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UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISHMENT OF ÉOMER
Chapter 11:Plans in the Dark
It was not until well after most of the city's inhabitants had gone to bed and the lights had been extinguished before a secretive rap on the door was heard. Disorientated until she remembered that her valiant marshal had scheduled a secret meeting for the night, Freela blinked and sat up, wiping her eyes. Next to her, Elfhelm already stirred in his sleep, likewise woken by the signal. Knowing that they would have visitors some time later that night, they had gone to bed fully clothed, resting while they waited, and when the hours had passed uneventfully, had fallen asleep. Unwilling to leave her warm bed, Freela swung her legs over the edge and shivered at the sensation of the cold ground underneath her naked feet. A hand went back to gently shake her resting warrior.
"I heard it," Elfhelm muttered into his pillow. "Give me a moment." He groaned and rolled onto his back, moaning. Why was it that one always felt even worse upon waking up than before resting? For a moment considering going back to sleep, Elfhelm at last opened his eyes to the darkness of their bedroom.
Freela was already slipping into her shoes and made her way over to the door as the second knock came, not lighting a candle for fear that the light would be seen by hostile eyes.
"I am coming. I am here." She sniffled, the burden of sleep still heavy on her shoulders as she asked softly through the still closed door: "Who is there?"
"Findárras. And Céorl… and I also brought Thor."
She unhooked the chain and cast a quick, cautious glance outside before opening the door for the three waiting men. Running a hand through her unruly heap of dark red curls, Freela gestured fleetingly at the table in the living room.
"Elfhelm will be with you in a moment, gentlemen. Please, make yourselves comfortable in the meantime." They nodded at her and murmured their thanks as each of them took a chair in the darkness. "Can I get you something? Tea, perhaps?"
She could not help it that she still felt uneasy at the sight of the dark-haired young man among their visitors. She knew that Elfhelm trusted the Half-Dunlending who had joined his éored a few years before with his life, but Freela had witnessed more than one attack of his evil brethren of the other side of the River Isen. She would never feel entirely comfortable around their kin. They had taken Kélgard away from her, something she would never forgive them. Freela was grateful for the darkness, not wanting the scout to sense her hostility, but perhaps he did anyway, because after a long, questioning glance, he, too, averted his eyes.
"Tea would be wonderful, Freela," the tall, red-haired Findárras replied in the strained silence, and she gave him a quick smile, thankful for the reason to disappear before she seriously upset the warriors with her irrational behaviour. "If it is not too inconvenient for you? I realise that it is the middle of the night, but waiting until everybody was asleep seemed the safest way of meeting."
"Think no more about it, Findárras. It is I who needs to apologise for letting you all sit in the darkness, but that is the way Elfhelm wants it," she said, her eyes briefly resting on the third visitor; a grim looking man in his middle years with a thick, grey-streaked beard that was considerably darker than the hair upon his head. It was not often that Céorl came down to Aldburg. That he had undertaken this journey despite the unfavourable conditions only pointed at the seriousness of the matter he had come to discuss. Aware of her close scrutiny, the Captain's keen eyes briefly met hers and the powerful warrior acknowledged her with a barely noticeable nod as Elfhelm made his appearance.
"Céorl! It is good to see you, old friend, especially in times like these! Thor? Good that you are here, too. Findárras was right to bring you along." He nodded at the younger man, rightly guessing that the scout still felt like an outsider in the presence of the commanding Rohirrim. He would have to overcome his insecurity. Only a few years had passed since Erkenbrand had made Thor his responsibility, knowing that the survivor of a routed Dunlending raiding commando who had switched sides in the middle of battle would never be given a chance to prove himself in Westfold. Since then, the Halfblood had shown extraordinary promise and eagerness, and Elfhelm had seen no reason why he should not groom the man to be a captain. In a time when men died quicker than they could be replaced, the need for leaders was ever present, and once he overcame his incertitude, Thor had what it took to make people follow him. Of that Elfhelm was sure.
Still feeling every bone in his body despite the bath and the massage, the marshal extended his hand to greet the experienced captain of the central territories, who quickly rose to his feet to embrace his brother-in-arms.
"I apologise for the inconvenience of denying you your sleep when you have only just returned, Elfhelm, but with the Worm's watchdogs on my tail, I saw no way of doing this differently." Céorl's deep, full voice fit his impressive frame as he clapped his comrade's shoulder and sat down again while Elfhelm occupied the last remaining chair. "We heard about the battle from the errand riders, but I know that even their worst reports can only give a weak impression of what really happened." He inhaled deeply, and his brow furrowed in concern and compassion. "I assume that it was the worst you have been in so far?"
"Aye." Elfhelm's expression darkened. "Aye, it was, by far. The bloodshed was unbelievable. The waters of Isen ran red with the blood of our riders. I truly expected this to be the battle that would see us defeated. I feared that we would have to retreat to save our naked lives. It was only through Erkenbrand's and Grimbold's determination that we managed to throw them back at last, but I fear that next time, what is left of our armies will not be strong enough to keep them from entering the Mark. While we must fill our emptying ranks with men both too young and too old, that wizard simply breeds himself a new army in a matter of days and assaults us again." He clenched his teeth in helpless frustration while the other men listened silently. "The Mark is bleeding out, brothers. There are hardly enough able-bodied men left to fight in Westfold, and we cannot summon them from other parts of the kingdom because they are needed there, too. We cannot fight a war that comes to us from all directions at the same time."
"And not only do we have to fight foes from outside, but also those who seek to weaken us from within, as if our problems weren't great enough already," Céorl muttered angrily. He shook his head in frustration. "It has been a long time since I was able to understand the orders coming from the Golden Hall, but my patience has reached its end now. This newest act of foolishness cannot be tolerated. I never thought that I would one day speak against Théoden-King in this fashion, but it is no longer he who rules this land; it is this foul, crooked spy of Saruman's at his side. For how much longer are we expected to lean back and accept that he weakens us by forbidding us to hunt down those who assault us, or watch him kill or expel our leaders? I, for once, refuse to walk open-eyed to my doom! If I cannot change my fate, at least let me hew off as many ugly orc-heads as I can along the way!"
Nodding in acknowledgement of his brother-in-arms' passionate statement, Elfhelm changed the topic.
"What is known about Éomer's situation? Findárras said that he was banished for disobedience to the King. Why? What did he do? The punishment sounds rather drastic."
"He did only what each of us would have done in the same position: he rode out with his éored against Théoden's orders when reports of a great horde of orcs in the Wold reached us. Our scouts had seen them descend into the Mark from the East Wall. I would have gone with him, but he bade me stay behind to guard Edoras. I seems that the Worm somehow succeeded in convincing the King that Éomer left them behind without sufficient protection, and also that he was responsible for the death of Théodred, since he did not make for the Fords when the summons came."
"But that is nonsense!" Elfhelm exclaimed, enraged. "I was already on the way, and even I arrived too late! Théodred and most of his men had already been slain when we entered the fray. Éomer could have done nothing to prevent it! And there is no telling what that orc horde would have done to our settlements had it been allowed to traverse the Mark unchallenged! They had all deployed their riders to the fords. They were wide open for an attack."
"You know that, and I know that, and Éomer elaborated on that during the trial… but we both know who Theoden-King is listening to these days, Elfhelm. Still, I would not have thought that he would act so harshly against his own kin."
Exchanging a grim glance with Findárras as he tried to grasp the full meaning of Céorl's words; Elfhelm could only shake his head. It still sounded utterly unbelievable.
"What about Gamling and Háma? Did they not speak up?"
"Against the King?" Céorl raised an eyebrow. "From what I heard, it was Théoden himself who proclaimed the verdict. You know Gamling and Háma – they would never question their lord's words, even though they have to understand by now where the orders are really coming from."
Yes, Elfhelm knew the two captains of the Royal Guard well enough. Both were honourable men – and both would follow Théoden loyally until the end of their days. Given recent developments, that outcome seemed not too distant anymore. Fighting mightily against the bout of helpless frustration and anger welling up in him, Elfhelm asked instead: "Is it known whether Éomer has already left the Mark, or where he is?"
"Apparently, the Marshal was first incarcerated for three days upon his return, because the Worm needed the time to send his riders out to bring the tidings of his banishment to the people … Théoden had not even spoken the verdict then. They told me that at Snowbourn. They knew what would happen before the people of Edoras did." Céorl's hands balled into fist as anger overtook him anew. "They released Éomer yesterday morning. I left Snowbourn shortly afterwards to bring you these tidings, as I doubt that you would have heard them from Wormtongue."
"They sent him into the wild in the middle of a snowstorm?" Elfhelm asked incredulous.
"Yes. I am sure the snake found that little addition to the punishment very delightful. They chased Éomer away from Edoras unarmed and without provisions; you know the law yourself. He is forbidden to seek help from the people, and they are forbidden to help him, and in addition to that, the Mark is brimming with orc patrols. I would not be surprised if Gríma told them to search for Éomer. The question is now, what do we do? The way I see it, we must either openly disobey the law, or load shame upon ourselves and follow the verdict."
Heavy silence ensued, and the darkness seemed to thicken as the four warriors sat brooding over their possibilities. They woke from their dark thoughts only briefly when Freela placed steaming earthen mugs in front of each of them, and they muttered their thanks, their minds occupied with the problem at hand.
"We must do something," Findárras began hesitantly, twirling his thin, red beard. "I mean, we cannot just leave the Marshal to his fate, can we? With the Prince dead, who will lead us? Our riders look to Éomer, and it is still the House of Éorl they trust in the most. It would be devastating to them all to see the man who fought so passionately for the Mark discarded without resistance from us, their commanding officers. It is our duty to help a brother-in-arms in need. "
"Not to mention that we would be next, no doubt," Elfhelm added. "We… and Erkenbrand. And Grimbold. It would be foolish to assume that Gríma would stop once he has ridded himself of Éomer. He will not rest until he has replaced every single position of power in the kingdom with a man he controls."
"I left Edoras before the verdict was announced, but I told Éothain to wait before he does anything," Céorl admitted lowly, avoiding Elfhelm's questioning glance by staring at the table. "I'm certain that the men of their éored wanted to accompany Éomer into exile, but I told him that the situation was too dangerous for any rash actions… and also, with my éored gone, the city needed protection. I cannot tell whether this was the right decision or not, but if Edoras falls, it will be over for all of us. I felt uncomfortable about leaving it entirely in the hands of men we cannot trust; it would make it too easy for Gríma to fortify the city against us, or even take its inhabitants prisoner if we came for him. Éothain did not like my orders, but he promised me to wait. Yet we must come to a decision tonight, it can no longer be delayed."
"I fear you are right." Elfhelm furrowed his brow as he looked at his scout. "Is anything known about Éomer's whereabouts? Which way he was headed? I would expect him to ride in our direction. He must know that the people of Eastfold are still on his side, so even if he violates the verdict, he will most likely not be reported. Perhaps he will even try to seek me out."
"It will be difficult with the Worm's spies everywhere. I suppose Gríma expects him to head our way, too, or he would not have sent so many men to the Eastfold's major settlements. He does not expect Éomer to leave the Mark."
Céorl stared over Elfhelm's shoulder at the window. Beyond was only the darkness of the night, and still he felt uncomfortable. They were talking quietly, but simply by meeting in this strange, secretive way they had transformed themselves into suspects should the counsellor's spies ever find out about it. The urge to get up and check for potential eavesdroppers was almost irresistible.
"Of course he will not do that," Elfhelm agreed, lost in his own grim contemplation "Éomer would never leave his sister at the Worm's mercy. Gríma must know that he will plot against him for as long as there is a single breath left in him, no matter where he ends up staying." Elfhelm's eyes narrowed as the implications of his words began to settle in his mind, and his blood turned into ice-water. "The filth will try to have him killed. He must see the threat Éomer poses to him even now; he cannot allow him to live." The cold hand of fear seized Elfhelm's stomach as he followed his thought to the last consequence. "He knew the people would not have taken it had he ordered Éomer's execution, to have him killed right in front of their eyes, so he feigned to be merciful and made arrangements for his adversary to be killed in secrecy instead. I have to give the Worm that: his cunning knows no equal."
"Then we must protect the Marshal!" Thor let himself be heard for the first time. The others looked at him, and from their silence, the younger man concluded that he had voiced their own thoughts. "We must find him before his enemies do, and help him hide until we know exactly which path to take."
He fell silent, not knowing whether he had overstepped his boundaries. After all, he was just a simple soldier, and not even a pureblooded Rohír. Although he had already served for several years in Elfhelm's éored, Thor knew that - apart from their group of riders - people were still distrustful, the Captain's own woman an excellent example of their sentiments. There was nothing he could do about that but be patient and try to reassure them through his deeds, but although he was used to being given hard looks, their hostility was hard to swallow at times. Éomer, however, had been one of those who had given him a chance after they had fought side by side in battle. That alone meant Thor felt indebted to the man.
"That sounds reasonable, but I fear we will have to come to a decision about our further course of action tonight," Céorl pressed. "Gríma's influence gets stronger each day; we cannot afford to wait much longer. Perhaps the time has arrived when open rebellion is necessary. Think about it: what would the Worm do if you and I, and Éothain, and Erkenbrand, and Grimbold, too, and every captain in the Mark summoned the éohere to ride to Edoras and cast him out? What could he do if all our folk united against him? He could not defy ten thousand riders."
"It is a nice image, I agree, but apart from not knowing what Erkenbrand and Grimbold think about this, you forget that he still has power over the King," Elfhelm said darkly. "Béma alone knows what it is, but there are still many men among the Royal Guard who will enforce Théoden's will, no matter how strange his orders may seem to them. We have been brought up this way, Céorl. You and I… one of the first things we were taught when we were still children was never to question the King."
"But there can be no denying that Théoden has been led astray!" Findárras cried out, dismayed to hear his own voice say these words.
"Elfhelm is right, though." Céorl's expression darkened. "One can call Gríma many names. We call him a liar, a worm, filth, and it is all true, but he is also no fool, and his plan is faultless. There are more people than you would think who believe his lies. They believe that Éomer is responsible for Théodred's death. It was a horrible blow to the people to hear that he had fallen, you know how much they loved the Prince. And Éomer was in his youth known to be rash on occasion, reckless even. We who have ridden with him for years know that he has lost that weakness and has become a very shrewd strategist, but enough of the simple folk will believe that he disobeyed the King only to pick a fight." He exhaled, giving his words time to settle. "So, what will we do?"
Elfhelm leant back. He had made his decision. The path he had to take was clearly visible to him now.
"No doubt Gríma expects us to become active, and I would really hate to disappoint him." A nasty smirk formed around the corners of his mouth. "I have been a marshal of the Mark for quite some time, and so scheming is not entirely new to me. We will help Éomer, but we will do so in secrecy." He looked at his scout. "Thor, come dawn, you will summon our éored to the stables. I want them to form five independent groups and search the mountain paths. You are free to kill whatever orcs or other foul beasts you encounter along the way." With a wolfish grin, Elfhelm's attention returned to Ceorl. "You see, Captain, that I take the King's orders seriously. I protect our people and that is why we will go on an extensive orc-hunt tomorrow! We will clear the way for Éomer. I myself will ride to Edoras with a few chosen men to see for myself what is going on in Meduseld, and try to speak with Gamling, Háma and perhaps even the King. When I return, I will bring Éowyn with me. I am not comfortable with the thought of her in that snake pit. Éomer would want me to do that, and once I am back, we will begin to form the resistance."
Céorl nodded and straightened in his chair, visibly relieved like the other men around the table.
"Aye, and I will accompany you on the way, old friend. We will see whether the snake dares to defy us entry. If he does, I might as well take the opportunity to kill him myself. It is time that the Mark is returned to the hands of men who have its welfare in mind and not its destruction…"
"How do you plan to contact Elfhelm… if he has returned from Westfold by now. We both know the Worm. I would be surprised if he did not send his spies to all major cities and settlements to wait for you to show up… especially at Aldburg. He will expect you to head there. Are you certain that it is not a mistake to do what he is counting on?"
"I agree that it is a gamble." Éomer took another bite from the pitifully thin rabbit in his hands and fell silent, chewing while he stared right through Théodred in deep thought. "As a matter of fact, I have already given this some thought." He straightened. "Of course, it still involves risk, but no matter what I do, I will not be able to avoid it entirely for as long as I stay in the Mark against the verdict." Still chewing, he turned his head to see Firefoot restlessly shifting. The grey stallion had at last accepted his master's choice of camp for the night, but it was clear that he would not be able to rest here. Whenever his head sunk and his eyes closed, it took only the smallest crackle from the fire to wake him and make him toss his head, his ears nervously flickering to and fro. Éomer felt sorry for his animal companion, but it could not be helped. This was not the time to be picky; they'd have to take whatever was available.
"So how will you do it?" Théodred spoke into his thoughts, waking him from his contemplation. "I share your opinion of Elfhelm; I cannot imagine that he would ever turn against you. But Aldburg is a great city with three éoreds, and not all of their captains might share his view. You see that the Mark has been brought to the brink of defeat lies in our inherent obedience to our King. I hate to say that we should have rebelled against Father's, or perhaps I should rather say - the Worm's – orders sooner, but it just is not in our blood. The King's word is law." Théodred raised one sceptical eyebrow. "You are fighting against five hundred years of tradition. I certainly do not envy you, Cousin."
Éomer shook his head and took another bite, cursing over getting more bones than meat in his mouth with it. He creased his brow in realisation that Théodred had made a very valid point and stared into the fire. To unite their people against Théoden was indeed be a deed he could hardly hope to accomplish… yet what other option was there? To flee and leave his kinsmen, and – even more importantly – Éowyn to their fate? He would sooner die than admit defeat by Gríma Wormtongue. Even if they riddled him with arrows like a hedgehog wherever he chose to turn up, at least he would die knowing that he had tried.
"Cousin?" Théodred repeated, staring at him from the other side of the fire. "Tell me, what is your plan? Because if I were you, I would not force my position and ride into the city openly, however certain you may feel of the people's loyalty. Just one man of a different mind would be enough for it to go wrong."
Éomer inhaled deeply, and tried to lend his voice conviction. "I do not plan to ride into the city;like you said, it would be madness. I will ride to the farm of Anlaf's parents in the foothills near Aldburg and ask Elgard to deliver a message to Elfhelm for me. I know I can trust Elgard."
The man he spoke of was the younger brother of one of his captains, a man he trusted and respected. Due to an injury he had sustained in a match - breaking his leg in one of their wild riding games - Elgard had - to his great disappointment - been rejected by the Armed Forces, but Éomer remembered how the younger man had always eagerly listened to the tales of their bravery once their éored returned. "I will instruct him to tell Elfhelm that I will be waiting for him in the mountains to discuss our options."
"I see." The older man nodded pensively. "And since I know that you are usually a good judge of character, I will not question your choice, but you do realise that even if Elfhelm agrees to follow you and if all the Eastfold's éoreds do so, too – what you are about to unleash will test the boundaries of our people's beliefs and loyalty. There has never been rebellion in the Mark. This could easily end in disaster… and result in a bloodbath that would drown us all, brought upon by ourselves. This is a great responsibility you are speaking of."
"I am aware of that, but I do not see how it could be worse than witnessing the slow decay of the kingdom the Worm is forcing on us. I would rather die on my feet in a battle against fate itself, than live on my knees, and I am certain that our people do not see it differently. Things cannot go on the way they are now. It is that simple." Éomer stared into the fire with unseeing eyes, and more than just its gleam sparkled in the hazel irises. "One way or another, the fate of the Mark will soon be decided, brother." He paused as he realised that Théodred was no longer paying attention to him. "Théodred?"
"I think you are not alone anymore…"
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