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UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISHMENT OF ÉOMER
Chapter 9: Dismissal and Return
Èowyn was fast asleep again when with a knock at the door and Maelwyn's invitation, Hildegard, one of the older serving maids of the Royal Household entered the chambers. The young handmaiden was glad to see the older woman, for she had feared that her visitor was someone else… someone far less welcome. Half of the morning had already passed without the Counsellor's summons, and while she felt grateful for the respite, Maelwyn knew that it was yet too early to relax. Who knew why Gríma had not called her yet? Perhaps the evil man had fallen ill himself and couldn't leave his bed today? Oh, this was certainly too delightful a thought to be true.
With a deep breath, she rose to her feet, her body stiff and aching from the long sitting. As reluctant as she was about leaving, Maelwyn at the same time longed to go home. A long day and an even longer night of worry lay behind her and she missed her husband and her boys, for once feeling in desperate need of comfort and closeness herself. Was everything all right with them? They had slept when she had slipped into their house last night, and she had not wanted to wake them when she left again. Torben had sleepily inquired where she was going when she had gotten up again, and she had truthfully answered and told him to remain in bed. He had quickly fallen asleep again.
Maelwyn knew that her husband loved taking care of their little ones. And still somehow, the thought of her family having to brave the tasks of the day alone in these trying times, without her around, left her deeply uncomfortable. Without her cooking, what had they eaten? What if anything happened to them during the day? What if they fell ill? Inwardly shaking her head at herself, Maelwyn had to smile. What a silly wench she was! Were all women like her, thinking that the world stopped turning once they were not around?
"Good morning, Hildegard. I hope you had a good night?"
"As good a night as one can have in the servants' quarters," the older woman said grumpily, walking straight across the room to open the window for fresh air. "I hope there will be no need for the healer to stay again tonight. The old hag's snore is louder than even my husband's, and our house shakes already when he is asleep." She stopped herself when she realised that the other woman had probably had even less sleep than she, and turned around looked at Éowyn instead.
"How is the Lady Éowyn faring? Is there anything I need to know? Some special medicine she needs, or…"
Maelwyn followed her gaze.
"Béma be praised, her condition seems to have much improved over night. She was even awake a few hours ago, and I talked to her. She didn't want to eat yet, but at least she had some of the tea that I brought her. When you fetch her fresh tea, tell the kitchen to brew it from the herbs Yálanda left them for the lady. She will come and see her later, but I suppose until then, it would be best just to let our lady rest."
Turning around, Maelwyn picked up her woollen shawl and slung it around her shoulders. For a moment, her compassionate gaze rested on the sleeping woman's still features. It was not right that Éowyn had to bear such a burden. She was such a kind-hearted, gracious person once one had penetrated the hard shell she had erected around herself as a protection against the evil which had haunted her life ever since her childhood days. The Gods knew how she felt inside now with her brother banished, her cousin dead and her uncle fallen into shadow; and yet she still upheld the guise of strength to all observers. Such strength to Maelwyn was awe-inspiring. She knew that under the same conditions, she would have despaired long ago.
"When will you be back, Maelwyn? Just in case Éowyn asks me," Hildegard asked, stooping to feed the fire with a few more logs of wood.
"Later this afternoon, I think. I need to see what my husband and my boys are doing. They know I spent the night here, but they will be worried regardless." She grasped the door handle and depressed it. What if the counsellor waited for her outside? 'You do what your lady has told you,' she tried to calm herself. 'He cannot know. Just go. With a little luck, he is not even around.' "But if Éowyn wants to see me, let me know and I'll come." She opened the door – and looked into the grim face of the guard. "Good morning, Grimhart. I am going home for now. I will be back later, in case anyone should ask."
The man said nothing; he did not even repeat her greeting. Swallowing her mounting anger over the rudeness of the new members of the Royal Guard, Maelwyn directed her steps to the exit, for once glad to leave Meduseld. In the summertime, the coolness and shade of the Golden Hall were pleasant, but during the long, grim winter, the darkness inside its vast chambers was oppressive, and in the last months, its atmosphere of illness and unspoken despair had thickened to the point that it drained her spirit of all joy. No, she longed to be out in the open now, to breathe the fresh, clean air regardless of the cold.
Nodding her thanks to the wards who opened the heavy door for her, Maelwyn stepped outside, and the assault of the cold wind on her face instantly revived her spirits. The thick layer of clouds of the past days had been replaced by a mesmerising blue sky, and the sunlight's reflection from the blanket of white that covered the world was almost too intense to look at. From the city below, the sound of children's laughter reached her ears as they chased each other in their play; and horses and men hurried through the streets in pursuit of their endless daily errands. It was the sound of normality, and Maelwyn was thankful for it after her world had come unhinged for a day. Walking over to the steps to the beginning of the winding path home, the young woman suddenly froze when the door behind her opened again and her name was called by a familiar, most dreaded voice.
"Mistress Maelwyn, wait!"
Her heart suddenly beating wildly in her throat, Maelwyn turned around.
'He does not know. It is something else he wants! Stop behaving like a child caught with its hand in the honey pot! You will only make him suspicious!'
"Lord Gríma, what can I do for you? I am glad to report that the Lady Éowyn is feeling much better today. She is still asleep though, but I left Hildegard with instructions to-"
"That is well, because Hildegard will be the one tending the White Lady from now on," the Counsellor interrupted her brusquely, and his pale eyes skewered her like an insect. "You will not return here. From this moment on, you are released from your service to the Royal Family."
For the longest moment, Maelwyn was rendered speechless, the connection between her mind and her tongue severed. She could not even breathe as she stared in stunned shock at the man in front of her.
"Do you understand me, maid? Your service will no longer be needed in Meduseld. Go and find an occupation someplace else."
From somewhere, a single sentence came to her.
"But what have I-"
"You know perfectly well what you have done, wench! Do you wish to insult me?" Gríma hissed under his breath, his eyes narrowing in unmistakable threat. "If I were you, I would swallow whatever words were on my tongue and get out of my sight before I change my mind. I am aware that your mistress is the one mainly to blame for your actions of yesterday, but treason remains treason, and conspiracy remains conspiracy. Because I know that you were not its origin, and because of your family, I am yet willing to exercise mercy, but you do not seriously expect that I allow you to remain a member of the Royal Household after the breach of trust you committed, do you, Maelwyn? Even if you are just a lowly serving maid, you could not be so foolish!"
Maelwyn felt with all distinctiveness how the blood drained from her head. She could literally feel herself turn white under the Counsellor's hostile stare, and a strange feeling of light-headedness overcame her, so powerful that she feared to faint right here on the stairs. And wouldn't it be just what that horrible man would wish for if she fell and broke her neck? Somewhere, she found the strength to push the sudden weakness back, and her vision cleared again, but still she could not help it that her legs felt like lifeless sticks and that her voice barely made it through her dangerously tightened throat.
"But what about Lady Éowyn? She is ill and needs tending. Who-"
"That is no longer one of your concerns, maid. Be gone, and see to it that you never come under my eye ever again, or I swear, I shall bring the full weight of the law down upon you, and you will be punished for your treason, family or not." Gríma lifted his chin and looked down upon her from his elevated position with contempt and finality. "Am I making myself clear, maid, or would you like to test me?"
Suddenly shivering violently, though not in result of the temperatures, Maelwyn feverishly tried to think. How much did he know? Had he only seen her talking with Élric, or – Béma beware – was he even informed about their plan to send the weapons to Éomer? And if he was – had he intercepted Élric? What if by her failure, she had become responsible for the death of both the blacksmith and her lady's brother? The thought of them lying lifelessly strewn in the reddened snow made her want to cry out in despair. Gods, it could not be! Why could she not wake from this nightmare?
Her mouth working although she did not consciously think of the words, the young woman breathed a low: "No, Counsellor. I understand. And I thank you for your mercy. I…"
She broke off, at last at a loss for words. The sudden rush of her blood in her ears drowned out all other noises, and again she wondered whether she would faint. Perhaps breaking her neck would be preferable to learning about what grief she had accidentally caused by ever agreeing to Éowyn's plan. All joy of having been a part of the resistance left her. Now there was only dread.
Gríma's expression indicated that he was finished with her.
"Go then. And remember what I just told you. I swear to the Gods, I meant it."
Leaving her standing, Wormtongue slung his cloak tighter around his body and retreated into the sheltering warmth of the hall. Numb and feeling hollow, Maelwyn staggered down the remaining steps to the path with unseeing eyes. How could she ever have hoped to fool that man? His eyes and ears were everywhere; there was no escaping his attention. Had she been utterly mad to agree to be a part of this?
From further down the path, a sudden din of dismayed cries suddenly woke her from her thoughts of despair, but when she detected where the shouts were coming from, Maelwyn realised that reality was about to get even grimmer: the wails rose from the smithy, and the voices crying out in despair belonged to Bergfinn and Yálanda. Slowly rounding a gentle curve and walking toward the first buildings below Meduseld on legs she didn't feel anymore, Maelwyn's stunned gaze fell on a group of riders in the work yard. Their captain just now opened his arms to hold the old healer as she collapsed sobbing against his chest, while Bergfinn, who wore the expression of a man who no longer understands the cruelty of the world upon his face, slowly extended his hand to take the reins of a white, unsaddled horse with a long gash in its side.
The full meaning of the scene before her eyes stole Maelwyn's breath away. So her worst fears had become reality: for his horse to return riderless, Élric had to be dead, and if he was dead, it was likely that Éomer too, had been killed as well, or – unarmed and alone as he was - would be dead before long. Éowyn's plan to bring him help had failed, and two men had died because of her own inability to carry out her orders with the bidden secrecy. Feeling sick to her stomach, Maelwyn suddenly met the captain's pained gaze as he cradled the sobbing Yálanda in his arms, and in that moment, all hope died in her heart.
It felt good to come home, Elfhelm thought upon the sight of the mighty wooden fence that guarded his hometown of Aldburg, and yet it was a strangely empty sort of joy. 'Relief', would probably have been the better word for it, because how could he truly feel joyful after the horrors they had witnessed on the battlegrounds of Westfold? So many men had lost their lives at the Fords of the Isen. Of the one hundred and twenty riders he had led westward as soon as Prince Théodred's call for aid had reached them, battle had claimed twelve, and ten horses. And yet they had been lucky. The éoreds of his western brothers-in-arms Erkenbrand and Grimbold had sustained much greater losses, while the Prince's Riders had been all but erased even before reinforcements had arrived. Again the Mark had lost hundreds of riders; men leaving behind families and friends; men who would never again roam the plains of the Folde, or the Westemnet. One could despair just thinking about it.
And for what, Elfhelm wondered wearily as he directed his long-legged bay stallion over to the city gates where the road ended. Only to throw back the enemy over the Isen for a few days at great cost, until that evil wizard in Isengard replenished their ranks and even multiplied the number of his warriors, so that next time, it would be even harder to stand against his army. Yet more men would die, and in the end, they would have to relinquish control of their side of the river altogether. For a long, dreadful moment just after they had joined the battle, Elfhelm had feared that this was already the day that would see them defeated. After three days of hard riding, men and beast exhausted even before the battle, they had arrived too late to save the King's son and most of his men, and the blood of the dying or lifeless bodies on the battlefield had reddened the waters of the Isen.
Only then they had seen the enemy, a vast, dark army of orcs and Uruk-hai greater than any horde Elfhelm had encountered so far; an evil army empowered by the will of the White Wizard, moving with the single-mindedness of one being and slaughtering Riders left and right. At that moment, Elfhelm had believed this battle would be their last, but after hours of hacking, slashing and skewering, and countless cries of men and horses wounded and dying, the combined forces of West- and Eastfold had at last thrown the remainder of the enemy back across the river. None of them rejoiced in the taste of their victory though, because even then it had been clear that triumph would be short-lived. The Isen would not be a hindrance for the wizard's foul brood for much longer, and what the orcs would do once they roamed the plains at their will was a thought that made the Marshal's blood run cold.
Anxious to be out of the saddle, Élfhelm shifted his weight. At the age of forty-three summers, the resolute marshal was one of the Riddermark's most respected warriors and expected to be promoted in the hierarchy very soon. Elfhelm himself cared little for titles, and so had not objected when the King's nephew had assumed command over the Eastmark despite his obvious youth. In his opinion, the young man was exceptionally skilled and fiercely dedicated to the protection of their people and had rightfully earned this honour. They all fought for the same side, anyway.
As they approached, a shout could be heard from the guard-tower above the gates, and it briefly woke him from the dreadful images that repeated themselves endlessly in front of his inner eye.
"Who are you, and what business brings you to Aldburg?"
Thankful for the distraction, Elfhelm tilted back his neck.
"It is I, Elfhelm, your commander! Open the gate!"
His voice barely made it over the wind, and when at first there was no answer, his riders looked at each other quizzically and wondered whether they would be granted entry to their home after their long journey, but then the groaning and creaking of frozen hinges rewarded their patience as the gates slowly swung inward. In single file, they passed through the opening before the massive wooden wings closed again and cut off the punishing gusts for the first time since the warriors had been on the road. Wearily shaking their heads, their horses tried to free themselves of the thick crust of ice that covered their faces, and the men on their backs imitated their efforts by knocking off the accumulated snow from their garments and beards.
"It is the Marshal! Marshal Elfhelm is back! Béma be blessed! Our riders have returned!"
Barely hearing the relieved shouts or the sudden din of the bell that announced their return, Elfhelm straightened for the first time in hours and grimaced. All day the wind had assaulted them from the front, and although he had hidden underneath his hood and wrapped a woollen scarf around his head until only his eyes were left uncovered, the marshal felt half-frozen despite his additional attempt to hunch over and take cover behind his horse's neck. Needless to say, his effort had been vain, and in addition to feeling like a block of ice, his back had now joined the chorus of pain from the numerous bruises and scrapes he had received in battle. And still, Elfhelm thought, who was he to complain? Compared to the injuries many of his Riders had sustained, his' were merely an inconvenience. He was alive and relatively unharmed, that alone was reason enough to be thankful after what they had gone through.
Surfacing from his black thoughts to find the captain of the guard approaching him, Elfhelm inhaled deeply. The man smiled, probably assuming that the situation couldn't be too grave when most riders of their éored had returned. How much Elfhelm would give for such blissful ignorance now!
"Please excuse the delay in opening the gates, Marshal Elfhelm, I did not recognise you at first under all this clothing and the ice," the guard said, his gaze travelling over the weary riders as they dismounted. "I know that our horses to not allow orcs or Dunlendings to ride them, but I still wanted to be certain before—"
"There is no need to apologise, Gaewolf," Elfhelm interrupted him, not ready to exchange more words than absolutely necessary. He was aching to be home now and anxious to perform his necessary duties before he could likewise retire for the day. "I'd rather wait outside for another day even in this weather, than have you open the gate to enemies. Speak no more about it."
With a grimace, he looked at the streets which were only just beginning to fill with people anxious to greet their loved ones. Some of them would search in vain. The thought of what he would have to tell them sent a sharp pain through Elfhelm's gut. He turned away from their sight and dismounted himself.
"Éorlingas! See to your horses, and then you are dismissed. Get some rest, and those of you in need of a healer, come to the hall and you will be tended! The Mark and I thank you for your service. Béma knows that this errand wasn't an easy one." He nodded in acknowledgment to the men passing him and then shifted his attention back to the guard at his side. "How were things here, Gaewolf? Any trouble?"
"Nowhere close to the city, but Findaràrras' éored had a skirmish with a group of orcs who tried to steal their horses." A satisfied expression spread over the man's face. "None of the filth survived, and all riders returned unharmed, Béma be blessed." Silently walking alongside his commander toward the stables, Gaewolf's smile suddenly dropped. "Word already reached us about how the battle at the Fords went. The messenger spoke of great losses… and of course the people are devastated to lose Prince Théodred… especially now, with Éomer banished. It seems that -"
His words stopped Elfhelm in his tracks.
"Éomer… banished? What are you saying?"
Gaewolf's eyebrows went up in surprise, and for a moment, he looked at the approaching figure of Findárras, Elfhelm's second-in-command, who had held control over the city for the time their riders had been away and had now been called down from the Great Hall by the sound of the bell. He turned back to Elfhelm.
"You mean you were not informed about it yet, Marshal? But they sent riders everywhere to spread the word! I cannot believe that they should have missed your éored on the road."
"No, not missed…" Elfhelm muttered angrily, his lips a bloodless line as he tried to grasp the implications of what he had just been told. Éomer… banished? "I assume it is more that they deliberately avoided us, because that snake in Meduseld knew that I would have taken my éored straight to Edoras to wring his neck once I heard of it." Nodding his greetings to the red-haired Findárras, he looked at the overcast sky. "I doubt it would be wise to ride out again today. We would not make it all the way to Edoras in this weather, and the men and horses need a rest. I will ride out tomorrow and take only a few men with me. This is something we cannot allow anymore. Has the King been stricken blind, deaf and mute to let the Worm do this, or have all members of the Court lost their minds?" He clapped his second-in-command's shoulder. "It is good to see you, old friend. Do you know more of what happened?"
"Word is that Éomer was punished for disobedience against the King. The verdict even spoke of treason, but I must confess that I know no details. Captain Céorl, however, arrived a few hours before you, and he will probably know much more. He is waiting for you in the guest-quarters. I did not think it would be advisable to discuss this subject in the Hall."
The red-headed warrior cast his commander a meaningful look.
"What do you mean?"
"The King, or shall I rather say, his counsellor, sent a group of advisors down here to assist you in your decisions now that Éomer is no longer Third Marshal. In the two days since they have been here, they have done nothing but asking questions and turn up at councils or wherever a larger group of people gathered to drink, or eat, or talk. I assume we can safely call them spies."
"Of course," Elfhelm snorted, nodding as he passed their stablehands on the way to his horse's stall. "Now the Worm will concentrate on removing me, and Grimbold… and Erkenbrand. Once he has rid himself of us as well, there will be nobody left to speak against him, which makes my little visit tomorrow all the more important."
Findárras scratched his beard pensively while he waited for his brother-in-arms to free his bay of his tack. As weary as he felt himself, Elfhelm could easily have delegated the duty of seeing after his horse to one of the stablehands, but after the loyalty Éon had once again proven to him on the battlefield, the warrior felt it his obligation to tend the stallion himself.
"Would you deem it wise under these circumstances? What if the Worm only sees it as an invitation to rid himself of you right there?"
With a groan, Elfhelm lifted the heavy saddle off the bay's back and onto its stand.
"I need to see for myself what is going on in Edoras, Findárras. I am tired of hearing – or not hearing – everything through messages and errand-riders, and I also need to speak to Éowyn. If Éomer was indeed banished, she remains the only member of the Royal Family with a sound mind in Meduseld. She might be in danger. – Can you get me a sack of oats, please, and a bucket of water for my friend here?"
"Of course. Anything else you need?"
"Some apples or carrots, whatever you can find. He was of great help on the battlefield to me yet again; we burnt the corpses of at least three orcs whose skulls were smashed in by his hooves, not to mention the dozens he incapacitated so they could conveniently be killed." Freeing his mount of his bridle, Elfhelm clapped his neck. "Perhaps I should rename you, Éon. 'Orc-Fiend' might be a more suitable name for you." He took the heavy sack Findárras dragged into the stall and began to fill the empty manger with oats. After he had accomplished that and seen to it that the stallion would lack neither water nor food, he hand-fed him the apples Findárras had obtained, briefly enjoying the sensation of the horse's soft lips on his hands.
"When you are done here, I was told to accompany you to the council. They want your report." Findárras inhaled and raised an eyebrow. "What shall I say to them?"
Rubbing the white star between Éon's eyes for a moment of silent contemplation, Elfhelm's weary gaze at last found his patiently waiting second-in-command.
"Tell them that there is nothing to report apart from what they already know. Tell them that our éored suffered the loss of twelve riders, and tell them that as their commander, I will first speak with the men's widows. I will not tolerate being rushed while I am occupied with this task, and it will probably be well after nightfall before I will be finished." The Gods knew he wasn't looking forward to this task, but it was something he owed to the families of his riders. "And as I am wearied myself, I will then go home and get rest. If they deny me that, Aldburg will soon have to find a new protector."
Findárra's lips curved into a knowing smile.
"And I suppose you want me to say that you will deliver your report tomorrow morning, and when you don't show up because you are already on the way to Edoras, I will tell them that there were reports of an attack on a settlement up north and that you had already left to investigate. Is that true?"
Elfhelm looked weary beyond belief, but his grin was genuine when he replied: "There is a reason for you to be my second-in-command, Findárras. Thank you for demonstrating it to me every time I need reassurance that there are at least some of us left who know about the value of loyalty and friendship."
The wiry warrior nodded his acknowledgement.
"Glad to be of service. What should I tell Ceorl? I assume you will see him later today… at your home?"
"Aye. After nightfall, under cover of darkness. Perhaps he can grant me a few hours to restore myself to a condition where I will be able to think again. Aye, and it would be good if you were present, too. I don't know when the Worm's weasels will go to sleep, but in each case, we should not meet until their presence can be accounted for in their chambers. We must take precautions to keep our meeting secret. Do you think you can do that for me, old friend?"
Findárras gave him one of his wryest smiles.
"Would I be your second-in-command if I couldn't?"
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