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Untold Tales of the Mark - The Rewrite  by Katzilla

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.

"Must I?"

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.

"Oh Éomer…"

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?

'Béma…'

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!"

OOO

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.

OOO

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.

"Éomer!"

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.





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