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The Taste of Strong Mead  by Citrine



The proud and the beautiful are easily led, or so my father Galmod once told me. He seldom touched me, and he was never kind to me, but his words have stayed with me always, for they are true. Creep, creep, like a gray mouse-nay, like a spider-go I through the silent halls of Meduseld, seeking my prey. It is summer; the heat lays over Edoras like a heavy hand. All is quiet. Theoden King and the Riders departed to the Westfold at first light. They go in pursuit of a small party of Orcs and Dunlendings, who have burned a farm and laid waste to the fields there. Every year the Dunlendings and their wicked minions grow bolder, making sorties farther and farther into the Mark, as if testing our defenses. All else who can have gone to rest through the heat of the day, and I have bid the maids to give cool ale to the doorwardens in the kitchens. I do not wish to have witnesses for what I am about to attempt.

My hands sweat and clench and my knuckles are white. Will young Lord Eomet, Lord Eomund's oldest nephew, believe what I tell him? Perhaps he will merely sneer and beat me in a casual fashion, as a cat might torture a mouse to hear it squeak, as he did when I was only a friendless orphan-child lately come to the Golden Hall. I held out my hand in friendship to him then, and he mocked me, calling me Dunlender, Worm of Meduseld. For this reason alone I would have him suffer. I would have his blood as weregild for my pain.

Ah, and there in the sunlight at a long, wooden table, sits Lord Eomet. How like a hero out of legend he appears in the smoky light of morning, as if Eorl the Young had stepped down from his tapestry to grace the Golden Hall of Meduseld! Even as he stuffs his face with bread and meat, still he is golden and beautiful, his gray eyes keen, his bright hair bound in a man's braids, and his helm beside him on the floor, though he is barely sixteen summers old. Though I am only a year older my hair is thin and my back is bent, and I am ancient beyond my years. I will never bear such a helm. I will never wear a man's braids.

I take a breath and enter into the hall. I must make this look like chance, that I entered in unawares, not expecting to find him, perhaps even wishing to avoid him. He will expect this. He is strong and I am weak, and I once feared him-no more, but he will not know it. It has been long since he saw me last, and though I am still gray and small in stature, I have changed within.

I purposely make a small noise as I enter. He looks up and his eyes narrow. He smiles on everyone else as the sun smiles upon the earth in spring, but there are always storm clouds on his brow when he looks at me. My ugliness is an offense to him, and he has never tired of telling me so. Oh my King! Why do you allow such a worthless being into your hall? I have looked upon him in secret and watched him torment his younger kin until they wept; I have seen him apply the whip to his horse until the blood trickled down. Why is he so loved, and I so unloved? He is a monster within, and I am a monster without, and therein lays the difference.

"Hail, Dunlending," he says mockingly, and as he rises to his feet I see the merry light of cruelty in his eyes. He never lets me forget that one of my grandsires took a captured woman of Dunland to wife, and I am of mixed blood. "For what purpose do you crawl about today?"

"My Lord Eomet," I say, bowing low. "Do not let me disturb you at your meal. I have come looking only for a little bread and perhaps some porridge for myself. Forgive my intrusion." I bow and turn as if to go, but then turn again, as if struck by some sudden thought. "My Lord, may I ask...why are you still here at the Golden Hall? Theoden King and the other Lords of the Mark departed at first light-surely a brave young warrior such as yourself was not purposely left behind?"

Ah, I have touched the sore place! He scowls darkly. "I am being punished. My father says I am too young, though others younger than I have gone. He says I act rashly and without thought, and a Lord must care for the men under his command, not merely for his own glory."

"This is true," I say. "But still, was that not a harsh judgment? It is a shameful thing to be left behind like a child, with the maidens and those too sickly to ride." I make a sympathetic face and run my hands over my robe, as if to smooth away a wrinkle in the cloth, but purposely drawing attention to my spindly frame. He will not like this subtle comparison. "But you are young and strong, with many a chance for valor and glory ahead of you. To miss one battle is not so terrible. It is far better to sit in safety under a good roof with a cup of ale." I sidle a little closer and touch his arm, as if lonely and eager for his companionship. "Come, my Lord, let us spend the day together, we two left behind. There is much we could learn from each other, is that not so?"

I see the revulsion in his eyes, and I cry out in pain as he grasps my wrist in a grip of steel. His eyes are hard as flints. "You dare touch me?"

How I dribble and weep and snivel! "Forgive me, Lord, and have mercy on poor Grima!"

He thrusts me away and I strike the hard floor. The pain takes my breath away, but it must be endured. He strides away toward the tall doors. I crawl to his feet. "Lord, Lord, may I not be allowed to make amends for my offense? I have done what service I could for our king in my short life, and though I am weak and not forward in arms, I am privy to many counsels and learn much by listening at the king's elbow. Listen, listen and I will tell you of a chance for a bold stroke, for so do young, brave men win renown."

I cling to the hem of his garment and pour out my tale, an utter fabrication made out of whole cloth, with merely a seed of truth to make it seem real, for all the best lies have at their center a grain of truth. The Riders gathered in the early morning and prepared to depart, say I, but at the last moment word came of a great gathering of Orcs and Dunlendings at the Snowbourn and thither they went in haste, with no time to speak of the change in plan. A daring young Lord of the Mark would put on his sword and ride to battle with them there, and would do brave deeds, and thus find favor in the eyes of his king, and win anew the approval of his father.

(Oh and they have gathered there, in force, and only a fool would ride into their midst without a host of spears at his command. So said the messenger to me alone, the king's man, on the steps of Meduseld this morning, but Theoden had already gone. I bid the messenger speak no more to anyone, but hurry on to the Westfold with the news. Thus do ill tidings go astray in these dangerous times.)

I see the battle-light in my Lord Eomet's eyes. O my father, dead all these long years, your words were so true: So easily led! He shoves me away and leaves me crouched, huddled, miserable...and filled with a fierce and unholy glee.

~~~~~~~~~~~

I have eaten; I have drunk, with more appetite for my meal than I have felt for many long years. The sun has gone down into the West. Short hours ago I saw a riderless horse, Lord Eomet's horse, racing for the stables with foam on his flanks and muzzle, and blood on the saddle. I sit unnoticed, calm, the eye of the storm, reading a book brought ages ago from far Gondor. It is in excellent condition for such an ancient tome, pristine, the pages unmarred: My nation is not a learned nation. Now men run to and fro, and I hear the maidens wailing. This is a bitter blow for Rohan: Poor Eomet, so brave, so fair!

I smile and turn the page.

Theoden King will no doubt question me when he returns, and I will tell him such truth as he needs to hear: Lord Eomet in his rashness and his pride went forth to find battle, and though I begged him to stay he struck me down, calling me weakling, coward. The bruises on my tender flesh, and the livid marks of his fingers on my wrist will bear witness to my tale. No sin may be completely hidden and it is likely that men's tongues will wag, no matter how guiltless I may appear, and a shadow of doubt will fall over me. So be it. My king will believe me. He sees me still as the helpless, sickly orphan he must shield and defend. I am not helpless now; I will never be so helpless again, but I will play my part. He is kind and good, my king, but in his goodness he is blind. He cannot see deceit in others when he does not have it within himself. I will be as a strong staff for him to lean upon when he is old, when he is witless and enfeebled by age. As he grows weaker, I will grow stronger, and all that I do for him will be for his good.

I cannot help but picture in my mind's eye young Eomet, surrounded, outnumbered, alone, knowing in the instant of his death my betrayal and that he is lost. I ask myself, was it worth it, this taste of power over another? How it burned in my stomach like strong mead, it went to my head like wine! Like the sweetness of the maiden's kiss that I will never know, the precious sun's light I cannot bear to feel upon my tender skin. I would give much to feel it again. Was it worth it?

Yes. Oh, yes.

*********
The End







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