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UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISHMENT OF ÉOMER
Chapter 10: Gríma's Game
Once daylight had faded again, the temperatures dropped fast, and it was with relief that Éomer finally detected the narrow, steep path that led up to another one of his secret hideouts. He directed Firefoot there with a slight nudge of his thighs. The stallion complied, the weariness of his steps indicating that he needed rest urgently after a day of moving through rough, dangerous terrain. Many times, Éomer had dismounted and led his steed along the steep, ice-covered ridges, careful not to slip into the deep drop-offs. Progress had been slow once they had entered the path, and Éomer was well aware that no rider in his right mind would ever have chosen to travel it under the current conditions. His boldness could easily cost them their lives if he had misjudged the situation. So far, his daring had paid off; except for a few birds, they had not seen another living soul all day, neither man nor beast, and no tracks either. It seemed that they were all alone out here in the eastern fringes of the Ered Nimrais… the way he had hoped it would be.
Once again Éomer shifted in the saddle, and his gaze swept the stark, forbidding landscape for the umpteenth time searching for signs of his enemies. Visibility had grown poor in the thickening twilight, but a dark shape moving over the snow would be easy enough to detect. Yet nothing moved. Satisfied, Éomer turned around again as Firefoot abruptly rammed both forelegs into the ground and snorted in protest at the dark shadow in front of them. Sighing, the son of Éomund ran a hand over the stallion's neck. He understood his steed's reluctance, as it was not in a horse's nature to seek shelter within a cave where escape would be difficult in the case of an attack.
"Aye, Grey One, I know that you do not like this place, but it cannot be helped," he whispered, checking the bare rock in front of the cave-entrance for signs that his shelter was already occupied by unbidden guests. "It will be easy to heat, though, and it will only be for one night anyway, so stop complaining." Grasping the short-handled axe Forlong had given him and enjoying the feel of it in his hand, Éomer slid from Firefoot's back to investigate. The stallion, for once content to remain where he was, followed his master's stealthy approach with pricked ears and flared nostrils.
All senses strained, Éomer edged closer to the narrow opening and his fingers involuntarily renewed their grip around the handle of his weapon. Orcs reeked of death and decay, and even with the wind not blowing into his face, he could usually smell them before he saw them. Yet he detected no trace of their vile perfume in the air before the cave, and no sounds indicated that his hideout might be occupied. Lifting the axe, he advanced further, hesitating at the sight of the pitch-black entrance that granted him access into the mountain he had travelled alongside for the last part of his journey. But deep inside, Éomer already knew better. It was almost dark now, the preferred time of orcs. If any had been in here at all, it was likely that they had moved out with the beginning of twilight and were long gone by now.
Half relieved but still knowing better than to walk into the dark cave blindly, Éomer looked back to Firefoot, clicking his tongue and smiling thinly as the stallion obeyed his command with an all-too-human expression of indignity. From his saddlebags, Éomer carefully removed a clay pot that contained still red glowing embers and lit the oil-lamp the couple had given him behind the shelter of a rock, safe from potentially hostile eyes. Once again he proceeded into the cave, and one look in the flickering light was sufficient to establish that the place was as deserted as it had seemed. Inspecting the walls and the ground, Éomer lifted the lamp… and tensed at the sight of prints left in the fine layer of sand. Some had been made by booted feet, and some featured claws and indicated that someone had dragged himself along rather than lifted his feet. Orcs. His lips a thin, bloodless line, he squatted and brushed his fingers slightly over his find. There was no way of telling how old these prints were, but the discovery that the filth had found one of his best hiding places darkened Éomer's mood as he stared at the hideous forms. They seemed to be the tracks of three or four creatures, one of them substantially bigger than the others – or perhaps it had just bigger feet; it was impossible to tell. It seemed that there was no end to the variety of the foul creatures' forms.
Rising again, Éomer proceeded deeper inside to cast a glance into the second chamber of the cave: the pile of dried wood in one corner had definitely been touched, and the amount of ash in the fireplace in the middle of the sheltered niche had likewise changed. Also, the ground was covered with the bones of small animals, neatly stripped of all meat. From their sheer number, Éomer concluded that the orcs had used the caves repeatedly, not just once because they had accidentally stumbled over them. His expression darkened further as he looked back toward the entrance, considering his options. What could he do? It was definitely not wise to stay here when the enemy knew about this place. The remains of their meals, however, looked old. He furrowed his brow, uncomfortable with the realisation that he had not much of a choice left. With the terrain as treacherous as it was and temperatures dropping far below freezing since sunset, moving on in the darkness would be a shortcut to the halls of his ancestors. Éomer looked forward to seeing his parents and Théodred again, but he had not planned to do so in the near future. No, as much as he hated to admit the fact to himself, it looked as if he was trapped here for the night.
Having made up his mind however reluctantly, he gathered some of the straw from the ground and together with two logs of wood, arranged them in the fire pit. Carefully and patiently nurturing the flames until they settled in the thick wood and danced merrily in the darkness, Éomer then rose to his feet again and went to fetch Firefoot.
In the outer cave he stopped and clicked his tongue, rightly suspecting that he would have to drag the big grey in like a stubborn mule. Not that he could blame Firefoot when he himself felt reluctant about staying. The only thing he could do about his unfavourable situation was stay alert and set out again with earliest dawn, just in case the orcs returned from their nightly forays to seek shelter from the sun. Even if the evidence of the creatures' presence looked old, he would not commit the mistake of falling asleep in the wolf's den. Although he had already gone almost without sleep the night before, Éomer knew that another long, lonely watch lay ahead of him. He sat the lamp down upon a protrusion and stuck his head out of the opening, seeing Firefoot lift his head.
"I know you heard me, Meara-mule. You want to stay here and give our presence away to our foes? Is that it?" Éomer reached for the reins and narrowed his eyes in beginning anger as Firefoot retreated. "Come on, you've been in here before. Stop making this so hard; Béma knows I've got enough problems without your bullheadedness already." With a quick move, he got hold of the reins and pulled. Surrendering only very reluctantly, the stallion followed him with stiff steps into the cave.
Darkness was complete when the expected knock at Gríma's door was finally heard. With a sharp twinge of both anticipation and anxiety, the son of Galmod opened it and found himself face-to-face with Felrod and Mordred, the two Half-Dunlendings in his service. The men looked wet, weary, dishevelled and half-frozen, but in their hands they held a large grey bundle that caused the Counsellor's heart to skip a beat. Still, what in the name of the Gods had caused their delay? To his experienced eye, they did not look as if their plan had worked flawlessly. Bidding the men into his study, Gríma closed the door behind them and turned around.
"What took you so long? I already feared the worst. Even the blacksmith's horse returned hours ago, so you can be certain that the tidings of Élric's death have spread through Edoras by now." His eyes became narrow slits. "He is dead, isn't he? He didn't escape you somehow?" The cloak in Felrod's hands told a different story, but Gríma knew better than to trust in anyone but himself.
Although the big halfblood felt miserable after his long exposure to the elements, he still somehow managed to produce a satisfied expression upon his hairy face.
"He is fodder for the crows now. We stopped him an hour's ride away from Edoras, and he spilled it all. He had weapons for the Marshal in his saddlebags and claimed that the King's niece had asked him to take them to a hideout only known to them. He also said that his parents knew nothing of this, but this little wench who serves the White Lady… she is involved as well."
He gave his master a frozen grin.
"I do not suppose that Élric shared the information willingly?" Again, Gríma's gaze sank to the grey bundle in his henchman's arms.
"Not quite." Felrod's grin widened. "It took a bit of convincing on our part, but we hid his body well away from the road. Nobody will be distressed by the sight of it, even though I doubt that it will be found before spring, and by then there will not be much left of it. Nobody will be able to say who it was or what has befallen him. That is also why we waited until nightfall to return. We wanted to make certain that no one saw this."
He unfolded the treasure in his arms to great effect and beamed in expectation of his master's praise.
"So he was there indeed…" Gríma muttered thoughtfully, surveying the damage done to the garment and the broad patches of dried blood around the large tears in the leather. There was no doubt that it was Éomer's cloak; he had seen the son of Éomund wear it many times. "How disappointing. I would have taken the Marshal to be smarter than this."
Even in the twilight of the room, he could see that the blood had soaked the material thoroughly. Whoever had shed it could impossibly be still alive. He extended a hand to let his fingers glide over one of the tears.
Felrod nodded, and his eyes were hopeful. No doubt was he already pondering what his reward would be.
"Aye, Counsellor. He turned up just like you said he would. A sitting duck would have been harder to miss."
"Is that so?" The stains were concentrated mostly around three jagged tears on the back, and the sight of them was somehow … wrong. Gríma frowned, and the omnipresent voice in the back of his head started to whisper its words of suspicion again while his fingers probed the slashes. "Those are from a knife, not from arrows." He looked up with cocked eyebrows, waiting for an explanation, but Felrod only shuffled his feet and avoided his gaze. No, something was definitely not right here.
"Will you not tell me what happened, Felrod? If Éomer walked right into your trap unsuspecting like you said he did – why did you not simply riddle him with arrows from a distance instead of putting yourself in danger by fighting him at close quarters? He is, after all, a valiant warrior."
He did not like how the big man squirmed under his scrutiny. Not at all. At last, Felrod cleared his throat.
"I… Things did not go entirely as planned. Somehow, the Marshal sensed us at the last moment and evaded our shots. We had to hunt him down, but in the end we got him." He pointed at the cloak. "Isn't that what counts?" The Halfblood seemed exceedingly nervous now, and Gríma's brow creased further. He could have told from a league away that the man was lying. He could almost smell it!
"So it was not like shooting a sitting duck at all, was it, Felrod? Did you hunt him down… or shoot him at your leisure? What is it you want me to believe? Or no, spare the answer, for I will believe neither."
Gods, was he glad that he had sent the orcs after Éomer! Somewhere in the deep pit of his black mind, he had known beforehand how this mission would turn out. It was slowly becoming uncanny even to Gríma himself how his intuition was always correct. The ruffian in front of him was now obviously at a loss, for his stammering could no longer be taken seriously.
"We hunted him down… but it wasn't very hard. There was no way he could have broken through our circle. And after we had surrounded him, I decided that-"
"You do not want to tell me, Felrod of Westland, that you killed Éomer of Rohan, admittedly one of the Mark's most powerful warriors, yourself and armed with nothing more than a knife? In a battle of man against man?"
Gríma felt an insane desire to laugh in the man's face. How much of a fool did that mountain of muscle take him to be? Yet incredibly, Felrod did not understand that his lie had been uncovered.
"We were five, my lord. He stood no chance." Desperate now to prove his point, Felrod tugged at one of the tears as if it explained everything. "You see what we did to him. I wanted to make this battle personal and kill him with my own hands. I knew I could take him down."
"And still I do not believe you. Your eyes are lying. Your voice is lying… and it is not so hot in here that you should break into a sweat unless you knew you were fighting a lost battle here." Gríma's voice dropped to a dangerous whisper. "What is it that you are trying to hide from me so inadequately? Éomer escaped, didn't he?"
"Did he get away? Yes or no, Felrod? I have no patience for your pathetic excuses! If he is gone, I must take immediate action!"
Thrown into submission, the big man stared at the ground and clenched his jaw.
"Aye, Counsellor. Aye, he did. And he killed Dorlâk. Broke his neck. Gartloff is wounded too, that grey beast the Marshal rides kicked him. Broke his leg." He inhaled deeply and, with an even lower voice, admitted: "And we had to leave Thorloff behind. He was guarding the horses and… was ridden down when that filth stole them."
"You mean that not only did he escape you, but he stole your horses, too? And killed two of your men in the process?" Gríma clapped his hands in morbid delight. Béma, could he have found men any more incapable of the task than these had proven to be? And now it also made sense why the man who accompanied Felrod stood so hunched over, not daring to look at him. "And you are wounded, too, I take it? Let me see!" The man straightened with a grimace and revealed a blood-stained tear in his cloak around the left shoulder. Since he had decided not to cry over the inadequacy of the men he had chosen, Gríma laughed. "So out of the six men I sent to kill him, six men who had the advantage of being armed as well as that of surprise, the good Marshal managed to kill two and wound another two. He stole your horses and provisions and has armed himself now, I suppose. I would call that a strong contender for the greatest failure in the history of the Mark, save perhaps the vow King Théoden swore to protect his people. Wouldn't you agree, gentlemen?"
Felrod's face flushed with embarrassment, and he ground his teeth in barely suppressed frustration.
"He cannot have acquired more than a knife, Counsellor. It will not give him much of an advantage."
"No. Not against what I am about to unleash against him now." With another pensive look at the cloak on the floor, Gríma turned away, the wheels of his mind already turning. There was still a possibility to turn this failure into an advantage if he played his cards right. He turned back to the uncomfortably waiting men.
"I must say I am disappointed, Captain. Not only did you fail to carry out your errand successfully, but even more seriously, you tried to hide your failure by lying to me. I must admit that I do not know yet what to make of this. I cannot think of a single thing at the moment that you could do to heal this breach of trust… Trust, as you know, is more important than ever these days. Tell me, how am I supposed to still believe in anything you say after this disaster?"
"You can trust us with anything, my Lord," Felrod rushed to say, his throat tight with fear. "Please, I promise that we will make up for this! We will hunt down the Marshal for you, and I swear, this time, we will not fail! We will bring you his head should you wish so."
Gríma shook his head.
"No. This time I have entrusted someone else with this most important of tasks, someone more capable. I took the freedom to alert them before I even knew of your failure, and I will let them know now where they shall begin their hunt. They will rid me of this problem once and for all. I am most confident of this." His gaze fell again on the bloody heap at his feet. "Yet I may have use for this thing that you brought me. It is, in fact, the only reason I will forgive you this time, Felrod, but do not fail me again and most importantly: never ever lie to me again! Believe me, you do not want to see me angry."
Under cover of darkness, Maelwyn felt finally secure enough to leave her house. Her quarrel with the Counsellor had left her deeply shaken, and for a while, she had holed up in her bedroom, afraid that the horrible man would send someone after her to finish her off… just as he had done with Élric. The thought of his lifeless, bloodied body in the reddened snow assaulted her again and again, drawing her tears and making her wish that Éowyn had never turned to her in the first place.
It had taken a mighty effort to force desperation back and finally pick up her little ones to accompany them to their riding lessons. Later that afternoon, Torben had come home and noticed at once that something had been off about his wife, and while her answer had been evasive, Maelwyn had at last admitted that she had been released from her service to the King's niece.
Now there was only one left who needed to know about these new developments, and in the shadows of the narrow alley, Maelwyn made it quickly over to the home of Captain Céorl and Lady Glenwyn. Éothain's mother answered her knocking quickly, apparently glad to see her.
"Maelwyn! Please, step in, dear. I was beginning to doubt whether you would come to see us today…" She creased her brow. "What is wrong?"
"Thank you, Lady Glenwyn." Maelwyn slipped quickly inside, glad to be out of the open. She took off her coat and handed it to the patiently waiting woman with a deep breath. "There were some new developments today, alas. I'd rather tell it only once, so…"
"Maelwyn?" It was Éothain she saw coming down the corridor with a questioning smile upon his face. He was clad in a very loose fitting shirt and moving cautiously, but it was good to see him on his feet again. "What is the matter?"
"Éothain! You are up again!" the young handmaiden exclaimed with relief. "That is good. How are you feeling?"
"Better." Gently, Éothain grabbed her hand, pointing to the living room. "Come, let's sit down. What are you saying about new developments? I take it they are not exactly positive?"
Maelwyn shook her head and followed him.
"No, they are not." She sat down at the table and beheld two plates with a partly eaten dinner upon it." "Oh my, you were in the middle of your meal!"
"Nevermind that," Éothain replied as he cautiously lowered himself onto the bench on the opposite side. His mother sat down beside him, deep worry lining her regal face. "Tell us what happened. We expected you much earlier."
"I am sorry." Maelwyn inhaled deeply. "I… I was afraid to go out after I returned from the Golden Hall this noon. The Counsellor… he found out about the Lady Éowyn's plan. And he knew that I was the one who sent Élric on his way. I was released from service, and he said if he ever sees me again, he will bring down the full weight of the law upon me." Once again, the tears came, impossible to suppress. Telling Éothain and his mother of that frightening encounter brought it all back. "I'm sorry…"
"No. No, Maelwyn, don't be." Quickly, Éothain got up and rounded the table, to sit down on her side and lay an arm around her. "I imagine that must have been terrifying. That man is a curse for us all. How could he have learned of Éowyn's plan?"
She sniffled and wiped a hand over her eyes.
"I do not know. But it seems that he sent someone after Élric, because when I left, there were some of Captain Céorl's riders at the smithy, and it seemed to me that they returned Élric's horse. It had come back without him, and without its saddle… and there was a long, bloody gash in its side.
Squeezing her shoulder, Éothain exchanged an alarmed look with his mother.
"Béma… poor Élric. He did not know what he was getting himself into…" Suddenly, his eyes widened. "That means also that they might have learned about his meeting point with Éomer. It means that they might have laid a trap for him!" His head turned in the direction of the door, and he seemed just about to jump to his feet and leave.
"Éothain!" Alas, Glenwyn knew her son only too well. He could be every bit the hotspur that his best friend sometimes turned into. "Éothain, you cannot help him! Stay!"
He furrowed his brow in disbelief.
"What do you mean, I cannot help him, Mother?" he squeezed out. "Perhaps he survived! Perhaps he defeated them! He could be wounded and needing our help!"
"Apart from the fact that your weapons have not yet been returned to you and that the stables are still sealed off, what do you think you could accomplish in your condition, Éothain?" Glenwyn's voice gained a sharp edge. "You can barely move!"
Éothain wrung his hands.
"But Father's riders are back! They still have their weapons! Could they not-"
"No, they could not, Éothain! They had to surrender their weapons, too! Aelfric told me as much when I met him at the market today. They had to give them up as soon as they entered Edoras… and their horses were confiscated, as well. Add to that that they would not take such a command from you. Your father is their captain, and if they would ever agree to such a precarious undertaking at all, it would need to be he who gives that order! Éothain, there is nothing you can do for now! We will have to wait for your father! He will know where the Eastmark stands when he returns. A rebellion without them will have no chance of success, and you know it!"
Breathlessly, Glenwyn regarded her son, aware of the stunned gaze their visitor was giving her. She could tell that she had gotten through to Éothain, the despair in his eyes told her so. Softening her voice, she slowly shook her head.
"I know it is hard to wait when our friends need us, léofa. I understand. But I doubt that Éomer would want that you endanger all your riders just for him. Please, wait before you act rashly. Your father should be back by tomorrow, I am certain. And then the two of you can discuss the situation and…"
"By then, it might be too late, Mother." Éothain's voice sounded hollow, and Maelwyn's heart went out to him.
Deep compassion stood in Glenwyn's eyes.
"There is nothing you can do for Éomer right now, Éothain, and you know it. We must be patient, however hard it proves to be. Please…" She could tell that she had won, although the sight of her son's dispirited posture ached her fiercely. With a deep breath, she returned her attention to Maelwyn, who had watched their brief dispute with unmistakable unease. "Maelwyn, you said you were released from your service to the Royal Household. That means you would need a new occupation."
The young handmaiden nodded hesitantly, while Éothain sat down beside her again.
"Alas, people are not ordering so much in these hard times. We cannot live from my husband's occupation alone."
"Would you have any reservations about working for me? I have many errands to see to each day. It would be a relief to have some help… and it would give you the perfect excuse to see us regularly." Glenwyn's gaze rested upon their guest in open question. "Not that you needed one."
"My Lady, that…I could not accept that!" Maelwyn gasped, utterly overwhelmed. The older woman cocked an eyebrow.
"Why not? You worked for the King's niece, why should it be unacceptable for you to work for me?"
"But…" Maelwyn slowly shook her head. "I consider Éothain a friend! How could I accept money from a friend?"
Glenwyn lifted her chin.
"You will not work for Éothain, but for me. I would be glad to have some help around the house and in my errands, and you need the money. You are capable and trustworthy, and in our home, you will be among like-minded people. Does that not sound too good not to agree, dear?"
Maelwyn could not help it, she had to smile.
"It does indeed, my Lady." She seized the proffered hand. "If this is what you want, then I gladly accept."
"Then we are in agreement." Glenwyn nodded, an unmistakable look of satisfaction upon her face. "If you want, you can begin tomorrow."
"I gladly will, my Lady. Thank you. I am looking forward to working for you."
It was late when Elfhelm had finally spoken with all the families of his fallen riders. With each of the grieving women, the captain had taken his time, never rushing, never hurrying, and when they had broken down in despair, unable to speak, Elfhelm had stayed with them and held them in his strong arms, speaking words of comfort which he knew would not help while the pain was still fresh, but which might be a source of comfort later, once the immediate shock had worn off.
When he finally directed his steps over to his own home, the afternoon of passing tidings of death had exhausted the Marshal of Aldburg to his limits. So much grief. So much suffering. What had the good people of the Mark done to deserve such misery? Had the Gods truly deserted them? Wearied to the point that not even the sight of Freela waiting for him in the doorway could lift his mood, Elfhelm approached the woman with whom he shared part of his life. She wasn't his wife and would never be. Both had decided after the loss of their first partners that they would never wed again out of respect for those they would continue to love when they met them again in the afterlife. Yet the temperamental artist and he were soul mates, kindred spirits who had found comfort in each other in the time of their pain, and he was glad that Freela had chosen to stay with him for the winter before the travelling folk she belonged to would set out again with the arrival of spring. He needed her now; her understanding, her comfort, her warmth, all she had to give.
"Freela…" Words failed him, but the compassion in her eyes was all he needed. Allowing himself to lower his guard at last and unleash the emotions he always held under tight rein in the presence of his men, Elfhelm sank into her embrace.
"Ssshh…it is all right. I am here," she whispered, holding him tight and stroking his head. He almost crushed her in his arms, but she endured it without a word. "Findárras told me what happened. That you lost twelve of your men… Who were they?" He told her the names, and as she remembered some of them, their earnest faces passed in her mind at Elfhelm's mention. Fighting her own despair, she kissed him, pained to see her warrior in such emotional distress. "You are not alone in your grief, léofa. Those men earned to be mourned." Gently, she moved backward, urging him inside. "Come. You did what you could for them, now you need to rest. Let me take care of you, Love. Come."
"I cannot rest. Not yet," Elfhelm breathed against her neck, his voice hoarse with emotion. "There is still more to do. I must speak with Céorl and decide what to do about the news from Edoras, and-"
"I know," she interrupted gently. "But later, not now. Now, you come inside and get some rest yourself, or you will not be able to lead your men for much longer. It is more important than ever that you conserve your strength." Freela closed the door and looked at him as he lifted his gaze, and knew she had found the right words. Still, it was so hard to look into those sad, pained eyes. What could a woman do against such grief?
"Aye. Aye, love, you are right." Elfhelm wiped a dirty hand over his brow and inhaled deeply, trying to force the weariness back. Kissing Freela once more, he then stepped back and put the sack with the contents of his saddlebags onto the bench. "I should do that first, or I will not be of much use to Céorl when he comes to speak with me later."
Trying to give him her most encouraging smile, Freela anxiously eyed the man she loved as he began to shed his cloak with cautious movements. The delay between the arrival of his éored and his homecoming had been nothing short of torture, yet she had not found it in herself to wait in the square with the others. Ten years back, in another life, she had done that for the man she had not only loved, but been bound to with her eternal vow, and he had not returned. She still remembered every detail of that dreadful autumn afternoon, how she had stood in the rain, the thunder of the approaching éored just outside the slowly opening gates… and then the shouts and cries of joy as the people around her recognised their sons, brothers and husbands... how her gaze had anxiously darted from face to face without finding the one she was looking for, her heartbeat accelerating with each failed identification. Then the joyful crowd had abruptly shifted with the first shouts of people who had noticed that their friends or kin were not among the returning riders. Freela had stood among them, unable to call out herself as the feeling of foreboding strangled her, seeing everything in perfect clarity: the foam-lathered horses rolling their red-veined eyes as they passed her, many of them wounded in the battle and the gashes in their hides gaping and raw, the warriors' dispirited expressions as they looked right through her in their own search for their families, many of them bleeding as well, and then she had seen the horses behind them, tied to the back of their saddles and carrying the limp forms of their fallen riders into the city, and Nightshade, her husband's black stallion, had been among them, the load he carried lifelessly dangling from his back…
It took a great effort to shove away the images and the emotions they stirred up. No. No matter for how long she had to wait at home for Elfhelm, she would never again stand in the crowd and listen to its unreal din of simultaneous joy and heart-piercing grief. She knew that she would not be able to bear a repeat of that darkest day of her life, and if she could prevent the death of man she loved now by not awaiting him behind the city gates, she would do so, no matter how foolish the thought seemed. Seeing him fight with his sleeve, she came to his aid.
"Come, let me help you with this." He grimaced, and Freela's heart missed a beat as she held the cloak for him to slip out. "Are you wounded? Should I call the healer for you?"
"It is not necessary," he declined, yet unable to suppress another slight groan as he freed his arm. "These are only bruises and scratches; I will have forgotten about them in a week."
Freela nodded, unsurprised. For Elfhelm to admit that he hurt, he would have to come back to her carrying his head beneath his arm.
"I see." She took the cloak and hung it on the hook by the door. "But would you fight me if I prepared you a hot bath with some of my special ingredients, and then gave you a good massage with the scented oil I bought in South-Gondor on my last voyage? The man said he got it in Harad, and that its scent is supposed to do wonders to a wearied man…" Under different circumstances, she would have lowered her voice suggestively to accompany her offer, but after the long anxiety of waiting and the dispiriting news of the éored's casualties, Freela felt just as emotionally exhausted as the man by her side "What would you say to that?" Once more, she slipped her arms around him, and her slender fingers caressed the long, winding scar alongside his left temple. So many wounds, and so many scars. Would the ordeal ever end? Would he return to her after the next battle? She dared not think about it.
"The bath sounds good, and the massage even better, but you will have to be gentle with me." Elfhelm gave her a tired, but honest smile, and she felt a little better. "You must excuse me, léofa, I'm afraid I am not the better for wear these days."
For him to admit that, he had to be close to collapsing.
"Are you insinuating then that I am not usually gentle with you?" Freela teased playfully in an attempt to uplift his spirits. The little smile in the corners of his mouth deepened, but then he winced as her fingers found a hard lump above his right shoulder blade. She cast him an apologetic glance. "I am sorry, but this feels as if I should have a look at it."
"There are more of this kind for you to look at later, woman, but right now, I would really appreciate the bath you spoke of… and then something to eat, if possible."
"Aye, and you shall have that, too." Reluctantly, she let go of him. He felt so good in her arms, the firmness of his hard, muscular body; his warmth; even his scent. Elfhelm had spent over a week in these clothes, he had gone through battle in them, and he had spent the entire time in close company with his horse. Others would have said he reeked, but it was his scent, and since Béma had chosen to give him back to her alive, Freela welcomed whatever sensation reassured her of his presence. Taking a step back, she motioned Elfhelm over to a chair. "Come, sit down here and relax with a mug of hot broth while I prepare the water for you. I promise that it will not take long to make you feel warm again."
"Ah, that must be Maelwyn now. And it is about time, too," Hildegard said in a tone of forced cheerfulness in response to the rap on the door. She looked at Éowyn, who sat in her bed with the pillows propped against her back and sipped her soup, looking much better than the evening before. "She said that she would return in the afternoon, and it is already late. Enter!" Eager to go home, the old serving maid came to her feet and gathered her belongings while her lady's gaze rested fondly on her.
"I suppose she needed to spend some more time with her family," Éowyn offered with a little smile. "Bidding her boys a good night, perhaps telling them a story to send them off to sleep… It is all right. I feel so much better already, I may not even need someone to sit by my side to watch me sleep tonight. I-" Her voice died in her throat upon the sight of her visitor. It was not her handmaiden. Alarmed by her lady's sudden silence, Hildegard turned around.
"Counsellor Gríma! I believed that you had already gone to bed, therefore I did not-"
He raised his hand, smiling amiably.
"There is no need to apologise, Mistress. I just wanted to see with my own eyes for once how the King's niece is faring. I told Théoden-King of the recent developments, but of course such statements are made with greater conviction when I have seen that of which I speak." He turned to Éowyn. "It is wonderful to see that you seem to recover very quickly, my Lady. Yálanda certainly knows her craft."
Suddenly feeling frozen despite the fire in the hearth and the warm soup in her stomach, Éowyn put the half-emptied bowl down on her nightstand, deliberately suppressing the violent shudder that threatened to make her hands shake. Her tone was chill when she replied: "Undoubtedly, Counsellor, and I am most grateful for that. However, I was just about to go to sleep myself, so I would greatly appreciate being left alone now that you have seen for yourself that there is no more reason to worry." Warily, she eyed the strange bundle Wormtongue held firmly tucked under his left arm. "Would you happen to know whether my handmaiden has already been seen in the hall?"
"I do indeed." Still smiling, Gríma inclined his head to the older serving maid. "Mistress Hildegard, I thank you for your service today. Please, do not hesitate to retire for the night. I just need a quick word with the White Lady before I go."
Clutching her shawl against her ample bosom, Hildegard lowered her gaze in obedience.
"Thank you, Counsellor. I trust that someone has already been assigned the task of sitting with Lady Éowyn tonight?"
"Your concern honours you, Mistress Hildegard, but rest assured that everything has been thought of. I bid you a good night." Gríma gaze followed the servant to the door and briefly his smile flashed up again as she turned around once more.
"Good night, Lady Éowyn. I will be back in the morning. And good night, Counsellor." Hildegard bowed her head and then quickly slipped out of the room. The silence in the wake of her departure seemed deafening.
All too aware of the fact that the man in her room and the guard outside, who was possibly one of his own, were likely to be the only waking people within earshot if Gríma tried to move against her, Éowyn tensed, her gaze briefly grazing the nightstand where she had hidden the dagger she usually kept under her pillow. Knowing that she might not be fully conscious once the potion took effect, she had hidden it in its heavy drawer before she swallowed the contents of the phial... out of her reach should she really need it now.
"You look tense, my lady," Gríma began at last, slowly stepping over to the foot of her bed. He narrowed his eyes and his gaze intensified. "Or should I say 'guilty'? Surely there would be no need for such agitation just because of my presence if your conscience was clear?"
"I do not know what you are insinuating, Counsellor," Éowyn forced herself to say, past the great lump that had suddenly formed in her throat. She sounded cold… and nervous. "By now you should have grown accustomed to my dislike of your person, so I don't see why my anxiety should surprise you. What is it you want?"
Gríma's smile broadened as he looked at the thing he had brought with him, patting it with his free hand before his attention found back to her.
"Are you not curious to learn what I have here?"
Angered by his impertinence, Éowyn lifted her chin. How dare the filth play games with her inside her own chambers!
"Would it be of any importance to me?"
"I would believe so," Gríma replied, taking the grey thing with both hands now and holding it out before him as it unrolled. Her mouth already opened for an acid rebuke, Éowyn suddenly froze and all breath left her lungs while a deathly chill travelled down her spine. Unable to avert her eyes, she felt herself blanch.
"I see you recognise it."
Gríma's cool voice seeped into her conscious from leagues away. It was as if all of a sudden, she had been cast into a different realm, a place devoid of air where she was trapped all by herself. She thought she was about to faint. 'This cannot not be! Éomer?' Could her brother be dead?
"I hate to say this, my Lady, but I fear that it was actually your little trick that lured your brother into our net. If I was a cruel person, I would in fact thank you for your help. However, since I do understand your distress…"
"You are not a cruel person, you are a beast," Éowyn spat, breathless with horror. It took all of her remaining willpower to tear her eyes away from the bloodied coat, and with the connection cut, her voice steadied. "You are worse than any orc could ever be. Orcs kill because it is their nature, but you thrive on causing misery. Your whole life is an endless quest to causing others grief and harm."
"If you say so…"
"But I don't believe you." Summoning what courage she had left, Éowyn looked at the torn garment again, clenching her blanket so tightly that her knuckles went white, and still her hands shook. "This is only his cloak. The blood on it may not even be Éomer's. Do you want to hear what I believe? I believe that your men stole this from him. They followed him and when he put it down somewhere, they stole it because they would never have dared to fight him, and then they slaughtered an animal on the way back to smear its blood onto it to make it look as if they killed him." She uttered a mocking laugh even though she felt dead inside. Could it be true what she said? Or was it desperation trying to make her believe in something even though the opposite was already proven? "It is but another one of your petty little ploys. You cannot fool me, carrion bird! Go and show this to the King, if you are so proud of it!"
Seemingly unfazed by her outburst, her adversary calmly rolled the cloak together and directed his steps over to the fireplace.
"Believe what you may, Lady Éowyn, but your brother is in my hands. He is alive yet, and in the hands of a capable healer, who might just help him survive his wounds… but if you choose to remain a nuisance to me, I might decide to tell him to withhold his help. I might even, in fact, tell him to cause your brother yet more pain. He is a master of the Dark Arts, he knows how to make your brother feel every ounce of pain he is capable of enduring for a long, long time. Trust me when I tell you this."
The trembling travelled up Éowyn's hands to seize her entire body as she stared in shock at Wormtongue, gasping as her adversary carefully laid the cloak into the fire.
"No! No, you will not get away with this! I will tell the King! He said nothing about killing Éomer, and nothing about torture! He will have you executed before the sun goes up tomorrow morning." Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed although she still felt weak, Éowyn ripped open the drawer of her nightstand and took the dagger from it. Alarmed by the noise, Gríma's head snapped around. He narrowed his eyes.
"I would not do that if I were you. If you think you can threaten me, I would advise you strongly to reconsider. What you did yesterday could easily land you in the dungeon yourself, my Lady. Or even worse, it could cost you your beautiful head. I have irrefutable proof of your treason. Several people saw your handmaiden talking to the blacksmith's son, which is why she won't return, in case you were wondering. I have no doubt that Élric himself will testify against you if he is being properly motivated… if he recovers, that is. I am keeping him somewhere close, as well, in the same place as your brother. They are both in my hands, and believe me when I say that I will not hesitate to make their lives even more miserable than they are now if you give me so much as the faintest reason!"
His gaze pierced Éowyn with open brutality, all pretence of friendliness or compassion long gone.
"And before you go and wave that dagger in my direction, or whatever else you might come up with to dispose of me, know that the men guarding your brother and Élric are under orders to kill them both in the most painful way they can conceive should they not hear from me each and every single day. Do you understand me?"
Gríma allowed himself a malicious smile at the sight of the young woman's helpless rage. Once more poking at the remains of the burning cloak in the fireplace to make certain that nothing remained of it, he straightened and put back the iron into its stand. Cleaning his hands on his dark robe, he walked over to the door without haste, and a victorious smile spread over his pale features as he depressed the handle and looked back over his shoulder. "Anyway, I do not have to remind you whose words the King really listens to these days, do I, Lady Éowyn? I bid you a good night."
The door closed behind him, and Éowyn no longer cared whether he could hear her as she threw herself onto her bed and gave herself over to despair…
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