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Untold Tales of the Mark - The Rewrite  by Katzilla

UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISHMENT OF ÉOMER


Chapter 7: The Longest Night

EDORAS

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."

Maelwyn shrugged.

"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."

Maelwyn blushed.

"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."

000

EASTFOLD

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?"





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