to do what he is counting on?"
"I agree that it is a gamble." Éomer took another bite from the pitifully thin rabbit in his hands and fell silent, chewing while he stared right through Théodred in deep thought. "As a matter of fact, I have already given this some thought." He straightened. "Of course, it still involves risk, but no matter what I do, I will not be able to avoid it entirely for as long as I stay in the Mark against the verdict." Still chewing, he turned his head to see Firefoot restlessly shifting. The grey stallion had at last accepted his master's choice of camp for the night, but it was clear that he would not be able to rest here. Whenever his head sunk and his eyes closed, it took only the smallest crackle from the fire to wake him and make him toss his head, his ears nervously flickering to and fro. Éomer felt sorry for his animal companion, but it could not be helped. This was not the time to be picky; they'd have to take whatever was available.
"So how will you do it?" Théodred spoke into his thoughts, waking him from his contemplation. "I share your opinion of Elfhelm; I cannot imagine that he would ever turn against you. But Aldburg is a great city with three éoreds, and not all of their captains might share his view. You see that the Mark has been brought to the brink of defeat lies in our inherent obedience to our King. I hate to say that we should have rebelled against Father's, or perhaps I should rather say - the Worm's – orders sooner, but it just is not in our blood. The King's word is law." Théodred raised one sceptical eyebrow. "You are fighting against five hundred years of tradition. I certainly do not envy you, Cousin."
Éomer shook his head and took another bite, cursing over getting more bones than meat in his mouth with it. He creased his brow in realisation that Théodred had made a very valid point and stared into the fire. To unite their people against Théoden was indeed be a deed he could hardly hope to accomplish… yet what other option was there? To flee and leave his kinsmen, and – even more importantly – Éowyn to their fate? He would sooner die than admit defeat by Gríma Wormtongue. Even if they riddled him with arrows like a hedgehog wherever he chose to turn up, at least he would die knowing that he had tried.
"Cousin?" Théodred repeated, staring at him from the other side of the fire. "Tell me, what is your plan? Because if I were you, I would not force my position and ride into the city openly, however certain you may feel of the people's loyalty. Just one man of a different mind would be enough for it to go wrong."
Éomer inhaled deeply, and tried to lend his voice conviction. "I do not plan to ride into the city;like you said, it would be madness. I will ride to the farm of Anlaf's parents in the foothills near Aldburg and ask Elgard to deliver a message to Elfhelm for me. I know I can trust Elgard."
The man he spoke of was the younger brother of one of his captains, a man he trusted and respected. Due to an injury he had sustained in a match - breaking his leg in one of their wild riding games - Elgard had - to his great disappointment - been rejected by the Armed Forces, but Éomer remembered how the younger man had always eagerly listened to the tales of their bravery once their éored returned. "I will instruct him to tell Elfhelm that I will be waiting for him in the mountains to discuss our options."
"I see." The older man nodded pensively. "And since I know that you are usually a good judge of character, I will not question your choice, but you do realise that even if Elfhelm agrees to follow you and if all the Eastfold's éoreds do so, too – what you are about to unleash will test the boundaries of our people's beliefs and loyalty. There has never been rebellion in the Mark. This could easily end in disaster… and result in a bloodbath that would drown us all, brought upon by ourselves. This is a great responsibility you are speaking of."
"I am aware of that, but I do not see how it could be worse than witnessing the slow decay of the kingdom the Worm is forcing on us. I would rather die on my feet in a battle against fate itself, than live on my knees, and I am certain that our people do not see it differently. Things cannot go on the way they are now. It is that simple." Éomer stared into the fire with unseeing eyes, and more than just its gleam sparkled in the hazel irises. "One way or another, the fate of the Mark will soon be decided, brother." He paused as he realised that Théodred was no longer paying attention to him. "Théodred?"
"I think you are not alone anymore…"
Chapter 12: Unbidden Visitors
Not knowing what to make of his cousin's remark, Éomer furrowed his brow as he followed Théodred's gaze to the outer cave without seeing anything.
"What do you mean? Of course I am not alone: you are here with me!"
"But only in your dream, Éomer! That is not, however, where the danger lies!" As his cousin abruptly turned back to him, the alarm in Théodred's eyes sent a sharp bolt of anxiety through Éomer's gut.
"But I am not-"
"You are asleep, Cousin, for how else could I be here? But someone is approaching! You must wake immediately, they are almost upon you!" Théodred twitched as another noise reached them from the entrance of the cave, and he jumped to his feet, eyes wide with panic. "Wake up, Éomer! Hurry!"
He sat up with a start, gasping and his heart pounding in a frantic rhythm against his ribcage as his fingers clenched the handle of his axe. Staring wide-eyed into the semi-darkness, Éomer's gaze came to rest on the red-glowing remains of the fire, and he realised with shock that he had indeed been asleep for a long time. Sometime during his lonely watch, his body had betrayed him, and daylight was already underway. There was already enough of it for him see the outline of the cave and the large grey shadow nearby which tossed its head and stared in the direction of the entrance with flared nostrils, trembling with tension.
In a heartbeat, Éomer was on his feet and at the stallion's side.
"Sssh…" he said, laying a hand on Firefoot's neck and instantly feeling the tremors of anxiety as he listened with baited breath. So it was indeed true: even asleep, he had been alerted by a noise, and his inner voice - in the shape of Théodred - had instantly woken him … unfortunately far later than he had planned to leave, leaving him to deal now with the consequences of his failure. Who were his unbidden visitors? Orcs? Or the Worm's henchmen? He doubted that they could be men of the Mark. They would have had to ride through the night to get here so early. No, it had to be enemies upon his doorstep. Involuntarily, his grasp around the axe tightened.
"Giet, Firefoot…" Laying a finger onto his lips, Éomer silently moved over to the wall that seperated the two caves, and from where his foes would enter. His back pressed against the rock, he breathed noiselessly while he reached out with his senses… and heard them: low mumbling, at least two different voices, guttural and throaty. The words were too low to understand, and yet the very sound of their language told Éomer that he was not listening to men. It was neither the sound of Westron, nor Rohirric, nor that of the Dunlendings that was spoken. No, he was listening to the Black Speech. Orcs, then. Feeling the short hair on the nape of his neck rising, he mentally readied himself for the fight. How many? Only those two? It would be unusual for orcs, who usually preferred to travel through hostile territory in greater numbers to improve their chances in case they were detected. The stealthy steps hesitantly approached his hiding place, and Éomer flexed his fingers around the handle of his weapon once more, waiting for what would happen, when suddenly, the whispering on the other side ceased with a hiss and was replaced by leaden silence… which was interrupted by an exasperated, heaving breath as the tension became unbearable for Firefoot, and the stallion burst into flight.
Cursing, Éomer whirled around, aware that he would have to make the brief moment of surprise count if he wanted to stand half a chance. Storming out of hiding in the wake of his charging horse, Éomer lashed out with the axe and buried it deep in the chest of an orc Firefoot's assault had thrown against the wall. Hate-filled eyes glared at him in stunned shock, but he did not linger to watch them glaze over with death. There were more of these foul things, and they were coming for him now.
Freeing the blade from the carcass with one hard tug, Éomer raised it in defence at the shadow attacking him. Sparks flew as the orc's long-blade crashed against it, the impact travelling up the his arms and almost knocking the hilt from his grasp. It was the moment when the warrior in Éomer took charge and instinct replaced reason. He threw himself against his adversary shoulder first, and it sank into the creature's stomach while their weapons were still caught between them. He rammed the orc against the wall, the impact stunning the creature through the tough armour of leather and bones that protected it. Pointed fangs snapped at him with a furious hiss, and spittle showered Éomer's face. The long-blade twitched, but he kept it caught with the axe and freed one hand to punch the aberration in the face, almost breaking his knuckles against the hard skull. The spittle became blood, but suddenly, the vile thing grinned at him and went down.
No time to hold on to it, no time to think. Instinctively, Éomer followed the orc's example and rolled, as with a rush of air, a spiked club hit the wall with bone-shattering force, missing him by the breadth of a hair. Completing the defence-motion by rolling over his shoulder, Éomer landed on his feet with cat-like agility, lashing out again even as he rose. A pained grunt rewarded his effort, and the club clattered to the ground. A second strike to the orc's head ended its misery, and Éomer whirled back in time to see a blurred shape hurl itself at him. It was too late to avoid the impact, and his bones groaned as this time, he was thrown against the rock. Somehow, he managed to hold on to his axe, but could not lift it. Though smaller than he, the orc was incredibly strong, it's muscles hardened by a life of hardship and violence. Never having fought one of these creatures in hand-to-hand combat, Éomer realised quickly that he was in trouble when long claws sank into his arms and a curse was spat at him, followed by a malicious chuckle, the yellow eyes in front of his face burning with lust for his blood. Slowly, Éomer's axe hand was forced down.
"Now you die, Strawhead!"
Pointed fangs went for his throat with the speed of a striking snake – and sunk into his left hand which he brought up in defence against the orc's grip. Amusement over his desperate struggle gleamed in the luminous eyes and the beast clenched its jaw, observing him in obvious delight while blood welled up around its lips. And still it pressed toward him while it mauled his hand, getting within strike distance no matter what Éomer did. The muscles of his arms trembled with the strain of trying to keep the creature away and bring up his weapon. Suddenly, the orc spat out his hand and with one mighty jerk, forced his arm aside to go for his throat again.
His reaction was pure instinct. With a violent thrust, the son of Éomund knocked his brow against the beast's opened jaws, causing it to howl in pain as its teeth first ripped through his skin and then shattered when they met with the harder bone of its opponent's skull. For a moment, its strength waned, and without hesitation, Éomer freed his arm and swung the axe in a deadly half-circle upwards, cleaving the orc's head clear from its neck and sending it flying through the cave. Yellow eyes widened in shock even as the deformed thing rolled into a corner, and then glazed over. Placing a heavy boot against the still standing body, Éomer pushed it back, and the carcass collapsed in a heap on the floor as an ear-splitting roar filled the cave. He swivelled, axe ready to hew down whatever came within his reach, when something punched against his right leg with a sharp sound, and the weapon fell from his hands.
There was no one behind him, not in his immediate surroundings, but as Éomer looked down, a thick, black shaft suddenly protruded from the middle of his thigh. Uncomprehending, he reached down to touch it while his gaze darted through the twilit chamber. It could not be real. Where was the pain? Yet all thoughts about his leg vanished when a massive shape stepped away from the wall next to entrance where it had hidden, a bow in its claws. The sight of it left Éomer stunned in realization that his worst nightmare had come true. It had not been a deformed orc who had left the larger tracks. It had been a Uruk-hai, and the prints on the floor had indeed been an indication of its true, massive build. Towering at least a head taller than he, its intimidating shape blocked out the light from the exit. Night or not, freezing temperatures or not, he should have moved on, Éomer realised with sudden bitterness. Now it was too late.
The huge creature chuckled maliciously at the sight of his adversary's dismay, revealing yellow, pointed fangs in a bellowing roar while its amber eyes sparkled with infernal bloodlust. It seemed to be in no particular hurry to finish him off, Éomer noticed as he stooped to retrieve his weapon from the ground. A first violent wave of pain from his thigh caused him to grit his teeth. Keenly observing him, the half-orc lifted the hand with the bow – and opened its fingers. The message was clear: it did not intend to kill him from a distance. Provokingly slowly, the clawed hand wandered down its impressive frame, over the thick armour of leather and bone it wore down to its hip, where it unsheathed a long, crudely worked blade with a double spike at the tip and lifted it up for its wounded opponent to see. It was the most intimidating weapon Éomer had ever laid eyes upon, and he had no doubt that the first strike he failed to parry would fell him like a tree.
His mind raced. So, the foul thing planned to hack him to pieces. What could he do? With Gúthwinë in his hands, he would have taken on the challenge confidently even with the arrow in his leg, but the little axe with its wooden handle felt like a joke compared to the Uruk's weapon; a tool for cutting branches rather than killing mutant orcs. As the tremors of pain from his leg intensified, Éomer took a stumbling step back toward the second cave. Perhaps he would stand a better chance in more confined quarters, where the orc's bulk would be a hindrance rather than an advantage. But how he was supposed to defeat his adversary without armour and adequate weaponry was beyond him.
Before him, the Uruk crouched into battle-position and slowly lifted the blade back over its shoulder. Its maw, wide enough to swallow a man's head whole, opened to emit a blood-curdling roar – and then it charged! With the unstoppable force of an avalanche it came at him, ready to hack him to pieces. Retreating the one step that separated him from the wall, Éomer awaited his opponent, and with a first, fierce thrust, blade and axe met in a rain of sparks. The impact knocked Éomer backwards and almost tore his weapon from his hands before he could use the force of the attack to spin around and disentangle his weapon at the same time. The blade grazed the Uruk's side and it roared in fury as it whirled around, but the wound was barely more than a scratch.
"A little over-confident, are we, filth?" Éomer laughed, now clear about the strategy he would use: he had to keep the orc raging. Although this bastard-breed had been domesticated by the Dark Lord and the traitor in the west to the point where it was intelligent enough to follow a given strategy, Éomer knew that once provoked, most orcs tended to regress to a beastly state and abandon common sense in exchange for raw power. While an enraged Uruk-hai was a fearsome sight to behold, warriors using their wits found them easier to overcome than in their calm state; one reason why the Uruk-hai were usually defeated despite their superior strength. "Come on, aberration! Or is one man more than you can take alone?"
The blade raced toward his neck, and Éomer intercepted it at the last moment. Yet the razor-sharp steel bit deeply into the handle of his axe, half separating the iron head, and a vile stench assaulted Éomer's nostrils as the orc bellowed its rage at him, the gaping maw directly in front of his face. Their weapons caught between them once again, both adversaries fought to free theirs first, yet Éomer quickly found that he was no match for the Uruk's brute strength: with a brutal jerk, it pulled its sword free, and Éomer had to let go of his axe if he didn't want to end up crashing face-first into his assailant's chest. Thrown off-balance, he was too slow to duck the creature's clawed hand, and it caught him behind the temple and jerked his head around, sending him reeling backwards and falling over a dead orc with its owner charging after him.
Stunned from the impact, Éomer watched as the blade descended upon him once more, slowly slicing through the air, which had become thick and liquid and hindered his moves while the hot wetness of his blood ran down his face and neck.
Théodred's voice sounded far away, but it woke him from his stupor, and he reacted, abruptly thrown back into reality as if surfacing from a deep pool. He rolled, and the strike that would have hacked him in two left a deep scratch on the ground he had occupied only a heartbeat earlier. The shaft in his leg clattered over the stone and twisted the arrow-tip in his flesh. Éomer cried out, just as his fingers touched something smooth and hard. Not pausing to examine it, he grasped it and lashed out at the big hand seizing his tunic, cutting deeply into his foe's forearm.
A bellow of rage followed him as Éomer stumbled to his feet and backwards to distance himself from the now seriously enraged creature. Holding the gaping gash that was gushing black blood, the Uruk had dropped its sword and stared at him with eyes blazing in an unspoken promise to rip him apart. Satisfied over having shaken his enemy's self-confidence, Éomer blinked away the blood in his eyes and grinned.
"See now why you always lose despite your greater number? You are a mountain of meat without a brain. Even our children are more adept at battle than you!"
The thing bared its fangs at him, yet did not charge. Yellow eyes flickered infernally as the Uruk-hai lifted its wounded arm and extended a thick, black tongue to lick off its own blood to demonstrate that it cared not for the injury. Fascinated and repulsed at the same time, Éomer stared at it, and when the orc grasped its sword and dropped into a battle-crouch once again without breaking eye-contact, he understood: the game was over, his adversary cured of his overly great self-confidence: the Uruk considered him a serious threat now, a fact that made it immeasurably more dangerous as it approached with the black blade drawn back for the deadly strike.
"You speak much, Strawhead," it growled, and its sparkling eyes followed Éomer's moves as they began to circle each other. "It tells me you afraid. I smell all over you. You scared… and you right fearing me, for now you die!" It struck, the impact hard enough to almost shatter Éomer's arm as he lifted his orc-blade in defence, and the top-half of his longsword was hacked clean off. The Uruk's expression brightened in expectation of its near triumph as it looked upon the short piece of iron left in its adversary's hands. "Next strike – will be you." In an uncanny display of intuition, it stepped into Éomer's way and blocked him from the carcasses of its brethren to retrieve another weapon, grinning at his obvious dismay. "You think me foolish, Strawhead? I know what you want. You not get it." It spat, and then, suddenly threw its own blade away. "I kill you with own hands. Will take longer… and be more hurtful!"
Feverishly thinking as he backed away from the beast which approached him now with extended arms, demonstrating its intimidating span and reach, Éomer lifted the pitifully short remainder of his weapon. Somehow, he had to get past the Uruk. If he got a hold of the sword, or at least made it back to where the carcasses of the other were strewn on the ground to retrieve the club – a claw swung toward his face and he ducked and slashed at it with the iron shard in a desperate dash to dive behind his enemy. Before him, the black sword reflected weakly in the intensifying daylight, and he threw himself at it, ignoring his wounded leg – when with a horrible crunching sensation, something exploded in his right side and he was flung against the wall, unable to catch his breath.
'Bastard kicked me!' Éomer thought through a haze of crippling pain, blindly groping to find something he could use for a weapon while the most immediate fight was the one for air. His lungs burning while bright explosions danced before his eyes, Éomer tried to move as a shadow fell upon him. An instant later, he was grabbed by the throat and lifted into the air as if he were a puppet. Air! He needed air! His feet dangling, he furiously clawed at the fingers that crunched his neck, and when that proved unsuccessful, reached for his adversary's eyes, but the Uruk merely extended its arm to its full length with a malicious snarl, keeping him out of reach while it observed his desperate struggle with obvious delight.
"What now, manling? You not on horseback no more, and no shining armour. Without it, you weak. I could crush you if I want." The fingers dug even deeper into Éomer's windpipe, and he gasped, his conscious fading quickly despite his efforts to hold on. Again he clawed at the hand holding him, sunk his fingernails into the thick skin and drew blood, but the grip of its claws was like the teeth of a bear-trap. A fleshy black lip curled upward in a menacing sneer. "But I want not. I kill you slow." It flung him against the cave wall like a bundle of rags, then stooped to pick him up again and ran a finger over the side of his face, tasting his blood. "You tasty, manling. Better than stinking orcs. I eat you raw. But first, make you tender!"
Again Éomer crashed into the wall, and as his broken body sunk back, he knew at last that he had lost. 'Forgive me, Éowyn,' he thought dimly, his conscious fleeing him. 'I meant to keep my word, I really did.'
Once more, he was hurled up, and the big, ugly head of the Uruk-hai swam into his blurred vision, triumph in its gaze. No longer able to keep his arms up to tear however uselessly at the fingers choking him, Éomer hung in their iron grip like a marionette with its strings severed. Soon, it would be over. His fingertips brushed over the arrow-shaft in his thigh… the splintered shaft.
"Now, prepare to die, Strawhead," his adversary growled, holding him up directly in front of his face as if about to bite his head off. "I think I eat your left eye first." As the claws dug into the skin near his nose, Éomer's fingers tore the splintered remainders of the arrow from his leg and sunk them in one continuous move into the Uruk-hai's left eye with the last of his strength. The great body shuddered, and the fingers around his throat clenched. Half-conscious, Éomer drove the splinter further in with one violent push before his hand fell down and everything turned to grey. When the pressure around his neck suddenly ceased and he fell to the ground once more, he hardly felt it. The last thing he heard was the muffled creaking of leather, and then a great weight landed on top of him and made it impossible to breathe…
There was already a faint stripe of daylight visible on the eastern sky, lighting the vast plains near the great city of the Eastmark as the long line of riders descended the slope. Although many of them had only just returned from the long journey and the battle at the Fords of Isen, none of the men had complained over being chased out into the harsh conditions again so soon. Only their commanders and scout knew about the further reaching implications of their errands, but orc-hunting was a duty all of them took seriously and saw to most eagerly. Their Marshal had told them of increased orc-activity in the White Mountains, where many of their kin dwelt and relied on their protection. None of the riders needed further motivation.
As the gate opened and the éored split into five parts, many men glanced back at the small group that would not accompany them. That Captain Céorl would return to Edoras had been widely assumed, but that Aldburg's chief protector, Elfhelm, would leave along with him, although he had hardly spent more than a few hours at his home, came as a surprise. Rumours of what their Marshal's errand in the City of Kings might be made their course, and after the tidings of the last days, many of the men quietly asked themselves whether they would see their commander again. It was only a small group that would travel to Edoras; the five men Céorl had brought with him, and four men Elfhelm had chosen to accompany him. Their number would be great enough to defend themselves against potential orc-attacks, but not sufficient to arrive in the city as anything more than beggars. Whatever Elfhelm wanted to force by visiting the King, ten riders would not give him a good position to bargain. The glances grew increasingly doubtful until the mighty fence blocked the riders' view of the small group, and they shifted back in their saddles and concentrated on the task at hand.
While the city around them woke, Freela hid her face against Elfhelm's broad chest, revelling in his warmth and scent embrace before he would be gone again too soon. She feared for him, but she also knew that his self-appointed task was honourable and urgent. As much as she hated to be left alone again, at the same time it was this man's incredible sense of duty that had first attracted her to him. He was a man always in service of his people; a man who would never rest until he could be sure that those in need of his protection had been cared for. So how could she even think of objecting?
Behind them, the men from his éored who would accompany him were also bidding their friends and kin farewell while Céorl and his men waited patiently just outside the open gate. Tightening her hold on him as she felt him prepare to let go, Freela lifted her head, fighting tears. It was not fair. She needed him, too! She saw understanding in his grey eyes which could look so fierce, but were now full of compassion… and at the same time, determination.
"You do understand why I am riding, don't you?" he asked softly, kissing her brow, and she nodded, her voice caught in her throat. "I will not be gone for long. I loathe leaving you so soon, too, but this is too important. I must see with my own eyes what is going on in Edoras. All that will follow depends on it." He inclined his head, saw brimming tears in her eyes and then kissed her once more. Her lips were dry and trembled underneath his, as if she was about to cry, but they opened to him, allowing him a taste of her he would carry with him until he returned.
"I will be here for you when you return," she whispered breathlessly between kisses, fighting the urgency and the emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. Her hands roaming through his hair, she deeply inhaled his scent and took comfort in it before she forced herself to step away at last. It would not do for her to make saying farewell so hard for him. If the other women could be brave, so could she. "My prayers will accompany you every step on the way. May the Gods protect you and your men and give you back to me safely, my proud Marshal of the Mark. Go and protect your people."
Gratitude and pride over her bravery lit up Elfhelm's eyes, and Freela was glad that she had held her emotions under control even if she felt like breaking down. Elfhelm's rough hand cupped her cheek.
"I will be back before you can miss me, léofa. I swear." And with that and a little nod, he turned around and mounted his horse, his eyes briefly coming to rest on Findárras, who would take over command over the city in his absence once again. "And when we return, we will chase the Worm's spies out of Aldburg, old friend!"
The red-haired warrior grinned.
"I am looking forward to that, Marshal. Make haste, for I can barely wait to begin!"
"But you will wait for me, for I would not want to miss that opportunity for anything in the world! Hiya! Ride, Sons of Éorl! To Edoras!" He spurred his horse, and in a cloud of snow, the group of riders vanished from sight even before the gates had closed behind them.
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