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A Red Sun Rises
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
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.
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.
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.
"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."
"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."
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."
"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.
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?"
"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.
"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
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
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.
"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."
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.
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?'
"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."
"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?"
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!'
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."
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.
"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…
A RED SUN RISES
Thanks to all of you who reviewed my first chapters. Hopefull, you will enjoy this new instalment equally. Have a wonderful weekend, and may the weather allow you to read something… ;-)
Chapter 3: Games without Frontiers
Éowyn had foreseen that she would have trouble finding sleep even before Gríma had paid her his nightly surprise visit, and sure enough, when the blackness before her window turned into milky grey, the early morning light found Éomund's daughter still up to welcome it.
For a while, she had contemplated lying down anyway, even though rest had seemed an impossible hope, but the quieter it got in the Golden Hall, the more often Éomer's face had appeared before her inner eye, with that defiant sparkle in his hazel eyes… and Wormtongue's word had ricocheted through her head ceaselessly. 'We are not talking about a slap on the wrist of a stupid child!' No, it was execution he had been hinting at, of that she was sure. Execution or banishment, for there was no other punishment thinkable for traitors. Her brother… a traitor?
Yes, there had been rebellion in Éomer's eyes, but even more the overwhelming urge to do what he felt was right and help those who could not help themselves. The expression on his face as he had stood before the dais had been that of a man forced to choose between two evils. It had clearly anguished him not to be able to ride at once to the help of their beloved cousin, his most important ally in their eternal battle against annihilation.
Éowyn sighed. It was probably her brother's greatest weakness that he was not very skilled at hiding his emotions. Nor had he ever expressed an interest in that skill. Honesty was a trait that was valued highly among their people and especially among the riders, and those who kept their thoughts and feelings to themselves were usually regarded with suspicion. And yet here, within the snake-pit of the Golden Hall, with a master plotter like Gríma pitted against them, honesty and openness were hindrances, only fit to get oneself into trouble… and now trouble had found Éomer.
The question was: what could she do? How could she help him? Provided her brother returned victorious from his fight against the orcs, how could she ensure that he would not go from the stables directly to the gallows? Not that she believed that their uncle would actually use such drastic measure of punishment against his nephew… and yet these days, Éowyn found to her dismay that she felt no longer certain of anything. And as she could easily guess that the Worm would delight in telling his news to the King in the most drastic words, perhaps it would be helpful if she were there when he did it, as a calming and countering measure.
Quickly she refreshed herself and slipped into a new dress, giving her long tresses a less than thorough combing through in her haste to get to Théoden King before Gríma could do any irreparable damage. For a moment, she caught her reflection in the mirror… and saw her worry written clearly into her features. This would not do. Éowyn straightened… and regarded herself as she willed the mask upon her face, this unreadable expression behind which she could think what she want and not be caught by her adversary. It had taken her a while to master it, and she knew that it intrigued the Worm greatly, made her even more a target for his disgusting advances, but it also provided protection.
With the mask in place, the daughter of Éomund unlocked her door and quietly opened it. Noises were coming from the kitchens, where Elfgyth and her servants were already well into their preparations of the morning meal, but otherwise, the Great Hall was still asleep. Even the fire in the hearth was burning only lowly and was in need of new food in order to spread its warmth and light through the room.
Closing the door behind herself, Éowyn slipped silently over to the lowly flickering flames, stoked them with the poker and laid four thick logs into the hearth. For a moment, she waited and stared into the fire, watching as the wood was beginning to be consumed and enjoyed the warmth upon her face. The poker, too, felt nice and heavy in her hand, somehow… ready. Urging her. Yet inwardly she shook her head. She could hardly bash in Gríma's head, however strong her desire to do so… and still the question of what the consequences of such a deed would be intrigued her. If anyone actually killed the Worm… would their powerless council actually sentence his murderer? Would her uncle do so? Or would the Mark suddenly wake to see that they had been acting like the rabbit before the snake for far too long?
Abruptly, she laid the poker back. She was not about to find out… at least not today. Today, she would use a more subtle approach. Straightening, the daughter of Éomund directed her steps over to the kitchens, from where the wonderful smell of freshly baked bread emitted. She entered after a short knock and found the usual early morning bustle in place. Elfgyth, the elderly, often cranky, but very competent mistress of the kitchen, stopped dead in her track as she beheld their early visitor.
"Good morning, my lady! That is a surprise! What is it that we can do for you so early in the morning?"
Éowyn inclined her head in greeting.
"Good morning, Mistress Elfgyth. I would like to ask that you let me know when you have fixed the morning meal for the king. I would like to bring it to my uncle myself today."
"As you wish, my lady." The older woman nodded. "It will take about another half an hour. Will you be in your chambers, or-"
"I will return to fetch it myself, thank you, Mistress. There will be no need to send someone to find me."
"And how about your own breakfast, Lady Éowyn? What can we prepare for you? I assume you want to have the morning meal together with the king."
Éowyn nodded and found that, after the missed supper, she was indeed hungry.
"I will take whatever you prepare for the King, as well. Thank you, Mistress."
The sun had not yet fought her way entirely through the Entwash's mists when Éomer beheld the orc tracks for the first time himself. They were indeed hard to miss, the way a broad corridor of grass had been trampled as thoroughly as if one of their great herds had stampeded over it. He shared his scout's assessment: these orcs knew they were coming. They knew that there was no longer any use in stealth, and that speed alone could rescue them. Well, he, Éomer, son of Éomund, would personally see to it that it could not!
Squinting into the distance beyond Firefoot's ears, Éomer strained his eyes for any further signs of the enemy, but Saruman's brood was not to be seen yet. He laid a hand against the stallion's neck, feeling distinctly that the many leagues between Edoras and their current position were telling on his mount. The Grey's gait was no longer smooth, but he kept his speed up, preceding their vanguard of approximately forty riders. Sending a silent prayer to Béma to let them find the horde of orcs before they could disappear into the Entwood, Éomer settled back into the stupor of any long ride.
"My lord?... Uncle? Are you up?"
Having placed the heavy breakfast tray onto a little table near the door to the king's chambers, Éowyn strained her ears for signs of activity within and knocked.
"Uncle?" There was only silence, so she knocked again. "May I come in? I've got your breakfast…" At last, there was the noise of steps approaching the door from within. They sounded firm and energetic though, and not much like Théoden King's weak shuffle of the last days. Her heartbeat sped up, as her body identified the sound even sooner than her mind. Straightening before the door, Éowyn braced herself… and sure enough, it were Gríma's pale features which greeted her when the door was finally opened. The councillor's thin lips curved into an amused smile as he beheld their unexpected morning guest.
"Lady Éowyn! Up so early? And degrading yourself to the level of a servant by bringing us breakfast? How very attentive of you. I must admit that I am touched."
"The breakfast is for my uncle and me, dearest Councillor," Éowyn replied coolly, but unable to suppress her disdain completely. "If you haven't had any yet, may I suggest that you let Mistress Elfgyth know your choice?" Not waiting for Gríma's reply, she took her tray and carried it into the chambers.
Still in his morning robes, Théoden already sat at the large wooden table near the south-looking window, a steaming mug of tea before him. There was surprise in his eyes when he beheld his niece, but even more, Éowyn could see the deep lines of pain upon his face, both bodily and spiritually. 'Has Gríma already told him?' she asked herself, praying that it was not so.
"Good morning, Uncle," she said, and forced herself to smile as she put down the tray on the table. "I brought us breakfast." She bowed down to kiss the old man's cheek while behind her, Gríma closed the door again and approached.
"You are up early, Éowyn," Théoden wondered, and while he still looked ill, he also appeared to be more aware than she had seen him in weeks. Éowyn wondered how that could be as she arranged the dishes and plates on the table.
"I woke up and could not fall asleep again," she lied, feeling the Worm's gaze upon her back. "So I thought we could break our fast together this morning for once in a while." 'And how much nicer it would be if you sent that filth behind me out!'
A thankful smile lit up the old man's eyes, something Éowyn had likewise not experienced in a long time, and he grasped her hand as she sat down beside him. 'He is so much livelier this morning! Oh Béma, can you please let him stay like this?'
"A wonderful idea, my dear."
Théoden's joy was genuine, but Gríma's smug expression as he sat himself down unasked on the opposite side of the table almost curdled the milk in Éowyn's mouth. She put down her mug and stabbed her piercing eyes against the Councillor's in the first duel of the day.
"Whatever it is that made you turn up so early in my uncle's chambers, dearest Councillor, I believe it can wait until the King has eaten."
The smirk on Wormtongue's face deepened. He knew what she was trying to do. He would not allow it. Calmly, he meet her gaze.
"I am afraid it cannot, my lady. It is too important, alas." He shifted his attention to the suddenly straightening Théoden, and silently, Éowyn cursed him. 'Can you not even wait for another thirty minutes to spread your misery, Snake? Can you not bear it to see him happy?'
"What is it, Gríma?" her uncle asked, sudden alarm in his eyes. He swallowed the little bite he had already taken.
"Sire…" Gríma took a deep breath, and Éowyn narrowed her eyes disdainfully at his bad acting. And yet Théoden did not seem to see how fake his councillor's anguish was. "I do not know how to tell you this… it concerns your nephew. Of course it concerns your nephew."
Now the king sighed, and his unnerved expression worried Éowyn greatly.
"What did Éomer do this time? Béma knows my problems are great enough without him adding to them. One would really think the lad could be more considerate."
"That is certainly true, Sire, yet I fear that this time, your nephew has outdone himself. Despite your clear orders to ignore the orcs his scout told us about yesterday, and ride to your son's aid at the Fords, he chose a northern route… towards the Entwood."
The King stared at him, aghast.
"The Entwood? But that would mean…"
"…that your son will wait in vain for reinforcements when the sword strike comes from Isengard. Aye, my lord. I'm afraid that is exactly what it means." Mercilessly, Gríma stabbed his pale eyes against Théoden's, satisfied with what he saw there, and ignored Éowyn's little daggers of hatred. But it was not yet enough… and he had more to give! "That alone is bad enough, as it puts your son in a very dangerous position… but it also endangers us, I'm afraid. For your nephew did not even leave us the forty men of his éored he had promised to strengthen Captain Céorl's éored for the city's protection during his absence. No, he rode forth against that band of orcs with his full strength. One hundred and twenty riders occupied with annihilating marauding beasts in a territory where the worst they could do is trample the vegetation."
"He did not even leave us those riders?" Théoden paled, and Éowyn felt an icy shudder race down her spine.
"I'm afraid not, Sire." Wormtongue lowered his gaze and regarded his hands on the table. "All that stand between us and possible disaster are Captain' Céorl's men. One hundred and twenty riders to protect us, should the enemy decide to make a bid for Edoras while your nephew has gone orc-hunting." His brows twitched. "I cannot say that this thought makes me feel particularly safe, my lord."
"But…" Théoden turned his head, and his horrified and confused look found Éowyn. "Did you know about this, Éowyn?"
"Councillor Gríma told me about it late last night, Uncle," she said truthfully, and Gríma was quick to throw in: "You were already asleep, Sire, and since there was nothing to be done about it anyway, I decided that it could wait until now. Sleep is your greatest ally in getting back to health, my lord."
"Did Éomer mention anything to you about this?"
Éowyn shook her head.
"Uncle, I saw and heard what you heard when he stood before you. I was not granted the opportunity to speak with my brother after he had left the hall. And yet I firmly believe that Éomer must have had a good reason-"
"A good reason to forsake his brother in all but blood and the people of Edoras, you mean?" Wormtongue interrupted her again. "Aye, I can name it for you: your brother is making his bid for the throne!" He looked at Théoden. "Sire, for all these past years I have been warning you about this snake in your house-"
"You will not call my brother a snake, or a traitor, or whatever else in my presence!" Éowyn slid back with her chair and stood up, both hands on the table and raw fury in her eyes, despite her earlier vow to restrain herself. Enough was enough. "Uncle, you cannot believe him! For all these past years, Éomer fought valiantly alongside Théodred! They regard each other as brothers!"
"Which makes this betrayal even more loathsome!" Wormtongue snarled, likewise getting up. Hatefully they regarded each other over the table, their king momentarily forgotten… until Théoden lifted his hand.
"Silent, both of you!" He stared at Éowyn. "What has gotten into you, Sister-Daughter? Is this the way to behave in the presence of your king? And may I remind you of the station of the man you are yelling at? Your conduct is in no way acceptable!"
Swallowing what lay on the tip of her tongue with only the greatest effort, Éowyn lowered her voice, only barely succeeding in not making it sound like a growl.
"I apologize, Sire… and yet I beg you to consider. Your nephew has never given you reason for complaint, no matter what Councillor Gríma says. Under his protection, the Eastmark has been as safe as humanly possible for the past years. The number of lives Éomer saved in all those years cannot be counted. All hold him in high esteem, the simple people as much as our Riders!"
"And yet, alas, it seems clear now that, for all this time, your brother has been following a hidden agenda," Théoden set against her pleading, and the look upon his lined face froze Éowyn's blood. 'Béma help me, he believes Gríma! For the first time in weeks, his mind actually seems to be working, but… he actually believes him!'
"Well spoken, Sire," Wormtongue agreed, slowly sitting down again. His pale eyes found Éomund's daughter. "I realize, of course, how painful this realization must be for you, my lady. And I can certainly understand that you would want to lash out at someone, but I am asking you to bear in mind that I am only the messenger of these tidings. Fact is: your brother was summoned by the Prince, his commanding marshal, for the foreseeable event of a massive attack from Isengard. His king explicitly forbade him to intercept that band of orcs in the middle of nowhere, because the situation at the Fords was way more precarious… and yet Éomer rode forth with his full strength, not even leaving us the forty men he had promised us as protection. No, with his full strength he rode against those orcs, leaving both your cousin and the people of Edoras in a dire position. His actions are neither warranted, nor could they be called inconsiderate or rash… It is what it is, my lady… Sire… It is protest, it is rebellion… and it is treason."
"Alas, Gríma, I fear you are right." Théoden King let himself be heard, with great sorry in his voice. He shook his head despondently. "And I had such high hopes for that lad… it breaks my heart."
Stifling silence followed his words. Éowyn's heart beat furiously, pumped the blood through her veins so vigorously that she could barely hear more than its rush in her ears. With a deep breath, she turned her head. Her uncle sat in his chair, eyes unseeing in the distance behind the walls… pain and regret edged into his features… and she realized she had lost.
"You are wrong…" she whispered breathlessly, beaten and yet defiant. She swallowed, bile rising in her throat.
"Éowyn… will you leave us alone, please?" Théoden looked at her with immeasurable sadness, and instinctively, she understood that her uncle would discuss her brother's fate with the Worm as soon as she was gone… and there was nothing she could do. Or was there? It was a wild idea that suddenly gripped her, a last attempt that could very easily go terribly wrong. A last, desperate measure to resort to which she had to try. She nodded.
"Aye, Uncle. But please, grant me the opportunity to have a private word with you before I go. I promise I will not keep you for long."
"And by 'private', you are meaning-"
"Alone. Without Councillor Gríma." She looked Gríma in the face, grimly satisfied over seeing his obvious discontent. "Please. I beg you."
With a sharp breath, Théoden shifted his attention to the waiting man.
"Councillor, may I ask you to wait outside?"
"My lord, I am not sure-"
"Your king gave you a command," Éowyn lifted her chin. The Worm narrowed his eyes at her, a deadly promise in those pale irises. No doubt planning to let her bleed for this insult by thinking up the most horrible fate for her brother. Not knowing that what she would tell her uncle would foil his plans…or at least she hoped so.
At last, the hint of a cruel smirk tugged at Gríma's lips, and he turned around.
"Very well. I will be waiting by the hearth. My lady… Sire…" He left the King's chambers with markedly measured steps, but Éowyn imagined that she could almost see the thundercloud above his head. It was only a small, temporary victory, but it lifted her mood… if only for a few heartbeats. When the door clicked shut again, she turned around and collected what was left of her courage.
Théoden looked at her questioningly.
"What is it, Éowyn? What do you have to tell me that you do not want Gríma to hear?"
She took a deep breath, and suddenly, a great calm overcame her… and a clear sense of inevitability. If she uttered this, there would be no way back. She locked eyes with the king.
"I know what it is what you are going to discuss with him, Uncle," she said, and closed her eyes for a moment. Pulled herself together. "While you are doing this, I want you to keep this in mind: it is your nephew you will be talking about. Your nephew, whom you raised as your own son."
"Éowyn, I am aware-" Her uplifted hand silenced Théoden.
"But he is also my brother, and he is all I have left of our family." She swallowed, and lifted her chin even higher, looking down on the man before her. "Should you decide to execute Éomer, you should know that you will annihilate the line of Eorl the Young once and for all… for I will follow him. I will kill myself. Let Béma be my witness when I say this. I swear it by Eorl's blood."
The watery-blue eyes before her stared at her in shock, and the silence became deafening. Théoden's mouth worked, but no sound came out. Éowyn inhaled. There, it was out now, and she was bound by her oath. Time to end this, for she felt a great weakness coming.
"I could not live with the knowledge that I was the only survivor of our family, and that my uncle killed my brother unjustly. Nor could I bear the sight of you ever again, Uncle. Bear this in mind: if you kill Éomer, you will kill me, as well… That is all." And without waiting for Théoden's reaction, or asking his permission to leave, she turned around and walked out of his chambers with firm, deliberate steps.
A RED SUN RISES
It's been a while since I posted the last chapter. Mea culpa! I didn't mean to interrupt the story for so long, but a nasty spell of RL prevented me from letting Éomer and his men slay those bloody orcs! I hope I will be able to finish with this before the next wave of frenzy hits, and as always, look forward to hearing from you! I dedicate this chapter to Thanwen, who has been waiting for far too long for her carnage…
Chapter 4: The Enemy
"Will these bastards ever slow down?" Aedwulf growled, his eyes glued to the broad track in the grass as he sat on his hard-breathing stallion. They were back to walking again, a necessary measure to ensure that their horses did not collapse beneath them after countless hours of hard pursuit. "They cannot keep on running like this forever!"
"It *is* unnatural," Anlaf conceded, shaking his head in disbelief. "We should long since have overtaken them. Which makes me wonder…"
Éomer, who had silently been riding beside them for the last half an hour, lifted an eyebrow, wordlessly urging his scout on to elaborate. The older man took a deep breath, and his brow creased with further worry as he stared into the distance before them.
"These orcs demonstrate unusual stamina. What if their powers are otherwise increased to an unnatural level, as well? Provided we ever overtake them… a nasty surprise could be waiting for us when we face them in battle."
Éomer inhaled sharply. Of course! It was only prudent to conclude that their enemies' unusual performance did not end with their increased endurance. He felt Aedwulf's alarmed look upon himself, but addressed his scout.
"Good thinking, Anlaf. I suppose that is indeed very possible." He took a deep breath and at last, met his Captain's concerned look. "We will only find out once we've engaged them. But until then…"
On impulse, he tugged at Firefoot's reins and held up his arm. Quickly, his vanguard closed around him, listening.
"Anlaf here has just made a valid point, something we will need to concern ourselves with once we have found those bloody orcs!" he said. "I assume you all have noticed by now their unusual endurance. By all rights, we should long have overtaken them by now, but something lends them strength." Éomer's gaze travelled over his Riders' expectant faces. "We do not know how far their unusual strength goes. Whether it's only their increased endurance… or increased power and ferociousness, as well."
He saw rising concern in the men's eyes and held up his hand.
"So, once we've found them, I want you to use range weapons only. At least at first. Shoot them with your bows, or throw your spears, but do not get too close. We cannot be sure yet what we are dealing with here. Whether these are a new breed of orc, or whether they have taken a strengthening potion, or…"
Éomer shrugged and quickly swallowed his words about the Necromancer's magic possibly being responsible for their enemies' performance. There was no use in further troubling his Riders by uttering such extreme possibilities. They were all in strung-out shape and would need the rest of their resolve and concentration to remain focussed on their task.
Speaking of which… He narrowed his eyes. Someone was approaching them at breakneck speed, from the direction they were riding at. Seeing his reaction, the others turned around, hands closing around their sword hilts and several bows rising.
"It's Garulf!" Anlaf cried, having recognized the man's unusually coloured mount first. He climbed into the saddle, and a quick heel to his horse's side made the stallion jump into a tired gallop to meet the other scout. A moment later, the man who had first raised the alarm was among them.
"Lord Éomer! Marshal!" Entirely out of breath, it seemed to cost the rider enormous effort just to fill his lungs. "So glad to see you! Are these all the riders you brought?" He frowned with obvious worry.
Éomer shook his head.
"Our full éored is coming. This is only the vanguard. The rest is not far behind us, under Èothain's command."
Relief spread over Garulf's features.
"That is well, for there are well over two hundred orcs ahead of us. You would not have stood a chance with only forty riders." He turned his horse around, aware of how pressed they were for time. "We need to make haste. The enemy has already made it more than halfway to the Entwood. If they reach it before us…"
"Aye. That's why we are here." Éomer gave his men the signal to proceed. Upon his sign, the éored picked up speed again. A quick glance at the sky revealed to him that afternoon was well on its way, and nightfall little more than three hours distant. "How close are we?"
"Half an hour behind them, perhaps?" The older man followed his Marshal's gaze. "Certainly no further. The land flattens a bit from here on until it begins to rise again to the Entwood, so you should soon be able to see them."
"And they will see us." Éomer's mien darkened.
"Oh, they already know you are coming, Marshal." Garulf met his gaze full-on. "They've been running all day as if a wildfire were raging behind them. They know you are on their heels." He shook his head, apparently angry with himself. "I must ask you to forgive me, though, my Lord, as I fear that I will need a brief respite now. I cannot keep up with you. I will rejoin you with the rest of your éored, if you will permit it."
"Of course I permit it, Garulf." Èomer quickly laid a hand on the scout's shoulder. "You've been following them the whole time, you must be on your last legs." He looked the man full in the face. "The Mark thanks you for raising the alarm. You are the reason we are out here."
"I'm doing… nothing but my duty," the older man panted, and then tugged at the reins. His horse was only too happy to comply, and a moment later, the scout was left in the dust of the accelerating éored.
"Half an hour?" Aedwulf directed his stallion alongside Firefoot, and his expression was vaguely hopeful. "So we have been catching up on them."
Éomer nodded grimly as he felt his stallion grumble deep in his chest over his silent plea to run faster. And yet the great grey accelerated once more.
"Aye, Captain. We will catch them before the sun goes down. Mark my words. We will soon be upon them."
Éowyn reined in Windfola and turned her around to face the lonely hill on which Meduseld sat, its thatched roof shimmering golden in the afternoon sun. The cold March gusts played with her tresses and she enjoyed the caress of the clear, cold air upon her face. How she wished to stay here, out on the plains, instead of the stuffy, dark hall! Far away from that sickly pale human monster that had seized control of her home and turned her days into an unending nightmare.
After her memorable scene in her uncle's chambers, she had made straight for her room to don a riding habit and head out, unwilling to tolerate the Worm's presence even a moment longer that morning. She could only guess whether Théoden King would tell him about her threat when they proceeded to discussing Éomer's fate. Of course Gríma would sniff foul play if the King did not agree to his plans, and she did not doubt that one way or the other, he would be able to pry the reason for the older man's reluctance from his mind. How would he react? She would find out very soon.
With a deep breath and a brief quiver in her stomach, Éomund's daughter looked back over her shoulder at her guards and wondered at the same time how wonderful it would feel to be out here by herself. Uncontrolled and free to do whatever she wanted. It was not like they made Éomer take guards with him whenever he felt like going for a ride. She sighed at the injustice. It was also not as if she did not know how to wield a sword, herself. She was fully able to defend herself.
A frown crept onto Éowyn's face as she stared north. Somewhere far beyond her range of vision, there was her brother, just now making his way to the Entwood with his éored to battle those accursed orcs… and, provided he survived that battle, he would be greeted as a traitor upon his return. He would be incarcerated, banished or killed for risking his life to protect those who could not protect themselves. What was the injustice of not being able to roam freely wherever she wished compared to what Éomer was facing? What right had she to complain?
Éowyn swallowed, her temporarily good mood rapidly deteriorating at the thought of having to head back into the snake pit.
"My Lady?" Alfríc, the younger one of her two guards, rode into her range of view, his expression worried. "Is ought wrong? Is there anything we can do for you?"
She looked at him, at the same time appreciating his concern and loathing his intrusion. How young he still was. Younger than Éomer, and already a member of the esteemed Royal Guard. Yet in his eyes she read open concern, for which she was grateful.
"It's nothing, Alfríc," she said with an effort to smile at him. "I was just lost in thought for a moment."
"The sun will soon go down," Wulfhart, the other guard, said as he approached. "We should head back, my Lady."
She nodded, and her heart sank even lower. She knew who would be expecting her at the Golden Hall's doors and she had no way of escaping him. Her stomach tightened at the thought. Never before had the hall's silhouette looked so threatening to her.
With a brief command, Éomund's daughter directed her mare back towards the ascending path. The whole way back, her stomach sent clammy shivers through her body, to the point where Eowyn felt no longer certain she would be able to keep its contents down.
She took extraordinarily long to free Windfola of her tack and rub her down afterwards, although the stablehands offered to relieve her of this task. But at long last, the inevitable could no longer be delayed.
It was already dark when she emerged from the stables, her gaze instantaneously drawn to the brightly illuminated hall. Her legs felt like wooden sticks as she ascended the stairs; her hands involuntarily balled into fists. There were the door wards, curiously looking at her and, inclining their heads in greeting, opened the massive wooden door.
Éowyn stepped in, barely daring to breathe. As always, the fire in the hearth did not reach all of Meduseld's niches, but more than her eyes, it were her instincts which told Éomund's daughter that a miracle had happened: Gríma was not there.
Vaguely wondering what he was up to and already knowing that it could be nothing good, the White Lady of Rohan quickly disappeared into her chambers, almost ashamed to feel momentarily relieved.
Another endless slope. Not too steep, but long, and further draining their horses' power. An endless sea of grass waves rolling beneath them and obscuring their sight. All that Éomer could tell was that they had by now passed the flat expense of Eastemnet, and that the land had begun to rise again towards the Entwood and the Misty Mountains behind it.
The sun hung lowly in the sky and cast its orange rays over the hills and dales, thereby turning the landscape into a confusing pattern of light and shadow. And yet suddenly, Éomer straightened in the saddle, a flash of adrenaline shooting through him even before his mind had consciously discerned the reason for his reaction. Something was moving in the shadows before them. An even darker shadow, spread into a thin, long shape that consisted of many separate bodies. At last!
Cries erupted from his riders, and suddenly, tension filled the air.
"There they are!"
"Faster! We must ride faster! They have almost reached the forest!"
Unhooking his horn, Aedwulf cast a brief glance over to his marshal, who gave him a brief nod.
"Let it sound, Aedwulf. They've already seen us. Now, let's put terror into them!" Éomer freed his own horn from his belt, and, upon a short look that showed him that the rest of his vanguard was waiting for his signal, he blew into it.
A sharp, many-voiced alarm rang out over the upwards sloping land under the orange light of the setting sun; an aggressive sound that promised violence and death to the enemy. Even from a distance, the Riders could make out how most of the orcs turned their heads, stumbling as momentum carried them further. No sound could yet be heard of them over the thunder of the éored's hooves, but suddenly, a great group burst from the main body of the orc army, making for the forest with every ounce of strength they had left.
Aedwulf laughed grimly, all exhaustion forgotten at the sight of the enemy.
"Ha, they run like hares! But it will not avail them."
Through Firefoot's laboured breathing, Éomer felt the deep grunt he already knew so well. It was his stallion's way of letting him know that he was ready for whatever his rider would ask of him. That he, too, wanted the death of their common enemy. Thankful, Éomer laid a hand against the wet, grey neck, clapping it. Telling Firefoot that he understood and appreciated his cooperation. Somewhere, after all these hours of hard pursuit, the war-horse found the strength to accelerate.
A brief glance into the orange sun revealed to Éomer that it was the last possible moment for their attack; darkness could be no more than thirty minutes distant. Their shadows lengthened behind them in the red light, while those who cast them had almost reached the deformed blackness trailing the big orc group before them. Soon, they would be upon them, and although the son of Éomund felt strung out after the long ride, he also felt the familiar tensing of his muscles, and the hot stream of battle readiness flooding his body. A grim smile appeared upon his face.
His men reacted at once, grey and blue eyes focussing on the running orcs like a hawk's upon a mouse.
"Fan out! Encircle them before they reach the trees! I need ten riders to follow me! We will overtake and block them!" He looked at Aedwulf. "The rest of the éored is yours, Captain. Bring them up behind and alongside that foul brood. Feel free to inflict maximum damage upon them whilst doing that, just remember: don't get too close yet. Good hunting!"
"And to you, Marshal!" The older man inclined his head in greeting. The next moment, he was gone. Left behind by a powerful burst of speed as Firefoot stretched beneath his rider, hooves hammering the ground in a mad rhythm. It was met by a grim laugh from Éomer.
"Forth, Éorlingas! Let's get them!"
He ducked as the stallion's dark mane whipped his face, enjoying the obvious dismay amongst their enemies as several orcs again burst from the main body of their group, panicking. 'Run all you like, you cannot escape, filth!' he thought, pleased with how quickly they were closing the gap now. Apparently, their foes' unusual endurance was coming to an end. Éomer felt very tempted to send his arrows into the dark mass of wildly fleeing orcs, but fought the instinct down. Once they had overtaken this group, then their exchange of deadly pleasantries would begin, and not a moment sooner… although, he saw, their enemy saw this differently, as several bows were being pointed in his riders' direction.
"Arrows! Watch it!"
A dark, deadly rain rushed at them, shot on the run and most projectiles wildly astray, burying their deadly heads harmlessly in the grass.
Behind him, Éomer heard his men laugh with ridicule, and relaxed slightly. So, those orcs still had the same, weak bows as before. That was good news. There was probably the odd crossbow to be feared, but it was nearly impossible to shoot it with any precision on the run, let alone reload it. Things were beginning to look better.
They were flanking the group now, herding them, in fact. Even as he looked, several of the great orcs stumbled and fell, already being targeted by his vanguard's rear. Before them, dark and forbidding in the growing twilight, the Entwood rose from the ground, a natural barrier for horse and rider, but not for orcs.
They would make it, though. They were just in time! Reaching over his back, he unslung his bow. Now for the hairy part: stopping this dark, fanged mass of stinking beasts from entering the forest. He fitted his first arrow to the string.
"Éorlingas, follow me!" he cried, and swerved right, directly into the path of their enemy.
For a moment, the orcs proceeded, and in the orange light, their gaping mouths with their sets of horrifying fangs were all Éomer could see as they stormed toward him… and then the first row fell, slaughtered by a hail of arrows released by his fellow riders. The beasts immediately behind the felled orcs stumbled over their brethren and mayhem ensued.
They fired a second volley into the orcs, again dropping many of them, but already, Éomer could see the ones behind them raise their bows and crossbows at them.
"Spread out!" he cried, and threw Firefoot around. With a deadly whisper, the arrows raced towards them, and Éomer felt the impact of two of them against his shin guard and chest armour.
Then a great roar rose from the back of the orc group, where Aedwulf and his men had entered the fray, and the Uruks in front of them whirled around. And yet even while they did, Éomer noticed the bright white hand upon their helmets. He cursed. For many months he had suspected the Necromancer to be the source of their troubles in Westfold, and here at long last, was the proof he had been seeking for all this time! His evil grin deepened at the thought what Grima would say once he confronted him with his knowledge.
Mentally making a note to himself to take one of these helmets with him to Edoras when they returned, Éomer released another arrow into the orcs. A quick glance around confirmed to him that his men had succeeded in encircling their foes, and now, even over the din of their melee, the sound of horns rose and announced the arrival of the rest of their éored.
'Thank you, Béma!'
Panic broke out among the orcs now, and again, a group stormed toward him in blind fear, their crude swords raised to hack to pieces everything in their path.
"Back! Come back, you fools!" a loud, guttural voice rose over the din. "Come back or die!"
A sharp swishing sound could be heard, and most of the group fell with arrows sticking out of their necks and heads. The few survivors quickly turned around and ran towards a hulking great shape further back on a little hillock.
Éomer narrowed his eyes as he brought Firefoot to a stop. So, that seemed to be their commander, and it looked as if the great orc had already succeeded in gathering the remainder of his troops and distributing them in a tight circle around himself, bows and crossbows raised and ready to fire at anything within range. A deadly blockade that would claim many lives if they continued with their attack in this way, still over two hundred strong, if he were to risk a guess.
Reluctantly, he unhooked his horn and blew into it, telling his men to stop. The first part of battle was over. It had been clear to him from the first sighting of this group that they could not possibly hope to finish them off in one go, no matter how pressed for time they were. Perhaps a few years earlier, Éomer would have dared it nonetheless, but the shrewd strategist he had become in the meantime knew that a different approach had to be employed now if he did not want to risk his riders' lives.
The signal was quickly picked up and passed on, until, at last, neither orc nor rider on the battlefield were moving. In the last, red light of the sinking sun, men and beasts stared at each other, and all understood that it would be a long night and that not all would live to see the next morning…
A RED SUN RISES
Chapter 5: Dark Hours
A last ray of light bathed the battlefield into fiery redness and was reflected on drawn swords and steel armour, then the sun disappeared behind the Misty Mountains, and immediately, the twilight began to thicken.
Éomer knew what their most immediate need was, and as Aedwulf and Anlaf approached to give him their status, he shouted: "I will hear your reports later! We need fires, or those orcs will attack again as soon as it's dark. Send your men to collect wood at the fringe of the forest, but tell them not to enter it! Quick!"
Both warriors checked their horses and took off in the opposite direction. With a wary eye upon the unmoving orcs, Éomer let his gaze wander over the battlefield. There was still movement among the felled enemies, but they lay within range of their brethren's bows, so finishing them off was out of the question for now. He estimated that they had killed or wounded between thirty and forty of the foul brood, and felt slightly disappointed. Apparently, the opposite captain was an experienced warrior, and his strategy promised to keep them occupied for a good while longer.
Éomer sighed and sent a short, concerned glance at the dark red western horizon. Somewhere over there, many leagues away, Théodred was holding off Saruman's hordes right now, counting on his appearance. They could ill afford to waste time in a siege, but sacrificing his riders in a costly attack was something they could afford even less. As difficult as it was, they had to exercise caution for now. Patience was the need of the hour, even if he hated the very word.
From the corner of his eye, Éomer saw a familiar rider approach, and greeted him with a relieved nod.
"Éothain! You came at the right time. Are all your riders well?"
His friend shrugged.
"One rider was wounded when his horse took an arrow to the neck and fell. There was no time yet to examine him, but I fear that he might have broken his leg. His horse we had to put down." He sighed. "So, what now? We cannot attack them like this, it would end disastrous for us. But we can also not wait until exhaustion overcomes them. This would take at least a couple of days."
"I agree." Éomer nodded. "For now, let's build a ring of watch fires around them. We must make sure that they do not slip by us in the dark. I want a fire every one hundred paces, with two guards in the middle, just outside their shooting range. Let's see to this, first, and talk later."
"Aye, Marshal." Turning Scatha around, Éothain took off without any further ado.
Éomer followed his progress for a moment longer, and then cast a dark glance at the sky. The light was fading fast now; their situation still precarious and the standoff fragile. With another deep breath, the Third Marshal of the Mark urged his mount forth, intent on rounding their trapped foes to map the terrain while there was still something left to see. This would be another long night…
"It is a bit loose, don't you think, Maelwyn? I do like the fabric and the colour, but it is too large."
Éowyn tugged at the dark green wool around her hips and regarded herself in the mirror with a sceptical frown upon her face. After her return, she had spent the rest of the afternoon bathing and washing her hair, always expecting the dreadful knock upon her door, which – miraculously – had not come, and now it was time for the evening meal. The tension she had felt at first upon had subsided for a few blissful hours, but now that she was at last ready to leave her chambers, the familiar clammy feeling in her stomach was making a most unwelcome return.
Annoyed with herself, Éowyn decided to get it over with as quickly as possible. She could not hide here from the Worm for all eternity, as if she had done anything wrong. Better to face him head-on and be done with it. And also, she needed to know what they had decided. Hopefully, there would be an opportunity to speak with her Uncle alone later in the evening.
"I seem to remember that it was fitting you well when you tried it on a couple of weeks ago, my lady," her handmaid said, still busy with the laces of her bodice. "You have not been eating too well these past days." Another tug and a knot later, she was finished and looked appraisingly at Éowyn's reflection. "You are looking wonderful in it, my lady. No one will notice that it might be a little loose. It might be just the right thing to wear for dinner, in fact. You will be able to eat without feeling constricted in any way."
"True." Éowyn turned around, a faint, thankful smile upon her lips. "Thank you, Maelwyn. I suppose this will be all for today. Go now, and have a wonderful evening with your family. I have kept you long enough."
"I like to help wherever I can, Lady Éowyn." The young handmaid cast down her eyes, blushing. "Please, speak no more of it."
Éowyn's smile deepened.
"It is appreciated though, Maelwyn," she said, and turned toward the door. "I want you to know this." Time to face what lay behind it. With deep breath, she depressed the handle. 'I am not afraid of him! He cannot harm me!'She stepped into the hall, relieved to see the tables near the hearth well occupied. "Good night, Maelwyn."
"Good night, my lady."
Slipping into her thick woollen cape, her handmaid quickly left the hall, and Éowyn directed her steps over to the tables. In the flickering light of the hearth fire and the torches, Eomund's daughter was able to discern several people of their household, though her uncle was not among them. Neither was Grima. Vaguely relieved, but at the same time wondering again what the Worm was up to that kept him away for so long, Éowyn let her glance wander around the tables and, to her surprise, discovered Éothain's parents at one of them. With a questioning smile upon her lips, she approached the couple and indicated a courtesy.
"Lady Glenwyn… Lord Céorl… How wonderful to see you tonight!"
"And you, my lady!" Céorl, the Captain of one of the Edoras-based éoreds, stood up with an inviting gesture. "You are looking radiant tonight. If you have not already eaten, we would be honoured to share our table with you."
"The honour is entirely mine, Captain. I would be delighted."
Nodding her thanks as she sat down on the bench, Éowyn glanced at Éothain's mother. Approaching her middle years, Lady Glenwyn was a regal, intelligent woman, and it was an open secret that many of her suggestions and ideas found their way into the council by way of her husband. Right now, however, the expression in her piercing grey-blue eyes was worried, and it brought back Éowyn's anxiety with a pang.
Céorl sat back down and looked in the direction of the kitchen.
"Elfgyth was just here a moment ago. I could go and get her-"
"She said she would be right back, my dear," Lady Glenwyn reminded him with a gentle smile and turned to Éowyn.
"What a pleasure to see you, Lady Éowyn. It has been a while."
"Aye," Éowyn nodded. "Three weeks at least, or even four? I must admit, I am surprised to see you in Meduseld tonight. To what special occasion do we owe the pleasure?"
The smile dropped from Glenwyn's lips.
"We were summoned."
"Summoned?" Éowyn lifted her eyebrows, and the cold feeling in her stomach intensified. "By the King?"
"The King and his councillor." Céorl looked as tense as she felt. "We do not yet know why. And Éothain could not tell us as he is on the way to Westfold."
'No, he isn't,' Éowyn thought desperately. 'At present, he is riding north with Éomer. And you have not even been informed about this, yet?' She felt no longer hungry. Had Gríma summoned the couple to let them know that their son would be executed as a traitor upon his return? If he was not permitted to kill Éomer, would he resort to the next best punishment – killing his adversary's best friend?
The older woman's gaze pierced her.
"You would not know what business it is that made Théoden-King call us to the Golden Hall this evening, would you, my Lady?"
'Get a hold of yourself!' Éowyn scolded herself, then forced herself to shake her head. "I'm afraid I cannot tell you," she answered. "I did not see the king all afternoon. Or Lord Grima." Which was the truth. And yet it felt like a lie to her. She was thankful when she saw one of the kitchen staff approach their table with a heavy-looking tray.
"My ladies… Lord Céorl…" The young woman sat down her load and distributed the dishes, bowls and cutlery with skilled efficiency. A wonderful smell wafted to Éowyn, and yet she still asked herself how she was supposed to eat anything now in the presence of the worried couple. Alessa, she remembered the kitchen maid's name, looked at her questioningly. "And what may I bring you, Lady Éowyn?"
Éowyn cast a quick glance at the set table before her, and then back into the freckled young face.
"The soup looks good. That, and a piece of bread, please."
"The boar is particularly good tonight, my Lady," Alessa suggested. "Mistress Elfgyth prepared it all afternoon. She is very proud of it. Shouldn't I just bring you a tiny piece to try-?"
"Just the soup, Alessa. And some wine. Thank you." Éowyn was aware that her tone had been unusually harsh, and she felt immediately sorry when the young woman turned away with tale-tell red hue upon her face. Yet before she could resume the conversation with Èothain's parents, movement at the hall's doors claimed her attention. This time, it was the one she had been dreading to see.
'Where has he been all afternoon?' she wondered as she followed his path with her eyes. His cape looked damp, and his features even paler than usual. He looked cold, as if he had been outside for a long time. But why? 'What hideous plans has he wrought this time… and with whom?'
As if he had heard her thoughts, Wormtongue's head suddenly snapped around, and his colourless eyes found her. For a moment, he stood in the shadows, returning her stare with an unreadable expression upon his face. It was only when the couple at Éowyn's table turned to see what had claimed the Princess's attention, that he finally broke eye contact. A slightly regretful smile appeared upon his thin lips as he approached them.
"Lady Glenwyn… Captain Céorl… how good to see you in our hall. I am afraid though something came up and we will not be able to talk tonight. I would be very grateful if you could return tomorrow around noon. Would that pose a problem for your plans, Captain?"
The broadly built warrior shook his head, his brow creasing. To Éowyn's eyes, he looked suspicious. Their eyes met.
"I was about to take my éored for patrol in the vicinity, but I can easily postpone that to the afternoon without difficulties, Councillor." He turned his head and gave Gríma his full attention, obviously hoping to read something in those pale features. Yet as usual, the other man wore a mask of perfect blandness as he indicated a bow.
"I am glad to hear that, Captain. Then all that is left to me now is to wish you and your wife a nice, quiet evening. Enjoy your meal. We will see each other tomorrow." Wormtongue looked up, and his colourless eyes met Éowyn's, and something in them sent an icy shudder down her spine and knocked the breath from her lungs.
"My Lady, I am afraid though that you will be needed in the King's study once you're finished with your meal. Please, do take your time, but when you are done, your uncle and I will await you."
And with these words, Gríma Wormtongue turned around and disappeared in the thick twilight of the hall. Éowyn could only watch as he made for his chambers until the darkness swallowed him, and a clammy feeling spread in her stomach.
'Something happened. Something bad.'
Gradually it seeped into her conscious that the couple before her was staring at her.
"Lady Éowyn?" Glenwyn asked quietly, concern written into her regal features. "Is ought wrong? You are looking rather pale all of a sudden."
At a loss for words, Éowyn could only return her worried gaze.
"It is only that…" She shrugged and shook her head, not knowing what to say. Céorl nodded grimly.
"You are worried what it might be that he wants to bring to your attention. I understand, my lady. I would be, too. I am, in fact, for I have a feeling that it concerns us all." He stared down at his plate, then at his wife… and back at Éowyn. Contrary to the councillor's wish, it seemed that none of them would be able to enjoy their meal this evening…
Activity along the fringes of Fangorn Forest had all but died down with the fall of darkness. The standoff situation had solidified, with the Rohirrim's circle of fires established around their enemies, and the orcs for some reason or other not daring to test the strength of their defences.
Éomer assumed that, just like his men, the beasts were utterly exhausted. Whatever it had been that had lent them their unusual stamina, obviously it had lost its power by now. Which was well for him, as the pursuit had cost him and his éored likewise every ounce of strength they had been able to muster. This was now the second night without much sleep for most of them after two days of hard riding, and once the excitement of the battle had subsided, exhaustion had hit the Third Marshal of Riddermark like a sack of meal. He could have fallen asleep on the spot. And yet there was no way he would be allowed to sleep even for an hour.
"I do not like this," Éothain uttered in a subdued voice, the flames illuminating his eyes as he stared into the darkness beyond their fire. "Orcs are creatures of the night. If they wanted to break through, they would do it now, under cover of night, before moonrise. They must know we are dead on our feet."
"Well, I assume that they are just as dead," Éomer replied, chewing on a piece of smoked deer meat. "It would be a miracle if they were not…" He inhaled, following his friend's gaze. They sat together with Aedwulf and Anlaf to discuss their strategy for the night now that their fires had been completed. Each of them would command one quarter of the siege ring, and if they wanted to emerge victorious, their plan had to be faultless.
"Still…" Éothain shook his head and then washed the piece of dry bread in his mouth down with a swig of water. "What if they are waiting for something to happen? What if they are waiting for reinforcements? We already have our hands full with this lot, what if there are more on the way?"
The four men regarded each other uncomfortably for a long, silent moment, during which only the crackling of the fire could be heard.
"Saruman is busy preparing his assault on the Fords," Éomer said at length. "At least that is was everyone is believing. I doubt that he would be willing to diminish his forces by sending part of them our way. This group is very large, I would assume he thinks it able to overcome whatever problems arise along the way. He must know that there is hardly anyone left in this part of the Mark. He probably never even assumed that we would ride to meet them."
"We 'believe'," Éothain snorted. "We 'assume'. I tell you what, we don't know! I do not feel comfortable with this dark forest behind our backs. We can easily watch the plains, but what will we do if another orc army bursts out of the Entwood? We will never see them coming."
"You think they'd dare to walk through that forest at night?" Aedwulf creased his brow. "From all I ever heard about that place, it would not be a safe place for orcs, either. Not even during the day. There is no telling what dangers lurk among those trees."
"All the more reason to watch it sharply." Éomer swallowed. "Éothain is right. We will redistribute our forces: each of you will order five of your men to this side of the siege ring. It is, after all, the most likely direction for those orcs to try and break through. Send them over when you head back to your troops."
The others nodded thoughtfully.
"What about sleep?" Aedwulf asked at length. "We are all in strung-out shape. If our men are supposed to kill those orcs tomorrow morning, they will need some respite. We should work out a watch plan."
Éomer inhaled. Aedwulf's suggestion was risky, but he could see the sense in it. Of course, those orcs could decide to move any moment, but he had an inkling that they wouldn't. He narrowed his eyes as he stared into the flames, unseeing.
"We cannot allow for anyone on the forest side to sleep. If they attack, it will be here. So we should work out a rotation. It will still be risky, but I don't see those orcs trying to flee the way they have come. They must know they will die if they make for the open country."
He looked at Aedwulf.
"We will each send a quota of our men over to yours and Anlaf's position to sleep for two hours. There are thirty men at each position right now. Éothain and I will need our full strength awake and ready to do battle at our positions at any given time. So I say that when you return to your posts, each of you sends ten or even fifteen men to sleep. After two hours, you send them over to replace part of our forces here, but take care that theydon't notice the movement." A short nod towards the hillock. "This way, each of the men can get some rest, however brief… if the enemy stays put, that is."
"There is just one problem that I see – if we get some respite, our foes get it, too. We cannot allow that. We are still outnumbered. If we want to stand a better chance against them tomorrow at first light, we need to keep them on their toes throughout the night… and there is no telling how they will react. We will have to be very careful, or we might provoke the very attack we fear. It is a very fine line we'll have to walk."
"Needle pricks only," Éothain nodded thoughtfully. "Aye, that could work…. But we will need to plan those very carefully."
"It's scouts' work," Anlaf added, sudden excitement sparkling in his grey eyes. "Assassin's work. Two or three men at a time could enter the ring crawling where the light is weakest between two fires. Without armour, carrying only bows and knives, and silently kill any enemy sleeping in an exposed position before they head back."
"And every now and then, we could shoot some arrows at them." Éothain stared at the scout. "The men doing that would have to be very quick to get out of range, though, for their answer will come fast."
All looked expectantly at their commander. Eventually, Éomer nodded.
"All right. Anlaf's group will begin with this…" A brief glance at the starry sky in search of a familiar formation. "…as soon as Felarof's eye has moved over that rock there." He pointed out the dark shadow at the plains behind them. "That's a good hour from now. By then, they should have settled down for good and hopefully, won't be on their guard quite as much. Should that strategy prove successful, it will be my turn, next. Then Aedwulf's… and yours." Éomer met his friend's eyes. "After that, we will decide on a different order for the remainder of the night." He looked around and found only approval in his captains' expressions. He nodded and stood up, followed by the other three. "Each of you has their tasks. Let's get to them."
With great dread, Éowyn stepped into the king's study, mechanically nodding her thanks to the guard who held the door open for her. Although Grima's appearance had thoroughly spoiled her appetite when he had approached them at the hearth, she had taken her time to follow his summons until Éothain's parents had finished their meal and left Meduseld. She had even eaten her soup, although with her thoughts entirely wrapped up in assumptions what the Worm would soon disclose to them, she had barely registered what she had been eating.
Had anything happened to Éomer? Had her brother been wounded … or worse? The moment had finally arrived where – despite her reluctance to hear the councillor's ill news – she needed to find out for herself, for not knowing made her feel even worse, and so she had made her way over to her uncle's study on legs that felt like wooden sticks.
The heavy door closed behind her as she came to a halt, both hands unconsciously balled into fists by her side. A great weight seemed to lie on her chest suddenly, and she found that she could barely breathe.
"I am here," she said so lowly that at first, she wasn't sure that they had heard her. 'They can see that, stupid girl!' a voice in the back of the head scolded her, but she didn't listen to it. Rigid like a statue, she stood in the room and stared at the two men at the desk by the fire. Gríma was just now sitting down again and seemed to stuff something back into his pocket as he turned to her, while the king lifted a goblet from the table and drank. Putting it back, he pointed at a chair beside himself.
"Come here, Sister-Daughter. Grima said that his tidings concern us both."
"I'm afraid they concern everyone," Wormtongue added, following Éowyn's steps like a hawk until she sat down. "Yet you will be first to hear them."
Frozen to her chair, Éowyn barely felt it when Théoden's hand suddenly covered her cold fingers, squeezing them. He was shaking. They both braced and stared at the pale, non-telling mien before them, a single, silent question upon their faces.
"Tidings from Westfold arrived by bird this evening. Marshal Erkenbrand himself sent them." Wormtongue took a deep breath, and with his right hand, produced a small roll of parchment out of his pocket. All of a sudden, the tightness in Eowyn's chest became unbearable. She knew what would follow, and it stole her breath when the councillor began to speak.
"Three days ago, a great army of orcs attacked the Fords. Our combined forces succeeded in throwing them back one more time, although your nephew and his riders, my lord, were nowhere to be seen. - Of course not," he snorted, "…because he was still here, loitering around, before he took off in the wrong direction."
"Éomer did not-" Gríma's commandingly raised hand stopped the words on her tongue. For a few long seconds, Wormtongue's gaze tore into Éowyn's, before he shifted his full attention to the king.
"I fear, my liege, that, alas, this time, our victory was bought at a great cost… for it claimed the life of Prince Théodred, heir to the throne of the Mark… Your son, my lord, is dead."
A RED SUN RISES
Chapter 6: Assassins' Game
"Your son, my lord, is dead."
Wormtongue's words were followed by a deafening silence. For a time span impossible to define, only the crackling fire could be heard as the three people in King Théoden's study stared at each other; two of them in dismay, the other one with his usual, unreadable expression upon his face.
'Théodred is a mighty warrior, he cannot be defeated! It is one of the Worm's evil schemes; it cannot be the truth!' a voice in Éowyn's mind screamed in quickly growing despair, while at the same time, certainty grew within her that it was. Somehow, she just knew it, even if there wasn't anything to discover in the pale grey of her opponent's eyes. She knew it from the way her body reacted to Grima's words, from the icy shudder that raced down her spine and the clammy feeling in her stomach. She knew it from the way her cousin's smiling face passed in front of her inner eye, and from how his image made her feel.
From when she had arrived at Meduseld little and orphaned, Théodred – as much as had been in his power – had always been there for her. He had been her confidante once Éomer had joined the Armed Forces and left for Aldburg to roam the Eastmark with Captain Elfhelm's éored. He had kept an eye on the Worm's doings and countered each of his blatant efforts to disparage her brother and drive a wedge between them, and between Éomer and the king.
He had been the main source of her hope… and now she would never see him again. He was gone. Realisation hit Éowyn with the force of a battering ram, and she never even felt it when her uncle's let go of her hand.
"No…" Théoden exhaled, as if all the air in the hall did not suffice to fill his lungs. "No…. Gríma, no! Please, it cannot be!" He was pleading with the man before him now, deathly pale himself and his shaking increasing. Yet Wormtongue could only shake his head.
"I am very sorry, sire. It is a devastating blow… not only to you, personally, but to the kingdom, as well." He lowered his gaze to the parchment in his hands, and then handed it over at his king's silent request.
For the longest time, Théoden stared at the tiny piece of writing with unseeing eyes, unable to read the words. Hoping against hope that it was not the handwriting of the Lord of Westfold he would see when he looked down…but of course, it was. He recognised the precise, narrow script at once. The message, as usual, was in Westron, as there was no written form of Rohirric, and only their officers used the common language for communication… and its words were identical with what Gríma had just told them: 'Attack at the Fords repelled at great cost. Prince Théodred slain…` His sight blurred, and a horrible, anguished wail burst from his lips.
"Oh, Uncle…" Eyes shut tightly against the uprising burning of her tears, Éowyn wrapped her arms around the man beside her. The man who had raised her as his own daughter… the man who would now decide her brother's fate.
It was a strange night. Cold and dark and full of tension that just kept on building with everyone's awareness that with every passing moment, bloodshed was drawing closer. The moon was not yet up, which was vital for their plans to assassinate the orcs in their sleep, but in addition to a thick layer of mist which covered the land like a death blanket, a thin, high layer of cloud had developed in the meantime.
It threatened to obliterate the star formations, and although Felarof's Eye was the brightest star upon the firmament, Éomer was no longer sure for how much longer it would remain to be seen. It had almost reached the rocks he had indicated to his commanders earlier, and so he was ready to turn back from the forest's fringes where he had been standing for some time with Falk, the older brother of the scout who had alarmed them, to await Anlaf's assault on the orcs.
"Nothing is moving, not even a bird," the warrior whispered just now as he stared into the darkness beyond the trees, and white vapour rose from his lips into the chill air. "It is most unnatural… as if the night itself is holding its breath for something to happen."
"Well, something is about to happen, and we better get ready for it," Éomer replied wryly and turned back, a hand clapping the other rider's shoulder in reassurance. "You and Brytta remain here and listen. If you hear or see anything moving in there, anything at all, you know what to do."
"Aye, Marshal." Falk nodded, and Éomer left him standing at the edge of the forest and walked the short distance back to the fires, blowing warm air at his freezing fingers before he rubbed them. Another brief glance at the sky confirmed to him that it was almost time, and as ordered, his men were already awaiting him, their bows unslung and arrows in their hands, ready to react at the first sign of a disturbance. It was not altogether unlikely that the orcs would flee in their direction once Anlaf and his riders made their move on the other side of the siege ring. In that case, they would find themselves greeted by a deadly hail.
Unslinging his own bow and rapidly opening and closing the fingers of his right hand to get the feeling back in it, Éomer settled into the space between the two nearest men and loosely fitted his first arrow to the string. They were ready for action.
Something was moving in one of the shallow furrows which traversed the little hillock. Deep within its sheltering shadows, three men clad in nothing but leathern jerkins, deerskin breeches and woollen shirts, crawled against the wind through the sparse vegetation. They knew that - without armour - their very lives depended on their stealth. In addition to their excellent sense of smell, orcs could detect noises well below the level of what men were able to hear, so it was clear that the lowest noise would give them away. Still, the warriors were confident, having used their special skills countless times before.
To minimize the risk of noise, all three men carried only thin long knives, two arrows each and their bows, thoroughly fastened, so their weapons wouldn't move around while their owners crawled through the darkness. They were almost there.
Holding his breath, Anlaf lifted his head with infinite caution, and found that they had indeed reached the outer ring of their enemy's defences. His keen, night-sighted eyes glided over several large shapes in their immediate surroundings, most of them apparently asleep or dozing, while two more were sitting with their back to them close by, staring in the wrong direction. They wore no helmets. Perfect. They would start with those and then proceed to killing their resting comrades.
With a few soundless gestures, the scout indicated the orc he planned to tackle, and drew his first arrow out of his belt. Another short glance around. All quiet. A little closer, to get a better angle for the shot. On elbows and knees, Anlaf closed in on his target. There now. And his comrades? Lay behind him, their arrows already fitted to the strings of their bows. Waiting for his signal. He turned back and raised his bow. Took a deep, silent breath… and held it as he briefly aimed for the back of the orc's head. These beasts had strong bones, but the arrows would nevertheless penetrate straight through their skulls if they hit the right spot.
He narrowed his eyes… and shot. With a dull sound, both orc guards dropped to the ground. Flawless! And yet out of the corner of his eye, Anlaf noticed sudden motion. The dozing beast next to them began to stir and opened its eyes, but before it could even sit up, Cernhelm had reached it and buried his dagger to the hilt in its eye socket. A moment later, Oswyne slit the throat of its close-by comrade.
Here, death did not come silently. The orc gargled in agony as its black blood sprayed in all directions, and before he could sink his dagger into the beast's chest to end the noise, Oswyne suddenly felt Anlaf's grip around his arm.
"Our time is up. Go!"
All around them now, the beasts began to stir and move toward them, aware of the commotion. A deformed hulking shape approached their hiding spot with long, deliberate strides and lifted its crossbow, but suddenly it dropped to the ground with a pained roar and three arrows sticking out of its fleshy neck. Its assassins slung their bows and came to their feet, knowing full well that only speed could save them now as a guttural voice cried out into the night.
"Whiteskins!" it roared, full of fury. "Whiteskins among us!"
The cry rang all over the battlefield, and even before Éomer could react in any way, the unmoving shadows on the hillock before them jumped into motion… and turned away from them in search of the source of the disturbance.
He reacted instantly, following his instincts. With his arrow ready to be released, he dashed past the fire toward the rise with only a quick shout at his nearest men.
"Come with me!"
Not pausing to see whether they were indeed following him, Éomer stormed even closer until he was certain to be within range, then lifted his bow. So many targets to choose from, there was no way to miss! With a deadly whisper, his arrow buried itself in black flesh. A heartbeat later, several more orcs dropped to the ground with blood-curdling roars as the bows of the Rohirrim found them. Confusion and panic spread among their enemies at suddenly finding themselves assaulted from two sides, but Éomer could also see the first crossbows being lifted in their direction.
"Kill the maggots!"
"Fall back! Fall back, quick!" He dived to the ground and rolled over his shoulder, hearing the buzz of a bolt pass above his head which would have killed him had he still been standing. And yet a pained cry further back told him that at least one of the orc's projectiles had found its target.
Sudden uproar further back. Éothain and his men had entered the fray and provided cover for their hasty retreat. As fast as his legs carried him, Éomer made for the temporary safety behind their fires, and whirled around. A quick glance showed him that all his Riders had made it back, and so he unhooked his horn and blew into it, calling the attack off. If they proceeded with this, it could easily happen that the orcs would see a massive counter-attack as their only chance of survival. No, it was time to let the action die down for now and take stock of what they had achieved.
Slowly, the commotion settled back into an uneasy quiet; the exact thing the son of Éomund had wanted to inflict upon the enemy, and yet – for now – the situation did not only keep the orcs upon their toes. He turned to the nearest man and found that it was Garulf, the scout who had raised the alarm.
"Garulf? I need the reports of the other positions as quickly as possible. How many were injured, or, Béma beware, killed, and what damage they think they inflicted."
The older man nodded.
"I'm on it, Marshal."
He turned away with a sharp whistle, and Hasufel, his dark grey stallion with the instantly recognisable, two-coloured mane, was instantly at his side. They disappeared into the darkness.
With a deep breath, Éomer let his gaze travel over the battlefield. It seemed to him that there were quite a few more unmoving shadows lying around at the foot of the hillock, but they would have to wait for moonrise before any more solid numbers would become available. Which would be in about two hours, if he was not mistaken. The night had hardly yet begun…
It was late when Éowyn left her uncle's chambers to settle down for the night, although she was certain that it would be another one of those nights where sleep seemed to be nothing but a long forgotten rumour. Deep in thought, she directed her steps through the twilight of the deserted hall, thankful that no one was there to see her red and puffy eyes and inquire about what tragedy had befallen her. The news about her cousin's demise would be allowed to spread only in the morning; for tonight, Théodred would only be mourned by his father and her.
She had offered her uncle to stay by his side throughout the night for comfort, but again it had been the Worm who had successfully intervened. It was vital for his health that the King rested, he had said, and to her dismay, Théoden had not objected. It was foreseeable that even more difficult times were waiting for the Mark, Gríma had then explained, and many hard decisions needed to be made, which would require their ruler to be in the best possible constitution. A strong sleeping draught would ensure that the King found rest despite their tragedy. And with those words, he had produced a phial from the depths of his pockets and held it up.
Unconvinced that Gríma's suggestion was indeed what her uncle wanted, Éowyn had lowered her gaze to meet Théoden's sorrowful eyes, and his almost imperceptible nod had crushed her. How could it be that apparently, she was the only one longing for solace in this dark, hopeless night? Was it all the Worm's doing? Had Éomer been right after all, in his suspicion that his chief concern had always been to drive wedges between the members of their family, to estrange them from each other and thus, weaken the kingdom?
'Oh Éomer,' Éowyn thought with despair as she reached for the door handle to her chambers. 'What will you do once these tidings reach you? Will you understand that you will be in mortal peril if you return to Edoras, and flee?'
She almost wished for it, although it would also mean that – in all likelihood – she would never see her brother again. 'But at least he would live!' – 'He would never flee! He is convinced that he was right in riding out against those orcs, fleeing would mean to admit that he was wrong.'
The question was whether these news would even reach her brother in the field. If Éomer heard of Théodred's death only once he had returned to Edoras… She inhaled sharply.
'He needs to be warned! But how? I don't even know where he is now…' – 'And whether he is still alive.' a fatalistic voice in the back of her mind, which she had not known so far, added coldly. 'He rode into battle. Anything can happen in a fight. An arrow could find him, or Firefoot could fall and crush him…'
She shut her eyes, willing the horrible scenes which threatened to overwhelm her back into the confines of her subconscious.
'I must not think like that. Èomer is one of our greatest warriors-' 'So was Théodred.'
Her hand on the door handle hesitated. A sudden impulse was rising within her, growing ever stronger. Éowyn turned around. Apart from the guard before her uncle's chambers, the hall was all but deserted at this late hour. With a deep breath, Éomund's daughter directed her steps over to her cousin's rooms and quickly slipped into the darkness behind the massive doors. With the situation at the Fords strained for weeks before the massive blow had finally come, it had been a while since Théodred had last stayed in them, and still it seemed to Éowyn as if she could almost feel her cousin's presence.
It took a moment before her eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was no fire in the hearth, no warmth in here, and yet she felt somehow soothed. Gradually, the outline of Théodred's chambers became clearer in the weak light of the veiled moon, and so Éowyn walked over to the window and lowered herself into the massive armchair. Subconsciously, her hands caressed its soft leather, and once again, her tears spilled over.
'Oh Théodred… What am I supposed to do without you now? How can I win this fight all on my own?'
How could he be gone? How could such a vibrant, loving and giving man simply be reduced to a heap of cold, lifeless flesh?
Éowyn's gaze fell upon the portrait beside the big four-poster. In the twilight, she could not make out all the detail, but she knew this painting by heart and even remembered the days when it had been done almost ten years ago by Goldfred, easily the most esteemed painter in all of the Mark and a long-time member of the royal household. It had been taken in better times, easily recognisable by the expressions on their masterfully captured likenesses; a mirror to the past. None of their emotional scars were visible here, no illness, and no bitterness yet over wrongful accusations and subtle estrangement brought about by the Worm. She loved this painting, and yet it also hurt her to look at it, because it made her realise how far things had spiralled out of control.
All four of them were on it, regally attired: the men in their armour, she wearing her best dress and her hair artfully plaited around her head. Éomer, who had joined the Armed Forces only one year earlier, looked incredibly proud as he stared out of the painting at her. With a faint smile, Éowyn remembered their discussion that day. Her brother had resolutely refused the painter's request to sit down in front of his uncle and his cousin and next to his sister, determined to look his fiercest best, which had resulted in all of them having taken their portrait standing. To the fourteen year old she had been then, the hours had felt impossibly long and tedious, and inwardly, she had cursed Éomer repeatedly for his stubbornness when her feet began to hurt. Yet once the finished painting had been revealed to them, Éowyn had felt that all effort had been justified.
She was glad to have it now, even if her broken heart bled worse than ever when her gaze found her cousin's face. Théodred's image was so lifelike, it stole her breath. He seemed to smile at her from the canvas, his piercing blue eyes silently reassuring her that there was nothing to fear in the world; nothing they couldn't overcome.
'You were wrong, Cousin. The evil in the world is getting stronger, and slowly but surely, it is swallowing us, one by one…'
She rose to her feet with a start. Éomer needed to be warned, there was no way around it. What he would make of it was his own decision, but damned would she be if she would let her brother ride blindly into a trap. Théoden's reaction to her earlier vow had satisfied her, as it had seemed that the old man had indeed understood the earnestness of her threat. And yet in the darkness of her cousin's room, faced with the worst development possible, Éowyn felt no longer certain that even her drastic promise sufficed in keeping her brother alive. Further steps needed to be taken.
Finding what she had sought – quill and parchment – on her cousin's massive work desk, Éowyn set to work…
"Wait… Just hold him down… for another moment… I can see it now… I've almost got it. There!"
With triumph in his eyes, Tolgor showed Éomer the last piece of the broken arrowhead he had dug out of Háfa's shoulder. The young man slackened in Éomer's grip, the pain of his ordeal clearly edged into his tired features as he gritted his teeth.
"Gods, I won't need this again in a hurry…"
Releasing his iron hold, Éomer gave his exhausted rider a cheering clap on the back as he started to rise and helped the man up.
"Then see to it that you are quicker to duck next time, Háfa," he said, relieved to be done with this gruesome business. Two of his riders had been wounded in their attack, yet thankfully, none of them seriously. According to Garulf's report, Éothain's men had not been quite so lucky, having suffered one casualty and another man seriously injured, and there had been two more injured warriors at Anlaf's position. While such things always had to be expected in battle, Éomer hoped sincerely that the rest of their riders would emerge from this gruesome and demanding night unscathed. It would be hard enough to stand his ground against the Worm upon their return to the snake pit that Meduseld had become, if they succeeded in killing these orcs without any further casualties; this task would become considerably harder if they passed the city gates with half of their riders wounded… or worse.
Yet he felt still convinced of the necessity to destroy this band of the necromancer's foul brood, Éomer thought as he rose from his knees with a deep sigh. There was no telling what damage these orcs could have done to the Mark, had they been permitted to reach their destination – wherever it was – unchallenged.
His gaze strayed once again back to the dark hill. After a period of increased tension in the aftermath of their attack, things had settled back into the previous watchful standoff. More waiting to be done, more hours of idly sitting around the campfire, dead tired and yet ready for action at the slightest sign of a disturbance. He did not welcome the prospect.
Somewhere further up on the hillock, the encircled orcs suddenly seemed to quarrel over something, and he creased his brow at their furious roar, wondering what it was that had enraged them.
Éomer could no longer deny that he felt thoroughly knackered, like a hollow imitation of a human being someone had filled with rocks. But how, with everything that was going on, was he supposed to sleep now? How—
The bellowing was coming from behind!
Something moved at the periphery of his field of vision. Something bright. Rather sluggishly, Éomer turned and looked up. It was fire, his mind registered numbly. Shooting across the sky in a curved trajectory, like… an arrow…. a fire arrow. The alarm!
He had not even drawn the breath for a cry when there was a sharp thwack and Háfa, the young rider he had helped up just moments ago, stumbled toward him as if pushed forward by unseen hands. His mouth opened, but instead of words, a red flood shot out of it and flooded down his chin, an orcish arrowhead protruding from his chest. Mesmerised by the gruesome sight, Éomer caught the warrior just as Háfa's knees buckled, and his eyes darted frantically around for the source of the attack… towards the Entwood's border. He froze.
They were coming out of the forest, hulking great Uruk-hai bearing the White Hand upon their massive brows!
Letting Háfa fall as he unslung his bow with a swift move, Éomer dashed towards their attackers, and all hell broke loose…
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