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A Red Sun Rises  by Katzilla

A Red Sun Rises


Author's Note:

It seems that, hopefully, there is still some fuel left in my writing tank, and when I just recently reread our favourite trilogy, I found myself becoming interested in the Rohirric side of the battle of Éomer's éored against Ugluk's Uruk-hai on their way to Isengard. There was some great strategy at work that night! Expect some good old-fashioned action in the later chapters… I do not know yet how carried-away I might get, but I'll give you proper warning beforehand…

I dedicate this story to Thanwen, as she prefers action over fluff, just like me!


Chapter 1: Tidings from the North


"Éomer! Éomer!"

It was Éothain's voice that disturbed the peace of the Royal Stables, and it sounded urgent. They were already in a hurry to ride to Westfold and strengthen Théodred's forces at the fords of Isen for the feared assault, but to Éomer's ears it sounded as if his friend and captain had something else to tell him. The Third Marshal of Riddermark looked up from the saddlebags he had been packing for the ride, just in time to see Céorl's son coming to a halt before Firefoot's box.

"Éomer, Léod is back. He said that he needs to speak with you before he reports to Gríma and the King. Right away, he said." He cocked an eyebrow.

"Léod?"

The young man was one of the scouts Éomer had dispatched to the north-eastern parts of the Wold, to keep an eye on things after he had pulled back their herds onto the other side of the Entwash in result to several orc attacks. He felt his hackles rise at the thought of the news his rider might have returned with now, and was well aware of the alarmed looks the members of his éored were giving him. He stepped out of the stall.

"Where is he?"

"Just outside the stables." Éothain, too, looked concerned. "Will you meet him here?"

Éomer shook his head.

"I'll come with you." He lowered his voice. "We'll speak in the fodder storage."

Éothain understood and silently agreed as he led his marshal and friend towards the exit. Wormtongue had been too well informed of their recent undertakings. It was clear to both warriors that the councillor had somehow succeeded in placing at least one snitch among their riders. They had to be careful. It was sad to see what things had come to in the Mark when Rohirrim spied on Rohirrim. Slowing his pace to let Éomer exit first, Éothain sighed. He had a bad feeling about this.

Léod still stood where he had left him, and both rider and horse looked as if they had traversed the long empty leagues from the north to Edoras without a single break. With a silent nod, Éomer signalled one of the passing stable boys to relieve the scout of his mount.

"Greetings, Léod. Éothain says you returned with urgent news from our eastern border."

"Greetings, Marshal." The young man indicated a short bow. "Aye. I have ridden all day and all night to bring you these tidings as quickly as possible. I thought you should hear them first, before I report to the King."

"Then come." He gestured the man over to the storage and walked through when Éothain opened the door after a quick glance around. There was no one around to notice them. If Léod was surprised to be asked into a food shed, he did not show it. They closed the door behind them. Éomer turned around.

"Speak."

Léod took a deep breath.

"I was patrolling the territory you appointed to me, Marshal, and there was nothing to report. All of the northern Mark is empty. But just before I left camp yesterday morning, I saw a single rider heading my way as if all of the Dark Lord's brood were hunting him. It turned out that it was Garulf, who had been watching our easternmost boarder… and he told me that he had spotted a group of Uruk-hai descending into the Wold. A great group!"

Éomer inhaled sharply.

"How great?"

"Garulf said they were at least two hundred strong, possibly even stronger."

Marshal and Captain exchanged an alarmed look, but the scout was not done yet.

"He also said that they were moving unlike any orc-group he had ever spotted in the field. You know yourself that usually, orcs will move stealthily and carefully and do whatever they can to avoid detection, but these did not seem to mind at all that they were leaving tracks one could detect from half a mile away. And they were running the whole time that he was following them, making for Fangorn."

"For Fangorn!" Éomer creased his brow. "I doubt they will dare to enter that forest. They probably only want to use it for cover… on their way to Isengard."

"That is very likely, my lord," Léod agreed. "And the way they were moving suggests that they are anxious to bring something to their master; some valuable prize or loot for Saruman. They were not fleeing from something, of that Garulf was sure. At least he did not notice anything that would have warranted their hurry. He wanted to follow them further and I offered him to bring you these tidings, so that he could turn around and continue his pursuit."

"You did right, Léod." Éomer stared at his captain. "We cannot allow for those orcs to reach their destination, whatever it is that made them chance this perilous course. We cannot let them run unchallenged through the Mark. Even if they are far from any village now, as soon as they enter the Westemnet, that will bring them within reach of many settlements too small to repel them…all the more as many of them will have sent their riders to the fords to strengthen Théodred's forces."

"Which is the way we are headed, as well, Éomer," Èothain said thoughtfully. "We cannot very well ignore your cousin's summons. They expect the hammer blow any day now. The Marshal is counting on us."

"I know." Éomer's expression darkened. "And yet this is a new and dangerous development that could also very well concern him… if that group turns south from their current course and attacks him from behind. It is not altogether unlikely that they are part of Saruman's battle strategy."

Éothain blinked.

"You're right. I had not thought of that. It makes sense though." He shook his head. "Now what?" He cast a side-glance at their scout, and then both men stared at their thoughtful marshal. Silence followed.

At last, Éomer straightened and took a deep breath.

"I will bring it before the King. He needs to hear this."

Éothain lifted a sceptical brow.

"I think I can well imagine what he will say… if he says anything at all and it won't be only the Worm talking."

"Aye, I can imagine it as well." Éomer's gaze went towards the door, behind which he knew the Hall of Kings to be. "And yet I must try. We all swore an oath to protect our people. As much as I love my cousin, there are already many valiant warriors at the fords to support him. The people of Westemnet have no one to help them should those orcs raid their settlements. Théodred would understand." He inhaled, and then gave his scout a court nod.

"Come, Léod. We will see Théoden King together. Perhaps it will make him and his councillor see the urgency of that decision. Éothain, see to it that the rest of our éored is ready to ride in an hour. We cannot challenge a horde of over two hundred Uruks with only eighty men."

His captain's gaze was still doubtful.

"What if the King or the Worm forbid it? They will not be delighted to hear that you plan to take your full éored into battle. That leaves only Céorl's riders for their defence."

For a moment, the two friends stared at each other.

"We will cross that bridge when we come to it," Éomer replied at last. "Just make sure that the men are ready when I return... and tell Céorl to meet me at the stables in an hour."

oooo

The two men quickly ascended the stairs to the hall. Back in the old days before Théoden's illness, its splendour had always been a source of comfort and pride to Éomer, but now he could not help feeling tense as he approached the guarded doors. There was no doubt that the coming confrontation had the potential to turn very ugly, especially if the king had gone to rest as he had announced only an hour ago when Éomer had seen him last. If he had to deal with Gríma only…

Éomer squared his shoulders, determined to maintain his composure, no matter what happend. His obviously very nervous scout was following in his footsteps as he headed for the Captain of the Royal Guard.

"I will do the talking, Léod, unless Théoden King or Gríma question you directly," he muttered under his breath, and the young man nodded eagerly.

Before them, Háma expected them at the doors with a questioning expression upon his weathered face.

"Marshal? I thought you were already on the way to Westfold."

"There is a new and alarming development, Háma. I know that the King wanted to lie down, but I'm afraid that I need to speak with him right away."

The Captain of the Royal Guard cast a questioning glance at the scout behind Théoden's nephew, and creased his brow.

"That is very unfortunate, Éomer. I have specific orders not to let anyone disturb the King's rest. He is feeling quite unwell today. Can it not wait for another couple of hours?"

"Alas, Háma, it cannot." Éomer shook his head. "We have received news of an unexpected and potentially dangerous situation in Eastemnet, and time is of the essence if we want to retain our chance of acting against it. Lives could be at stake. Many lives." His tone left no doubt that he meant what he said.

The older man took a deep breath, and it seemed to Éomund's son as if he, too, dreaded to see Gríma about the interruption of the King's sleep. Inwardly, Éomer shook his head. Béma, something was indeed very wrong in the Mark when steadfast, upright men like Háma feared to bring urgent business before their ruler!

"Háma, please! I would not be here if it were not important."

"All right, all right…" With a heavy sigh, the Captain of the Royal Guard turned around. "I will ask Councillor Gríma to allow you in. But I need for you to wait out here, I am sorry. These are my orders."

Éomer nodded.

"I understand… and I thank you, Háma."

He watched on until the heavy wooden doors had closed behind the older man, and then turned around to let his eyes glide over the terrace before the hall. The other two guards regarded them with a mixture of curiosity and dread in their eyes, possibly asking themselves when the bad tidings would ever end for the Mark. Most of these days, Éomer was wondering about that himself. The late winter sky above their heads was leaden grey and looked as if it might dump a load of snow or rain upon them any moment, and the icy gusts that tore at them at this elevated position only added to the Marshal's apprehension. It would be a taxing ride, no matter where they ended up riding to.

Léod's mien indicated that he was thinking the same, and Èomer could only thank the young rider that he had hastened through the night to bring them the news of Garulf's alarming observation. Right now, the scout looked ready to fall asleep where he stood. He cleared his throat.

"When we're done here, Léod, you will go directly to the guest quarters. You will not ride with us."

The young man's eyes widened and he opened his mouth in protest.

"But, Marshal-"

Éomer shook his head, and his voice became resolute.

"I appreciate your sense of duty, Rider, but you're looking utterly exhausted. I am also quite sure that your horse cannot run any further for now. Even if I gave you a fresh one, you would only slow us down. We will have to make haste if we want to intercept those orcs, and give battle as soon as we find them. Your reactions and thinking will be much slower in this state, and I will not be responsible for your death. You will remain in Edoras until tomorrow to recover and then resume your watch in Eastemnet. Is that understood?"

"Aye, Marshal." Léod lowered his head. "It is only…I want to help."

Éomer laid a hand on his shoulder.

"You already did, Léod. We would not be standing here if it weren't for you." He felt movement behind him and turned around in time to see the door open. The expression on Háma's face was unreadable as he bade them to enter.

"Théoden King will be with you in a moment," the Captain of the Royal Guard told them in a muffled tone as they walked through the twilight towards the deserted dais, the only sound the echoes of their heavy steps. Upon reaching the hearth, Éomer braced himself for the coming confrontation. It seemed certain to him that it would get ugly. Gríma would see to it with his mean-spirited and personal accusations.

"Please, Marshal, wait here." Háma gestured toward the empty tables and benches. "I will get you as soon as the King gives me the order to lead you before him." He disappeared into the shadows.

With a brief, impatient twitch of his eyebrows, Éomer sat down. Léod followed his example, his gaze wandering through the oppressive twilight. From the way the young man inspected their surroundings, Éomer concluded that he had not been inside Meduseld often. Not that it could be called a welcoming place these days. Aside from the darkness, which not even the hearth fire could sufficiently penetrate, the air seemed stuffy and smelled of ash and sickness. For a moment, Éomer considered calling the door wards to ask them to ventilate the big room a little better, but just as he narrowed his eyes to penetrate the deep shadows for a sign of them, he heard a door clap from the direction of Théoden's rooms, followed by slow scuffling and muttered, unintelligible whispering. He tensed, feeling a sudden pang of guilt as he beheld the three shapes making their way towards the dais in the flickering light of the torches. Aye, his uncle was sick… but his business was too important to delay even a minute.

Éowyn was with the king, he noticed, and she had to support their uncle heavily as he tried to negotiate the few steps. With a deep groan, Théoden King lowered himself onto the throne, and his councillor, who had slowly followed them, gestured Háma closer to whisper something into the man's ear.

With a sense of foreboding, Éomer slowly rose to his feet, followed by his scout. And really, the Captain of the Royal Guard waved for them to approach.

"What is it that could not wait, Son of Éomund?" Gríma began in a cutting voice, even before they had reached the dais. "What was so urgent that you had to deny a sick man his rest? Should you not rather already be on the way to Westfold, I wonder, to follow the Second Marshal's summons?"

"Councillor Gríma…" Éomer inclined his head and then shifted his direction to his uncle. "I apologize for having to disturb your rest, Sire, but I assure you that unfortunately, there was no other option available to me. There are new and alarming developments at our northeastern boarder, and we need to rethink our actions quickly," He waited for a reaction, yet the old man seemed to look right through him. "Sire… We were just about to depart for the Fords of Isen when Léod, one of my scouts I ordered to keep an eye on the Eastemnet, returned from his ward in great haste and with potentially dangerous tidings." He introduced the young man with a glance and a nod, and Wormtongue's pale grey eyes shifted towards the youth.

"You are said scout?"

"Aye, Lord Gríma."

"And what tidings do you bring?"

"My Lord…" Léod fought to manoeuvre his voice through his tightening throat under the councillor's cold scrutiniy. "A great group of orcs, over two hundred strong, invaded the Eastemnet yesterday. They descended from the East Wall and are on the way to Fangorn, if they did not alter their course yet. It seemed they were in great haste."

"There are no settlements in their way in the north," Wormtongue replied, his attention back on Éomer. "Are there, Marshal?"

"No, my lord. But-"

"And you withdrew our herdsmen and horses from there, behind the Entwash. Isn't that correct?"

Éomer nodded.

"That is correct, my lord. And yet-"

"So what damage could they possibly inflict upon that empty land, Marshal?" Gríma interrupted him again. "It seems to me that the worst they can do up there is trample the grass. What makes them more important than a summons of your cousin, who calls for your aid in battle? The sword strike will fall at the fords any day now."

Éomer narrowed his eyes, feeling his blood pressure rise.

"I am painfully aware of that, Counsellor. And I would that I could leave for Westfold at once, but I cannot ignore my scout's tidings." As expected, Gríma intended to make this even more difficult for him. That he understood what threat a group of over two hundred orcs posed to the Mark, was out of the question for Éomer. "As Léod stated, the group was making for Fangorn when they were last seen. My guess is that their final destination is Isengard, to either bring Saruman loot or important tidings. And yet-"

"Isn't that pure speculation on your part, Marshal?" Wormtongue interrupted, but Éomer ignored it.

"And yet we have no guarantee that they will stay on this course. They could easily turn south before the Isen and raid all those settlements who sent their warriors to Théodred's aid. There would be no one left in those villages to stop them. And when they are done, they could come from behind and attack the Second Marshal's forces from a direction he didn't foresee, thereby placing his troops between the hammer and the anvil. Yet even if this is only a test of our watchfulness, we cannot afford to ignore it, or next time, they will send an army that way." He shifted his attention back to his uncle. "Sire, please, we cannot allow this to happen! I implore you!"

There was still no reaction, but at least it seemed to Éomer that Théoden King's gaze was less empty. He exchanged a quick, worried look with Éowyn, who stood silently behind the throne, pale like snow. Her expression was composed, but in her eyes, he could read the same dread that he now felt. When he turned his attention back to the Worm, the expression he had expected was there: a nasty, calculation smirk around Gríma's thin lips.

"You are desperate to hunt those orcs, aren't you, son of Éomund?"

Éomer squared his shoulders. He knew too well the direction this was going.

"Aye, Councillor…I am desperate.… because the lives of our people are at stake. I swore an oath to protect them."

"Oh, your oath… I forgot." The smirk became even more pronounced, but the expression in Wormtongue's eyes remained cold. It was the gaze of a hawk focussing on its prey. "This is about your honour. You seek to hunt those orcs to further your own glory while your cousin is away in the West. You think people will call you a hero when they hear that you slew their enemies, even though they were too far away to even be a threat to them… or is it merely bloodlust that's driving you?"

"Councillor Gríma…" Éomer fought against his bucking temper. "This is not helpful."

"It is the truth, though, isn't it?"Wormtongue bowed down to the King. "Alas, my lord, it is as I feared. We all know how much your nephew hates the orcs. They killed his father, and now they must pay… even if it means that your son will wait in vain for reinforcements."

"I forbid it!" the old man croaked, and his milky eyes tried to focus on his nephew. "You will ride to the fords, Marshal, as decided earlier. All our strength is needed there."

Éomer shook his head and took another step towards the dais, ignoring Éowyn's warning head-shaking.

"My Lord…"

"Do you object to your King's will?" Wormtongue said sharply, and his eyebrows shot up. His pale eyes pierced the younger man. "Do you, Marshal? You know what such bearing is called?"

They stared at each other, and in the ensuing silence, an idea formed in Éomer's mind. A dangerous idea, no doubt, but it seemed the only option available to him. His tone was quiet, but dripping with intensity when he answered.

"Are you calling me a traitor, Councillor? And are you insinuating, as you did before, that I do not care for my cousin's fate? Or worse, that I want him to be killed, in order to claim the throne for myself?"

Gríma did not shrink from his stare.

"I did no such thing, Marshal," he replied, eerily calm. "Yet I cannot help wonder what your true motivation might be."

"I thought I stated it loud and clear, Lord Gríma. My motivation is to protect our people."

His adversary shrugged, and looked down at his slumping ruler.

"Well, you heard the King, Marshal. You will protect our people at the fords. Pursue those orcs on your own account, and there will be consequences. I can only warn you."

For another short eternity, councillor and marshal regarded each other, unspoken threats passing between them. At last, Éomer nodded and, with a brief glance at his sister and the silent king, turned to go.

"Very well. Sire…Lord Gríma… Léod…" With great steps, he made for the doors, followed by his dismayed scout.

"I mean it, Marshal!" Gríma shouted after him.

The door ward before them hastened to let them out, and an icy gust greeted them as they emerged from the twilight. The dark grey sky still loomed as foreboding as it had when Háma had admitted them into the hall, and yet it looked immeasurably more welcoming to Éomund's son. The fresh air cleared his head as they made for the stairs.

It was not until they had halfway descended to the stables that Léod dared to ask.

"What will we do now, Marshal?"

His eyes on the stables, where Éomer could see Éothain expectantly looking their way, he involuntarily straightened… and, with a deep breath, replied: "We will make for Fangorn."


A RED SUN RISES


Author's Note:

Thanks to everyone who commented on the first chapter. I hope you will enjoy the second one just as much and perhaps, find a moment to comment on it. While I was writing this, I actually realised that, although I am –for once – actually moving within canon, this would work just as well as a prequel for my epic "Untold Tales of the Mark: The Banishment of Éomer". So don't be too surprised should you recognize some of the used personnel in the coming chapters…


Chapter 2: The Hunt


EASTEMNET

Darkness had already fallen when Éomer signalled his riders to slow down. For more than eight hours they had ridden straight north at a speed none but the horses of the Mark could have held, but now it was time to grant their mounts – and themselves – some much-needed rest for the night. As the moon was not yet up, it was getting too dark to continue, anyway.

Firefoot, usually a wilful beast that reacted rather cantankerous to any limitation of his considerable power, followed his rider's invitation to come to a halt thankfully. Éomer clapped his neck and thanked the big grey while he surveyed what he could see of the terrain. He knew that the gentle slopes of the northern grasslands continued from here all the way to their northern and eastern borders, which made this as good a resting place as any other.

Movement to his right caused him to turn his head. Éothain had been unusually quiet during their ride, and as he directed his gelding closer, the marshal could see the same thoughtful expression on his Captain's face that had been there the whole day.

"Halfway there," Éomer began. "We're making good progress."

Éothain nodded, but remained silent.

"We will stay here until an hour after moonrise," Éomer continued. "The horses need the rest…their riders as well. Set a perimeter and determine ten guards. These will be relieved in two hours."

"Aye, Marshal." Éothain turned to their men. "Dismount! I need ten men to report to me for first watch, and ten for second watch. The rest of you, see that you get some shut-eye. We continue an hour after moonrise."

They watched as the riders slid from their saddles, grunting and groaning after the long ride and lowly muttering among themselves as they distributed themselves in the natural depression. From the heated bodies of their sweating mounts, steam rose into the chill air, lending the atmosphere a somewhat eerie character.

Éomer waited for another moment, trying to penetrate the blackness before them. If those orcs were indeed bound for Isengard, of which he harboured no doubt, they would have to cross the Entwash at one point. If they could attack them during the fording or on the bridge, it would be an immeasurable advantage… but it all depended on whether they were fast enough. His instincts screamed at him that they could not afford this break, that orcs made the most progress during the night, and yet he also knew that there was no alternative. At the end of this ride, they would have to give battle, and for that, he needed fresh men and horses. It could not be helped. He sighed. And still Éothain remained silent by his side.

"Come, Éothain," he said, and dismounted. "Let's make the most of those few hours that we have." Quickly he freed his stallion from his saddle and allowed him to wander free after a greedily accepted reward in the form of an apple.

While Éothain ordered the guards to their positions, Éomer spread his bedroll in the grass and knelt down to dig a sparse meal of some dried meat, cheese and bread out of his saddlebags before he sat down. A moment later, his friend mimicked his actions close by. Watching him closely, Éomer chewed for a moment longer, then swallowed and began.

"You do not agree with my actions."

Éothain stiffened… and sighed.

"I do believe that we are doing the right thing… I am only afraid that you have stuck your neck out far enough this time for Gríma to cut it off. All these years, he has been waiting for an opportunity like this. You know this."

"Aye." Éomer nodded. He stared down on his hands, seeing the accursed pale face before his inner eyes like some sick moon. "And he may have very well designed that trap together with his true master. Something tells me that Saruman instructed him to ensure that those orcs reached their destination, that's why the Worm was so adamant to keep us away from them."

He grimaced and woke from his reverie to look at his friend.

"I am aware of the situation. Yet there is nothing that I could have done differently. I hope you understand that, Éothain. If it is any consolation to you, you should know that I take full responsibility for my actions. You and the men will be held blameless. You were only following your marshal's orders."

Éothain shook his head, and there was open fear in his eyes when he regarded Éomer.

"I am not worried about us. I'm worried about you. You are openly disobeying the King's orders. That is rebellion. Gríma would be well within his rights to order your execution! We need you. The Mark needs you… more than ever!... And I don't want to lose my friend."

Éomer stared back, and while he gave it his best to sound convincing, he could not deny that there was lingering doubt in his mind.

"Such a decision could only be made by the King himself. And although things between my uncle and me have been … complicated… for quite a while now, I will not believe that Théoden King would order me killed."

Éothain's eyebrows twitched while he washed down another bite with some water.

"I wish I had your confidence in the king, Éomer. I'm afraid that these days, he seems to me more and more like the Worm's puppet for the destruction of the Mark. Those orders he has been giving for the past weeks, they were the Worm's." He inhaled and shook his head, regarding his Marshal with deep worry. "Do you honestly believe that Théoden King still knows what he is saying, or which effect his orders have for the riders in the field?"

For the longest time, Éomer could only stare back, a shudder running down his spine. Everything his friend had said was the truth, of course. But what was he supposed to do? Together with his cousin and the other marshals, they had developed a system to bend the King's orders as far as possible while they were roaming the plains without explicitly acting against them. But even that system had its limits.

He inhaled.

"If I'm wrong about the King, Éothain… what will you do? How will you lead our riders? Will you follow Gríma's orders, even though you know he wants the death of our people?"

Éothain's eyes widened, and for a moment, he forgot to chew. A cold shudder ran down his spine at the thought that command of their éored could quite possibly change to him in the very near future. That there was a real threat that they would execute his friend upon their return to Edoras. Then it would be him who would have to deal with the Worm on a daily basis. It could not be.

"Béma, Éomer…" he snorted at last and shook his head, hoping in vain to drive the dismaying thought out of his skull. "Let's not talk about such things right now. They freeze my blood."

"Alright… I will stop. And yet you should begin to give this some thought, Éothain. It won't hurt to be prepared." In this bleak, cold darkness, Éomer suddenly did not feel at all convinced that his kinship with Théoden would protect him if Gríma decided to go for his head, and the councillor's words echoed in his mind. 'There will be consequences!'

For a moment, he felt abysmal dread in the back of his mind, ready to pounce. Ready to paralyze him. Which was something he could not allow. With a supreme effort, he pushed it back. He could not afford to think about the consequences of his actions now. All that mattered now was that they found those orcs and disposed of them as quickly as possible and made for the Fords to strengthen Théodred's forces. Time was running through his hands…

With another deep sigh, Éomer gathered his woollen blanket and spread it over himself.

"See that you get some sleep. Tomorrow, we are going to need all our strength and wits. We cannot afford failure."

oooo

EDORAS

In Meduseld, Éowyn sat lonely and despondent in her chambers, her untouched dinner before her on the table. It was late and the day had been taxing in every kind of way, but Éomund's daughter knew that her reeling head would not let her sleep in the foreseeable future, so she had not even thought yet of going to bed.

First, there was her concern for Éomer and Théodred, who were out there with their riders, bound for battle… or at least she hoped that Éomer was bound for Westfold. She had no way of knowing after his ugly confrontation with Gríma. Still, Éomer's expression shortly before he had stormed out of the hall had filled her with fear, and she knew that the Worm had recognized that spark of rebellion in her brother's eyes, as well.

It did not soothe her mind that she knew both her cousin and her brother to be formidable warriors. The assault they were expecting from Saruman's direction would be massive, their scouts feared. Risking their lives, several of their most experienced riders had prowled the enemy's territory for the last weeks, and only few of them had returned to Westfold to report their findings to their Second Marshal. Apparently, the Necromancer had breed himself a massive army for the single purpose of their destruction, and the only question that remained was when he would unleash it against them. It felt like a snare around the Mark's neck, about to be tightened and throttling them all.

And as if that was not enough to unhinge any sane woman's mind, there was the situation with their uncle. Gríma was around him often these days, but for all the potions and medication he ordered and concocted for their ruler, his efforts seemed to be to no avail. Théoden was fading before their very eyes. Sometimes, Éowyn could not help wonder whether their uncle's health was, in fact, declining in reaction to the things the Worm gave him. So far, she had not uttered anything in that direction, and yet that sceptical voice in the back of her mind rose in volume with each passing day. What if Gríma poisoned the King right underneath their eyes, in fact, and only she saw what he was doing?

With a deep sigh out of the depths of her soul, Éowyn looked down onto her dinner tray with revulsion and slid back with her chair to stand up. She could not eat now, even if there was this insistent voice in the back of her mind telling her that she would need her strength in the days to come. Yet before she had reached the window, a knock at the door interrupted her train of thought.

"Enter!"

The door was slowly opened, and in came Maelwyn, the young mother of two whom they had taken into their household four years ago.

"My Lady…" The chambermaid inclined her head in an implied bow and made for the table. "My Lady, you did not eat anything at all? Can I get you something else, perhaps? A soup, or perhaps-"

Éowyn shook her head."

"I am not hungry, Maelwyn, thank you. Please, take the tray away. And go home, it is late. We've kept you for far too long today. I am sure your family misses you already."

The young woman smiled, but did not dare to meet her mistresses' eyes.

"I do not mind, my Lady. I like to be where I'm able to help."

"And help you did," Éowyn replied, a sudden wave of thankfulness rising within her. "Please know that I appreciate it. There is little enough warmth between people in our hall these days. But go now, I do not want to keep you from your family any longer. I will see you tomorrow. Good night, Maelwyn."

"Good night, Lady Éowyn." Balancing the tray in her hands, Maelwyn made for the door when another knock came.

'It's him. It's him. Curse him! Can't he even leave me alone for one evening?' With a tightening feeling in her chest, Éowyn turned around and beheld the subject of her dread in the doorframe.

"Councillor Gríma?" Maelwyn lifted the tray to indicate that he was barring her way, and with an absent-minded smile, the son of Gálmod stepped aside, not even deigning to address a simple servant. Glad to be able to leave, but yet worried for her mistress, the chambermaid slipped through the narrow gap. The door was instantly closed behind her.

Inwardly, Éowyn braced herself for yet another confrontation with this most unnerving of men.

"I am about to go to bed, Councillor. Whatever it is, can it not wait until tomorrow?"

The colourless eyes rested on her face, scrutinizing. Revelling in her discomfort, she was sure of it.

"It surely could, my Lady," Gríma said calmly. "At least from my perspective, as there is nothing to be done about it at this late hour anyway. And yet I have a feeling that you would like to know about it, as it concerns you closely."

Despite her resolution to remain calm, Éowyn found herself infuriated, and her voice was cutting when she replied: "It is much too late for your riddles tonight, Councillor Gríma. Either speak clearly or leave."

The merest hint of a smirk played around Wormtongue's pale lips, but it did not reach his eyes, which stayed glued to her face like those of an insect, a praying mantis perhaps, eager to read any emotion there she would be careless enough to let slip.

"As you wish, my Lady…" Gríma straightened, making no secret of the fact that he was enjoying this little scene. "One of my scouts just returned. He told me that your brother is riding north… not west."

For the longest moment, Éowyn could only stare at her adversary. Her brain refused to process the information Gríma had just given her. Was it even information? Or a blatant lie, to see her reaction? And if it was the truth… but there had been the look her brother had given her just before he had stormed off. That look… 'Éomer, what have you done?!'

"You have nothing to say to that, my Lady? Should I repeat it?"

"I heard you loud and clear, Councillor." Her thoughts were racing. 'Uncle forbade it, Éomer! He forbade it and you did it anyway! Aye, it might have been necessary, but don't you know how this can end for you?' "What do you expect to hear from me?'

Gríma shrugged.

"I don't know. I have no idea, what you would think about this, my Lady. Do you silently applaud your brother for defying your uncle? For defying me? Or are you upset? Because – I can see it in your eyes – you know the implications of this behaviour. We are not talking about a slap on the wrist for a stupid child."

Éowyn swallowed.

"You cannot seriously doubt my brother's commitment to the Mark, Councillor! He has given his blood for all of us repeatedly! In all the years in the Armed Forces, Éomer has saved thousands of lives!"

"And yet he acts against his King's explicit orders… thereby endangering the King's son, who has no way of knowing that the reinforcements he is counting, yes, even depending on, will not come. Tell me, my Lady, how should such behaviour be called? Inconsiderate? Rash?... Or calculating and rebellious?"

"Éomer loves the Prince like his own brother!" Éowyn brought out against the tightening of her throat. "If you want to insinuate-"

"And yet he endangers his life by ignoring his summons in the moment of extreme danger!" Gríma interrupted her. He narrowed his eyes and stepped closer, a snake ready to strike. "Mayhap it is true that your brother loves the Prince, my Lady, although at last, I fear, it has become only too clear that he loves the throne more! With your uncle fading, all that stands between him and the fulfilment of all his wishes is… your cousin! And after all this time, he finally sees the opportunity to dispose of him!"

"Out!" Éowyn pointed at the door, trembling with suppressed rage and only barely able to stop herself from assaulting her tormentor bodily. "Leave, Councillor! Lest I forget myself! Out! Or I call the guards!"

"I understand your denial, Lady Éowyn. Believe me, I do," Wormtongue replied cooly. He turned to go, and yet when he reached the door, onet final calculating glance back found the King's niece. "I did not tell the King yet. He is ill and needs his sleep. It will be the first thing he hears from me tomorrow morning though. What do you think, how will he react? Will he let things slide as before, now that his own son has been betrayed by his nephew?"

"Out!"

With an implied, mocking bow, her adversary closed the door behind himself. Acting on impulse, Éowyn stormed forward and threw herself against the wood. With trembling fingers, she turned the key, locking herself in. It felt better, at least a little bit. Nobody could disturb her now. Slowly she turned around, her back against the wood, eyes unseeing. The trembling spread over her entire body as the despair washed over her.

'Éomer!' she thought, her breath coming in silent, hard sobs. 'Brother, what have you done!'

oooo

EASTEMNET

It was still early and the mist was almost impenetrable when the éored reached the Entwash. The sun was not yet up and it would take some time before her pale face would burn itself through the thick greyness of the late winter morning. It was a bleak start into the day for the group of horsemen in the great emptiness of the Mark's Eastemnet.

Again they had ridden for over four hours at a pace that far exceeded how they usually patrolled their lands, and the effort was telling on horses and riders alike as they came to a brief halt.

From somewhere out of the grey swaths, the sound of approaching hoof beats alerted the riders, and many bows were readied with arrows fitted to the string. But it was only Anlaf, whom Éomer had sent ahead last night together with two other scouts in search of tracks. Letting his raised arm fall, Éomer signalled Éothain to join him as they rode ahead to meet the scout.

"Anlaf! You look as if you found something."

"Aye, Marshal!"

Both the man and his mount were out of breath, as if they had ridden for hours at this breakneck-speed. Éomer steered Firefoot alongside the light-grey stallion, indicating that he was listening.

"We found their tracks, my Lord. They were, in fact, hard to miss, even in this mist. Unfortunately, it appears that the orcs are already on our side of the Entwash. They must have crossed the bridge not fully two hours ago."

"Two hours ago!" Éomer exhaled in frustration. That accursed break they had taken! But it had been necessary.

Anlaf nodded.

"Aye. They've been running the whole time, still making for the Entwood. I've never seen any band of orcs move with such speed, especially since the wind betrayed our presence to them. They know we are on their tracks. We need to make haste if we want to intercept them before they reach the trees. The other two are still pursuing them." He caught his breath for a short moment, and then continued: "I fear Léod was right, it is a very great group! Well over two hundred strong, I would say. Probably closer to two hundred and fifty… and there many great orcs from Isengard among them. Uruks with the Necromancer's sign upon their armour."

"Any chance that they are just as exhausted as we are?" Éothain exchanged an alarmed glance with Éomer. Anlaf shook his head.

"It would be a miracle if they were not, but fact is, they have not yet slowed down. Something's lending them strength. I don't know what."

"Well, I've got my suspicions," Éomer snorted, and then turned Firefoot around to address his listening éored. "You heard Anlaf! We need to make haste if we want to intercept those orcs on their way to the Entwood! Under no circumstances can we allow them to reach the forest! You all know your horses well. Those of you riding horses of greater speed and stamina, follow me! We will try to get between the Entwood and the orcs! The rest follows Éothain!"

His captain nodded to himself.

"So, with Béma's help, we will surround them before they reach the Entwood. What then? Provided we even make it, we will be on our last legs. If we have to give battle then, it might end in disaster."

Éomer narrowed his eyes. There was no time now to think this through. He shook his head.

"First let's find them, Éothain. Then we will surround them, but stay outside the range of their bows. Once we've got them pinned like this, we will plan further. One step at a time." With a last glance at his Captain, Éomer turned his stallion around and kicked his heels into his sides. "Hiya, Firefoot!"

A good third of their éored followed their marshal as they accelerated along the glistening band of the Entwash…





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