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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."
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