|About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search|
Chapter 8: Dawn of the New Day
In one of the many chambers of the Golden Hall, someone else was experiencing a sleepless night, although he was not usually prone to extensive rumination. Waiting for his men to return from their secret errand, Gríma Wormtongue had stayed outside his chambers for a long time even after most of the court staff had gone to bed, Théoden-King even earlier than most. The ill old man had instantly fallen asleep, almost too quickly for Wormtongue to administer him the tea that contained the poison.
Every time he thought about it, Gríma felt astonished that it still worked so flawlessly. For the first months that he had used it on Théoden, his claim had been that it was a medicine against the constant ache in the King's joints; a rather natural condition that came from old age and exposure to the harsh climate of the Mark. By then, it had indeed been mostly medicine, the part of it that would make the patient dependant and at the same time opened his mind for manipulations minuscule. And the King had felt better quickly after he started taking it, and so had uttered no protest when Gríma had suggested that the potion would have to be taken each day to prevent the pain from returning.
Each week, he had given a small phial of it to Théoden's long-time manservant with the stern warning to never give the King more than five drops a day. After this show of concern, nobody had ever suspected that this was the very tool that would grant the spy in their midst access to power over the realm of the Riddermark. As soon the potion had been accepted by all as a given in Théoden's daily routine to the point that it had been forgotten, Gríma had altered the mix. Month after month, he had made it stronger, and while his master's joints still seemed in perfect condition, the old man's health and mind suddenly started to crumble.
As before and due to his initial success, people once again came to ask him for help, much to Wormtongue's secret amusement. Théoden's manservant had passed away in the meantime, an opportunity for Gríma to fill in for him with no questions asked. No word of suspicion was ever uttered against him, not even when in response to the other draughts he mixed for the Mark's ruler, Théoden-King's mental health was stripped away piece by piece to the point where he did not even recognise people anymore. When at last, all attempts of restoring the monarch's health had failed and Gríma claimed with convincingly feigned sorrow that the King's illness had to be a result to old age which not even the best medicine could reverse – they believed him and never once suspected that he was in fact the cause of Théoden's condition.
It was only the King's family, of course, who suspected differently, but since it was well-known that Éomer had hated him from the beginning, his blunt accusations made during the rare occasions when he was not roaming the Mark with his éored were not taken seriously by the rest of the Mark's court, and Gríma had shrugged them off like a horse that ridded itself of a pestering fly. And Éowyn was not taken serious by the man-dominated Council of Edoras. No, he was safe. But still, his cautious nature told him to only brew small amounts of the potion each time, so that in case that his treason would one day be detected, it would be difficult, if not impossible for the Rohirrim to dispose of him without killing their King at the same time.
Staring at the window, a far away, not at all pleasant smirk crept over the Counsellor's face. The Rohirrim's blind loyalty to their King was an amusing but, at the same time, extremely valuable characteristic to him. On some days Gríma himself was still astounded what foolish orders the warriors accepted unquestioningly from an old, weak man who could not even dress himself without help anymore– and much less had an idea of what was going on in his kingdom.
Still Gríma knew better than to overdo it. The keen strategist in him was quite aware of the fact that his hold on the Mark stood and fell with Théoden's life, and that all power would be lost if the old man died. These days, the King of the Mark was so thoroughly under his influence that all words whispered into his ears instantly settled in his mind as fact. At first, Gríma had been hesitant about forcing Éomer's banishment for fear that this extreme measure would perhaps stir up some part of the 'real' Théoden, the part he held prisoner and that would be horrified to learn what he had done to his people and family. So to ensure that the outcome of the hearing would meet with his expectations, Gríma had secretly sat all night by the King's bed almost until dawn of the day of truth, and he had filled his liege's mind up like an empty vessel with his words and images, pitilessly continuing even after Théoden had started to weep in his sleep at the repeated vivid description of how cruelly his son's had died. The effort had not been in vain.
So far, he certainly had reason to congratulate himself for a plan well executed, Gríma mused without real satisfaction. Finally succumbing to his restlessness, he once again came to his feet and directed his steps over to the window even though the darkness behind it hid the world from his view. Despite the chill night air, he opened the elaborately worked glass-wings and rested his elbows on the sill, impatiently listening into the night. Yet once again, he held out in vain for the sound of horses approaching the hall. Where were they? Creasing his brow as he watched the cloud of his breath rise into the air, Gríma grimly asked himself for the hundredth time what had happened to Felrod and his men.
How could it be that everything he delegated had a tendency to go wrong? He had chosen these men carefully for their strength, loyalty and ambition, and just as carefully had he instructed them about the observation of the King's niece and everyone close to her. Still, they had allowed letting themselves be fooled. Had it not been for his deliberate order to keep the smithy under close scrutiny after he had learned of Éowyn's handmaiden leaving the hall, no one would ever have thought of following that blacksmith's son. Was he to do everything himself? Perhaps punishment would make them heed his orders in the future. He had promised them positions of great power when he had taken them into his service, but power would remain unattainable for all of them if they did not fulfil their duty, and failure would come at a great price: Gríma harboured no doubts that his impatient master would get very upset if he heard that things in the Mark were not entirely under control yet, and what Saruman would do if angered was something his mind tried to shut out. No, one way or the other, he would have to remind his men what was at stake.
Which brought him back to his newest reason of discomfort: why had the men he had sent after Élric not returned yet? He did not doubt that they had intercepted the blacksmith's son as soon as they had been far enough away from Edoras to rule out that their actions would be witnessed, but what then? Had they found out what the man had been up to? Gríma's suspicion was that the marshal's sister had somehow tried to send help to her banished brother; either in the way of weapons or messages. Whatever it had been, Felrod and his men would have found out. Their victim was no warrior, and thus unacquainted with the persuasive powers of pain. Perhaps the meeting point with Éomer lay further away than they had suspected, and he was simply being too impatient. Perhaps, this very moment, the Half-Dunlending and his men were preparing their trap and waiting for their prey to arrive on the scene. But why then was there this insistently whispering voice in the back of his mind which he knew so well from experience, telling him that it might be different? That the hunters had failed, and that the son of Éomund – admittedly one of the Mark's most valiant warriors – had disposed of them and taken their arms and was now coming for his blood?
Forcefully exhaling at the image of an enraged Éomer storming up the hill to stick his sword into his flesh, Gríma suddenly slammed the window shut so hard that the glass almost shattered. It could not be. The marshal would never again set foot upon Edoras; for he himself, Gríma Wormtongue, had taken all precautions thinkable to prevent that the banished man would ever return. Even in the case of his men's failure, there would be others to execute his order.
Unbeknownst to them, Felrod and his companions were not the only ones hunting Éomer: as soon as Théoden had made it clear that he did not want his nephew's execution, Gríma had made the necessary arrangements, and now in addition to his own henchmen, each and ever one of the many orcs in the Mark was searching for the King's nephew. With their skill and by sheer number, Saruman's creatures had already succeeded in killing the heir to the Mark's throne, and now they would also slay the one man left in the kingdom who still posed a danger to his master's plans. With their superior hunting skills and sense of smell, it could only be a question of days until the message of Éomer's death reached him. No, Gríma concluded, as he settled back into his chair for the continuation of his night watch: there was no need to be nervous.
When Éomer stepped outside into the chill air, he could hardly believe that he had it made through part of the night only dressed in his shirt and breeches. Daylight's first messenger already coloured the eastern sky in pale grey, but it was still every bit as cold as it had been when he had first laid eyes on the farm. Involuntarily clenching his fingers in the thick cape he wore over his shoulders now, he knew that the garment would need a few moments to absorb his body heat before it would warm him.
Briefly halting in front of the barn to check for tracks and listen for the noises of approaching horses without detecting either, Éomer then shrugged off the sudden tension and exhaled. There was no sign that anyone had come in the vicinity of the farm except for him and Firefoot. And really, how could there be? The éoreds did not move at night, and the thugs sent after him had in all likelihood not even found their horses yet. He'd have to trust in the logic of this and learn to use these moments of relative safety to relax and conserve his strength for the moments when he would need it.
Firefoot…the corners of Éomer's mouth curved into an amused smile at the thought of his mount's eagerness to be out of the cold. Whereas the grey stallion usually enjoyed a well-earned reputation of being loyal to the death to his master, but feeling nothing but contempt for the rest of mankind, it had not needed Éomer's usual stern admonishment to let the Meara-Halfbreed allow their hosts' older son to approach him for a good rub-down – especially not after he had been bribed with a manger filled with oats. Horses… Éomer shook his head in amusement. This was not the first time that he thought that they were not much different from man. If he thought of all the comparisons that had been drawn between him and his steed…
"Good times you're thinking of, my lord?" Forlong spoke into his thoughts. "That is good, because it shows me that our efforts in lightening up your mood were not entirely in vain."
He pushed the barn-door open, and they quickly slipped inside.
"Aye, I feel indeed better, Forlong, even if I still do not approve of the means you used to get me into your house!" Éomer winked at Théa who accompanied them to bid him farewell.
"Do I hear you right, Marshal?" the tiny woman laughed, and since Éomer had hours ago given up on correcting her about his title, he laughed now with her. "You can feel you body again, you were fed, you are wearing a wonderful cape of leather and fur and the bag in your hands contains provisions and other treasure to no ends, and you still complain?"
"You know what I mean, Théa." He lifted the heavy bag. "I have no words to thank you enough for this, but I do not like the thought of having endangered you by staying. It is not my usual way to draw innocent people into conflicts."
"But you were not expelled and on your own before, at least not that we would know of." She turned to him, took his hand and pressed it gently, but insistently. "Be careful out there, my lord. And if you should find that there is anything else that we can do for you, please return and tell us. Remember, the people of the Mark are still on your side. Be not afraid to ask for their help, for they will be more than willing to grant it. That is something my heart is telling me, and yours should tell you the same. When in need, turn to the simple people. They know what you have done for them in the past and will be eager to repay you the favour. That may be the best advice I can give you."
"I will not forget it, Théa, thank you. And you, Forlong, know that you and your family restored some of my faith tonight. I promise you that I will do what I can to help the Mark, even though it is not officially my place anymore." He tried to think of something more to say, of other, more solid tokens of comfort that he could give them but the promise of a man expelled from these lands, but before the words would come to him, Firefoot's loud neighing woke the barn's occupants for the second time in one night. Smiling at the sight he was granted, Éomer turned to his stallion, who was munching on a carrot Hâlrod held out to him and looked his way with unmistakable wariness in his posture.
No, Firefoot was no more eager to leave this comfortable, warm place than his master, but his obvious disgruntlement was something Éomer would just have to ignore. On his patrols through the Mark he had quickly found out that staying too long in one place could easily get one killed. Deciding not to let the thought dispirit him when he had just enjoyed such warm-hearted hospitality, Éomer forced himself to a cheerful tone.
"It appears that I arrived just in time to prevent you from spoiling my hardened war-horse for all eternity, young man! Firefoot is not used to such attention, and after what you did tonight, I will probably have to bribe him with food from now on every single time that I need his service."
The lad beamed at him, aware that the admonishment was not a real one.
"He is a wonderful steed, my lord. I have never seen our war-horses up close, except for those few times when the éoreds rode through our farmland. No wonder everyone envies us for our horses if they are all like him."
Laughing, Éomer ruffled Hâlrod's hair.
"Béma beware, if they were all like Firefoot, our riders would never be ready to fight because of all the bruises their horses would give them!" Ignoring his stallion's indignant snort, Éomer opened the stall and threw the saddle onto the grey back. He knew that his horse was not keen on heading out again, but it could not be helped, for he intended to be far gone from this place even before sunrise. The mountain path to Aldburg he intended to take was rarely travelled by riders in winter, but its mouth lay in the vicinity of a settlement Éomer wanted to have passed once the day began. It would take him at least a day longer to reach Aldburg on it and lead him through rough terrain, but since the plains and thus the Great Road were out of the question, Éomer in fact welcome the additional time the lesser travelled road would grant him before he would eventually have to come to a decision of how to contact Elfhelm. It was not like he could simply ride up to the city gates and knock.
Occupied with his thoughts while the couple waited outside the stall, Éomer pulled the girth tight and saw Hâlrod already adjust Firefoot's bridle. Yet where the sight of a stranger handling his horse would usually leave him uncomfortable, it was easy enough to see that the lad had worked wonders on the grey, for Firefoot not only took the bit without resistance, but even lowered his head for the boy to reach up. Filling his newly acquired treasure into the saddlebags and fastening a thick woollen blanket the couple had also gifted him behind the saddle, Éomer raised a brow at Hâlrod in acknowledgment.
"Thank you, Hâlrod, and congratulations! It seems you've made a friend here. I have never before seen him like this." With a feeling of satisfaction and security, he fastened the knife Forlong had given him among other things to his belt.
"Ah, but I cannot believe that he should be so difficult with others, my lord."
"Trust me, it is not without reason that most riders of my éored suspect that the other half of his blood belongs to a mule." Éomer clapped Firefoot's muscled shoulder and took the reins from the boy's hand. "I believe we are ready."
Hâlrod laughed as he held the stall-door open for them.
"If you don't want him anymore, my lord, I would be glad to take him."
"I could not give him away even if my life depended on it," Éomer gave back as he led Firefoot outside, the sound of hard hooves on the stony ground very loud. He turned serious. "The big grey here saved my life many times, not only last night. I assume that gives him the right to be a little difficult."
Once more he patted his horse's neck and then turned around to the waiting family. Although they stood a few paces away, he could see their faces clearly now in the beginning dawn, and the concern in their expression moved him deeply enough to nearly choke him. Once more putting all his gratitude in his gaze, Éomer gave them a small, appreciate nod. "Firefoot was not the only one to save me last night. I am deeply indebted to you, and I promise I will do whatever I can to pay that debt off. No matter what happens, do not despair. All is not lost yet."
"We trust in you to set it right, Marshal, just like you always have," Théa said, the conviction in her eyes genuine. "We have endured for five hundred years despite of our many foes, and we will not vanish now. Not if we all stand united." She inhaled. "Be careful, son of Éomund, and know that our good wishes accompany you."
"I will return, Théa, and this time, it will not be in a secret, cowardly manner in the middle of the night. Our riders will accompany me, and we will rid the Mark of all its enemies once and for all, that I promise to you. The days of uncertainty will soon come to an end. Farewell and once again: thank you for your help!"
He nodded and then pressed his heels against Firefoot's flanks, sending the great stallion in a gallop that brought them out of the sheltered vale of the farm before the tiny crystals whirled up by his hooves had settled back onto the ground.
The pale light of a grey morning filtered through the frost-blinded windows when Maelwyn registered movement out of the corners of her eyes. Sitting in the comfortable stuffed chair next to the merrily crackling fire and basking in its warmth, the young handmaiden had allowed her mind to wander once the old healer had left the chambers to seek some rest at home. Maelwyn wished she could have gone with her to speak to Élric, but that would have been foolish. It would still be early enough when she left the Golden Hall around noon, when Hildegard would take over for her. She needed to be patient.
It still felt strange to know that she had become involved in a rebellion, but the more she thought about it, the better she felt about herself. It could not be wrong to be on the same side as the Marshal, and Éothain, and Lady Glenwyn. It could not be wrong to act when confronted with evil. What a sad existence she had led so far, just looking on like a frightened lamb while crooked men tormented the good people of the Mark. Maelwyn inhaled, and a resolute expression spread upon her young face. Well, those times were over! She was proud that Éowyn had confided in her, was counting on her, and she was ready now to do her part.
Another quick glance strayed over to the bed, where her mistress had lain unmoving for all these past hours, sleeping the sleep of healing, but as if Éowyn had somehow felt her handmaiden's attention, she suddenly shifted for the first time, and with a start, Maelwyn found that her eyes were open.
"My Lady!" Quickly she rose to her feet and was at Éowyn's side, relieved to see the lucid expression in those blue eyes and the faint smile upon her pale lips. "We were so worried! How do you feel?" Now that the King's niece seemed fully conscious again, she suddenly dared no longer touch Éowyn's brow to feel for herself. But the fevered flush that had coloured her lady's otherwise ghostly white face last night had gone, and neither could Maelwyn detect even the slightest trace of sweat at her hairline. Relieved beyond words, she beamed and found her joy mirrored in the exhausted face before her. With a deeply grateful smile, Éowyn took her hand, and her fingers felt cool to the touch.
"I am tired. And exhausted. But I suppose I should not complain, as that was what I was asking for." Rolling on her back and briefly closing her eyes, she added: "I had no idea the potion was so strong. I almost drank it all, because I thought not that…" Her words trailed off, and from the way her gaze swept the room to come to rest on the grey light of the new day beyond her window, Maelwyn concluded that she still felt disoriented. "How late is it? Is it the next day, or have I missed more than one day?"
"No. It was yesterday that you took the potion, my Lady. The fever began to drop during the evening, and since then, you've been asleep. Nothing much happened... except that Élric left Edoras shortly after I told him of your plea." Maelwyn's smile deepened when she saw the relief well up in Éowyn's eyes. "He agreed to help you at once. Your brother must already have received the weapons by now. Your plan was faultless, my Lady, even if it was more than daring. We all feared for your life. Oh, and Éothain sends you his heartfelt greetings. I spoke with him earlier this morning. If there is anything he can do for you, he wants you to let him know." To her surprise, the joyful expression on the White Lady's face quickly darkened to wariness.
"What did Gríma do after you returned from the smithy? I do not suppose that it escaped his attention that you left Meduseld. Did he send his men to the smithy to investigate after you were there, or did he question you upon your return? I can hardly believe that we should have fooled him so easily."
"Oh, the Counsellor definitely seemed to have a few questions when I came back, but Yálanda insisted that she needed me urgently to assist her and pulled me away from him." Still, the piercing gaze of the pale blue eyes had followed her even into her sleep, and Maelwyn shuddered at the memory. "And then I spent the entire day here in your chambers, and the Captain of the Guard wouldn't allow him in, so I wasn't summoned… yet." The thought extinguished her good mood like a bucket of water dropped into a fire. "But he will summon me today, there can be no doubt. I saw it in his eyes yesterday. He suspects something" She swallowed, suddenly and suddenly felt very sick. Her eyes wide, she sought Éowyn's gaze. "I have never before lied, my Lady. I do not know how to do it. What if he sees right through me? What if he asks me why Élric left so suddenly despite the harsh weather?"
"You say that he was already readying his horse when you saw him. And that you did not speak about his errand with him, so you know nothing." Despite her exhaustion, Éowyn's gaze had never been more intense.
"But what if we were seen talking?"
Grim resolution stood written in Éowyn's eyes.
"Then you say the truth: that you told him of my illness and asked him to call his mother for you. Gríma knows that Élric cares about me, and that he would enquire to hear more about my condition. There is no reason for you to be afraid, Maelwyn. Gríma cannot know. He may try to frighten you with empty threats, but the truth is that he cannot prove anything. All you must do is stay calm and tell him what I just told you. I know you can do this, Maelwyn. Yesterday, you said you were frightened of doing the thing I asked of you, and yet you not only overcame your fear, you succeeded. This is now the next step: we won an advantage, and now we must secure our victory!"
|<< Back||Next >>|
|Home Search Chapter List|