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A Red Sun Rises  by Katzilla

A Red Sun Rises


Author's Note:

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

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


Chapter 1: Tidings from the North


"Éomer! Éomer!"

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

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

"Léod?"

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

"Where is he?"

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

Éomer shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Speak."

Léod took a deep breath.

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

Éomer inhaled sharply.

"How great?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Éothain blinked.

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

At last, Éomer straightened and took a deep breath.

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

Éothain lifted a sceptical brow.

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

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

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

His captain's gaze was still doubtful.

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

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

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

oooo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Éomer nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

"But, Marshal-"

Éomer shook his head, and his voice became resolute.

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

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

Éomer laid a hand on his shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You are said scout?"

"Aye, Lord Gríma."

"And what tidings do you bring?"

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

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

"No, my lord. But-"

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

Éomer nodded.

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

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

Éomer narrowed his eyes, feeling his blood pressure rise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"My Lord…"

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

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

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

Gríma did not shrink from his stare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What will we do now, Marshal?"

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


A RED SUN RISES


Author's Note:

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


Chapter 2: The Hunt


EASTEMNET

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

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

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

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

Éothain nodded, but remained silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You do not agree with my actions."

Éothain stiffened… and sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He inhaled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

oooo

EDORAS

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

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

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

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

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

"Enter!"

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

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

Éowyn shook her head."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gríma shrugged.

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

Éowyn swallowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Out!"

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

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

oooo

EASTEMNET

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

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

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

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

"Aye, Marshal!"

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

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

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

Anlaf nodded.

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

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

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

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

His captain nodded to himself.

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

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

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

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

A RED SUN RISES


Author's Note:

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


EDORAS

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."

ooooo

EASTEMNET

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.

ooooo

EDORAS

"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


Author's Note:

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


EASTEMNET

"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."

000

EDORAS

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.

"I know."

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.

000

EASTEMNET

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!"

"So many!"

"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.

"Ready bows!"

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


EASTEMNET

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…

000

EDORAS

"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…

000

EASTEMNET

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."

Éomer inhaled.

"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."

000

EDORAS

"Enter!"

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


EDORAS

"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.

Théodred…'

"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.

000

EASTEMNET

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.

000

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!"

000

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…

000

EDORAS

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…

000

EASTEMNET

"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…

Chapter 7:  Snake Pit



EASTEMNET

"Firefoot!"

With a sharp whistle, Éomer called his stallion, and then shot his arrow into the mass of orcs. It was quite a big group, he noticed, fifty at least. All Uruks, if he was correct. His men, well-instructed when they had pitched camp, had quickly overcome their initial shock and were already answering the devastating hail with arrows of their own once they had found cover.

Someone was moving behind him! A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that it was Garulf, already in the saddle to intercept the enemy. But there was something else he needed from his scout right now.

"Garulf!"

"Marshal?"

"I will lead the riders, myself. I need you to draw the ring around our group closer. We must prevent that the two groups merge! Send word to the other commanders, as well! Do it right now!"

The scout creased his brow as he watched his commander jump into the saddle of his big grey stallion.

"What about their arrows?"

"They have been shooting at us for most of the night," Éomer said, with a quick look back at the hillock. Sure enough, those orcs looked ready to test their defences, now that their brothers had arrived. "I doubt they have many left. Anyway, we must risk it. See to it that they stay put and leave the rest to me."

"Aye, Marshal!" Kicking his heels into Hasufel's flanks, the scout took off.

Éomer turned back and found himself surrounded by his mounted riders.

"Éorlingas! Follow me!"

His war-cry was enough to spur Firefoot into an explosion of speed. Contrary to their riders, the horses had been able to enjoy a lengthy respite for most of the night, and it showed now in their attack. Although, with most of the men commanded to contain the group they had encircled, their mounted forces counted only twenty horsemen, they hit the orcs with the force of a rockslide.

Having switched from bow to sword for close combat, Éomer saw several Uruks stumble and fall even as they approached them, felled by arrows and spears. Then a hulking dark shape barred his way and roared. A spiked club swung toward them. With a subtle shift in the saddle, Éomer helped Firefoot evade the blow, and then grinned when the stallion bucked and kicked out. His hooves found their aim with a dull thud. Their attacker grunted, and before he could recover, there was a silver reflection and a sharp sound, and his head tumbled to the ground.

All exhaustion drowned out by battle fever, Éomer threw Firefoot around in search of their next enemy, and felt the impact of an arrow upon his helmet. Luckily, the projectile glanced off, and only a moment later, they were both accelerating towards the shooter. Horrible fangs were bared at them as the Uruk dropped the bow to unsheathe its sword, but it was too slow. Rammed to the ground by the war-horse's mighty shoulder, the orc spat black blood as a spear nailed it to the soil only a heartbeat later.

Looking up, Éomer found his friend Éothain grinning at him.

"You've got the wrong weapon in your hands, my friend. This is work for the spear and bow!"

Éomer narrowed his eyes.

"Just see to it that you won't get to taste my sword before this night is over, Captain!" he growled in mock-threat, and Éothain's grin widened as he shook his head.

"A simple 'Thank you' would have sufficed, Marshal!" He looked around and laughed. "It seems they've got enough! Look how they run!"

"Probably never even expected us to fight back." Éomer spat. "We can't let them escape, though. Can I leave their pursuit to you? I need to get back and see what the situation is with our group. I hope they didn't try to break through in the meantime." He looked back, but the night was too dark to see what was happening behind them. Éothain nodded, and turned Scatha around.

"Consider it done."

The next moment, he was gone, and Éomer pushed his at first reluctant mount back towards the fires, clapping the sweaty neck in thanks. As he approached, Éomund's son found indeed that their captives had made their bid for freedom, seeing quite a few more dark shapes lying unmoving around in the weak light. And yet it appeared that his men had already beaten down the attempted outbreak and drawn their encirclement much tighter. They were now patrolling the terrain a good distance before their fires, almost at the foot of the hill. Things were drawing inexorably toward their end.

To his surprise, it was Aedwulf who greeted him with an implied nod.

"Marshal… I came over from our side, as I figured that both you and the Captain would be fighting the newcomers." A thin smile crept upon his lips as he stared for a moment into the darkness behind Éomer. "I must say, I expected them to last a little longer, though."

"Let's be thankful they didn't… Éothain and his men are in pursuit, they should be back shortly, I hope…" Éomer narrowed his eyes. "How are things here?"

"It seems that our lot doesn't have any arrows left to shoot at us, and by tightening our ring, they can't even hope to retrieve any of those they wasted…" Aedwulf inhaled and creased his brow. "They did try to make for the forest again once your riders took off, though, and it seems that there were some casualties, although we are still in the process of gathering information. For now, it seems that we lost at least five of our men. Háfa…Dúnfara…Balfred… Fenda… und Déorred. There are also two or three more seriously wounded. I dare not say whether they will live to see the light of day. Tolgor is working on them now, but…" He shrugged, and the message was clear.

"Béma…" Éomer shook his head and inhaled. This was the one part of his responsibilities he would never get accustomed to, although in a war, loss of life had always to be expected. "It's time for this night to end." He descended from Firefoot's back and gave the stallion a hearty clap on the shoulder, dismissing him for the moment.

"First light can be no further than two hours distant." Aedwulf's stared at the eastern horizon. "Let's hope those orcs are just as tired as we are."

"They must be, or they would still attempt to flee. They know what awaits them once twilight comes." Taking off his helmet, Éomer felt exhaustion ready to pounce on him once again, yet this time, with a vengeance. He found it increasingly difficult to keep his thoughts together. His captain cast him a sharp glance as he rubbed the bridge of his nose, and lowered his voice conspiratorially.

"I know that in our state, an hour of sleep is not much. Yet may I be so bold and suggest it to you, Marshal? Most of our men had an hour or two this past night, as did I. I could take over for you in the meantime. I doubt there will be much action."

Éomer grimaced.

"Hell, is my state so obvious?" Aedwulf's expression told him that it was. He snorted. "I guess I'm simply too exhausted to argue. All right, take over, Captain. But at the first sign of movement-"

"I'll personally kick you in the back. Understood."

The older man grinned, and for a moment, Éomer stared back at him in search of a retort, but the words wouldn't come to him. Leaving it at that, he just shook his head and walked back to the fire where he had earlier left his bedroll. Sleep found him as soon as his head touched the ground.



EDORAS

Éowyn woke with a start. With her heart beating like a drum, she stared into the darkness above her, unable to recall what it had been that had so abruptly ended her night. The hand with which she wiped her eyes found wetness upon her face. She paused, trying to recall what had made her weep in her sleep… and then it came back to her. Théodred… was dead. And her brother would be welcomed as a traitor upon his return to the city of kings… if he returned. Nothing about that had changed in those hours of merciful oblivion she had unexpectedly been granted. No wonder she had wept…

Éowyn sat up, and a wave of disorientation washed over her as her eyes wandered over to the window. These were not her chambers. Where was she? Creasing her brow, Éomund's daughter swung her legs over the edge of the bed, noticing that she was still fully dressed. It was the painting near the four-poster which brought her memory back.

'I'm in Théodred's chambers. I never made it back.'

A quick glance at the table showed that the parchment she had drafted a few hours earlier was still lying there.

'I better get going. No one will see me when I slip out of the hall now… or at least, he will not see me…'

Abruptly, she came to her feet and walked over to the window to cast a quick glance outside, absent-mindedly trying to smooth the creases in her dress. The eastern sky was still dark, and yet it felt to her as if first light was not so distant anymore. Countless nights without sleep had left her with quite an acute sense of time, as enervating as the experience had been. With a last sorrowful look at the portrait, Éowyn directed her steps over to the table and picked up the letter, then further on to the massive door.

Careful not to make a sound, she opened it and glanced into the twilight of the hall, not realising that she was holding her breath. The hearth fire and two more torches by the door were flickering lowly, yet Éowyn could not detect anyone in their meagre light. Relieved, she slipped out of her cousin's chambers and soundlessly began to make her way over to her own rooms in the shadow of the beautifully decorated pillars.

There were muffled sounds emanating from the kitchens, confirming to her that morning was on the way, but apart from that, nothing moved. Why was it, then, that she suddenly felt the short hairs on the nape of her neck rise? Almost as if—

"You're up early, lassie!" a guttural, deep voice suddenly reached her ears, and a heavy hand fell upon her shoulder. Her heart stopped. "What are you doing out here?"

At last recognising the voice, Éowyn turned around, eyebrows highly arched at the crude address. Of course, it was the Worm's bulky personal guard, and Béma, he stank! Had he been here all night, possibly drinking? He surely smelled like that.

"I do not believe that I have to declare myself, guard!" she said icily, and shook off his hand. "Least of all to you. You are drunk! Get out of my sight, or your master will hear of this!"

"Oh, I will absolutely make sure that my master hears of this," the man leered. "After all, it was he who told me to sit here all night, sniffing that you might try something funny…"

'Felrod,' Éowyn suddenly remembered the ruffian's name. "His name is Felrod.' She narrowed her eyes at the dishevelled looking guard.

"Try something funny?' ´she snarled, now furious. "Who do you think you are that you speak with me in this tone?"

The big guard seemed less than intimidated. He nodded.

"What have you got there in your hand? Let's see this!"

"What?"

Felrod stepped closer, apparently trying to wrench the parchment from her fingers. In an attempt to escape him, Éowyn suddenly felt the pillar at her back, blocking her retreat.

"I will most certainly not-" Strong, rough fingers closed around her forearm, prompting an instant, impulsive reaction. A heartbeat later, her hand landed with a sharp slapping sound in the man's face. "Are you mad? Get off me… this… instant!"

The dark eyes before her suddenly seemed to blaze hellfire.

"You're going to regret that, lassie!"

"Help! Help me! Anyone!" From somewhere further back, the sound of opening doors reached her ears even through the mad beating of her heart, followed by the sound of running feet.

"Back off! Back off now!"

It was Gamling's voice, and in all the years Éowyn had lived in the Golden Hall, she had never heard the guard so furious. She felt impossibly relieved… yet even now, Felrod refused to step away, although there were even more people investigating on the commotion now.

"This is not your concern, old man. You better-"

The sound of a sword being unsheathed in a rush. The next moment, the hearth fire reflected on steel as Gamling advanced.

"I am a captain of the Royal Guard, Felrod. The protection of the royal family is my concern. So if you want to keep your head upon your neck, you will step back now! I will not say it again!"

A few breathless heartbeats passed… before, with a broadening grin, Felrod lifted his hands and took two provokingly slow steps backwards, his attention focussed on the older warrior.

"You are hindering me from performing my duty, old man. The Counsellor will not be amused to hear this."

"Your duty is to assault the Princess of the Mark, Felrod? If that is indeed the order you were given, you will tell me now who gave it to you!"

"His order was to investigate any suspicious movements no matter by whom, and it was given by me!" Gríma's cool voice could suddenly be heard in the thick silence, and Éowyn held her breath as she stared over her protector's shoulder.

His hands clutching the collar of his hastily donned robe, Wormtongue stepped closer, and his pale eyes sparkled maliciously in the weak light. And still Gamling refused to sheathe his sword.

"'Suspicious movements', Counsellor? Is the Lady Éowyn no longer allowed to move through the hall as she wants? Did I miss something?"

A thin-lipped sneer appeared on Wormtongue's lips as he shifted his attention from the guard to the king's niece.

"Alas, dear Gamling, I fear that there have been developments this past night of which you are yet blissfully ignorant. And yet I am afraid that they will greatly impact on how things are going to be handled within this hall in the future." The sneer became more pronounced. "So enlighten us, my lady. What have you been doing outside your own chambers at this ungodly hour? If your purpose was innocent, surely you can tell us."

Feeling heat rise to her head, Éowyn lifted her chin.

"Your guard saw me emerge from my cousin's chambers, it is not so, Feldrod?" She did not wait for an answer, did not even look at the big halfblood as her eyes tore into Grima's. "In the light of what you disclosed to us last night, what reason could you possibly imagine for my being there? You always pride yourself with your knowledge of people; surely you cannot fail now."

"Of which developments are you speaking?" Gamling asked, uncertainty in his weathered expression as he first looked at Éowyn and then back to the counsellor. Further guards had gathered behind him now, regarding each other uncomfortably. "What happened?"

"Very well…" Grima turned his head. "We were going to disclose the tragedy which has befallen the Mark later this morning; I only informed the royal family about it last night. Yet since we are already discussing it and it is relevant to what's going on here…" He straightened, fully aware of the impact of his words. "Tidings arrived from Westfold last night. The attack we all feared was fended off by our forces… yet, alas, not before it had claimed the life of the Prince."

The silence that followed his words was deafening, and even in the twilight of the hall, the growing dismay in the faces before him could not be mistaken. Mercilessly, the son of Gálmód stared them down, not having missed the sparkling of new tears in Éowyn's eyes.

Stunned, Gamling turned back towards her.

"My Lady, is it… is it true? Prince Théodred…is dead?"

Unable to speak through the painful tightening of her throat, Éowyn nodded. Behind her, she heard the sudden painful sobs of the kitchen staff. Most of the women had known Théodred from his childhood. How horrible for them to hear about his death in such a brutal fashion!

"Slain by our enemies, due to the Third Marshal's refusal to strengthen the Westfold forces at the Fords. Lord Erkenbrand drafted the letter himself." Gríma narrowed his eyes. "This is also something you have not heard of yet, I take it, Lord Gamling? That the king's nephew disregarded his commander's summons and rode north instead, presumably to pursue a band of orcs on the edges of the Entwood… far away from any settlement they could have endangered."

Gamling blanched, and again his confused look found Éowyn, silently asking her for verification of the counsellor's claims. This time though, Éomund's daughter evaded his eyes. It was answer enough.

Grima inhaled.

"So you see, my Lord, that there is indeed a lot more going on than you might have suspected. And as much as I loathe having to take these measures, it is was must be done in the wake of such betrayal." His eyes found Éowyn again. "So while I do not want to believe that you had anything to do with your brother's folly, my Lady, it is my duty to ask you what you were doing in the Prince's chambers… all the more as you have not been in the habit of entering them during his absences ever before."

Desperately struggling for composure while all heads turned toward her, Éowyn somehow managed to utter: "My cousin had never died before. I felt that I needed to be at a place where I could feel his presence… where I could grieve for him." Her tone sharpened. "You wouldn't understand."

"She took something with her when she left, Lord Gríma," Felrod made himself be heard from behind. "Some kind of parchment. A letter perhaps. I was about to have a look at it when she began to make this ruckus!"

"You will cease to speak about the Lady Éowyn in this disrespectful manner at once!" Gamling growled, and his eyes sparkled furiously. Gríma lifted his hand.

"Silence, both of you!" His predatory glance focussed on Éowyn once again. Briefly he looked down to where her hand disappeared behind her back, before his eyes narrowed. "Is Feldrod right, my Lady? Did you take something from your cousin's study?"

'Stay calm!' her inner voice warned against the increasing feeling of being an animal in a snare. The mask! She needed the mask! She lifted her chin, and – to Wormtongues' visible surprise - produced the parchment from behind her back, although she was not offering it to her opponent.

"Aye, Counsellor, I admit it. I took this unfinished letter of my cousin's. It is addressed to me, so I felt that I was well within my rights. And don't ask me to show it to you, because that would be well beyond your rights!" Her heart beat like crazy. 'If that is how every lie feels, it is no wonder the people of the Mark rarely use it!'

"I regret having to inform you that, in the event of committed treason, my rights are extended," Gríma informed her, and extended his hand, palm up. "I thought you would understand the necessity, Lady Éowyn. Especially as the traitor's sister."

Her eyes sparkled dangerously.

"My brother did not commit treason, Counsellor, whatever you say. And you better do not say it again in my presence, for I cannot vouch for what I would do in that case."

With a deep breath, Gamling stepped between the two combatants.

"I will take over from here, Counsellor. As Captain of the Royal Guard, it is my duty anyway." He turned around to the listening crowd. "I realise that what you heard here was a shock. And yet may I ask you to return to your workplace again and leave us alone, please? I will guide the Lady Éowyn to her chambers now, and whatever new developments happened last night, they will have to wait until later." He nodded thankfully as the members of the royal household turned away, silently sobbing. And yet Gríma did not move.

"You are obstructing necessary investigations, Lord Gamling. You must know that I will have to bring this before the king."

"Oh, I absolutely count on it, Counsellor," the older warrior replied, involuntarily straightening. Éowyn felt immeasurably thankful. "Because these happenings need to be discussed in full between the king, you, and the entire Royal Guard. Until later." Gently, he laid a hand on Éowyn's shoulder and steered her away, feeling their opponent's piercing gaze between his shoulder blades until he closed the door to her chambers behind them.

For a moment, both remained silent. Éowyn felt too drained to do more than walk over to her table by the window and sit down. It Gamling had not intervened… She closed her eyes, sending her thanks to Béma.

"How certain is it that the tidings from Westfold are sound, my Lady?" There was still hope in the old warrior's voice. She hated having to crush it.

"I saw the parchment myself last night," Éowyn said lowly. "It did look like Erkenbrand's handwriting… although I suppose that there is no way to be entirely certain until his messenger has arrived. He promised a full account of the attack in writing." She looked wearily at her saviour.

Gamling nodded.

"Then it is also true that your brother did not make for Westfold when he left? That he went against the King's orders?"

Her heart bled anew.

"I do not know more than what you have just heard, Lord Gamling. Yet even if it were the truth, Éomer stated his reason to pursue the enemy loud and clear when he asked for leave. I could certainly follow his reasoning." She inhaled, and without warning, her gaze intensified. "But I know one thing for certain: Éomer loved Théodred like a brother. It tore him apart not to be able to ride to his aid, I could see that. He has no ambition whatsoever for the throne. He feared these prospects, in fact! We talked about it once, that he would succeed our uncle if anything were to happen to our cousin, and he told me that he prayed each night that it would not come to pass. My brother loves the open plains, Lord Gamling. He loves to be out there with his men, protecting our people, and being confined to the Golden Hall and having to deal with politicians of the likes of a Gríma Wormtongue on a daily basis is a thought that horrifies him! You have known him from when he was little, you must see this, too!"

For another long, silent moment, Gamling regarded her with what looked almost like pity, and in his face, Éowyn could see contradicting emotions. When he finally answered, his voice was low.

"I have not only known your brother since he was little, my Lady," he began hesitantly. "I have known you for all those years, as well. Therefore it is clear to me that what you were hiding from the Counsellor and his henchmen is a warning for your brother."

The room began to spin around Éowyn and a cold shudder raced down her spine. If Gamling knew… did Gríma know, as well? Had it been so obvious? She could only stare at the warrior who had rescued her, not knowing what to say. Not knowing how to deny the truth he had just uttered.

"I cannot let Éomer return into a trap, Gamling," she whispered, somewhere realising in the back of her mind that she was pleading. "The Worm will try everything in his power to have him executed. You must know that! How could I, as his sister, let that happen?" The Captain of the Royal Guard inhaled deeply, and leant his back against the door. The expression upon his face worried Éowyn greatly. "You do not believe the accusations, Captain. Do you?"

For the longest moment, Gamling could only stare back at her. And while at first, the emotion upon his face had been mainly confusion, Éowyn was dismayed to find that it had changed to regret.

"I do not want to believe the accusations, my Lady." He shook his head. "Fact is, I do no longer know what to think. It is a lot to digest in one serving." Another long pause. Another deep breath. "I hope Marshal Erkenbrand's messenger arrives soon with the letter. I cannot make up my mind before we have some solid information… and I need to see your brother's eyes when he hears these tidings. I need to see his reaction, before I can make up my mind."

Éowyn nodded, already sensing that the Captain of the Royal Guard was not done yet. She tensed when she realised what he would ask of her. Her stomach turned to ice even before he had uttered the dreaded words.

"Lady Éowyn… I am glad the Counsellor did not see your message, but I'm afraid that I cannot let you send it, not only for the reason I just stated." His eyes wandered over to the fire, and then returned to her. The message was clear. Her sight blurred.

"Gamling… oh Gamling, please… Don't make me…"

"I am sorry, my Lady." He avoided her gaze now. "It must be done. Otherwise, I will no longer be able to protect you."


A RED SUN RISES


Chapter 8: Red Dawn


Author's Note: Oookay, here it comes… the big, ugly, battle! Be warned, it's going to be pretty graphic (about as graphic as I dared to write it without having to fear that I might be banned). If this is not your cup of tea, I truly understand, but after seven chapters of foreplay, I felt the need to indulge myself… and a certain someone, who has been waiting for this for far too long!  – Reviews will – as always – be happily accepted!


EASTEMNET

Éomer had not even begun to dream when an insistent prodding disturbed his rest. Exhausted to the core, the son of Éomund had instantly fallen asleep on his bedroll; a sleep so deep it rather resembled unconsciousness. Now, a voice in the back of his mind made itself be heard, insisting that it was time to wake, that he was urgently needed. 'Leave me alone…' another sleep-drugged voice protested against the strange impulse. It felt like a big rock that was tied to one end of his awareness, a weight that would pull him deeper and deeper if he only allowed it. He did not.

'The battle… - It's not yet time. I just lay down!'

The prodding again. Stronger this time, with its epicentre at his hip. Rocking him. Impossible to ignore.

"Bloody hell…" He groaned. An attempt to swat the disturbance away, eyes still closed.

"Marshal? Marshal Éomer! It is time."

Somewhere deep in the back of his consciousness, Éomer recognized the voice, even if the name of its owner escaped him at the moment. 'Captain… one of my captains…' That did the trick. Somehow, under mobilisation of the entire rest his considerable willpower, he rolled onto his back and chanced a look through the small slits of his half-opened eyelids. 'Aedwulf…'

The warrior in front of him smirked, knowing only too well how waking after a much too short break after everything they had been through felt from own experience.

"My sincerest apologies, Marshal," Aedwulf offered. "But dawn is on its way. Can't be more than an hour off... perhaps even less." He knelt down and held out his hand with a mug of steaming, strong-smelling contents. "Here, have some Everlast. We've made it extra strong. This will get you on your feet in no time."

Numbly, Éomer accepted the mug and peered with revulsion at the thick liquid. Everlast was a brew from a variety of herbs and roots, concocted by their older healer Fúlgrim in Aldburg a few years earlier, and had quickly risen to be regarded as an absolute essential for the Armed Forces. It tasted hideous, like a mixture of warg piss, rotten meat and swamp mud, but its properties never failed to lend an exhausted warrior new power. There was no telling how many exhausted men it had saved since its discovery, and so Éomer did not even consider complaining as he put the rim of the mug against his lips and emptied it with four deep swigs.

"Ugh…" He grimaced and spat, and wordlessly, Aedwulf offered him his water skin. Three more swallows quickly washed the revolting taste from his mouth, and he returned the vessel to his captain. "So many dream of riding with the éoreds," he coughed as he rose to his knees. "I wonder if they would still do so if they knew they'd one day have to wake to this taste…"

"Ah, the joys of life on the plains!" Aedwulf grinned, and helped his commander up.

Massaging his hurting neck, Éomer's first glance went to the east, and it confirmed to him what his brother-in-arms had already told him. Daylight was on the way. Which was good. It was about bloody time they were done here. Many leagues to the west, Théodred was waiting for them… He turned around, now scrutinising what he could make out on the little hillock.

"Did they try anything?"

Aedwulf shook his head.

"I suppose they bowed to the inevitable and decided to conserve the rest of their strength for battle. And before you ask: Éothain and his riders destroyed the rest of the group that assaulted us. They left none alive. In fact, they returned shortly after you… They lost three horses though." He inhaled, and Éomer's gloomy look was reply enough. This foray cost them dearly, and it was clear to both men that the price had not even been fully paid yet. Aedwulf cleared his throat. "I told Éothain to sleep, too. Anlaf took over for him. I suppose he's just waking right now, as well. When first light comes, it will find us ready."

"Aye…" With a soundless sigh, Éomer straightened and rolled his shoulders. Gods, he felt stiff like one of the Púkelmen on the path to Dunharrow. How in Béma's name was he supposed to give battle in less than an hour? Which reminded him… A quick glance around confirmed to him that most of their riders were already in the process of preparing their horses for the expected melee. Bedrolls and other belongings were being packed and stored in their horse's saddlebags, before they could get lost in the fight, and once that was done, the men climbed into the saddles and began to put their mounts through a few exercises to warm their muscles.

Slowly feeling the effect of the Everlast taking hold, Éomer gave his captain an appreciative look and laid a hand upon the man's shoulder.

"Well done, Aedwulf. See that you make it back to your own position, then. Since everyone knows what do do, I suppose there is nothing left to say or do. See that you get some more rest. It will be over soon enough. Good hunting, Captain… and see that you duck when you're supposed to."

"And you, Marshal."

With a curt nod, the warrior turned and walked away. For a moment, Éomer's gaze followed him, then with a jolt, the son of Éomund turned towards their horses. His dark grey head buried in the juicy grass, Firefoot stood at the edge of their herd of war-horses, up to his knees dissolved in the thick grey mist. He looked almost like a ghost in these surroundings, and from out of nowhere, Éomer's thoughts turned toward Sleipnir, the ghost horse, as he approached his mount. A frown spread over his face at the thought of the mighty stallion of the Beyond, who was believed to carry those who had fallen in battle to the halls of their ancestors. He hoped none of his remaining warriors would see the Ghost Horse today.

"Good morning, Grey One!" he said instead, and smiled when Firefoot lifted his head, still munching on a mouthful of grass. From the depths of his mighty chest, a low wicker reached the warrior's ears and brought the hint of a smile to his lips as he reached out and buried his fingers in the silken fur. "Don't eat too much, or you won't be able to move. Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come, and I will need your service one more time."

He pulled the big head closer and pressed his face into the thick winter fur, enjoying the warmth upon his skin. The thought that both he and his mount could be dead in less than an hour was non-existent. It was something he was not allowed to think if he wanted to be effective in battle. Fear was a bad adviser. People made mistakes when they were driven by fear. Rigorously, he pushed it aside and climbed into the saddle to begin his own preparations for the fight.

000

Half an hour later, it could no longer be denied that daylight was on the way. The world lay under a swirling white blanket of mist, ready to be born again, and the birds on the edge of the Entwood had burst into song. It could have been a beautiful morning, yet instead, it would become a red dawn.

The Riders had broken camp, and there had been a lot of activity in the twilight, anxiously and helplessly followed by their waiting opponents. Steam rose from the bodies of the great war-horses as they moved ceaselessly around the siege ring, preparing for the effort that lay before them. Swords were sharpened and arrows collected from the bodies of the fallen orcs to replenish empty quivers, spears retrieved and armour rearranged that had been taken off during the night.

At last, Éomer felt that they were ready. Garulf had just returned from another round around the hillock, and brought him word from the other commanders that their preparations were completed, and that the éored was waiting for their Marshal's sign. A quick glance at the eastern sky revealed that the sun was just about to show its head above the distant hills.

With a curt nod at his scout, Éomund's son turned his prancing stallion towards the hillock and unhooked his silver horn. The clear sound rose over the battlefield, calling his brothers to arms… and was picked up by dozens more all around the siege ring. The orcs jumped to their feet… and the first beam of sunlight flooded the hill on which they stood and blinded them. It reflected on helmets and then on swords which were spontaneously held up to greet it, and chased away the gloomy thoughts of the night. Battle was upon them once more, and they were ready for it.

Coming to a halt at the foot of the hillock, Éomer suddenly heard a strong, clear voice burst out in song. A grim smile spread on his lips as he recognised it as Éothain's, and he joined into their ancient battle tune, which was quickly picked up by their entire éored, swept away on a huge wave of adrenaline:

"We ride out in the morning,

hard on our enemies' track.

We know that once we found them,

they'll never make it back.

Fens and plains and hills we cross,

our weapons hungry for their blood.

And when we were done we leave them lying,

their corpses trampled in the red mud.

We've made our vows, to protect what's ours,

To kill what's not, and destroy their lot.

For always and ever our duty will call,

to vanquish our foes and to protect all."

In the deafening silence that followed their song, Éomer lifted his arm and shouted out.

"Ready!"

With a swoosh, the riders to his left and right unslung their bows and fitted their arrows to the string. For a few heartbeats, nothing happened. A last, deep breath… and then his arm fell.

"Shoot!"

With a sharp whisper, the deadly hail punched into the orcs. Agonised and enraged roars rose into the clear morning air. Several large shapes dropped to the ground. Only few arrows were returned. Again, Éomer lifted his arm.

"Ready! ... Shoot!"

More devastation rained down upon their enemies, cunningly aimed at points in their lighter armour that were not well protected. Dozens of the great orcs stumbled and fell to their knees, riddled with arrows. Mercilessly, Éomer gave the signal a third time, and then gripped his spear.

"Forth, Éorlingas!"

He kicked his heels into Firefoot's flanks, and the grey stallion jumped into action. The riders accelerated uphill like a wave on a storm tide; swallowing the ground beneath them, eating up the distance. Before them, still unable to see them in the low light of the rising sun, the remaining orcs lifted their crude swords in defence.

"Stand your ground!" a mighty voice rose over the din of their hoof beats. "Or I will personally kill you! Stand your ground!"

Closer! And closer still, almost upon them! So close now that Éomer could make out the reflection of the sun in the bulging, red-veined eyes before him. The stench of the enemy hit his nostrils. He tensed and drew back his arm, focussing on the Uruk directly in their path. The beast bared its fangs at him and roared, spittle showering from the gaping maw as it ran to meet them. With a wild answering yell and his full body weight behind the thrust, Éomer threw his spear, and it caught the creature in the pit of its throat and went halfway through. A black shower erupted from its jaws. Dropping the sword, the orc's hands went up to its pierced neck, and yet before it had a chance to drop, they were upon it. The dying beast was rammed to the ground and vanished beneath their horses. Only a moment later, Gúthwinё sparkled brightly in its master's hand, thirsty for blood.

Like a battering ram, the éored forced their way through the exhausted orcs; hacking, slashing and riding down everything in their way, an unstoppable force of nature, only halting once they reached the peak of the little hillock. There they turned around, joined by their brothers-in-arms who had fought their way up from the other side, and with combined strength, came upon the fleeing orcs once more, the thunder of their hooves drowning out all other sounds.

"Get the Whiteskin! Kill him!"

As the spearhead of their forces, Éomer suddenly found himself surrounded by Uruk-hai. Firefoot's assault had been too fast for the éored to follow, and cunningly, the beasts had closed the gap behind him and isolated the commander from his warriors. He cursed and threw the stallion around, having sensed motion out of the corner of his eye. Black claws clutched at him, grasped his boots and tried to pull him from the saddle. He slashed at them, severing a forearm here and a hand there, but now the orcs on the other side had reached him.

With a furious shriek, Firefoot reared, and his hooves smashed the face of the nearest foe in, sending him to the ground. Yet his forelegs had barely touched the soil again when he already rounded his back and kicked, almost unseating his rider.

"Éomer!"

He looked up, frantically searching for help, but there was only the writhing black mass around them, roaring, stinking, hell-bent on tearing them to pieces. A huge two-hander with spikes at its tip swung toward them, and only in the last moment, Éomer managed to deflect the blow that would have taken off his leg. Enraged, the beast bared its fangs at him and crouch as if to jump, but suddenly, with a shower of blackness, the tip of a spear burst from its chest.

"To the Marshal!"

It was Éothain's voice he heard, and Éothain's face which suddenly appeared before him. Lifting his sword hand in greeting, Éomer was ill-prepared for a sudden, violent tug from behind. His feet slipped from the stirrups, and even a quick grasp for the pommel of his saddle could not save him. He fell.

"Éomer!"

Years of practice and catlike instincts sent him into a controlled roll over his shoulder and landed him on his feet, striking out even as he rose. The mountain of orc before him roared in agony as he dropped like a stone, both of its legs severed just below the knees. Quickly ending the beast's pain with a stab to the eye, Éomer whirled around.

"Firefoot!"

His stallion was fearsome to behold as he rose on his hind legs once again, only the whites showing in his eyes as he hammered his hooves at the nearest orcs and jumped forth with bared teeth, a predator in the shape of a horse. And yet he did not seem to hear his master's call.

"Éomer, quick!"

From out of nowhere, a gauntleted hand appeared in Éomer's vision. He grasped it and jumped, unthinking, pure instinct, to find himself in the saddle behind Éothain.

"Go!"

Scatha, his friend's bay gelding, burst into action and, with a mighty jump, propelled himself straight through the wall of orcs that separated them from the rest of their riders, closely followed by Firefoot, and the pursuing orcs were met with another hail of arrows from the Rohirrim.

"Damnation…" was all Éomer was able to utter as he fought for breath. "That was close."

"Too close…" Reaching, Éothain managed to grasp Firefoot's loosely hanging reins, and quickly, his commander and friend slipped over into the empty saddle. Anxiously, Éomer's eyes travelled over the grey frame, looking for injuries, but finding only smears of black orc blood upon his hide.

"Next time we attack, please leave us the chance to join you, all right? One could think your horse has a personal feud with this particular band of orcs."

Still breathing hard, Éomer nodded

"Thanks, Éothain. I owe you."

"Ah well…" his friend snorted, already turning away to get an overview over the battle. "Regard it as payment for last month. We should be even now." He narrowed his eyes. "It seems to me that most of the orcs are destroyed, but what's this over there?" He pointed ahead.

Following his gaze, Éomer beheld a throng of orcs and riders in close combat. There were about a dozen of the dark beasts, who seemed to use an unusual strategy to fight their way towards the forest, back-to-back, some of them even equipped with bows they had claimed. Even as they looked, three of the Uruks made a sally and jumped at a grey horse with a distinct two-coloured mane.

"No!" Éomer hissed and spurred Firefoot towards the fight, Éothain close behind him. Right before their eyes, the horse was surrounded and its rider torn from the saddle while it still fought to free itself. An icy chill raced down his spine at the thought of how close he had come himself to falling prey to this tactic. Without stopping, Éomer exchanged his sword for a spear, ripping it from the body of a fallen orc as they thundered ahead. In the meantime, other riders had noticed their comrades' predicament and turned, but they were too far away to help.

One of Garulf's attackers roared in pain as Éothain's precisely aimed arrow punched into its shoulder, and for a moment, all heads turned toward the two approaching Rohirrim. Using the diversion, the grey stallion reared and catapulted itself through a narrow gap, shrieking in terror. Its rider wasn't as lucky. Even as they came within range, the scout disappeared in the middle of the enraged orcs.

With a cry of pure rage, Éomer threw the spear and sunk the entire metal head into the back of the nearest beast.

"Hey!" a roar greeted them. "Hey, Whiteskins! Look here!"

It was a mountain of an orc, a Uruk of a size they had not met before, clad in gruesome amour of skin and bones that was already soaked with black and red blood alike. The group's commander, without a doubt, and before him in the mud, the sharp claws sunk into the skin of his head, Garulf knelt, desperately, uselessly trying to escape the terrible hold. Blood streamed down his face in frightening amounts. Éomer swore and reached over his back. No arrow left! Next to him, Éothain swore at the same revelation.

"Look here, Whiteskins!" the chieftain shouted with a horribly amused laugh. "This is what would happen to all of you if you fought fair!"

Even as Éomer kicked his heels into Firefoot's flanks, his blade again in his hand, he knew that their attack came too late. Right before them, the Uruk's claws clenched as he pulled Garulf to his feet with a violent tug that almost ripped the skin from the warrior's scalp, a long, black knife in his other hand…

In a desperate impulse, Éomer threw his sword. In a silvery arc, Gúthwinё sailed towards the offender. But it was not the way its owner had ever used it before, and so it was only the hilt that struck the great orc in the chest and glanced off. With a guttural roar, the beast sank its knife into Garulf's neck, opening a yawning red gap just beneath his chin. The scout's knees buckled, but before he could fall, he was thrown right into his marshal's path.

No time to evade. For a heartbeat, Éomer saw his rider's bloodied face through Firefoot's ears – the next, he was catapulted into the air as his stallion leapt over the dying warrior. They landed in the midst of the remaining orcs… and he was weaponless, Éomer realised with a jolt! For a moment, he could only stare as the beasts advanced… and then a sharp sound reached his ears, and his attackers dropped to the ground, each pierced by at least a dozen arrows. Except for their commander…

The great orc still stood, although the shafts of two arrows stuck out from his arm and leg.

"Halt!" Éomer shouted over the din of the advancing éored, and lifted his hand. "Do not shoot! He is mine!" His eyes tore into those of his adversary, murder written on his face as he turned Firefoot around in a tight circle.

"Marshal!" Hilt first, Éothain offered him his sword even as the rest of their riders closed the circle around them. He knew better than to argue with his friend now.

Wordlessly, Éomer accepted his blade, while beneath him, Firefoot stomped his hooves threateningly into the ground. He lifted his chin in challenge.

"You gonna fight me from the back of that beast, horse-boy?" The Uruk spat. "Just what I expected. You know that I would tear you limb from limb in a fair fight!"

"A fair fight?" Éomer's eyes blazed, thoroughly ignoring Éothain's whispered "Éomer, don't!", or probably not even hearing him. He was in a tunnel, and on the other end, there was only Garulf's murderer. No Éothain, no riders, no one. "You want a fair fight? I'll give you a fair fight!" And with those words, he slipped from the saddle.

He did not hear the dismayed murmurs of his riders, had no eyes or ears for anything but the dark shape before him as he approached his opponent with large, determined steps. The blood pulsed through his veins; muscles vibrated with tension as rage and battle-fever united in his body. Everything became clearer, sharper. Every little detail stood out in stark contrast. The orc's blood-soaked armour. The arrow-shafts in its flesh, moving as the beast drew back its spiked broadsword. The cruel, horribly amused glint in its bloodshot eyes.

Two paces before his adversary, Éomer came to a stop. In challenge, he extended his arms, then slowly dropped into a crouch.

"Well, come on, abortion!"

The crude blade swung toward him before he had even finished, its arc unexpectedly low. At the last moment, Éomer blocked the blow which would have otherwise cut off his legs, and used its energy to answer with a quick swipe that neatly shaved off his opponent's left ear. The orc bellowed in rage.

A grim smile tugged at Éomer's lips. The beast was mean and strong, but it was slow.

"You want to tear me to pieces? Here I am! Come on, warg-trap, or are you a coward?"

With a furious roar, the orc leapt at him, black wetness glistening on its thick neck, the broadsword scything through the air in a deadly half-circle and striking sparks as it clashed against Éothain's sword – and knocked it from Éomer's grasp.

He did not hear the dismayed cries around him. As the sword swung toward him once more, Éomer dropped to the ground and rolled. Something sparkled in the grass before him, a glint of sunlight on metal. Gúthwinё! His fingers closing around the hilt, he finished his move and jumped to his feet. A quick thrust opened a long gash across the orc's back before it could turn. The beast grunted and stumbled.

'He's lost a lot of blood,' Éomer realised with satisfaction. 'He's getting weaker. It's all about good footwork now.'

"I'm here!" he taunted, and danced away before his opponent could turn around, punishing him again with a stab into the muscular thigh. "Come and get me!"

Red eyes regarded him with infernal bloodlust as the orc turned toward him, limping now, its chest pumping like a pair of bellows.

"Stand… still!"

Their eyes met, and in them, Éomer could see everything he could ever have wanted. The orc was finished. Time to end it. He straightened… and lowered his sword.

"All right… Come!"

With a breathless roar, the beast jumped at him. He saw it all very clearly as he stood there, unmoving, Gúthwinё hanging beside his legs as he goaded the orc into a last, desperate attack. The cold glint of the black metal upon the descending broadsword, the strike powerful enough to split him down the middle like firewood. At the last possible moment, he moved.

A flicker of his wrist, then a sharp upwards motion with both hands leading the blade, every ounce of strength in his body incorporated in his strike, a furious cry leaving his lungs. The steel cut through bone as if it were butter, and the broadsword tumbled to the ground behind him, the hands which had led it still clenched around the hilt.

For a moment, they stood before each other, eye-to-eye. Close enough to touch. The orc's maw opened wide in a blood-curdling roar, impressive fangs glistening with saliva. Easiest thing in the world to stick his sword into the gaping hole and be done with it. Yet it was not what the son of Éomund wanted.

Dropping into a crouch, he lashed out again, and this time, all its iron determination could not keep his adversary on its feet, for they had been severed from its body. On bleeding stumps, it toppled backward. One step, two… and then the great body crashed to the ground with an agonized groan.

A RED SUN RISES



Chapter 9: Razor's Edge


Author's Notes:

If any of you thought that I would be done with the tension after last chapter's battle, think again... *muahahaha*

Seriously, I'm only getting warmed up for the next ton of angst... Stay tuned, and if you feel so inclined, kindly drop me a note to let me know whether you're enjoying this feast of darkness!


EASTEMNET

The orc had barely landed on its back when Éomer shoved his sword under its chin, eyes blazing with intensity as he placed his boot on his adversary's chest.

"What was your mission, filth? Tell me and you shall die quickly. If not, I promise you that we will find ways of making it even harder for you, and we will drag out your death until you will beg us for it."

The red-veined eyes met him. Impossibly, the beast was still laughing, although its ugly features were contorted into a grimace of pain. It coughed a mouthful of thick black blood onto Éomer's boot. The stench was nearly enough to make him retch.

"So desperate, horse-boy, aren't you? We Uruk-hai do not betray our masters. Rot in hell!"

"Very well…"

With a quick glance, Éomer found what he had been looking for. With three quick steps, he reached the orc he had speared through the back and wrenched the weapon from its flesh. It was still moving weakly, but he hardly noticed as he turned around. Another hard look found the Uruk-chieftain.

"Last chance, abortion!"

"You cannot scare me, horse-boy! Uruk-hai are cut from a different cloth than ordinary orcs… or filthy Whiteskins! I'll rather bleed out!"

Éomer nodded.

"Your choice."

He tensed… and rammed the spear through the orc's lower abdomen, nailing it to the ground. A breathless, hoarse groan rewarded him as he turned towards his waiting riders.

"Tolgor, cauterise his wounds! I will not allow him to bleed to death. And station a guard at his side." His attention shifted back to the agonized creature at his feet. "You have something to say to us, tell it to my men. Until then, you will find that the path to oblivion can be a very rocky one…"

His heartbeat slowly returning to normal as he ran a hand through his tangled mane, Éomer turned his back on the mortally wounded beast. In the grass before him, Éothain's sword glinted in the sun, and he stooped to retrieve it, only briefly pausing to wipe the black blood from the blade before he handed it back to its owner in exchange for Firefoot's reins.

"Thanks, Éothain."

His captain shook his head with mild amazement.

"Béma, Éomer… I can only hope I'll never find myself on your bad side." After a long glance over the battlefield, his attention returned to his commander. "What now?"

Éomer followed his gaze, quite aware of his riders' undivided attention. The most gruesome part of warfare lay still before them… yet at the same time, they could hardly afford the time it would take to cleanse the battlefield.

"One half of our éored should make for the Entwash right now. This whole unfortunate business took way too much time, and we must return to Edoras as quickly as possible. Anlaf, Aedwulf… you will lead your men to the bridge. You will rest there and wait for us, and sleep. Éothain and I will follow you once we're done here."

His captains nodded.

"What about our fallen? Will we have to leave them here?"

Éomer inhaled, and once again, his gaze swept the hillock behind them. It was littered with orc corpses… and yet he feared that that they would also find more of their riders between them in addition to the ones their nightly battle had already claimed. He furrowed his brow.

"I'm afraid we will indeed have to… We will give them as decent a burial as possible, though. As for our fallen horses, we will have to burn them. I'm sure none of you wants to leave his mount for the scavengers to find. All who want to help, get to work now. I need about sixty men. All others, make for the Entwash, now."


000

EDORAS

Early daylight filtered through the Golden Hall's windows. Huddled into a thick woollen blanket in her armchair, Éowyn welcomed it with dread. After the earlier clash with the Worm and his henchman, she feared that the coming day would bring her nothing but new torment. Théodred's death would be revealed to the city's population, and if there was one thing she could count on, Éomund's daughter knew that Gríma Wormtongue would give it his best to lay the blame entirely on her brother. The people had loved Théodred dearly; he had been the main source of their hope… and there was no telling how they would welcome someone, who was said to be responsible for his passing.

All the more reason to warn Éomer. A twinge of pain raced through her stomach as Éowyn's eyes wandered over to the fireplace. She could still hardly believe that Gamling had forced her to burn the parchment. They had grown up right beneath his nose! He had seen Théodred and Éomer together countless times! How could the old warrior now doubt her brother? How could he actually believe that it had been Éomer's intention to have his cousin killed? And if even he believed it… how should the people of Edoras think any different? Slowly but surely, the noose was tightening around her brother's neck.

What was there still left to do for her? After the nightly episode, Éowyn was certain that they would watch any of her activities with eagle eyes. She could not see how she was supposed to smuggle a letter out under these circumstances, much less as there would be hardly anyone left willing to risk his neck to bring Èomer her warning after the revelations of the coming day.

Riding out herself… it felt tempting to leave this snake pit, and yet the daughter of Éomund was realistic enough to understand that she would, in all likelihood, not return. She was no tracker, but even if, by some wonder, she would make it to the Entwood, there was a strong possibility not only to miss her brother's éored along the way… and she could not hope to ride the whole distance without having to sleep. By herself and with no guard, it surely sounded only like a very good opportunity to rid Gríma Wormtongue of another member of the opposition.

No. As much as Éowyn loathed the insight, her path had to be a different one. She hated it, too, but it was the only chance… and she had to walk it now. With a deep breath, she came to her feet. The blanket she tossed upon the bed she had not used this past night, and instead grasped her brush. Yet when she came to a halt in front of the mirror, her reflection gave her pause. Sorrowful, blue-grey eyes stared at her out of a pale face. They were still puffed up from all the weeping, and dark circles beneath them would tell anyone who looked at her clearly about her disposition. She could not leave her chambers looking like this. She needed 'the Mask' again, more than ever.

Quickly finishing with her hair, Éowyn picked a fresh washing cloth from her chest of dressers and soaked it in the jug with cold water that still stood on her table. She pressed it onto her eyes, relishing the soothing effect. For a moment, she even succeeded in thinking of nothing. Once more soaking the cloth when it had warmed too much to be effective, she stood a little longer in the twilight of her chambers, inwardly steeling herself for the task at hand. It was a cruel game she was about to play, yet it was necessary. She needed to remind her uncle of her vow, to make it clear to him how serious she was about her threat…

With a deep breath, Éowyn opened her eyes again. The young woman in the mirror stared back at her with an unreadable expression. That was better. She looked still tired, but by now, determination had replaced desperation, and the daughter of Éomund understood that her threat, which had, at first, only been made to protect her brother, had become heartfelt conviction. She did not want to live if Gríma succeeded. It was clear to her what would happen once there was no one left whom the Counsellor feared. She would not become the plaything of this human monster… and now she would see to it that his plans were thwarted.


000

It was still early when Éowyn slipped out of her chambers, but around the tables at the hearth fire, a few members of the Royal Household could already be seen breaking their fast. She granted them a curt nod in greeting and walked over to the other side, where she could make out the shadow of the guard beside the door to her uncle's rooms. As she approached, she realised to her surprise that it was Gamling. Haltingly, she advanced further.

"Good morning, Captain… I must admit that I did not expect to see you guarding the King's door… although it puts my mind more at peace than having the Counsellor's own men standing here."

The older warrior returned her greeting, a haunted look in his deep-lying eyes.

"Good morning, my lady. I could not sleep after what was disclosed last night, so I relieved Folcard." He inhaled. "I can still not believe it."

"Neither can I, Lord Gamling. It is…" Searching for the right words and coming up empty, Éowyn could only shake her head. "It is still too fresh." She nodded towards the door. "May I see my uncle, please?" 'Is he still alone?' Her eyes asked silently.

"He might not be up yet… and for as long as I have been standing here, no one entered."

Éowyn nodded, slightly relieved. She did not yet feel ready to deal with the Worm after the past horrible night.

"I would like to see whether he needs help. After the sleeping draught he took last night, I expect him to be a little drowsy. It might be best if he sees a family member first when he wakes. Please, Lord Gamling…"

The Captain of the Royal Guard inhaled. All his instincts told him that it was the right thing to do, no matter what the king's counsellor had said. At last, he nodded… and opened the door for Éowyn, himself.

"Of course, my lady… Please, let me know if you or the king should need something."

Éowyn gifted him with the faintest of smiles as she passed him.

"I will. Thank you, Gamling."

Almost on the tips of her toes, she entered the royal chambers. Lying on the eastern side of the Golden Hall, daylight had already thoroughly spread in the main room, and yet everything was still silent. The fire in the hearth had already been tended and flickered merrily, spreading its warmth. Éowyn felt slightly dizzy, barely aware of the fact that she was holding her breath.

Soundlessly, she moved over to the door to the bedchambers. Softly, she rapped her knuckles against the wood. No reply. She knocked again, a little louder. Waited.

"Uncle? May I come in?" Silence answered her. A chill she knew only too well settled in her stomach again. He could not still be sleeping, could he? Even after having taken the draught… She knocked harder. "Uncle?" When again no answer rewarded her, Éowyn depressed the handle.

The twilight in the bedroom was still thick; the drawn curtains blocked the morning light and the stuffy air almost choked her.

"Uncle? It is I, Éowyn." She was whispering now, an indistinct fear rising in the back of her mind. Théoden had never been a sound sleeper, so how could he still not hear her? On tiptoes, she stepped closer. The shape beneath the bedspread did not move. "Uncle?"

"Do not disturb the king's rest!" a whispered hiss suddenly reached her ears, almost causing her to scream. From the arm chair close to Théoden's four-poster, a dark shape rose. "What do you think you're doing?"

Too shocked to answer, Éowyn could only stare back as her adversary approached.

'What is he doing here? Has he been sitting here the whole night? Doing… what exactly?'

His eyes narrowed to slits, Wormtongue pointed wordlessly at the door to Théoden's main chambers. Her heart hammering in her chest, Éowyn followed him outside after a quick glance back at her unmoving uncle; the shock already starting to turn into righteous rage. Gríma had barely closed the door when she turned around and hissed back in a barely subdued voice:

"What do you mean, Counsellor? I do not understand your question! My uncle suffered a severe blow yesterday, and he was already frail before that. He is normally an early riser. As his only available family member, I am concerned. May I ask what you were doing in there? You have no business in the king's bedchamber, Lord Gríma! And the Captain of the Royal Guard did not see you enter, which means you must have been in here all night!"

"It is not your exclusive right to worry about our ruler's health, my lady!" Gríma returned her furious look with his usual, unreadable mask. "I understand perhaps better than you how precarious your uncle's condition is. At least I did not try to wake him when he needs his rest more urgently than ever!"

A terrible thought entered Éowyn's mind… and found the way to her tongue before she could stop it.

"Perhaps you only wanted to check how well the poison you're giving my uncle is working!" She could see him flinch, or at least, she imagined that he had. "Did you, Lord Gríma? Ever since you started giving Théoden-King your so-called 'medicine', his health has deteriorated, and it has been going ever faster these days! I have witnessed it myself many times: my uncle is still responsive until you give him your potion! It turns him into a submissive puppet! And perhaps that is the very thing that you want, to turn him against Éomer!" She stabbed her finger at him, no longer able hold down her voice nor hold back her anger. Gods, it had been so clear all this time!

Wormtongue's eyes narrowed even further in furious disbelieve, and the cold morning light sparkled in his eyes like thin, dangerous ice.

"If I didn't give your uncle my 'poison', my lady," he sneered, now likewise raising his voice, "- he would lie in his bed all day, screaming in torment! The illness of his joints is something that will not pass, and which cannot be overcome! It can only be dulled! Of course such medicine also has an effect on a person's mind! If you have no medical knowledge yourself, Lady Éowyn, may I suggest with all due emphasis that you leave the treatment of your uncle to those who do?"

"I do not believe you, Counsellor!" Instinctively, Éowyn straightened and lifted her chin. Sudden conviction flooded her as she squared her shoulders. "And as member of the Royal Family, I demand that you will leave the treatment of the king to our healer! From this moment on, you will neither touch my uncle again nor administer him any more dubious liquids! You will stay away, or it is you who will suddenly find himself in the dungeon! I mean it, Lord Gríma!"

For the longest moment, the pale eyes before her regarded her with obvious calculation. Then a nasty sneer appeared on the counsellor's lips.

"It seems to me that you vastly overestimate your authority, my lady. You have no power to order such a thing. I have it in writing that your uncle grants me authority to speak in his stead in the case that he is indisposed. I am, in fact, his proxy. And as such, I will not listen to orders given to me by subordinates."

"Sub…" The word punched the breath from Éowyn's lungs. "What you are, as far as I'm concerned, is our servant, Lord Gríma! You are the servant of the Royal Family-"

"I am the servant of the king, Lady Éowyn! The king!"

"- of which I am next in line with my cousin dead and my brother gone! And I will only repeat it once: you will leave these chambers immediately, and you will not return, or I will have the Royal Guard remove you! Béma is my witness, I mean it!"

He made an angry step toward her.

"You cannot-"

"I can and I will! Lord Gamling!" Although her heart was beating in her throat, Éowyn did not yield. From behind, the sound of the opening door reached her ears. It sounded like music.

"My lady?" The warrior's voice sounded hesitant. "You were calling for me?"

"Aye, I was, Captain." Her eyes never leaving her adversary's face, which contorted into a furious grimace, Éowyn raised her voice. "Will you please escort Lord Gríma out of my uncle's chambers and see to it that he stays out? Please feel free to summon the rest of the Royal Guard should he not be willing to leave by himself." She could virtually hear the old man's confusion even through the following silence.

Before her, Wormtongue shook his head.

"You have no idea what trouble you are getting yourself into, my lady. Your uncle will be furious with you once he wakes and finds what you have done!"

Now she felt confident enough to grant her opponent a nasty smile.

"Well, why don't we ask him? Our shouting should surely have awoken him by now, if your poison did not kill him! Don't you think?" And with these words, she re-entered the bedchambers, gaze firmly directed at the hump beneath the blanket. The still unmoving hump! By all rights, her uncle should have been sitting in his bed by now.

"Lady Éowyn, I do not know…" Gamling's voice reached her from the connecting door, but she did not hear what the older warrior said, for now she had reached the bed and laid a gentle hand onto the spot where she believed her uncle's shoulder to be. She gave him the gentlest of shakes.

"Uncle? Uncle, it is I, Éowyn…" No response rewarded her, and sudden dread flooded her with almost painful intensity. No, it could not be! "The curtains, Lord Gamling!" she shouted anxiously. "Quick, open the curtains! I need light!"

A moment later, the pale morning light illuminated the room, but it did not make things less horrifying, for now she could see that her uncle's eyes were open… and staring into the void.

'No, no, no, no…!'

She dropped to her knees beside the bed.

"Uncle? Uncle, can you hear me?" She laid a trembling hand against his neck. His skin was warm… and there was a pulse against her fingers. It was steady, but terribly slow. For a moment, Éowyn did not know whether to be relieved or even more worried.

"My lady, is he…"

"He is alive, Lord Gamling. Alive… but unresponsive." She looked up, and now cold fury burned in her eyes as her gaze found the Worm by the door. With a deep voice that vibrated with barely suppressed rage, she asked: "What have you given him, Counsellor? You say it was a sleeping draught. I say a sleeping draught would not leave my uncle lying here like a corpse, unable to move or to respond! You poisoned him!"

She rose to her feet and from out of the corner of her eyes, noticed that, on the other side of the bed, Gamling had unsheathed his sword and approached the waiting man with firm steps.

"It was a sleeping draught!" Gríma insisted. "Of course, I made it rather strong! Your uncle lost his son last night! Such a heavy blow has to have an effect on the king, even more so as his health has been frail for months!" He stared the guard full in the face and lowered his voice. "You better watch what you're doing with that blade, Lord Gamling. Raise it against me and the king will have your head when he wakes!"

"I will chance it," Gamling replied with a firm voice that was music to Éowyn's ears. "For now, I want you out of these chambers, Counsellor Gríma. I will escort you out and bring you to your own rooms, where you will remain until summoned. I will leave a guard in front of your door. Should you try to resist, or flee, you will find that we also have other accommodation we can allot you."

For a moment, Wormtongue could only stare back. Never before had he seen the old warrior like this. With Théoden-King firmly under his sway, the Royal Guard had been behaving toward him like toothless, docile dogs. But he was not yet at the end of his tether, not by a long shot. He narrowed his eyes.

"Very well, Captain," he said, forcing himself to calm down. "Do what you think you must. I will not resist. But I certainly do not envy you the trouble you will find yourself in once Théoden-King hears of this."

"If he wakes!"

"Oh, he will wake, I can guarantee you that. And by then you will have a lot to explain, both you and the Lady Éowyn. I doubt that your ruler will be very amused to see what happens to his orders once he is indisposed." He stared at Éowyn, and a cruel smirk contorted his mouth. "Perhaps it is not only your brother who is making his bid for power, my lady. Perhaps, the conspiracy has already spread much further than even I imagined…"

"Out!"

Éowyn did not know whether it was rage or worry that made her tremble; all she knew was that if she'd have to deal with the Worm even for a minute longer, things would turn really ugly and irreversible.

"Kindly bring the Counsellor to his rooms now, Captain, and see that he stays there. When this is done, send for Yalanda at once. I will stay here, by my uncle's side. Hurry!"

A RED SUN RISES


Author's Notes:

I hope you are ready for more plotting by our evil counsellor, and just want to use this opportunity to thank Thanwen, CarawynO, Rossui, Silverswath, Rocheryn and mystarlight for faithfully reviewing. This is for you!


Chapter 10: Evil Schemes


EASTEMNET

The swell of the grass slopes seemed limitless. To Éomer's dazed mind, it appeared as if they were caught in a strange spell, doomed to travel the same rolling hills again and again and follow the same broad tracks the vanguard of their éored had left in the soil. Even the sky was overcast and did not reveal the sun, adding to his disorientation. Not for the life of him could he have told what progress they had already made on their way back to Edoras, since they had left the scene of the battle shortly after midday. Somehow, more subconsciously than anything else, the son of Éomund still managed to stay in the saddle, but he felt that the moment when all his iron would not suffice to keep him on his horse was approaching fast… and if he was feeling this way, the riders of his éored could certainly not be feeling much different.

Their mounts, too, needed a rest. He could tell that easily from the way Firefoot's gallop shook him thoroughly whenever the stallion's hooves touched the ground. The Half-Meara was one of their hardiest horses and possessed of legendary stamina, but even in Éomer's half-conscious state, the son of Éomund could tell that the big Grey needed all his willpower just to move on, although they were already travelling at a much slower speed than they had on the way to the Entwood. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice was still screaming at him and reminding him of the urgency of their return to Edoras, and then on to the Fords, but Éomer felt no longer capable of following its unrealistic demands. They were all made of flesh and blood and as such, bound to its limitations, not some ghastly ghouls brought into existence by sorcery. The moment was near when they would have to pay the price for all what they had done these past two and a half days.

For a few heartbeats, Éomer's eyelids closed… and his chin sunk onto his chest. 'So tired…' His head sunk lower. He began to slide, imperceptibly at first. 'Let me sleep…' The body tension seeped from his muscles. 'I'm slipping...' – 'I don't care. Let me sleep.' A hard jolt rattled him, and with supreme effort, he opened his eyes… and righted himself in the saddle with more effort than it should have cost him.

"We must halt," Éothain's voice reached his ears through a low, yet persistent drone, muffled to the point where he could barely understand his friend. "Most of our horses are close to collapsing… and I'm only waiting for someone to fall from the saddle. We cannot go on like this, Éomer. It is only a question of time until there will be an ugly accident."

"We can only stop once we've reached the others," Éomer objected. "There are none among us who could stand guard in their condition. With a little luck, the others have been able to sleep in the meantime. They can't be too far ahead anymore."

Éothain's eyebrows twitched. He grimaced.

"You've been saying that for a while now."

"Which means that we must be even closer by now."

Éothain's brow furrowed, but there were no further words of protest. Which was well with Éomer. With a deep breath, he straightened in the saddle and looked back. Silently, he agreed with his friend, but there was simply no way they could just stop and sleep out here in the middle of nowhere. Before them, the tracks lead ever down the slope, and yet slowly but surely, it appeared to him that the terrain was at last beginning to level out. They had almost reached the plains. From here on, it would take them perhaps another two or three hours to reach the bridge, where – hopefully – the rest of their riders were awaiting their arrival. Three hours? It sounded impossible.

Although he knew that there was no more Everlast left in his water skin, Éomer shook the vessel tentatively. In the aftermath of the battle, they had thrown together everything his riders had had left, and distributed the brew evenly, but it had been much thinner than the one they had drunk before, and far less effective. Still, it had enabled them to perform the grisliest of tasks in the wake of the fight – searching the battlefield for their wounded and fallen, and separating them from the dead orcs. It had turned out that they had lost fifteen men, and Éomer's heart had ached at the sight of them, lying lined up on the ground at the eaves of the forest while their brothers-in-arms were digging their burial mount. They had also lost twelve of their precious horses, even having had to put several of them out of their misery before burning them, so that nothing was left for the scavengers which would inevitably find this place of mass death once they were gone.

The face of one of their youngest riders, Éoleth, appeared before Éomer's inner eye, tear-streaked at the horrible task of having to release his trusted mount of many years from the torment of a horribly broken hind leg. Éomer had been in the young man's shoes once, and knew that nothing he could say or do would lessen his rider's anguish. And as if that had not been bad enough, they had also found Grimdan on the slope, a young man of only twenty-four summers, who had cradled his mortally wounded twin brother Grímmund in his arms, his powerful, mailed frame shaking with gut-wrenching, soul-shattering sobs. Aye, they had paid the price for the destruction of the orcs, and once again, Éomer felt conviction that he would never grow accustomed to the aftermath of battle…

'You must not feel responsible for their death,' Théodred had advised him once after Éomer had received his own command. Together, they had fought many battles and won most of them, but from time to time, the price for victory had been high. So, after the first lossy fight, the Prince had taken his shaken cousin aside for a personal conversation.

'Of course one should always scrutinize one's battle strategy after a fight, but let's face it, Cousin: we are at war. A war will always cost the lives of those fighting it. Sometimes it will ask a high price for victory, while another time, you might get away completely unscathed. Such is the reality of it. For the last five hundred years, the marshals of the Mark have had to live with it, and before that, their ancestors. You cannot always bring everyone home. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you will lose men, or horses, or both, and it hurts like a pike through the gut. Trust me, I know. I've been there, myself. It makes you question yourself, whether there was not something more you could have done, or done differently. And it is all right to review your strategy from that angle. But once you've done that, the torment must end. You've got to leave it behind you, and store away whatever lessons you learned for the future. An éored under a commander who constantly questions himself and tears himself apart over things he couldn't change is bound for doom. Learn your lessons, so that next time, the outcome may be different. You are giving your best, Éomer, just like everyone else. They all know that. Sometimes, our efforts will suffice in bringing everyone home, other times, they won't. Every member of the Armed Forces understands that their service to their land can cost their lives, and they are prepared to give it. They do this of their own, free will, to protect their home and families, just like you do. Learn your lessons, Cousin… and if you want to blame someone, blame the enemy. That may be the best advice I can give you.'

Aye, it had been good advice, sound advice, and it had helped him in the performance of his duties for many years… and yet, after all this time, the pain and the grief of loss still occasionally managed to penetrate his defences. Likewise, Éomer knew that he would never get used to the stench of burning flesh, even if Béma allowed him to serve until old age.

Following their custom, they had dragged the slaughtered orcs from the battlefield and piled them in a great heap in a close-by clearing, not wanting to leave the corpses to rot and potentially poison the waters of the nearby river. From time to time, he had gone to check on their chieftain, but as expected, the great orc had been determined to take its secrets into the grave. So when at last the fire had blazed and begun to consume its brethren, and his éored had been ready to leave, Éomer had walked over one last time. Surprisingly enough, the beast had still been alive despite its horrible wounds, yet incapable of doing anything more than stare at him, the gaze in the red-veined eyes distant and telling Éomer that the creature's death was imminent.

Reluctant to leave the orc while it was still alive, he had at last killed it… and – following an impulse – impaled its big, ugly head upon a spear as a message for any of its kind who dared to travel this part of the Riddermark and think it unprotected.

The stench of the burning orc flesh was still in his nostrils now, gagging him. It was in his hair, in his garments, and nothing short of jumping into the Entwash's icy floods would rid them of it… but they had neither the time nor any spare clothes, so unfortunately, they would have to bear the ghastly stench until they were home. It was not a prospect Éomer was looking forward to, and still there was probably worse waiting for him in Edoras.

'Home'… it was such a wonderful word. 'Home' was where one's loved ones were waiting for one's return with glad hearts… 'Home' meant safety, and protection, and comfort. In their case, however, 'home' was where the Worm was, in all likelihood already arranging his weapons to tear them to pieces… especially him. He had ridden straight into the Counsellor's trap, knowing full well what would await him when they returned. And still, if given the choice to alter his decision, Éomer felt with every fibre of his body that it had been the right thing to do. .. and that he would give the order again in a flash, no matter of the personal cost.

Pushing the thought into the back of his mind with all that was left of his considerable willpower, Éomer settled back into the stupor of the ride…

000

EDORAS

Gríma Wormtongue sat in the confinement of his own chambers, in the armchair by the window. It was not out of his own volition, but he felt calm. Confident. Assured that he had thought of everything, and that his detention would be temporary at best. His adversaries had acted impulsively, obeying their emotions and not rationality, as was the usual way of the people of the Mark. A smirk tugged at the corners of his mouth. If they had any idea how easily their hot-headedness could be used against them…

Èomer, for example. There was no question that the young man was a formidable warrior, possessed of great stamina, strength and skill of weapons. An opponent one would rightly fear on the battlefield. At the same time, the Third Marshal also demonstrated remarkable shrewdness, paired with an almost uncanny ability to see through people… and their lies. He had certainly seen right through him the first time they had met, at which time Éomer had only been a boy, compelling Gríma's reluctant respect.

They had disliked each other from the very start, and Éomer had never lost an opportunity to voice his concerns regarding his uncle's counsellor to anyone who cared to listen. Which had been fine by Gríma, for it had worked against his opponent for many years. All knew about the Marshal's disposition toward him by now, and so whenever Éomer had returned to Meduseld with valid concerns these past months, none had taken his findings serious… not even when proof for the treason of Isengard had almost hardened to fact.

Subtly and patiently, Gríma had managed to turn the tables by exploiting the young man's misgivings. With the help of his potions and secret whisperings in the night, he had finally achieved what he had set out to do years ago: Théoden-King no longer listened to his nephew. On the contrary… For all these past months, the old man had proceeded to expressing increasing irritation at each of the Marshal's claims, thus finally rewarding Gríma with the greatest satisfaction of them all: it was obvious by now to all members of the Royal Household that their ruler distrusted his sister-son. A most helpful development for his purposes.

The Prince, on the other hand, had been of a different calibre. As much as Wormtongue had tried over the years to estrange the two cousins from one another, Théodred had refused to buy his increasingly desperate claims. Even when Éomer had fallen out of favour with his father, the King's son had remained steadfast in his support, and could not be swayed to believe otherwise. It had then come to Gríma's ears that the two warriors had proceeded to ignoring Théoden's orders in the field, thereby thwarting each and every of his carefully orchestrated attempts to weaken the Armed Forces with the help of his true master's army. This could not be allowed.

It had taken him many months to work out this plan, which would – hopefully – rid him of the two greatest obstacles to the fulfilment of his mission in one sweep. In careful harmonization with Saruman, Wormtongue had planned the perfect ambush to remove the Prince from the equation… and seen to it that the blame was laid entirely onto his cousin's doorstep. With the distribution of rumours of increased orc activity in the vicinity of Aldburg shortly before Théodred's summons were expected, he had left Éomer no chance, no matter which path of action the Third Marshal chose.

Had he ignored the orc threat to his home to follow his cousin's orders, Gríma would have commanded them to attack Aldburg and laid the resulting casualties at Éomer's feet. As it was, the rumours had delayed the Third Marshal's departure to the point where he could never have reached the Fords in time to be of help to his cousin, and Gríma had immediately proceeded to having his spies downplay the threat to the people of Aldburg once their protector had actually engaged in the wild goose chase. That was all well, but Gríma planned to use Éomer's delay even more effectively by falsifying Erkenbrand's report. He had altered the date of the attack in a way that made it still seem possible that his éored could have arrived in time to make a difference to the outcome of the battle, had they not chosen to ride north instead of west.

His spies had already informed him that they had succeeded in locating Erkenbrand's messenger on the long road from Westfold. They had followed the man to a guesthouse… and in the night, while he had been sleeping, replaced the Marshal's letter with the one Gríma had drafted in the handwriting of the Lord of the western part of the Mark, complete with the man's original dragon-sigil.

No one would ever know that this particular piece of the puzzle was as false as a three-legged chicken. Saruman's plans for the destruction of the Mark had already progressed to the point where he was almost ready to deploy his army, and Erkenbrand and every man in Westfold would be dead long before he could ever be confronted with the contents of the letter. No, no one would ever know…

… except, perhaps, for Éowyn. Apart from the King, whose mind was so dazed by now that he probably didn't even know which year it was, much less what day, only his niece had been present when he had revealed the contents of Erkenbrand's advance notice with the real date of the attack. Of course, he had already rewritten that particular note and burned the other, but he could not entirely eliminate the possibility that the daughter of Éomund remembered the original date. It had been a minor lapse on his part, but it did not matter. No one would listen to her while written 'proof 'existed that she just remembered things falsely.

No, the hangman's noose was irrevocably waiting for her brother, and Wormtongue could hardly await to finally lay it around Éomer's neck with the King's blessings. Everything had worked out beautifully… Satisfied with his work, Gríma leaned back. Yet for all his successes, there was still something in the back of his mind, pestering him. He grimaced.

It was a nuisance that she had found him in her uncle's chambers after his work for the night had been done, and although he did not doubt that his confinement would end soon enough, Gríma felt angry with himself for letting himself be caught. At least for a short time, Marshal Éomund's daughter had succeeded in turning the Royal Guard against him. Her temporary victory would doubtlessly be negated once the old man woke from his potion-induced stupor and sent for his trusted counsellor… but it was a nuisance. An insult. A deed that called for revenge. He would see to it that the haughty thing would drop to her knees and beg him for forgiveness! All he had to do was wait. Time was his friend.

The potion which he used to bend the old man to his will had been concocted with the greatest cunning. For the people at the court of Edoras, there was no question that it was, indeed, medicine, for there could be no two opinions that the King felt better once he had taken it. It took away his pain for all to see. And yet little did they know that one of its ingredients, the one deemed way more important by Gríma, opened Théoden's mind for suggestions of any kind. How many times had he sat in that chair by the King's bed, softly whispering his poison into the man's ears. Now Éowyn had seen him there, but he did not think that she would make the connection… No, indeed, very soon, she would plead with him to give her uncle more of it! For there was also the beautiful fact that his little draught was highly addictive… and punished negligence in ingestion severely, unless a counteragent was given. Soon, Théoden-King would be screaming in torment.

He looked forward to seeing the expression of deep loathing on Éowyn's face once she had to admit defeat. Another lesson taught. 'You cannot best me.' And still, the young, beautiful woman fascinated him endlessly. There was such spunk in her, her spirit wild and free like one of the fillies on the plains. She was passionate and proud, intelligent and resourceful. A worthy opponent! If he was not mistaken, Éomund's daughter had been in the process of defying him earlier this past morning. There was no doubt in Gríma's mind that the 'letter' in her hand had – in fact – been a warning meant for her brother.

The smirk on his face deepened. He had been angry with Gamling at first for intervening, but now, with a bit of distance, he was actually glad he had not taken the parchment from Éowyn's hands. It would have left him with no choice but to put her in the dungeon as her brother's co-conspirator. He even might have had to execute her together with Éomer. This was not what he wanted. He wanted… her. By his side. Out of her own, free will. He grimaced.

For all of his own resourcefulness, Gríma still failed to see how to realise this greatest of his desires. Once his mission was accomplished and the Mark under Saruman's yoke, his master had promised him Éomund's daughter for his own, but how could this wonderful woman ever love someone she held responsible for the death of her family and the doom of their people? Of course, there was always the way of bending her to his will with the help of his potions… but such a victory would be bereft of meaning for him. What a mess…

With a soundless sigh, Wormtongue settled back his armchair, a rare, wistful smile upon his lips… when the sound of knocking woke him from his contemplations. A brief glance at the world beyond the window confirmed to him that it had to be well past midday. About time.

"Enter!" he said, and braced himself for the coming confrontation. The door opened, and in came the very object of his lengthy deliberations… followed by the Captain of the Royal Guard… and their old healer. He blinked, irritated for a moment, but quickly recovered into the bland expression behind which he could always hide his thoughts so well. With the barest hint of a nod, he greeted his guests. "My Lady… Captain… Mistress… How can I be of service?"

Éowyn looked even paler than usual as she came to a halt before him, worry clearly written in her blue eyes. Worry… and anger.

"The King is in a bad way, Counsellor."

Gríma lifted a brow.

"I am not surprised."

Éomund's daughter narrowed her eyes.

"We need to know the ingredients of the draught you gave him."

He folded his hands and unflinchingly met her stare.

"It was only ordinary milk of poppy, my lady… although rather strong, to let the King sleep despite of the blow he had received. If you are still insinuating that his condition has anything to do with me, I'm afraid that I must object whole-heartedly. Your uncle's relapse would appear to me rather to be a result of you hindering me in the performance of my duties."

The exchange of doubtful glances between the old healer and the Captain of the Royal Guard behind Éowyn's back did not escape his attention. So they were already questioning themselves and their actions. How satisfying! Gríma did not intend to make this any easier for them.

"What were you doing in the King's bedchambers this morning, Counsellor?" Éowyn asked instead, changing the subject, and although her gaze was still stern, Wormtongue could see increasing uncertainty in her body language. 'You are asking yourself whether you have committed a horrible mistake by antagonising me, aren't you, daughter of Éomund? You are afraid that your actions might do serious harm to a person you love.'

"Watching over your uncle, believe it or not. Like I just stated, the draught I gave him was rather strong. I decided to sacrifice my own sleep to ensure that I would be at hand if his body did not tolerate it… until you thanked me for my care by throwing me out."

To his delight, Éowyn looked even more doubtful now, clearly torn between the need to turn her temporary victory into a lasting one… and a sense of foreboding that the occasion she had chosen had been the wrong one. After a lengthy pause, Éomund's daughter took a deep breath, and Gríma saw clearly that she could barely bring herself to uttering the words. 'She is about to plead with me!'

"Perhaps… that was a misunderstanding." She evaded his gaze, clearly fighting with the words she knew she had to use now in order to get what she wanted. Apologising to the man she loathed seemed to almost cause her bodily pain, Gríma noted with delight. He lifted a questioning brow.

"A 'misunderstanding'? Alas, I understood only too well, my lady: you openly accused me of poisoning the King right before the captain of his guard. After all the hours I invested into your uncle's health, I must admit that I found this rather insulting."

How she squirmed beneath his accusatory gaze! And how much effort it seemed to cost her when she finally looked him in the eye! It did not escape his attention that she had balled her fists.

"Will you help the King, yes or no, Counsellor?"

So, no apology yet.

"And poison him further?" He leaned back and folded his hands in his lap. "Certainly not, Lady Éowyn. I learned my lesson this morning." His pale gaze tore into her's, and in Éowyn's eyes Gríma could read all the hatred and the loathing that had accumulated there for him in the course of the many years in his service for the Royal Household. "The King's predicament is your fault, daughter of Éomund, now deal with it. I see you've got your healer with you, so set her to work. I'm out of this… unless…" He saw her tense. "Unless you and the Captain of the Royal Guard get down on your knees right here before me, and you apologise."

"You must be mad!" Éowyn exclaimed, but he was not yet done.

"You apologise, and when you do it, I better get the impression that you mean it! Until then, I will put down in writing what happened in the King's chambers this morning, for the unfortunate eventuality that the damage you have done to your uncle by denying him my care may be irrevocable. It is your decision."

A RED SUN RISES


Author's Notes:

Once again, a heartfelt "Thank you!" to all who reviewed the last chapters. I regret not being able to answer those of you who disabled the PM option, but please know that your feedback is being appreciated. Now, on with the show! After all the action and drama, I hope this new chapter won't be too boring…


Chapter 11: Interlude


EDORAS

Éowyn fumed when she stormed out of Gríma Wormtongue's chambers, and it took the rest of her composure not to throw the door and make a scene. Before her on the benches near the hearth, several members of the Royal Household were taking their midday meal, and many heads turned curiously toward her. It was their undisguised attention which sobered Éomund's daughter quickly and thoroughly. This would not do. With her uncle indisposed, her cousin dead and Éomer gone, she was the head of the Royal Family for the time being. She had to remain in control.

With a deep breath, she came to halt, very much aware of the uncertain looks the Captain of the Royal Guard and their healer were giving her.

"What shall we do now, my lady?" Gamling asked lowly. "I'm afraid Gríma means exactly what he said, and he won't relent unless we kneel before him. If I could be sure that it helped the King, I would consider it, but…"

Éowyn shook her head.

"No, Gamling, there must be a different way. Mistress, please go and see whatever you can do further for the King. I will be with you in a moment."

"Aye, my lady…" The old healer nodded and shuffled over to Théoden's chambers to disappear behind the thick oaken doors. Following her path with her eyes, Éowyn became aware that they were still being stared at by the people at the hearth. Of course. After the shocking revelations of the night, no official announcement had been made yet, and people wondered and worried. Surely, all kinds of rumours had to be flying around. It was time to put an end to those and let them hear the truth. Which revealed another problem…

Éowyn sighed. It was usually Wormtongue's task to make official announcement. Yet Gríma had just now made it abundantly clear that he would not cooperate unless she would degrade herself by kneeling to him. She stood still the twilight, undecided, when the Golden Hall's doors were opened and one of the door wards entered, and, after a brief glance around, approached her. Involuntarily, she straightened and braced herself for whatever was to come.

Just before he reached her, the man came to a halt and bowed. She recognised Héogrim, one of the older members of the guard. She wondered where Háma was.

"My Lady Éowyn, a messenger has arrived from Westfold. He says he has something in his keeping that needs to be delivered to the King, personally, on Marshal Erkenbrand's orders."

The letter the Worm had mentioned! At last, all rumour would end and be replaced by facts. She welcomed and feared these prospects at the same time. She returned the guard's greeting with an indicated nod.

"Unfortunately, the King is unable at present to see him. I will gladly accept the parcel in his stead and give it to him once he is feeling better. Please, Héogrim, lead him in."

"Aye, my lady." With another curt bow, the man turned away.

"What might it be?" Gamling wondered aloud, as he followed Éowyn over to the dais. With her eyes on the door, Éowyn sat on the chair beside the throne, while the Captain of the Royal Guard positioned himself on the side.

"It must be Marshal Erkenbrand's account of the attack on the Fords. He announced it in the brief message he sent ahead by bird. Gríma mentioned it last night." She noticed how the old man froze beside her. When he spoke again, his voice sounded husky.

"Well… at least then we won't have to hear these tidings from the lips of the Counsellor, although I dread what they might bring."

Together, they followed the men's path. Shortly before they reached the dais, Héogrim stepped aside with a short nod, unblocking her view of the arrival. The rider greeted her with a deep bow, and when he looked up, Éowyn realised that he was rather young, younger than her brother. Like most errand riders, he was of lighter built than the average Rohir, and in his gaunt, dust-covered face, the strains of his long ride were clearly edged into the weathered skin around his tired eyes.

"Greetings, my lady," he said and straightened. "My name is Bregdan. I was sent from the Hornburg by Lord Erkenbrand two days ago, to give this to our king." He briefly lifted his hand with a sturdy, weathered-looking, leathern cylinder, but made no move to hand it over. When he spoke again, his voice was suddenly muted. "I was specifically told to hand it over to no one else. Yet your guard told me that Théoden-King is unable to see me. Is there a chance, perhaps, that he will see me later?"

Racking her brain in vain for an elusive answer, Éowyn decided to tell the man the truth, even if her words would doubtlessly further the dark rumours that were flying around in every part of the kingdom these days.

"Alas, Bregdan, I fear that this won't be possible. Théoden King is indisposed today, and we do not know when he might be able to welcome guests again. Yet one look at you is enough to establish that the errand Marshal Erkenbrand gave you was of the highest importance and cannot wait."

"Aye, my lady," he confirmed. "That is so."

"Then I would ask you to hand it over to me, and I will see to it that the information you bring will be distributed to those who need to hear them." Éowyn extended her hand. "I do not believe that the Lord of Westfold will find any fault in that."

She could see the inner fight in the messenger's eyes and wondered if Erkenbrand had ordered to keep his scroll especially from their king's counsellor. At last, the young man stepped closer and offered her the cylinder with a deep bow. He still did not look as if he was at peace with his decision when he retreated, but had resigned to following his lord's orders in the best possible way.

"Thank you, my lady."

Éowyn nodded.

"And I thank you, Bregdan, for your loyalty and effort. Please, make yourself comfortable in our guesthouse until you feel ready for the ride back. Whatever you need – food, a bath and a bed – will be found there. Let us know when you plan to return to Westfold, for it might very well be that Théoden-King decides to give you a return letter for the Lord Erkenbrand… and of course, we will be glad to give you supplies for the ride."

"My thanks, Lady Éowyn. With your permission…"

He saw agreement in her eyes and turned around, leaving behind a Princess of the Mark who stared with dread at the thing in her hand. The Lord of Westfold was a very meticulous man. There was no question that his account of the battle would be precise and open the bleeding wound in her heart even further. And yet she needed to know what had happened.

With fingers that were slightly shaking, Éowyn opened the cylinder. Yet she had barely begun to pull out the parchment inside, when a painful cry rang out from Théoden's chambers. She blanched, and next to her, a soundless curse left Gamling's lips.

"I will go and see what Yalanda is doing," she heard herself as if from a great distance. Somehow she managed to stand up, although suddenly, her legs felt like two wooden sticks. "Please, Gamling, assemble the Council. Let me know when they have arrived, so that we may discuss the contents of Lord Erkenbrand's message. You will find me in the King's chambers."

"Aye, my lady. But what about Gríma?"

Éowyn could only stare back at the old warrior. Her head felt completely empty. Gamling inhaled.

"We cannot very well leave him out of this if we still want him to treat the King, my lady. He is, after all, part of the Council. To bypass him will only make things even more difficult."

She swallowed, seeing the wisdom in the guard's words, even if she loathed it.

"Tell him then he may attend the Council if he so wishes. I do not want him to leave Meduseld though. Please instruct your men accordingly… And now I must go." She took another deep breath and forced her feet to carry her over to the King' chambers, dreading to think of what she would find behind her uncle's doors…

000

WESTEMNET

"Rohirrim! To me!"

The wall of orcs around him seemed impenetrable. No matter which way Éomer turned, no matter how many hands and arms he cut off, the gaps in their battle formation were closed immediately, pressing ever closer. Now even Firefoot was close to panic as he kicked and bucked and bit without succeeding in creating the necessary gap for their escape.

"Èomer!" Éothain's voice shouted from somewhere far away. "This way! Éomer!"

But he could not see his friend over the throng of orcs around him, and suddenly, his stallion screamed in pain as a crossbow-bolt buried itself deeply in his flank. The mighty body beneath him shuddered, and a moment later, the son of Éomund found himself flying through the air, unseated.

"No! Firefoot! No!"

He landed on his feet and instantly started forward again to help his mount, Gúthwinё still in his hand, but right before his eyes, the big Grey suddenly came off his legs and disappeared in the churning sea of orcs.

"Firefoot!"

With renewed energy, he hacked and slashed his way towards the place of his stallion's fall. His blade rose and fell, red showers following its deadly arcs. He yelled, screaming out his fury, unable to hear himself over the din of battle. If this was to be his end, he would take as many of these beasts with him as he could. Step for step he advanced, every now and then glimpsing the shortest view of grey fur in the writhing dark mess before him. The grey turned red.

'No… no…'

Butchering the last beast between him and his trusted steed with a vicious swipe, Éomer jumped forth. Yet the sight he was granted nailed him to the ground. Right before him on the soil that was saturated with blood, his beloved stallion lay…or rather, what was left of his beloved stallion. It felt like a bolt straight through his heart. For a moment, all strength fled his body as Éomer stood and stared at what had once been his animal alley in their eternal fight. Guttural laughter broke out all around him over his dismay. He barely heard it.

For the eternity of a dozen heartbeats, turning his sword on himself appeared like a very tempting option to Éomund's son… but then he felt it, the familiar rise of red-hot fury in his veins, demanding revenge. Demanding blood. Demanding – a hand grabbed his shoulder. With a battle cry, he whirled around and stabbed his blade right through his attacker's chest with his full body weight behind the thrust.

"Éomer, no!" Éothain's voice again, somewhere behind him. Dismayed.

He stared into blue eyes. The face before him… belonged to his cousin. In horror, Éomer let go of the sword hilt.

"Théodred!"

Théodred's mouth worked as he clutched at the weapon that was embedded in his flesh. No sound escaped him, but from the corners of his mouth, two red lines began to flow. His eyes stared in dazed consternation at the man he regarded as his brother.

"Éomer…" His knees buckled.

"No, no, no! Théodred!" Éomer caught his cousin before he could fall to the ground. "I did not mean to… How can you be here? I thought…" Cautiously, he laid his brother in all but blood down, dismayed to see that the thin red rivulets had thickened. Théodred closed his eyes in agony and coughed up a fine spray of bright red blood.

"Don't die, Cousin!" He turned around, desperate. "Tolgor! Tolgor, to me! Help!" Another glance at his fallen cousin. Théodred's eyes were already glazing over with death. "No! No! No! Théodred!"

Suddenly, there was another face hovering above him. It looked frightened. He knew that face. He grabbed his friend's arms.

"Éothain! Help! Please! Find Tolgor and-"

"It was a dream, Éomer! Just a dream!" He was given a soft shake. "Wake up, Éomer!"

For the longest moment, all that the son of Éomund could do was stare at his captain and friend while his heart threatened to burst from his ribcage. Only gradually, reality began to seep into his consciousness. It was dark, Éothain's face only weakly outlined against the darkness by one of their campfires further back… whereas he had killed his cousin in broad daylight.

Letting go of Éothain's arms, he sat up and cast a wild glance around. There was no trace of Théodred, only more of his riders on the ground around him, who were staring at him with obvious dismay. With a shaky breath that erupted from his mouth in a white cloud, Éomer ran a hand through his mane and closed his eyes in painful relief.

"Béma…"

Right next to him, Éothain kneeled down and laid a hand upon his shoulder in comfort.

"Damnation, Éomer, what did you dream? You scared me witless!"

And still Éomer could not answer him. The nightmare had stolen his breath, and the image of the vacant stare in his cousin's dead eyes refused to vanish from his mind. Somewhere from the depths of his subconsciousness, a sudden dread rose and froze his blood. He could only shake his head. He did not even hear Éothain's confirmation to their riders that the situation was under control. It had felt so real… it still felt real.

At length, his friend returned.

"Are you all right, Éomer? Can I do anything for you?"

The lump in his throat seemed enormous. Somehow, he finally managed to manoeuvre the first words around it.

"I'm… I'm just…"

"Thoroughly shaken, I would say," Éothain finished the sentence for him. "Gods, I can see that. I don't think I ever heard you screaming like that."

"It seemed… so real."

"Whatever you dreamt, it wasn't." From one of their men, Éothain was handed a cup of steaming hot broth. He offered it to his friend. "Here, have a bit of that. It might help to tie you a bit more to reality."

Éomer accepted it gratefully. The warmth felt good in his ice-cold fingers. He took a tentative sip, almost burning his lips. For a while, both warriors kept their silence while their riders gradually returned to sleep or their various tasks, and the son of Éomund felt deeply appreciative over his friend's decision not to dig deeper. Sip by sip, he emptied the cup. The warmth of the broth spread in his stomach and demonstrated to him what he had sensed earlier that evening: winter was not yet done with them. It was bloody cold.

"Better?" Éothain inquired at last, and he nodded.

"Aye. Thank you." And still he felt far too anxious to lie down and risk the chance of encountering his dream for a second time in the same night. Following this impulse, he peeled himself out of his bedroll. "I'll take a little walk; see how everything's going."

"Everything's quiet. Most of the men are asleep." Éothain lifted a questioning brow, wordlessly asking his friend whether he was certain about not wanting to talk about what had disturbed his rest, but found himself ignored. "Do you want me to come with you?" he inquired nonetheless.

Struggling to his feet with considerable difficulties, Éomer shook his head.

"No. Go back to sleep, Éothain. I'll be right back. I just need to walk the circuit for a little while."

He stretched his arms and grimaced at the discovery that his restless sleep had bought him a most unpleasant crick in the neck. Together with the many bruises he had collected in the battle and the still bone-deep exhaustion, the son of Éomund felt like quite the mess… and there was no telling what further hardships awaited him once they reached Edoras and travelled on to Westfold. Only one thing was certain: they were testing their limits these days, perhaps even redefining them. With a soundless sigh, Éomer turned his back on his friend and made for the nearest campfire, where he could see the silhouette of a guard against the flames.

As he came closer, he saw that it was Anlaf. With an acknowledging nod, Éomer came to a halt beside his captain, relishing the warmth of the fire. For the longest time, only the crackle of the flames could be heard, as the two warriors stood side by side. Although he was certain to have heard his screams, the older man remained silent about it, and Éomer appreciated his discretion. Nightmares were common enough in the aftermath of a battle, but it was probably the first time Anlaf had ever heard his commander being assaulted by them.

At length, it was Éomer who began a conversation after a lengthy look at the overcast sky.

"There's not a single star to be seen…

"Aye," Anlaf inhaled and followed his gaze. "It's too bloody dark to continue. It's hard to tell the time when you can see neither stars nor moon, but I think it is still well before midnight. I doubt, though, that the clouds will clear any time soon. With your permission, Marshal, I will let the men continue to sleep. I know we are pressed for time to return, but it is no use. Once you've left the fire, you can barely see your hand in front of your face. We might even make up for the time we lose now by being able to travel faster if we continue at first light, rested."

His captain's suggestion was nothing if not sensible. And still Éomer loathed to lose yet more time, even more so after his horrid dream. Had battle already commenced at the Fords? Were they wasting precious hours right now sleeping, while many leagues away, Théodred was already fighting for his life and the lives of their people? Then again, it was also clear to Éomund's son that he would needed his wits against the Worm upon his return to Edoras. Having to confront his enemy tired and exhausted could only end in disaster. Alas, once again it seemed that his choice was only between two evils.

With a deep sigh, Éomer nodded.

"I agree, Captain. Let the men sleep. They need the rest, as do our horses. But when we travel on tomorrow by first light, your half of the éored will only accompany us until we reach the central plains. You will not return with us to Edoras, but already make for Westfold. I will need to deliver my report to the King, first, before I can strengthen the Second Marshal's forces at the Fords, and I also need to leave them the promised men for their defence. Hopefully, we will still come in time to aid them."

"Aye, Marshal."

Éomer clapped Anlaf's shoulder and turned to go, suddenly overcome by an urgent impulse to visit Firefoot to further distance himself from the evil dream. Feeling a little warmer, he stepped away from the light and waited for his eyes to adjust. As usual, especially on a dark night such like this where human eyes were easily deceived, they had spread their éored's horses in a protective ring around them, trusting their mounts to detect any signs of trouble much earlier than they could.

Finding Firefoot in their herd of predominantly grey horses in near darkness was something Éomer could not hope to achieve lightly, so he decided to have his stallion find him. He whistled… and waited, his heart once again beating wildly in his chest at the thought what the enemy had done to his beloved four-legged alley in his dream. He needed to see the big grey alive and well to chase those images from his mind. But where was he? He whistled again, suddenly anxious for no rational reason… but then a low whicker set his mind at rest, and only a moment later, the sound of hoof beats reached his ears. Like a ghost, Firefoot appeared out of the darkness.

A broad, relieved smile spread on Éomer's lips as he lifted his arms and slung them around the stallion's neck. Curse that dream, it had really unsettled him! He could not remember having ever felt such abysmal dread. If only he could talk to Théodred, as well…

"There you are, Meara-mule! You certainly took your time to react to your master's call…" he teased lovingly, his fingers unwittingly trying to smoothen his mount's dark forelock, and laughed when Firefoot reacted with a friendly head-butt. "Aye, I am happy to see you, too." He pressed his face into the thick fur, rejoicing in the warmth and the familiar scent in an effort to clear his mind. "You have no idea how happy…"

His hands wandered down to the stallion's muzzle to gently massage the soft skin around the stallion's nostrils. His smile broadened when eager, warm lips closed questioningly around his fingers in expectation of a treat.

"Alas, I must apologise," Éomer whispered against the muscular neck. "I did not think to bring you anything…except for caresses. But these are heartfelt."

For a while, it was enough for him just to stand in the darkness, in reassurance of reality, and slowly, the horrible images from his dream faded away. When at last he woke from his absorption, the son of Éomund felt that he was being watched. He turned his head. There were two dark silhouettes outlined against the fire, one a little lighter than the other, but it was too dark for details. Warily, he turned around.

"Aye?"

"It is Falk, Marshal," the taller of the two men answered him. "And my brother."

"Is there a problem?" He tensed.

"Possibly." The two riders came closer. "Nothing significant, but …it might be a problem you might actually enjoy solving, seeing you and your mount together like this." Falk nodded. In the darkness, Éomer could only recognize the faintest outline of his rider's face. "Forgive us. We would not have mentioned it otherwise."

Éomer narrowed his eyes, not yet knowing whether to relax or not.

"What do you mean?"

Falk cleared his throat.

"My brother was guarding the horses for the last two hours and… Well, why don't you tell the Marshal yourself, Léod? After all, you do have a tongue… and something to say."

"What is it, Léod?" Éomer asked the younger man specifically. The youth had not been riding with them for very long and was still exceptionally shy in the presence of his commanders.

"It is Hasufel, my lord. I watched him for a while, and it seems to me, as if… I don't know how to say this… He is…"

"Anxious? Restless?"

"Aye. Perhaps he is only missing his master, but I think his narrow escape might have to do something with it, too. He finds no rest, and he disturbs the other horses. I felt pity watching him… and I tried to approach and soothe him, but he wouldn't let me near. Then I remembered your horse-magic, my lord, and I wondered…"

"Where is he?"

"Will you see him, Marshal?" Falk asked. "If you are not too exhausted, yourself? When Léod told me about his observations, I immediately thought of you. There are none in our éored who can work such wonders with horses, although we all deem ourselves expert riders. If it is not too much to ask…"

"Our horses are our livelihood, Falk. Of course I will see what I can do." Éomer granted the younger man a nod and stepped away from his own mount with a clap on Firefoot's neck. "Do not fear to speak to me when you see something that seems important to you, Léod," he said. "We might not have had many direct dealings with each other, yet, but I do remember that every time we had, it was worth hearing. Now, show me where you last saw Hasufel."

RED SUN RISES


Chapter 12: CHANCE ENCOUNTER

EDORAS

It was late when Éowyn made her way through the twilight of the Golden Hall over to her chambers. The flickering light of the hearth fire was barely enough to light her way, and whereas usually, Éomund's daughter found its warm glow comforting, the way the flames caused the shadows to hectically jump around the columns and tiles around her like an army of ghosts did nothing to calm her anxious mind.

The long and disconcerting council hours had appropriately ended what Éowyn was certain had been the worst day of her life safe the ones when their parents had died. The atmosphere had been fraught with tension when the members of the council had arrived; an emotion that had quickly been replaced with growing dismay when Lord Aethelmaer had read out Marshal Erkenbrand's letter to them. A cold, clammy feeling had settled in Éowyn's stomach at the vivid description of her cousin's violent death and the hard accusations directed at Éomer. There was no question that the Lord of Westfold regarded her brother's actions as treason, and from the looks of the men around her, their pale miens and bloodless lips, no other conclusion could be drawn than the one that these men of power shared the Marshal's view.

With unseeing eyes, Éowyn opened the heavy wooden door and slipped into her chambers, thankful for the privacy it offered as she locked the door behind herself. She could not bear to see visitors now, not even Gamling, whose face had told her all too clearly that at last, he too, had finally made up his mind concerning her brother in the light of these new revelations. And the Worm… she did not know what she would do to him if she were forced to endure his presence now. To see the triumphant sparkle in his colourless eyes and cruel anticipation at the thought of finally having his enemy where he had wanted him for all these long years. There was no question anymore: upon his return to Edoras, Éomer would be arrested, incarcerated and sentenced for treason, and there was nothing she could do about it.

With a deep, soundless sigh, Éowyn slid into the chair by the window, rested her elbows on the table and hid her face in her hands as desperation carried her away. Théodred… was dead. Éomer… would follow him soon, disgrace and shame forever linked to his name. Her uncle… was still fighting, but things looked bad, and although he had been reinstated by the council, the Worm still refused to help. If Théoden died, she would be left as the only surviving member of the Royal family, and what then? The Rohirrim had never been ruled by a queen. Would they accept her as their ruler? And what would her adversary make of such a situation? She shuddered to follow that thought.

A sudden hard knocking sound made her jump. Eyes widened and holding her breath, Éowyn stared at the door. There was only one who would dare to disturb her at this late hour and after this excruciatingly cruel day, and it was not Gamling. She remained silent. The knock was repeated, more urgently now.

"Lady Éowyn?... My Lady?" It was not Gríma. It was her handmaid. "My Lady, if you hear me, please open the door! The Mistress Yalanda sent me, it is about the king!"

With a soundless gasp, the daughter of Éomund jumped to her feet. So after everything this day had already thrown at her, it seemed that things were about to get even darker. She turned the key in the lock and opened, looking into a young, concerned face.

"What is it, Maelwyn? How is the King?"

The young woman swallowed.

"Mistress Yalanda is very concerned, my Lady. She bade me get you, lest…" Her voice quivered. "You know, lest…"

Once again, Éowyn felt the blood drain from her face as she straightened. If that was so… she was running out of options. Her pride was secondary. She could not hold on to it now. She would have to do this thing now, no matter how much she dreaded the thought. From somewhere deep within her, determination rose.

"I will see the King at once, Maelwyn. Please, in the meantime, find Lord Gamling and tell him to meet me in Théoden's chambers at once... and he is to bring Counsellor Gríma with him. It is important, and it is urgent. Go."

000

Only five minutes later, Éomund's daughter sat by her uncle's bedside, the stifling air and stench of sickness almost choking her, and her hand on Théoden's hot brow. In the throes of his fever dreams, the old man groaned and mumbled unintelligible gibberish, the look of his watery blue eyes dazed and confused whenever he opened them. He had not even recognized her when she had entered his room. Every now and then, his groans became a scream, even though he was by now to weak for any strength in his voice.

Her innards twisted into a tight knot, Éowyn met the healer's eyes.

"He is not going to last the night, is he, Yalanda?" she whispered, the words barely fitting through her throat. The old woman looked at her gravely.

"I dare not say," she confessed. "But he is getting weaker with every passing hour. I have done everything in my power to help him, and still…" She shook her head helplessly. "I am at my wit's end. No matter what I do, the fever is burning him alive."

"Théodred?... Théodred?" A painful gasp ended Théoden's outcry and pierced Éowyn's heart.

"Théodred is not here, Uncle," she soothed and stroked his sweaty brow. "But I am here, Éowyn. I am right here beside you." Her desperate gaze met the healer's, when suddenly, there was a sharp knock at the door. Éowyn straightened, dismayed and relieved at the same time. Dismayed at the prospect of having to face her adversary in this most desperate of situations, and yet relieved that the time had finally come to meet his challenge head-on. There was no more delaying the inevitable. "Enter!"

It was Gamling's face she saw first when the door opened, the old man's mien concerned and sad. After a quick, alarmed glance at his feeble king, his gaze met Éowyn's as he stepped into the room with stiff steps. There was no doubt that he knew what would be demanded of him.

"My Lady…" He inclined his head in greeting. Less courteous in his bearing, Gríma Wormtongue followed him inside, his fingers clutching the collar of his dark robe. The expression of his pale features was frozen, except for a curiously raised eyebrow that seemed to challenge her to speak, first. He neither greeted her, nor made any indication to speak at all.

With a soundless, deep breath, Éowyn rose to her feet, inwardly steeling herself for the dreaded confrontation. Her lake-blue eyes found the counsellor's, and she lifted her chin.

"The King is dying, Lord Gríma."

He stared at her without surprise.

"I do believe that I warned you what would happen if you forced me to withhold your uncle's medicine from him, Lady Éowyn." The pale irises wandered to the Captain of the Royal Guard. "I also seem to remember that the honourable Lord Gamling was present when I issued my warning. Is it not so, Captain?"

Caught between the hammer and the anvil, the older man avoided his challenger's icy stare. His gaze rested on his king's niece, instead. And still he needed to speak the accursed words.

"Aye, Lord Gríma. I was." Gamling lowered his head.

Wormtongue was satisfied… at least for the moment. He turned back to the young woman.

"You see now what harm you have done, my Lady. With all your unjust accusations, your spite… and your pride. You commanded Lord Gamling to forcibly remove me from the King's sickbed, and now your uncle is paying the price for it… You are scared that your mistake will put the King of the Mark in his grave, aren't you? That's why we are here."

Whereas only the past morning, Éowyn would have answered her tormentor's challenge with an equally scathing reply, she could now only stare at him… and swallow the words on her tongue. Her fingers clenched in the folds of her robe and she hated how they gave away her disposition, but there was just nothing she could do about it now. She was defeated.

"Could you still help him? Or is he beyond even your help now?" she asked, her tone neither challenging nor begging. She was prepared to give him what he asked, except… she would not beg.

The Worm cocked his head, not even moving a single facial muscle that would give away his inclination as he glanced at the sick man in the bed behind.

"I suppose I still could..."

"It is not too late?"

"Probably not."

His cool demeanour threatened to inflame her rage anew, but with iron determination, Éowyn forced the impulse down. She drew in a deep breath.

"And all you need…"

"… is your formal apology, Lady Éowyn. Yes. Precisely."

She narrowed her eyes, but he did not flinch from the intensity of her stare.

"You were officially reinstated as Hand of the King only this past afternoon."

The faintest hint of a sarcastic smirk played around the corner of his mouth.

"By the Council. Yes. That was, however, only a secondary requirement for the continuation of my service." 'You will not get around apologising, Éowyn!' his expression said all too clearly.

Behind her, Théoden groaned when another fever cramp seized him. It was all Éowyn needed to hear to make up her mind. With another deep intake of air, the daughter of Éomund straightened. 'My pride is not important now.' Her voice sounded cool and sincere when she spoke. `Well then…

"Lord Gríma, I hereby apologise for my false accusations and for removing you from the King's care. My actions arose from the deep concern for my uncle's health in the wake of the blow he was dealt."

"They were born from extreme prejudice and the deep desire to find the perfect opportunity to rid yourself of my person."

It was not as if she could deny his words. Gods, he could not expect her to suddenly sing his praise, could he? So Éowyn nodded.

"You know me too well, Lord Gríma. And I hope you understand that the feelings I have for you cannot radically change in the course of one day. I will admit though that, in this case, I treated you wrongly and unjustly by believing you to be poisoning Théoden-King. For that, I apologise. I do not know whether this is enough for you, but it is all you will get from me."

She stared back at him, and the moments ticked by. Oppressive silence filled the room as she waited for Wormtongue's decision. If he decided that the humiliation of her apology was not sufficient… she would not give him more. She could not. It was impossible.

There was something going on behind her opponent's brow, she could almost see it although Gríma's expression had not changed. He was contemplating her offer. What would he decide? She was little more than a worm at the angler's hook right now. To which length would he go to humiliate her further? But was that what he truly wanted? Or was it not rather that he wanted for her to like him? For all these years that these games had been going on, Éowyn had never been able to shake the notion that there had been something else beneath Gríma's interactions with her, something different than spite. And yet, after having issued her brother's almost certain death penalty, how could he still hope to ever get on her good side?

For a moment, the Counsellor's pale face blurred before her eyes, and it was only then that Éowyn realised that she had been holding her breath. As she inhaled, she beheld something like the ghost of a smirk around the corners of the Worm's mouth. A smirk that did not reach his eyes. And he surprised her.

"For the good of the Mark and her king, I will accept your apology, my Lady." He granted her a very small nod. "I do believe that people can be taught, and so I do hope that you have learned from your mistake and will, from now on, acknowledge my contribution to our ruler's wellbeing." He turned his head to regard the clearly uncomfortable Captain of the Royal Guard at his left side.

"I also do realise you were under orders when you removed me this morning, Captain," he said. "In this case, the Lady Èowyn's apology will suffice to remedy the damage done. But be aware that I might not always be so lenient. The King's condition calls for fast action, and I will not risk his life by complicating this unpleasant business yet further. The good of the Mark is at stake. Now leave, and let me do my work."

000

WESTEMNET

The sun's pale light fell on the soft hills of the central Mark, obstructed only by a thin, high veil of cloud that took just the edge of the wintery glare from it. It illuminated an empty landscape, a territory that had been cleared from all its usual inhabitants like the herds of the famed horses of Rohan and their keepers. Silence lay like a death-blanket upon the deserted hills, and to a wanderer, it would have seemed oppressive, had it not suddenly been disturbed by the distant thunder of iron-shod hooves.

Winding through the landscape like a snake, a line of horsemen came into view, riding in pairs, and the pale light reflected on their armour and spears. After the night's rest, men's and horses' strength had at least been partially restored, and so the éored made good time for a change, all the more as the territory had at last begun to level out towards the plains.

Éomer was thankful for the daylight. Although the task of calming poor Garulf's riderless horse had at least for a while put his mind off the horrific images of his dream, they were still in his head, and despite their forced long rest, he had slept only little for fear to encounter them once again.

Time and again, the son of Éomund found his gaze straying to the west, where somewhere far beyond the horizon, his cousin was hopefully still holding the Westfold fords. They were travelling faster than the day before, but to him, their progress still felt excruciatingly slow, and there was this nagging voice in the back of his head whispering ceaselessly that they would come too late.

But what could he possibly do? Bypassing Edoras and not reporting what they had found on the fringes of the Entwood was not an option, however necessary it seemed to Éomer. He had already disobeyed Théoden-King in going north and taking his full éored to accomplish the task, there was no question that a delay in reporting would do little to rectify the situation. And he also needed to leave the promised men for the defence of the city. No, they had to head for the City of Kings, first.

Frowning at the prospects of how they would be welcomed in Edoras, the Third Marshal of Riddermark inhaled. He did not look forward to having to explain himself to the Worm. But if the Council did not understand what a threat a host of over twohundredandfifty Uruk-hai posed to the realm if permitted to go unchallenged, there was little to be done. Somehow, he would have to make them see.

"You do not look rested," Éothain spoke into his dark thoughts. "Is it still the dream… or the thought of what lies ahead?"

Reluctantly, Éomer met his friend's worried gaze.

"It's…" He shook his head. "It's both. I wish we were moving faster. I know it's too much to ask, but…" He shrugged. "We lost too much time with those bloody orcs."

Éothain nodded thoughtfully.

"Yes. But it needed to be done. If this group had been allowed to cross the Mark, they could have done terrible damage. I must admit that I had my doubts, as well, but I am glad now that we rode out. The Council must understand the threat they were posing to our unarmed settlements."

"I hope they will, Éothain," Éomer sighed. "I sure hope they will. But I cannot be certain. I don't know…" He didn't finish his sentence.

"I fail to see how they cannot."

Éothain's attempt at cheering him up lacked conviction, the son of Éomund found, but these days, he was thankful even for the effort. Béma knew there was little enough warmth between people in these days of constant suspicion. All kept to themselves as much as they could and did their best not to get involved in proceedings which could eventually hurt them. Not that he could blame them.

"The Worm will do his bloody best to ensure that they see things his way. I promise you that he will hit us with every infamy he can possibly conceive. We must be ready for all the accusations he will throw at us… and under no circumstances can we afford to lose our head."

Éothain snorted.

"He knows your weak spots, though, and he will hit them hard."

"Aye, he will…" Éomer narrowed his eyes, unwilling to continue the discussion with his captain and friend. And Éothain understood and left it at that. Directing their attention at the empty landscape before them offered nothing to distract them from their gloomy thoughts. Except for the endless rolling hills, there was nothing to see. One could almost believe that they were the last people alive in this empty land…

"Riders of Rohan!" a voice suddenly called out, barely audible over the din of their moving horses. "What news from the Mark?"

Éomer reacted at once, his warrior's reflexes taking over in the light of an uncertain situation. With skill and efficiency, he checked Firefoot and signalled for their éored to turn around, not understanding where that voice had come from when the land they were riding through had seemed completely deserted only moments ago. It was not as if there was any cover to be had amongst these treeless, grassy hills, either… And still, as he turned his mount's head around, there were suddenly three silhouettes standing near the foot of the hill they had just passed.

'Where have they come from?' he wondered, suddenly tense, and his fingers tightened around his spear. 'And why did none of us see them?' He swallowed. If they had failed to notice these now very obvious strangers, how many others could there have been? Was it fatigue that had led to their oversight… or was something different at play here… some devious trickery?

As they approached the three shapes, Éomer shielded his eyes from the sun to assess just what they were dealing with. These were no orcs, that much seemed already safe to say. They looked human, only that one of them was significantly shorter than the other two, and of much broader built. Was that a dwarf? He had never seen a dwarf in his life. There were no dwarfs in the Riddermark, but from everything Éomer had heard about them, it seemed to him that he was looking at one now.

And there was something peculiar about the one to his left, as well… something that made Éomer's skin prickle and rendered this whole situation even more unreal. Something that told him that, while the tall, slender being in the grey cloak looked human enough, it was not a human being at all. 'Could it be an elf? – An elf and a dwarf travelling together? That must be unheard of! And what are they doing here?'

Frowning, he directed Firefoot closer, and his warily narrowed eyes finally found the third stranger. Here, at last, he was certain that he was indeed looking at a man, and yet, 'ordinary' seemed to be the farthest word he would have used to describe him as he approached cautiously. The man had a strange aura, an air of nobility and wisdom that made it impossible to guess his age… and he didn't seem to be afraid. Behind Éomer, his éored fell into their common custom of encircling the strangers, a thicket of spears and more than a few arrows pointed at the unmoving travellers, ready to kill at the faintest sign of a threat. Only waiting for their Marshal's command.

Staring into the third stranger's grey eyes, Éomer pushed his destrier forwards into their midst, shoulders instinctively squared. His intense gaze was returned unflinchingly, but there were no weapons in their captives' hands. He was not sure what they had found here. Not at all. The three before him looked weather-beaten and weary, as if they had travelled a great distance. And yet they had no horses and seemingly carried no provisions, which was strange. They were armed with swords and axes though, clad in leather and those strange, grey cloaks, and, in the dwarf's case – in armour, which screamed to Éomund's son that he was looking at battle-hardened warriors here. Which left one question. He cleared his throat, and his voice sounded stern when he addressed the tall, dark-haired stranger in front of him: "What business does an elf, a man and a dwarf have in the Riddermark? Speak quickly!"

A RED SUN RISES


Chapter 13: Questions of Loyalty


WESTEMNET

"What is he doing?"

"Who are these strangers? Does he know them?"

"It certainly looks like he does, but…"

"Éothain?... Éothain!"

Somewhere on the far edge of his awareness, Éothain noticed that Aedwulf was addressing him impatiently from behind, but his attention was exclusively focussed on the four people further back, one of them his Marshal and best friend. His best friend he knew no longer what to think about. He felt utterly confused and bewildered, and unable to comprehend what was happening right before his eyes.

Eothain had never seen these strangers before, and he would have placed any bet on the fact that Éomer, too, was just meeting them for the first time in his life. How then could it be then that he had sent their éored away to wait on the path, where none of them would be able to overhear his conversation with these three travellers?

What was it that he felt he had to hide from his own men?

The son of Céorl swallowed, somehow feeling hurt over having been left out. How could it be that Éomer did not even seem to trust him, his best friend? And why did his discussion with these weatherworn travellers look so intimate and not at all tense, which would have only been natural between unacquainted men in these dark times?

He was dimly aware of the ongoing murmuring around him, and yet unable to put an end to it, as he himself did not know what to make of the situation. Only one thing was sure: in the light of everything else that had happened, this strange encounter and the way his friend handled it, the situation was not bound to strengthen their éored's trust in their leader, at a time where it was most needed.

"Eothain?" Aedwulf asked again, sharply, and this time, Eothain reacted. He noticed that there was another man close by. It was Anlaf, he saw when he turned his head. The two captains stared at him with deeply creased brows, wearing tell-tale frowns upon their faces. "Eothain, who are these men? Do you know them?"

Céorl's son could only shake his head in consternation.

"Apart from what they told us, I have no idea. I have certainly never met them before, and I couldn't begin to think where the Marshal should have met them."

Anlaf narrowed his eyes as he followed the distant scene.

"And yet the way they are talking looks like the meeting of well-acquainted people. I mean… two of them are not even human, and all three of them are armed, and if they decide to use their weapons, Éomer will be hard-pressed to come out of this unscathed. How could he send us from his side? And why? What are we not supposed to hear?"

"I don't know." Eothain confessed. "He must have his reasons."

He could feel Anlaf's hard stare, and Aedwulf, too, regarded him strangely now.

"You know, Eothain…" the captain began, and the creases on his brow deepened even further. "This looks strange. I don't have to tell you that. We all disobeyed Théoden-King's orders in riding out against these orcs. We all followed Éomer's command because we saw the sense in it." He shook his head and gestured towards the scene before them. "But this… what are we to make of this? You know the law as well as we do…"

"All strangers found in the Mark are to be apprehended and brought before the King," Eothain nodded.

"Indeed," Aedwulf snorted. "Now tell me, brother, does this look to you as if the Marshal is about to take those men captive? It rather looks to me like a friendly reunion of some sort. And I do not know what to make of that."

"Neither do I," Anlaf added. "And our brothers are just as bewildered. I will not tell you what some of them have already been assuming…"

"He will explain himself," Éothain protested without much conviction, and he hated how his own voice sounded. Éomer had been his best friend ever since he had moved to Edoras seventeen years ago. They had started out in the same éored, learned their trade from the same warriors. They had kept each other safe for all these demanding years. Surely, the son of Éomund deserved his unlimited loyalty, even in this uncertain situation.

But Anlaf was not yet done, and what the older man said mirrored only Éothain's own concerns.

"Provided that the marshal permits them to continue their travels, which is the way this is looking to me… tell me, Éothain, what are we supposed to report once we return to Edoras? Because the Worm will question us, you can bet your life on that. Will we be expected to lie to him… and to the King, as well? If the truth comes out- and it will - we might just find ourselves all a head shorter before we can even comprehend what happened."

Éothain decided that he didn't like the captain's tone. He inhaled, and forced his attention away from the distant scene just long enough to glower at the other rider.

"We need to be patient for now, Captain," he said, and more than just a slight trace of frost crept into his voice. "I have no doubt that the Marshal will fill us in on the details of their conversation when he returns. It is not our place to prematurely question his judgment."

The other warrior narrowed his eyes.

"And yet I see on your face the same irritation that we feel." He cocked an eyebrow in silent question.

"Which means only that I, too, must be patient," Eothain replied icily. From the corners of his eyes, he noticed movement. And really, it was their commander who was approaching them with long steps, an expression of determination on his face. The three men instantly straightened and squared their shoulders, not knowing what to expect.

"Marshal? What shall we do with -"

Éomer did not allow him to finish his question. Instead, he snapped his fingers.

"We will lend our spare horses to these travellers. They will return them upon the end of their mission. Get it done quickly, for neither of us can afford to linger here for much longer."

000

Éomer could not tell just what kind of reaction he had expected from his brothers-in-arms, but the consternated expressions on all three faces before him – even Eothain's – certainly surprised him. So now he felt the frown creeping into his own features. Expectantly, he lifted his eyebrows, not knowing what to make of their strange expressions.

"What?"

His three captains first regarded each other, then Eothain cleared his throat.

"You want to give our horses… to these strangers, Sir?"

"That's what I said. Is there anything unclear about that?" His tone sharpened.

'Béma, what is brewing here now? Mutiny?'

Eothain flushed.

"But… should we not bring them before the king, first… Marshal?"

Éomer shook his head.

"There is no time for that now. These men are looking for their friends who were abducted by the same band of orcs we destroyed. I told them that we did not find any other beings among them, but they want to see that for themselves. I will grant them this favour, because afterwards, they promised to come to Edoras to return our horses … and also to help us in our fight. In these evil times, we need every sword, every bow and every axe we can get on our side."

He could tell that his explanation was doing nothing to clear up the situation. After a brief glance at the men around them, it was Anlaf who cleared his throat.

"`But, Marshal…"

Éomer narrowed his eyes and squared his shoulder, his whole body language conveying to his captains that he would not tolerate having his actions called into question.

"I am, of course, aware of our laws, Captain," he interrupted Anlaf in a dangerously calm tone. He focussed his unflinching attention on the man's face. The men who rode with him usually shut up immediately when their commander was in this mood. "I know we are supposed to bring these strangers before the king, but it cannot be done now. They need to hurry north, while we must make haste for Edoras and Westfold. I have every confidence in them honouring their promise."

'And if you question me openly again before our men and those strangers, there will be consequences!' Éomer's gaze told his commanders unmistakably. They knew their marshal to be a man of usually very reliable instincts, so what he needed here was some trust. Trust Éomund's son felt he had earned for the last four years as their éored's commander.

Not waiting for a reply, Éomer snapped his fingers again and gave a sharp whistle, and the riders who had two of their three spare horses tied to the pommel of their saddles, advanced through the crowd. He accepted their reins wordlessly and turned to hand them over to the man who had introduced himself to him as Aragorn. The older man's gaze was thankful as he took them, but at the same time, those keen grey eyes asked Éomer whether he could truly afford to make this temporary gift, a question that Éomund's son answered with an almost imperceptible nod.

"May these bear you to better fortunes than their former masters," he said, and clapped Hasufel's shoulder before he stepped back, hoping that the still restless and shaken stallion would find peace under his temporary new master. Somehow, he had a feeling that he would.

For a moment, Aragorn laid a hand against the destrier's brow, murmuring low, soothing words. Éomer noticed how the horse's ears flickered towards the man… and then it closed its eyes and exhaled. A small, but heartfelt smile travelled over his face. It was obvious that Aragorn was not a man of the Mark, but it was equally obvious that he was a great horseman. Such people could not be evil. It was impossible.

The dwarf seemed less grateful over their unexpected mounts, but his indignant bickering found a quick end upon Aragorn's insistence. As the elf insisted on riding Arod bareback, the saddle was quickly removed, and then it was time to part.

"I hope that you find your friends alive and unharmed," Éomer said, turning back to Aragorn. "I cannot imagine that they were among those Uruks, but perhaps, they managed to escape before we destroyed them. Either way, by giving you these horses, be aware I am placing myself, and maybe my very life, in the keeping of your good faith. Do not fail."

"I will not," Aragorn said, his grey eyes bespeaking great earnestness. "And I promise you to return your horses to Edoras afterwards… and to help the Mark against its enemies every way we can. Ride to good fortune, Son of Èomund. We shall meet again."

"And I look forward to that day."

With the barest hint of a nod, Éomer turned around and accepted Firefoot's reins from Éothain. He swung into the saddle, thus officially signalling his éored that the unexpected break was over. All around him, the riders followed his example as their marshal pushed through them to take the lead again. A moment later, they were making for their capital again; an unusual, heavy silence hanging over their éored as they left the three strangers behind in a dust cloud.

OOO

EDORAS

The morning had grown old before Éowyn found the time to have another look into her uncle's chambers after a quick, first check in the morning. Théoden had still been asleep then, with the Worm holding his silent vigil in the nearby armchair, daring her to touch and wake the king. So, for a while, she had just silently stood by the side of his bed and found comfort in the slow rising and falling of the old man's chest, before her gaze had strayed up to his peaceful face. While still pale, Théoden had looked less feverish to her eyes, without the hectic red spots and the line of perspiration along his hairline, which he had displayed just the previous evening.

Satisfied for the time being, she had then allowed duty to reclaim her. Now, another council meeting and several receptions later, it was almost midday and high time to see how her uncle was faring. With a curt nod at the guard who opened the door for her, Éowyn stepped into the king's chambers… just in time to see Wormtongue emerge from Théoden's bedroom. Tension shooting up her spine, she halted, her chin lifted in expectation of her enemy's report.

As usual, there was nothing to be read out of Gríma's inscrutable mask as he beheld her presence.

"The king is still asleep, Lady Éowyn," he stated in a flat voice, colourless eyes meeting hers. "And frankly, I would be astonished if he woke before tomorrow. It was very close last night. Your apology almost came too late."

The Worm's words infuriated and dismayed Éowyn at the same time, the conflicting emotions leaving her speechless for another moment, which Gríma son of Galmod intended to use.

"By the way, I heard that your brother finally seems to be on his way back to Edoras. You are not planning anything… inappropriate, are you, my lady?"

His words helped her rage win the upper hand. Éowyn narrowed her eyes.

"Whatever you mean by 'inappropriate', Lord Gríma, I do not plan it! I attended yesterday's council meeting; I heard what was decided."

"And no doubt are you thrilled by the prospects of having your brother tried for treason." Unimpressed with her fury, Wormtongue meet her gaze unflinchingly. "So forgive me if I am not entirely convinced of your innocent demeanour. So for these reasons, I made the following arrangements: you will refrain from leaving Meduseld until your brother has been apprehended. Should you try to leave nevertheless, you shall find that the doorwards will stop you."

"What?" She could not have heard that right.

"Any person leaving your chambers will be searched for hidden messages. After all, it would be a pity having to incarcerate both the Third Marshal and his sister for treason at the same time… wouldn't it, my lady?"

Éowyn made an angry step towards her adversary before she was even aware of what she was doing, hands balled into fists.

"You cannot forbid me to leave the Golden Hall! I am-"

"Oh yes, I can."

"—the king's niece! You are only a servant of the Royal Family, you do not command us!"

"I am acting in King Théoden's stead in the case of his absence or, as is the case here, in a time when illness prevents him from attending his business. The council confirmed as much only yesterday." A hard light sparkled in Wormtongue's eyes. "So I am fully within my rights to confine the radius of your activity to the interior of the hall, Lady Éowyn. And please be aware that, if you continue to question my authority, I might just as easily confine you to your chambers. The choice is yours."

She could only stare at him, her gaze casting poison-filled daggers at the impertinent man before her while her fingernails dug painfully into the balls of her hands.

"I will speak with Lord Aethelmaer about this!" she hissed, but the Worm granted her only a disinterested smirk as he pushed past her.

"Please do, my lady. If it helps you to understand the situation better, I'm all for it."

And with these words, he left her standing. Struggling for air. Reeling. Asking herself how in Béma's name it could ever have come to this…

OOO

WESTEMNET

After a ride without further interruptions, they reached the crossroads in the middle of the afternoon. From here on, half of their éored would travel further west and reach the Great West Road sometime around nightfall, while the other half would make for Edoras.

The high layer of clouds blocked the sun, otherwise the golden gleam of the great hall of kings would already have been visible from their position. Éomer could not help it, the thought alone left him with a clammy feeling in his stomach. Instead of looking forward to coming home, he dreaded it. What an insane world this had become!

But there was something even more urgent that demanded his full attention for the moment, and just as much depended on this, as did from his report to the King. With a deep intake of breath, he pushed Firefoot through the throng of riders, who were already in the process of dividing themselves into the two appointed groups.

He could not let them ride like this. Questioning their commander. Questioning themselves for still following his orders after what they had just witnessed. It had taken Éomer a while to understand, and to push aside the initial hurt over the perceived insult. He had been right to act as he had, he knew that much. In fact, he had seldom felt such conviction about any of his critical decisions ever before. Now he just had to make his riders see it the same way.

"Éorlingas! Listen to me!" he raised his voice about the din of shouting and moving horses. Only the nearest men looked up. He unhooked his horn and blew into it, and its clear, silver sound effectively stopping all activity.

He had his riders' attention now, and those faces – the young ones, the old ones, the ones he had known for years, just like the ones of their new recruits - they were turned towards him now, expectation in their eyes and the collective wish to cast off the shadow of doubt which had accompanied them for the last hours of their ride. These were his brothers, not in blood, but in soul, and they had risked their lives for each other for all those years they had been riding together without questions. They had accepted him as their leader four years ago, and Éomer had done everything in his power to keep them as save as humanly possible in their war against orcs and necromancer. This was the first time he had ever seen uncertainty, and yes, even disapproval on their faces, and the realisation that his riders doubted him stung. No, he could not let them leave like that. Clearing his throat, Éomer began.

"Éorlingas! My brothers! I know we are pressed for time, but there is something that needs to be addressed before you leave. I'm certain you agree." He met Éothain's gaze, and saw a spark of hope flickering in his friend's and captain's eyes, while their éored formed a tight circle around him. He inhaled.

"Against the king's orders, you rode with me to destroy those orcs. None of you rebelled, none of you stayed back when I asked you to come. You trusted in my judgment, and I am deeply honoured. It was your own judgment that made you do what you did, the sense that it was the right action to be taken even under consideration of the great peril in the west… even against the rule of your king. You put yourself at risk, not for me, but for the Mark."

He inhaled, turning Firefoot in a tight circle only to find Anlaf staring at him.

"Most of us have been riding together for many years now. And I do not remember that my decisions were ever questioned by any of you. For all those years, we've had each other's backs. But now, something new has happened, and you do not know what to make of my decision to let those three strangers we met on the plains go. You're asking yourself why we did not take them captive, as are our orders. Or why I gave them our spare horses."

"They were strangers, to you, as well, weren't they, Marshal?" the scout asked, deep furrows on his brow. "You had never met them before?"

Éomer met his intense stare evenly.

"That is right."

Murmurs and shouts travelled through the group of riders around him in reaction to his statement. He lifted a hand, and the warriors fell silent again.

"I know this must be hard to understand. And I would that I could give you a rational reason for my decision, but I'm afraid that I cannot." More murmurs and confused looks. Éomer inhaled.

"I cannot explain it, other than that it was a feeling, a deep conviction that helping them was the right thing to do, and that the Mark would greatly profit from it. That it might even be a decision that could very well turn the tide on the Mark's fate. In fact, I have never felt such conviction before."

His gaze found Éothain.

"The responsibility for this deed is mine alone. I stand by it. And I would do the same if the situation arose again… If any of you do not agree, there is nothing I can do. You will report what happened to the Worm and the king, and that will likely be the end of me."

"So you are asking us to leave this encounter out of our report," Éothain stated matter-of-factly, and the riders around him paled. "You are asking us to lie to the Worm… and to the king."

Éomer saw his friend take a deep breath. Once again, he turned Firefoot around, his intense gaze travelling over all the familiar and confused faces before him.

"It is your decision. I did not only put my life into those stranger's hands, but into yours, as well. Ask yourself, would I have done that if I were not absolutely convinced that this deed will pay off? That it might even be key to removing Wormtongue from power and restore Théoden-King to his old self? Which is what we all want, if I'm not mistaken."

Anlaf shook his head, still sceptic.

"Forgive me, Marshal, but how can you know…"

Éomer's hard stare found him.

"I do not know. I believe. Perhaps it is time for that. Perhaps, what we need is faith. Nothing else worked in these past, dark days… And those among you who have ridden with me for these past years should remember what to make of my intuitions. You are all still here, alive… fighting… despite these being the darkest days the Mark has ever seen. Despite the many traps Saruman's beasts laid for us."

Silence spread as the riders contemplated his words.

"However, we must ride on, and so I have to cut this short. There is really only one question that matters, and to which you must find your own answer: after all these years that we've been riding together, after everything our éored's been through, and after all the blood that we spilled for each other just a few days ago… do you really think that I would ever do anything to bring damage to the Mark?"

His gaze travelled from face to face, all emotions out there for his riders to see and judge.

"It is my home. It is the land I love. The land I swore to protect for as long as there is a single drop of blood left in my veins, and breath left in my lungs. I will continue to fight until I can fight no more, and the measure I took earlier today is part of this fight. A desperate measure, I agree, but perhaps, the time for desperate measures has arrived. Make your decision, brothers, and live with the consequences."

A RED SUN RISES


Chapter 14: A Different Sort of Homecoming


EDORAS

It was already growing dark before Éomer's part of the éored arrived in Edoras. Trying to find the right balance between haste and the need to keep their senses together and their horses on their legs, they had been forced to make another, however short break along the way, but now, the City of Kings rose from the grass before them, illuminated by many watch fires along its mighty walls.

To Éomer, it looked forbidding. It was not a feeling he was accustomed to when it came to returning, but nonetheless, what had once been his home for the years of his youth until he had joined the Armed Forces, now appeared like a threatening fastness that had been closed against him and dared him to enter.

To his right, Éothain seemed to share his misgivings as he stared glumly into the semi-darkness beyond his horse's ears. The riders behind them were likewise silent, but of course, they were all also on their last legs. Beast and men had reached their limit, and yet the true challenge still lay before them. How well could they lie?

With a soundless sigh, Éomer urged Firefoot towards the gate, just as the alarm reached his ears. A moment later, the massive doors were opened from within.

"I will accompany you to Meduseld," Éothain said lowly as he directed Scatha alongside his friend's mighty grey stallion. "You should not go up there alone."

Éomer doubted that his friend would be allowed in, but he remained silent. Meanwhile they were close enough to make out the guards' faces on the wall, and he did not like what he read in them. Aye, the light was bad, but it did not look to him as if those men were happy – or at least relieved – to see them. They were looking down on their approaching éored with strangely guarded expressions that tied their marshal's stomach into even tighter knots.

"Something is wrong," Éothain mumbled beneath his breath, apparently having felt the strange mood, too. "Perhaps we should run…" This at last earned him Éomer's attention.

"We did nothing wrong, Éothain," he said with conviction. "It needed to be done. Now we only need to convince the King and the Royal Guard of it… against everything the Worm is going to throw at us."

"I do not like the way they're looking at us…"

"Who knows what they were told," Éomer replied. "Ignore them. We need to stay focussed."

They passed the gate to find an assembly of people waiting for them on the marketplace. There were no cheers, no shouts, and no cries of joy over their return. Instead, the people were staring at them in silence, and all of Éomer's instincts cried out at him to turn around and flee. With considerable effort, he strangled the life out of the impulse as the gate closed behind them, but there was something else now, too, that began to stir in the back of Éomer's mind; something more familiar than fear: a spark of rage against the injustice of what they were up against, a spark of defiance. Determination to emerge from this contest of wills as winner, and to rid their realm of the worst enemy it had ever faced. An enemy who divided them, who made them weak and powerless. An insult to the Mark and its people every second he held power over them.

It grew stronger and stronger, found its way into Éomer's body language and made him straighten in the saddle and square his shoulders, even against the massive exhaustion. It sped up his pulse and flooded his veins with adrenaline. It was battle readiness in the true sense of the word, and from the corners of his eyes, the son of Éomund could tell that his friend had noticed the change in his bearing, for there was suddenly the hint of a smile playing around Éothain's lips.

"What?"

"You look… different all of a sudden."

Éomer returned the smile, deepening the one on Éothain's features.

"Just getting mentally ready to wipe the floor with our sorry excuse for a counsellor."

Éothain snorted.

"Now, that would be a sight for sore eyes! Count me in to do some of the wiping."

The smile slowly vanishing from his face, Éomer turned his attention back towards the crowd. He could see no guards yet, no one to arrest them. But of course, the Worm knew that the effort could be spared. His prey would come to him out of its own, free will. Oh yes, he would come. But who was prey and who the predator still remained open for discussion for the time being!

Turning Firefoot around, Éomer faced his remaining riders. They would not follow their commanders to the higher levels of the city, as the stables for the éoreds were on the ground level. He found himself looking into gloomy and doubtful miens and hoped to convey and to transfer some of his newly discovered fighting spirit to them.

"The Mark thanks you for your service. I thank you for your service… and your loyalty. To those of you who will ride with us to Westfold tomorrow: see that you get as much rest tonight as you can. We will leave at first light."

Not waiting to see his éored disperse, Éomer urged Firefoot towards the ascending path. He did not have to apply much pressure. The grey stallion knew where they were headed and mobilized the last of his energy to make for the royal stables, no doubt looking forward to a manger full of hay and apples and oats, and a good rubdown.

Éomer wished that he could have looked forward to what awaited him at the end of the path, as well, but as it seemed, the best he could do at present was to hold on to the sudden flash of energy and steel himself for the coming confrontation. He could only hope to be able to keep his temper in check against the Worm's hideous accusations. Gríma did not count, he was not important for the task he had set himself. He had to convince the others. Under no circumstances could he afford to undermine the sincerity of his claims by rising to the Worm's bait.

Never before had the path to the stables seemed so short to Éomund's son, when he beheld the beautifully ornamented building before them. A bit to the right and even higher up, Meduseld loomed in the growing darkness, awaiting them. Forcing him into a battle he was much less accustomed to than the one with sword, spear and bow. A battle that was second nature to his adversary. A battle he needed to win nonetheless.

As they approached, Éomer beheld Solgard and his stablehands outside, already expecting them. Even this spoke a clear language: he was expected in the Golden Hall at once. As much as he would have liked to tend Firefoot himself for the great deeds the stallion had committed over the last days, Éomer knew that he would not be allowed to take the time.

"Huh," Éothain made, bewildered. "They're making quite the fuss. As if an hour more or less would change anything."

"The Worm's way of ensuring we know who is in control," Éomer sneered, and brought Firefoot to a hold. From his elevated position, he stared down on the stablemaster, who was just now approaching him with visible tenseness. "Solgard! I suppose we are being summoned to Meduseld this very instant? Or why is everyone here waiting for us?"

The man returned his gaze unhappily.

"I apologise, Marshal. I was only told to expect you before the stables and take Firefoot into my custody. I do not know more." He furrowed his brow as he looked at Éothain. "Nothing was said about your horse, though, Captain."

"As I will be accompanying the Third Marshal, I would appreciate it if you could see to Scatha, too, Sir. He earned it."

Not waiting for the stablemaster's reply, Éothain dismounted, shortly followed by Éomer, and handed his reins over. With a last clap on his stallion's muscular neck, he turned to follow his marshal towards the stairs, his nerve endings vibrating with tension. There seemed to be a metal band around his chest all of a sudden, an immense weight that constricted his breathing. Soon they would know what all this was about, and if Éothain knew one thing, it was that they wouldn't like it.

OOO

MEDUSELD

"Wait, Uncle, let me help you with this."

Éowyn dropped to her knees and laced up Théoden's boots. She did not like the thought that he would have to go out there, to the throne room, in a matter of such heavy consequence, when he had not even fully recovered yet. Far from it. He still looked horribly pale and pasty to her eyes, and more often than not he did not react to her questions, as if he was not even hearing her. He needed support when walking, and his hands were still shaking from weakness.

"There now." She leant back and looked up into his tired face. "You are all set, Uncle."

The ghost of a smile played around the old man's mouth for a moment, before it vanished as quickly as it had occurred.

"Thank you, Éowyn… Set for what?"

For a moment, she could only stare.

"Éomer is on the way up the hill to give you his report."

"His report…?" It was another absent-minded question.

"His report about his ride north?" Éowyn helped, silently asking herself how in Béma's name the king was supposed to sit in judgement over his nephew when he did not even remember the most essential things. "His hunt for the orcs that had crossed into the Mark?"

"But wasn't he supposed to ride west?" Théoden mumbled, and she had to close her eyes. "´Théodred… wasn't he supposed to help him? But… but Théodred is… he is…"

"He is dead, Sire," Gríma Wormtongue's merciless voice reached them from the opened door, and Éowyn felt her uncle's twitch in painful reaction. "Killed by the orc scum in the long foreseen attack. Killed by your nephew through negligence as documented by the Lord of Westfold."

He stepped into the room, ignoring Éowyn's hate filled stare as she regained her feet and took position behind Théoden's armchair. She noticed that he carried a cup in his hands.

"And now he comes back to let you know about his triumph in the north. About his worthless victory, when – with this act of rebellion – he put your son in his grave. No matter what happens, my Lord, you should never forget this fact. Èomer, son of Éomund, is responsible for your son's death."

Éowyn's fingers dug deeply into the chair's leather in barely contained rage. How good it would feel if it were the Worm's neck instead. How good it would feel to unleash all her pent-up anger and frustration against her opponent! But what could she do in the present situation, where the Lord of Westfold's letter had effectively made a traitor out of her brother? What could she do, other than renew her threat and hope that the ill old man would remember it when the time for judgement came?

"What is this?" she asked with a curt nod towards the cup.

"A strengthening draught." Gríma met her suspicious gaze openly. "I'm sure you agree that the King won't be able to hold the hearing in his current condition without help."

Éowyn narrowed her eyes.

'What else did you put in there, Worm?' she asked silently, only by looking, and she was sure that her opponent understood. 'What did you concoct to bend him to your will again?'

Aloud she said: "Then why not postpone the hearing? There is no immediate need for urgency anymore. The battle in the west is over for now. Let us wait until the King has recuperated."

A nasty smirk appeared on Wormtongue's pale features.

"And let your traitorous brother run around free for a few more days? Give him more time to further advance his rebellion? If you wish for that, Lady Éowyn, I fear that I will have to reconsider the way I regard you. Perhaps, you do play a part in your brother's actions, after all. Perhaps, you are not as innocent as you would want us to believe. It certainly brings back that incident to my mind, the one where the Captain of the Royal Guard intervened and hindered me in the performance of my duties. It makes me wonder whose side you're really on."

Infuriated to the point where she was almost unable to answer, it took Éowyn a few long, deep breaths, until she could reply in a wavering, but icy voice: "I am on the side of the Mark, dearest councillor. I'm on the side of our people. But I'm not too sure about the side you are on, except for your own."

Wormtongue narrowed his eyes.

"You claim to have loved your cousin, my Lady. And yet you seem quite intent on not having the one mainly responsible for his death punished." He lowered his gaze to stare at the king.

"Do you not find this most peculiar, as well, Sire? That your niece keeps protecting Éomer even though his guilt has been proven?"

"Nothing has been proven!" Éowyn shouted. "Éomer would never have disobeyed his orders had it not been absolutely necessary! He loved Théodred like a brother, and I could see that it tore him apart not being able to ride to his aid when he stood before us! You must either be blind not to have seen that, or you did not want to see it!" She took a deep breath and stepped to the front of the chair to look her uncle in the eye. "Uncle, I beg you! Listen to what Éomer has to say with an open mind. Do not precondemn your nephew on the basis of a piece of writing that might not even be genuine!"

"You're getting desperate now, my Lady, aren't you?" Wormtongue's tone indicated that he was anything but amused. "To doubt a document hand-drafted by Erkenbrand of Westfold…"

"No one did actually see him write it, so as far as I'm concerned, I'm well within my rights to doubt it! *You* could have written it, for all I know! I wouldn't put it beyond you to forge his handwriting!"

With a dry, unamused laugh, Wormtongue extended his hand with the cup to Théoden.

"My Lady, I would love to continue this most interesting discussion, trust me, but now is not the time. Your brother will be here shortly, and yet we still need to restore the king to a condition that will enable him to follow the proceedings." He pressed the cup into Théoden's shaking hand. "Please, drink this, Sire. It will lend you strength. Strength that you are going to need."

"What would I do without you, Gríma?" the old man uttered in a feeble voice, and a deprecating stare found his niece. "Stop your bickering, Éowyn. It is not helpful in this situation."

With Wormtongue's guidance, he lifted the cup and drank, missing Éowyn's bitter stare.

OOO

Ascending the stairs before him, Éomer stared in the direction of the entrance to the Golden Hall, and found – unsurprisingly - that the staff there had been strengthened. Instead of the usual three guards, he now counted six fully armoured men, among them the massive Half-Dunlending he had seen in the Worm's service before. Éomer creased his brow. This whole setup was so obviously a trap that he needed to ask himself again whether it was not indeed smarter to turn around and follow his first impulse. To jump into Firefoot's saddle and make for the gate. But what then? It would be an admission of his guilt, and an acknowledgement of his wrongdoing. It would, indeed, make him look like a traitor to the people. Nothing would be won that way. No, he needed to succeed in convincing Gamling and Háma, and the Royal Guard, and – hopefully – Théoden-King, as well, that his course of action had prevented disaster for the Mark. There was no other option.

As he reached the terrace, Éomer braced himself for the confrontation, knowing Éothain close behind him. With long, purposeful strides, he approached Háma, who stared at him with a wary expression upon his weathered features, and granted him a curt nod as he came to a halt.

"Westu hál, Háma", he said. "We have come to give the King our report."

The older man returned his nod. He seemed extraordinarily tense when his gaze found Éothain. Neither had it escaped Éomer's attention that the other guards kept their hands upon the hilts of their swords. Interesting.

"I'm afraid that I cannot allow you in, Captain," he said. "The report is to be given by the marshal alone."

"And you know why, Háma!" Éothain's eyes were narrow slits. "What does your conscience say about what you are about to allow? Are you content?" He stopped when he felt Éomer's hand upon his arm.

"Peace, Éothain," his friend said. "Háma, son of Harlond has his orders. We are not in a position to question them. Neither is he. I thank you for your loyalty, but I intend to follow those orders." He turned his back to the guards and stared into his friend's face, lowering his voice. "Go, Éothain. It is no use. You are the commander of our éored now, at least until I have swayed the minds of those waiting inside. Keep them safe, and keep Éowyn safe. That is the best you can do for now. Apart from asking Béma to lend me a helping hand."

He saw protest in Éothain's eyes, and fear. Fear for him. It touched him, but he could not allow the accompanying feeling to blur his focus.

"Go, Éothain. We will put an end to this, I promise. The tide is turning. Be ready when it does."

"I will." Éothain's voice was thick with emotion when he grasped his friend's hand in the warrior greeting. "But you will return to us later tonight. I know it. Thus I will only say 'until later'." He gave Èomer's hand a firm squeeze… and turned briskly on his heels. A moment later, he was gone, and for the first time, Éomer felt utterly and truly alone. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, the son of Éomund turned back to the Captain of the Royal Guard.

"So… How shall we proceed?"

Háma shook his head and pointed his chin in the direction of Éomer's hip.

"Before I can let you enter, you will need to give me your sword, Marshal," he said. "I cannot let you before the King armed."

Éomer's eyebrows shot up, and he almost laughed. At the same time he noticed how the other guards stepped closer.

"Why? Because you fear that I would attack my uncle? You are joking, Háma, aren't you?" The man's expression told him that he wasn't, and with a heavy sigh, Éomer unfastened his scabbard and handed it over. "There now. I only ask that you keep it safe. I will hold you personally responsible if anyone else touches it." A meaningful glance found the huge halfbreed. "Is there anything else you want? Should I strip off my armour, too?"

The Captain of Guard narrowed his eyes, not amused.

"Only a few moments ago you told your captain that it is not our position to question the orders we were given, Marshal. Those were wise words. Did you decide otherwise now, to make this difficult, after all?"

For a moment, Éomer fought with his wildly bucking temper – 'It is not *you* they're asking to step into their trap almost naked!''You know this is wrong, and yet you do their bidding!' – until, with a deep breath, he suppressed the turmoil in his mind.

"I am here to give my report, Captain. As ordered..." he replied with sudden formality. Formality had been a useful instrument to rein in his temper in the past years, and Éomer decided that now was the time to resort to it again. 'Focus!' he scolded himself. 'Royal Guard or not, Háma is only a doorward. Don't waste your energy to bandy words with a heeler. Focus!'

"It is not my intention to make things more difficult than they have to be. But you've known me for most of my life, and that - after all those years - you would think me capable of attacking my own kin gives me pause." For a fleeting moment, he thought he saw a hint of shame in the older man's eyes. He did not know how to feel about this discovery. Encouraged, because there still seemed to be part of the old Háma, the Háma he knew, in the guard before him… or concerned, because the man's shame hinted at things to come. Things Háma son of Harlond was ashamed to be a part of.

"Unfortunately, what I think is of no concern, Lord Éomer." the guard surprised him, and, with a sinister side glance at the men around them, cleared his throat. "Very well, Marshal. Please, follow me insde." Turning around, Háma met Felrod's dark stare. "Open the door."

A RED SUN RISES


Author's Notes: So... here it is at last, one of the chapters I looked most forward to writing once this particular plot bunny had bitten me. I'm not sure what this says about me, but after a couple of days of contemplation how this hearing would go, it went very smoothly and quickly. I hope you will enjoy it, as well, even if it doesn't bring good news for the man we all love to read about...


Chapter 15: In the Lion's Den


When the doors were opened, Éowyn's heartbeat began to accelerate. She was standing right behind the throne, a little to the side, which was helpful as Wormtongue would not be able to see the expression on her face during the proceedings while he concerned himself with her brother. Her slender fingers were clenched around the throne's upper rim so tightly that her knuckles were white, giving her disposition away despite her desperate efforts to keep her emotions guarded. She could not help it. This was easily the worst situation she had ever found herself in, perhaps even worse than the death of their parents: Théoden so ill that he knew no longer what was happening, her cousin killed and her brother about to be sentenced to death for his doomed efforts of protecting their people... and with him, her last protector in these halls would be gone.

Desperately trying to contain her hatred for the man, Éowyn cast a brief glance at Gríma. Their adversary had taken up position on Théoden's right side, but in contrast to the usual display where he sat on the chair beside the king, he now stood on the highest of the three steps that lead up the dais, in an effort to look as imposing as possible. From the expectant posture of his body, Éowyn concluded that their adversary was, in fact, looking forward to the confrontation.

Of course – at long last, after all these years, he seemed to have everything he needed in his hands to dispose of his worst enemy. And still Éowyn hoped that her brother's report would smash the confident expression out of Gríma's face like a rock; that it would turn into a frowning grimace for everyone to witness.

As she watched Éomer approach through the corridor between the two lines of council members and royal guards, her heart went out to him. Although Éomer held himself proud and erect, his gaze confidently meeting those of the men around him neither in challenge nor in excuse as he passed them, and although his strides were firm and confident, she could sense his bone-deep exhaustion. And if she could sense it, then the Worm would smell it, as well. In that way, Gríma was like an experienced scavenger; a beast that finds the one animal in a herd that is sick and too weak to repel it. How he disgusted her!

Her brother looked gaunt, there were bruises on his face and dark circles beneath his eyes, and it was clear to Éowyn that only his iron will and determination still kept him on his feet. She prayed that the others wouldn't misread his proud bearing as challenge, although they had to know him well enough to know better. But then again, why were they here, if not to condemn him?

'I am here for you, brother' she thought, hoping that somehow, Éomer would sense what she wanted him to know. 'I am here, and I will help you any way that I can!'

With a deep breath, Éowyn straightened behind the throne. No weakness could be shown to the enemy, and if, by her mere presence, she could transfer some of her energy to Éomer, she would try to. She laid it all into her gaze as she meet her brother's eyes.

OOO

His steps reverberated heavily in the leaden silence. It fit the gloomy atmosphere of the flickering torchlight, and, despite his determination to stay strong, Éomer could not shake a feeling of foreboding as he walked through the narrow corridor between the people he had known for most of his life. Their silence was stifling, and even though he made it a point of looking each and every one of them in the eye as he passed them, not in challenge but in confirmation that he was still the man they knew, that nothing had changed and that most certainly, he did not have a secret agenda as the Worm had no doubt tried to convince them, their responses worried him.

Their eyes were cold, questioning. Suspicious. There was none of the familiarity he was accustomed to, no sense of a 'benefit of a doubt in an unclear situation' for a man they had known for many years, and it set off an army of ants in Éomer's stomach. The last man he passed on his way to the dais was Gamling, and even his mien was strangely guarded as they regarded each other for a moment. Creasing his brow in a silent question – 'It is I. You have known me all my life. How can you doubt me now?' – Éomer realised that this situation pained the old warrior no less than him, and his blood became ice water. 'Something happened, and the Worm turned them all against me. Béma…'

With a deep breath, Éomer turned his attention to the dais at last. Naturally, his eyes found his sister first, and her appearance only increased his worry. Éowyn looked even paler than usual, her eyes huge in her almost translucent face, and there were distinctive dark shadows beneath them telling of sleepless nights. Sleepless nights because of worrying for him while he was out there, or were there other reasons? The smallest encouraging smile seemed to play at the corners of her mouth now that she met his gaze, and yet it did not reach her eyes.

Sitting slumped on his throne, Théoden-King looked even worse than he had when they had left Edoras, and barely seemed to have the strength to remain upright. His skin looked pasty and colourless, and his gaze, Éomer found as he approached, was unfocussed. Was he even aware of what was happening? Or was he only a mindless puppet the Worm had somehow enabled to partake in these proceedings, because he needed him to confirm the judgement he had already passed in his mind?

'Focus! Focus! Focus!' he berated himself as he advanced the last steps and then kneeled before the throne, deliberately ignoring Gríma until he would have to concern himself with him.

"Sire, Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Mark, has come to give you his report," Háma's voice could be heard from the side, where the warrior had taken up position, and with a rustle of clothes, Wormtongue stepped before him.

"Rise, Éomer son of Éomund," he said in a loud, cold voice, and Éomer followed his order, for the first time looking his adversary straight in the face. "Tell us what you found in Westfold."

A bitter smirk tugged at the corners of Éomer's mouth. 'Aye, Worm, forcing me to admit it myself, aren't you? As if you didn't know…'

"We did not make for Westfold," he confessed evenly, his gaze never leaving Gríma's pale face. A silent battle of wills in addition to the one they fought with words. "As you are no doubt aware of."

"Indeed I am." Wormtongue folded his hands and allowed his gaze to briefly travel over the assembled crowd in the hall, before it returned to the warrior before him. "So just for protocol's sake, please do tell us where you took your éored instead."

Éomer turned to the King, but could not for the life of him determine whether his uncle was even hearing him, much less whether he understood what was being said.

"Sire, I understand that this might be difficult to understand, but despite your order to make for Westfold, we rode north to the Entwood. I regret very much having been forced to make that difficult choice, but the situation there was too dangerous not to concern ourselves with."

An audible gasp rose from the crowd, muffled muttering. Wormtongue narrowed his eyes.

"I see, Marshal. You seem to think that you are authorized to make these decisions even against your ruler's orders. Alas, I heard that this was, in fact, not the first time you chose to ignore them. Actually, my sources say that you are rather notorious among our forces for that."

Éomer turned around to face the men behind him. He had to make them understand.

"Alas, Councillor Gríma, it is a reality that the situation in the field often differs from the scouts' reports. There is often a delay in receiving their reports and our arrival at the location, and in the meantime, situations have sometimes changed to the point where an entirely different approach is necessary. Those of you who rode with the Armed Forces once may understand of what I am speaking." Were there affirmative nods among the council members or was he imagining them? It was too dark to determine in the flickering torchlight. Éomer's gaze found Gamling. "In fact, the Prince himself often changed a strategy that had been discussed priorly to adept to a changed situation he found upon arrival. It is simply a necessity in order to survive."

"But Prince Théodred is your commander, Marshal," Wormtongue said. "He is, in fact, the second-powerful man in the Mark after the King. He is authorized to make those adjustments, whereas you-"

Éomer turned on his heels and lifted his chin in defiance.

"I am the Third Marshal of Riddermark, Councellor. I am the third most powerful man in the Mark, right after my cousin. In the Eastmark, my ward, I am the highest commander, and I was officially appointed to this position by the council members, who – as I see – are all present here. I'm certain it is known, but for protocol's sake, let me repeat it: my position specifically calls for decision making and evaluation of each given situation. My main concern is to prevent disaster from the Mark and her people, which includes the eventual alteration of plans to meet the needs of changed situations. Which is what I did in this case, as well. It is what is expected of me in my position. I cannot believe that I should have to explain it."

"Oh, but this is a very different case, Marshal," Gríma sneered. "In this case, the Second Marshal – your commander – summoned you to strengthen his forces for an attack that was only a matter of time. And then your king specifically gave you the order to make for Westfold. He even repeated it when you questioned it before you left, and stressed its importance. You disobeyed both… and instead, took your riders to check out a report that was, at that moment, of far lesser priority."

Éomer squared his shoulders. So, the battle was on. He had to win it.

"Alas, the Second Marshal had no knowledge of that report. And once he hears my reasons, Théodred will understand, because it would have concerned him, as well. In fact, once I have given you my report, I am certain that all present in this hall will understand that my decision was justified and necessary." Again, Éomer addressed the listening men directly before he turned back. "Will you let me explain now what we found in the north, Councellor Gríma? Otherwise, I fear that these proceedings are entirely pointless."

With a slightly derogatory expression upon his face to indicate to the council members how trivial he deemed this information, Grima motioned him to go on.

"It will not change the fact that you disobeyed your commanders' orders, but for protocol's sake, please do. I do not want it said afterwards that the Third Marshal of Riddermark was not given a fair trial."

'A trial? Is this already a trial?'

Swallowing the sharp reply that lay on the tip of his tongue, Éomer recounted the happenings of their days of pursuit in a calm, but nonetheless intense tone. At first, he addressed Théoden.

"After leaving Edoras, we rode through the night to intercept those orcs my scout had warned us of. We came upon them shortly before nightfall on the following day and encircled them to wait for daylight. It was a great group, well over two hundred strong, made of Uruks of the White Hand and Mordor orcs. They had travelled with previously unknown speed and endurance, which seemed to point at the importance of their undertaking."

"Which was?" the Worm interrupted him with raised eyebrows, but Éomer paid him no heed.

"After nightfall, we were attacked by a second group that came out of the Entwood, again over fifty strong and wearing the White Hand upon their brows. They tried to merge with the other group, but we kept them separate and put an end to them shortly afterwards. At dawn, we attacked and killed all who had survived the night. We piled their carcasses and burned them, and we buried our dead, before—"

"So there were casualties amongst your riders?" Wormtongue dug in, and reluctantly, Éomer turned back to face him. "Did I hear that right?"

"Alas, there were. The orcs outnumbered us two to one. It is a rare thing to do battle with such a great group of enemies and emerge without losses. Every commander in the field will tell you as much."

"How many riders did you lose?"

Éomer cast down his eyes, for a moment seeing before his inner eye his riders arranged in the long hole the others had dug to bury them. He swallowed and lowered his voice.

"Fifteen riders, unfortunately. And twelve horses."

The Worm narrowed his eyes.

"I see. Fifteen men died needlessly, so that you could have your revenge on those orcs."

"Needlessly?"

Somewhere in the back of his mind, his temper tested the chains he had put on on it, and made him clench his teeth. In order to stay in control, Éomer once again turned away from his inquisitor and towards the listening crowd. There were men among them who had served in the Armed Forces once, he knew it, and he needed to convince them now against Gríma's accusations.

"Can you even conceive what a group this great would do to an unsuspecting, unprotected settlement? Gentlemen?" He approached the waiting men and impaled them with his intense gaze. "There would have been nothing left of it. They would have razed each village they came upon utterly to the ground, even more since all settlements in the Westemnet and Westfold deployed their forces to the Fords. They were wide open and vulnerable to an attack. It would have been a massacre. My men understood this threat, and they died in service to the Mark and its people. They fulfilled the oath all members of the Armed Forces have taken."

"And yet there are no settlements anywhere near where you claim to have intercepted those orcs!" Wormtongue raised his voice. "Not for many leagues! No settlements, and no herds either, according to your own words."

Éomer whirled around.

"And you would have guaranteed that they stayed on this course?" he snapped, despite his resolution to stay calm. "You knew this… how?"

'Because your master told you, Worm! Because Saruman told you to keep me out of their path at all costs, because they had something that he wanted!'

It took all of Éomer's self-restraint not to shout his accusations into his adversary's face, but it seemed to him as if Gríma read them in his eyes anyway, because suddenly, his tone intensified.

"Is there anything you want to add, Marshal?" the Worm said in a dangerously low voice. "Please, do continue. We are all listening."

'He wants to lure you into his trap! Focus!'

Exhaling, Éomer counted to five before he resumed. Even then, his voice sounded strained, but he had the distinctive feeling that at last, he was getting through to the others.

"Like I said, there were no guarantees for those orcs to stay on their course through the northern territories. They could have easily travelled that way to avoid protection, and then turned south once they reached Westfold to destroy all settlements in their way and attack the Prince from behind. Théodred would have been caught between the hammer and the anvil, and no doubt would you have found a way then to lay our people's corpses on my doorstep! But now, they are destroyed, and half of my éored is already on the way to the fords. And tomorrow at first light, the rest of them are going to follow… minus the ones I'm leaving for the protection of the city."

He did not like the expression on Wormtongue's face in reply to his words. Not at all.

"Oh, don't bother," the Worm said with a throwaway gesture. Éomer's eyes became narrow slits.

"What?"

"Don't bother riding west. It is no longer necessary."

His words stole Éomer's breath.

"Because…?"

"Because the attack has already been repelled. The orc army was thrown back, thanks to your cousin. Not thanks to you."

Caught between anger and relief, Éomer did not know what to say. The attack had been repelled! That was good news, wasn't it? Only why then did he have the distinct feeling that he was missing something vital? A feeling that was strengthened when he cast a sidelong glance up to Éowyn. She did not look relieved. And while it could have been the bad light, Éomer was alarmed to suddenly detect a moist sparkle in his sister's eyes. What had happened?

"So, was there anything else about your ride north?" Wormtongue asked into the leaden silence. "Anything noteworthy? You killed all orcs, buried your riders and returned straight away? Is that it?"

"Aye." Éomer's attention was still with Éowyn, more worried than ever. Something was not right here. "What happened at the fords?" Was she crying? She was crying! Silently, but those were tears upon her face! When he faced Gríma again, he all but screamed: "What happened?"

The Worm remained calm as he lifted his chin, seemingly looking down on his adversary although he was a head shorter.

"What I told you: the orcs were defeated. Our riders threw them back over the Isen, at great cost of life… Which might not have been quite as great had their forces been stronger, but let's no longer talk about that. Marshal Erkenbrand wrote as much in his report. He was… surprised by your non-appearance, to put it mildly. But thankfully, your cousin stepped up… and the Lord of Westfold. And Grimbold. And Elfhelm. Everyone but you."

But Éomer neither saw nor heard him. He was looking at Éowyn again, and his heartbeat accelerated with abyssmal dread. There was only Éowyn now, and that expression of grief that was deeply engraved into her delicate features.

"Théodred?" he asked lowly, suddenly bereft of breath. Afraid to ask, but he had to know. It could not be. It could not be! But it was the truth, he understood even before his sister slowly shook her head, and the silent flow of her tears intensified, and realisation punched him in the chest like a war-hammer. "No…" He sank to his knees, all the strength, all the willpower that had kept him on his feet so far suddenly fleeing his body. "No!"

"Yes," his adversary replied mercilessly, his voice cold, and his pale eyes pinning the son of Éomund like an insect. The moment had come at last to seize victory. "Yes, Éomer, Third Marshal of Riddermark, it is time to face the grim reality: your disobedience brought your cousin to his grave. Théodred was hewn by the attackers in fulfilment of his duty. He died, because the reinforcements he had summoned did not arrive. He died, because his cousin, despite always claiming how close they were, thought that going orc-hunting in the north was more important than the protection of the fords… You betrayed the man you claimed to love like a brother."

Éomer did not even hear him. Wormtongue's voice was background noise beneath the sudden droning in his head, and before his inner eye, Théodred's face appeared as it had in his dream: eyes widened in dismay as his cousin thrust his sword through his chest. Blood spattering down his chin as his knees buckled and he collapsed.

'Oh Béma, I killed him! I killed Théodred! It wasn't only a dream!''

Somehow, he had already known then. The dream had not been born from worry; it had been born from knowledge. From a sudden void within him that had opened when his cousin died. It had become reality.

He did not even feel it when suddenly, his shoulders were grabbed, and he was pulled into a tight embrace.

OOO

Éowyn could no longer stand by and watch how the Worm tortured her brother. Before she was even aware of it herself, she had left her place behind the throne and kneeled down beside Éomer, wrapping her arms around him to somehow shield him from his tormentor's wrath. She did not think about it, nor about possible consequences. It was an impulse, too strong to resist. She was too fast for Wormtongue to stop her, and when he started to protest, she shut him out of her awareness. It was Éomer who mattered now, and only Éomer.

"I am here, brother," she whispered urgently, hoping to reach him in the pit of his bottomless despair. "I am with you. I know you did not want for this to happen. And Théodred would have understood your decision. He would have told you to ride north. I know this. It was not your fault!"

Her embrace was returned now with desperate intensity. Éomer almost crushed her, and yet she did not complain. He needed her now, more than ever.

"Lady Éowyn," Wormtongue's resentful voice at last reached her ears, and from his impatient tone, she concluded that he had already addressed her several times. "You are, of course, aware that the man in your arms is responsible for your cousin's death, aren't you? And still you are there with him on your knees, comforting him? What are we to think about that?"

Éowyn lifted her tear-streaked face, and despite the wetness on her checks, the expression in her blue eyes was hard as steel as she fixed them against their opponent.

"You did not listen, Counsellor," she replied, fighting to keep the trembling out of her voice. "My brother just explained why he made that choice, and his reasoning is sound. No matter what accusations you want to throw at my brother's feet, they don't stick!" She turned her head to address the council members, her gaze coming to rest on Gamling's face.

'You wanted to see Éomer's reaction to Théodred's death, Lord Gamling. What do you say now? Is this convincing for you? Or do you feel that his grief is feigned?'

"My Lords, honoured members of the Council… several of you rode with our Armed Forces once. What is your verdict? Standing before the choice between two evils, which one would you have made? You have known my brother for years; you have seen him together with the Prince countless times! How can you even begin to think that his death is what Éomer wanted? My brother is known for never lying, and now look at him and tell me that you think indeed that his grief is fake!"

"Éowyn," a weak voice behind her called, and she turned around, surprised to hear it. "You are wrong."Théoden was crying, as well, but the expression in his milky eyes was not forgiving as he regarded his nephew. "Get away from him. He does not deserve your pity."

For the longest moment, Éowyn could only stare at her uncle, her head empty.

"How can you believe this, Uncle?" she finally replied, not letting go of Éomer. "You have seen them together all your life. If you doubt Éomer now, clearly it must be the effect of…"

'…foul play', she had meant to say, but stopped herself at the last moment. How could she help Éomer best? By attacking the Worm publicly and repeating all the accusations her brother had fruitlessly voiced for many years? That way, she would leave their opponent no choice but to incarcerate her along with him, rendering her unable to help.

"The effect of what?" Wormtongue asked, and Béma forbid, there was something like horrible amusement written into his pale features. He was trying to bait her, but suddenly, his attention was taken from her. The massive halfbreed, who had silently stood at the end of the dais so far, hands on the hilt of his sword, suddenly appeared behind his master's shoulder to whisper conspiratorially into his ear. In reaction to his words, Wormtongue directed his gaze over to the shadows behind the column closest to his private chambers.

Following his gaze, Éowyn beheld a dark silhouette standing there. There was confused muttering in the crowd at the sudden interruption. Wormtongue lifted his hand.

"Forgive me, my lords. It seems that something came up that requires my immediate attention. Please excuse me for a moment, I will be right back." And with swift strides, he left the dais to make for the man in the shadows.

Narrowing her eyes in suspicion, Éowyn followed his path until darkness swallowed him, before she directed her attention back at the man on the throne. Yet Théoden seemed to have sunken back into the same apathy he had displayed for most for the hearing, and she was glad to concern herself with her brother again.

Éomer was still shaking with silent, only half-suppressed sobs, and his tears had drenched the thin cloth on her shoulder.

"I did not want for this to happen, Éowyn," he whispered into her ear with shaking voice, and the obvious pain in it broke her heart. "I swear in on my life! But what was I to do? How could I have chosen differently?"

"Hush, brother," she made, stroking his head. "You do not have to tell me that. I know. And they know, too, or I lost my ability to read people." She looked up and looked eyes with Gamling again, and what she saw there gave her hope. The Captain of the Royal Guard seemed shaken… and was that compassion she discovered in his eyes?

"I saw Théodred's death in a dream," Éomer confessed. "On the way back. It was the worst dream I ever had. I've had nightmares before, but this one, it…"

"It felt real?" she ended his sentence for him and felt him slightly nod against her shoulder. "I'm not surprised. The two of you were so close, it seems only logical that one would feel when something happened to the other."

"In my dream… I was the one who killed him." Éomer's throat tightened at the memory. "I stabbed him through the chest. I was in a battle, and someone came up from behind and grabbed my shoulder, and I… I did not pause to see who it was. I thought it was another orc, and … and I spun around and impaled him… and it was Théodred."

"Shhhh… It is not what happened, Éomer," Éowyn soothed. "You did not kill him, nor are you responsible for his death. We are at war, brother. People die in wars, especially the warriors fighting it. You did what was necessary, you had no choice. Théodred would have understood. And Uncle would understand, were he free of the Worm's poison."

From the corners of her eyes, Éowyn detected movement in the far shadows of the hall. Gríma was on his way back. She could not help tensing at the thought of what it might have been that had requested his immediate attention. Was there an orc army headed for Edoras? That it was a matter of import was beyond question, for his whole body language had changed as he ascended the stairs again… and when the stare of his pale eyes pinned her again, Éowyn knew that something horrible was about to happen.

"Èomer…"

She felt her brother move, and together, they rose to their feet, defiantly – and anxiously – returning the Worm's stare.

"I must ask you once again to step back now, my Lady," Wormtongue said in a tone that was not a polite question at all. It was an order, and something in her body wanted to instinctively follow the command. Only at the last moment, she held on to Éomer's hand and lifted her chin, daring her adversary to separate them by force. Behind Gríma, she suddenly beheld guards. Felrod's men, not the Royal Guard. Béma, what was going on? All of a sudden, she felt deathly afraid for her brother.

"I will not say it again!" Gríma raised his voice. "Step back, daughter of Éomund!"

Éomer, too, had noticed the change of atmosphere in the room, even caught up in his grief for his cousin. Wiping the tears away, he righted himself and squared his shoulders, determined to face whatever was coming his way with pride and dignity.

"Go, Éowyn."

"Éomer, no…" Éowyn whispered as he lifted the hand she held and laid his left on top of it, squeezing her fingers in affirmation.

"It is good, Éowyn," he said, feeling a strange calm take hold over him. Because what could be worse than his cousin's death? Nothing. "Do as he says." Once more, he squeezed her fingers… and then he let go of her.

Reluctantly, Éowyn followed his example and stepped backwards until she felt the hard barrier of the throne behind her. Théoden-King still sat there, silently observing. Or was he? She could not be sure. He did not even react to her doubtful side-glance.

"Èomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Mark," Gríma began, and his formality did not bode well. "Only moments ago, your sister claimed that you were a man who never lied. Do you stand by that?"

"Why wouldn't I?" Éomer answered, and his voice sounded firm. No more trace of trembling to detect in it. Éowyn's heart went out to him. Béma, he looked so brave and lonely in the focus of his enemy, the man who had sworn to destroy him. Gravely wounded, yes, but determined to defend himself with everything he had all the way to the end.

"That is good." A nasty smirk played around the corners of the Worm's mouth, and victory flashed in his pale eyes. "Then pray tell, when were you planning to tell us of the three strangers you encountered on the plains?"

A RED SUN RISES



Chapter 16: Battle of Wills


For the longest time, Éomer could only stare back, and he heard the confused mutterings of the crowd behind him.

They told him! They betrayed me!'

He saw the triumph in his adversary's eyes, diabolical joy over finally having him where Gríma had wanted him for all these past years.

With a smug smile in the corners of his mouth, the Worm leant closer.

„Well, son of Éomund? Are you going to say something, or shall I continue?" After a lengthy pause, during which Éomer could still not think of anything to say, Wormtongue turned to address the listening crowd. „Apparently, this group consisted of a man, an elf and a dwarf. Hardly an ordinary group to meet in the Mark by any standards; much less so these days. And yet our dear marshal left them out of his report. And not because he deemed them not noteworthy. Oh no, quite the contrary!"

Slowly descending the three steps, Gríma made it a show to approach the dismayed and shocked guards and council members. His hands were full, and there was no doubt that he was enjoying himself immensely.

„In fact, it seems that Éomer son of Éomund had met long-known aquaintances, because he took pains to send his éored away to wait for him on the path, while he had a rather amiable conversation with those three ‚strangers'. Obviously, he did not want to be overheard. At least that is what his riders say. Do you deny it, son of Éomund?" He turned around.

Somewhere in his state of shock, Éomer was aware that everone was staring at him with newly awakened suspicion… and dismay… and sadness. He met Éowyn's eyes, and read in them the same shock that he felt. And when his glance sank to where the king sat slumped on his throne, he found with alarm that the old man was staring at him with undisguised disdain. Somewhere in the back of his mind, something clicked. There was but one strategy left to him now.

„I don't," he stated in a voice that utterly defied his inner turmoil, surprising even himself. He lifted his chin in defiance.

Gríma nodded.

„I see. Then certainly, you will also not deny that you lent them your spare horses, for whatever dubious reasons."

„I won't, except that it wasn't for a dubious reason."

Béma, how they were looking at him! As if he had drawn a dagger and held it to the King's neck! Even Gamling stared at him as if he was seeing him for the first time. As if all those years he had watched him growing up underneath this very roof counted for nothing.

„Very well…" Wormtongue resumed his pacing, again rather speaking to the crowd than to the warrior he was accusing. „So, you gave those three our valuable horses, much to the confusion of your riders… and you allowed them to continue on their path. Thus violating one of our most important laws. To apprehend-"

„…all travellers in the Mark and bring them before the king." Éomer interrupted him. „Aye. I am aware of that law." Eyes were narrowed at him in alarm and consternation. This was not going well.

Gríma nodded again, apparently surprised by his enemy's bluntness.

„I see that your sister did not lie. You are indeed a very honest man, Marshal… even though you must be aware of the fact that you are digging your own grave with your words right now."

A thin smile appeared suddenly on Éomer's face. It held the merest hint of a threat, and Éomund's son was certain that his adverary was picking up on its meaning. Shock gave way to clarity and adrenaline flooded his veins. This was his last chance. If he did not convince them now, he would dangle from the gallows in no time.

Wormtongue studied his expression, and for a moment, he seemed as confused as the others, not understanding where Éomer was getting with this. When the warrior remained silent, however, he continued.

„As you have been so very accommodating so far, my lord, I suppose you won't mind telling us what you said to your riders, before you sent half of your éored away to make for Westfold?"

„Not at all, Counsellor," Éomer answered, and his smile deepened, the menace in it now clearly visible to everyone in the room. „I told them that I helped these strangers, because I had a feeling that they might make a difference in the fate of the Mark. That I had the feeling that they would be the key to your undoing, and to the restauration of Théoden-King as ruler of our people." With piercing intensity, he stabbed his eyes against Gríma's and lifted his hand, pointing at his opponent as he raised his voice. „Because it is you who is the traitor, Worm!"

Aghast faces stared back at him. There were shouts and gasps, and at the edge of his awareness, Éomer also noticed the sound of swords being drawn from their scabbards as he descended the dais with long, fast strides.

„You all know it!" he continued, paying no heed to what was going on behind him. Only the men of the Royal Guard counted now, and the members of their council. „You said so yourself for years! You often did not understand King Théoden's orders, and you were suspicious of the potions this man gave him! Many among you suspected that it was not the Mark Gríma son of Galmod served! And you were right!"

„Silence, Marshal, or your lying tongue will be cut from your mouth before we hang you!" Gríma shouted, hastily backing away from the powerful warrior. „Felrod! Grab him!"

„The Prince died in result of his plot!" Éomer drowned him out. „It was his plan to keep me away from Westfold for the attack, to murder the king's son and lay his corpse at my feet! He thought that with this one strike, he could dispose of the both of us. But he is wrong, and the Mark suffered long enough from his real master's secret reign! We're seeing through him, at long last!"

„Felrod!"

A death threat stood written in Éomer's eyes now as he stepped toward his opponent.

„Say his name, Worm! It is Saruman you serve!" From the corners of his eyes, he saw the big halfbreed storm toward him, followed by the rest of Gríma's private guards. With an expression of utmost urgency upon his face, he once again turned to the aghast crowd.

„What is it you're waiting for? What are you afraid of? It is not I who is the enemy! Kill him and put an end to this farce!" he shouted right into Gamling's face.

For the eternity of five heartbeats, the two warriors regarded each other, and in the old man's eyes, Éomer read all he needed to know.

I cannot do this. I want to, but I cannot.'

Felrod was almost upon him now, big hands grabbing for him. His eyes narrowing in disgust, Éomer broke away – towards Gríma.

They will kill me for this, but it must be done!'

Before his adversary could hide in the crowd, he was upon him, and his arm closed like a bear trap around the counsellor's scrawny neck. A strangled yelp escaped Gríma's mouth as he was dashed against the nearest pillar with such force that Éomer felt the impact even through his armour.

„Now you die, Worm!" he growled and flexed his muscles with all the force he had left. The pale face before him turned blue, eyes bulging in shock.

The concussion of heavy steps behind him.

Not fast enough! '

Once again, he smashed Gríma against the hard wood, hoping to snap his neck – when a comet exploded in his vision and his teeth were knocked together with such force that he bit through his lip. As Éomer staggered to the side, the ground tilted beneath his feet and he crashed with his shoulder against the pillar. Instinctively, he tried to hold on, to remain on his feet.

From somewhere behind him, from the distance of another reality, an anguished „No!" reached his ears. A second hard blow to the head ended his struggle, and darkness claimed him before the son of Éomund hit the ground.

OOO

„No!" Éowyn started down the stairs, horrified as she saw her brother stumble. „No! Éomer!"

„My lady, don't!"

Someone grabbed her arm and pulled her back, and before she could even think about it, her hand landed with a sharp slapping sound in her assailant's face. A familiar face. Háma's face. For a moment she could only stare at the Chief of the Royal Guard.

„My lady, please! Don't make it worse!"

Don't make it worse?" She fought for breath and her composure. „How could I make this possibly any worse? They are killing my brother! Háma!" But even though the guard's broad face was apologetic, his fingers remained firmly closed around her arm, no matter how much she fought him. „Háma, let me go!"

At the pillar, the big halfbreed helped his master to his feet. The Worm looked as if he still couldn't breathe, and Éowyn sent a heartfelt prayer to Béma to keep it that way. Perhaps, Éomer had bruised his throat so badly that he would asphyxiate, after all! Then her view of the scene was cut off by the crowd. Again she tried to break free, and again, the Chief of the Royal Guard hindered her with a sad shake of his head.

„My lady, please. You can't change what's happening now. It is best you stay away."

Why can't I change it?" she snapped. „Or, better asked, why can't you change it? You and the Royal Guard? You heard what Éomer said, and you said so yourself many times! You know it is the truth! Cut off the Worm's head and we're free from him!"

„Do not utter this aloud", Háma hissed, shock and urgency in his eyes. „I implore you! Or do you want to share your brother's punishment?"

Éowyn narrowed her eyes, contempt sparkling in their deep blue irises.

„There would be no punishment for Éomer if we all acted as one! What is it that everybody is so afraid of? You are all like the rabbit before the snake!"

A rising din of voices stole her attention for a moment, and through a brief gap in the crowd, she saw her brother hang lifelessly between two of the Worm's men.

„Èomer!"

„It's best that you don't see this, my lady," Háma insisted, and despite his apologetic tone, there was a new firmness to his words now, as well. „Let me guide you to your chambers." It was not a plea, not a suggestion, nor an excuse. He meant to lock her into her rooms like a disobedient child.

„You cannot mean this!" Éowyn fumed as she felt herself being gently, but insistently dragged toward the far side of the hall. „We grew up right beneath your eyes! How can you betray us so?" She could see that her words pained him, but obviously, they did not pain him enough.

„First and foremost, we are the King's guard, my lady," Háma offered by way of an explanation. „Now look at Théoden-King and tell me that what's happening is not what he wants."

Éowyn looked back… and the sight of grim satisfaction on her uncle's face punched the air out of her lungs. For a moment, she gave up all resistance. Only when they reached the door to her chambers some weak reply came to her.

„He is not himself, Háma. You know that... and you know why."

With great sadness in his eyes, the big guard nodded.

„Alas, I'm afraid you are right. And yet the facts remain: your brother disobeyed his orders, he violated our laws… and just now he assaulted the counsellor. I cannot disregard this."

Éowyn swallowed.

„And what if the only way to rescue our people lies in violating those laws that help our enemy? Have you given this some though, Háma son of Harlond?" His frown told her that he hadn't. She nodded and opened the door to her chambers, casting the guard a last, meaningful look. „Perhaps you should. It is not too late yet."

And with that, she left him standing and closed the door into his face.

OOO

Darkness, then flickering light. Then darkness again. Muffled noises and muttering all around him, beneath a steady buzzing sound in his ears. The sensation of a red-glowing sword having been rammed straight through the top of his skull and sitting there now, sending waves upon waves of excruciating pain through what little of his awareness had returned.

A soft groan escaped Éomer as he felt the ground move beneath his dangling feet. He was being dragged. A voice close by, familar, even though it, too, sounded racked with pain.

„—last cell. Put him in chains." Coughing, a wincing sound.

„—else?"

Coughing.

„Punish him. But don't mar his face." Heavy, pain-filled breathing. „And no broken bones. Can' t-" Coughing. „Can't risk to aggravate them when they see him in the trial." Another extensive coughing fit, interspersed with painful little gasps.

Die, Worm…'

„Should we wait for you, Master?" The Halfbreeds deep, rumbling voice. „Do you want to watch?"

The anguished groan of rusty hinges, assaulting his ears like a pair of long, thin needles. Piercing his brain.

Dungeon…'

„Can't." Coughing. „First… I got… things to do. Proceed. I will see him later." Steps, leading away.

„Well, come on, then. Let's bring him down to his new home. How I'm looking forward to beating the bloody crap out of this forgoil bastard!"

Down the staircase, their steps reverberating in the bare, hollow stone corridors. Suddenly, the feeling of flying… and a painful landing on the hard ground. A grunt Éomer could not suppress.

„Whoops", Feldrod laughed. „Lost my grip somehow."

More laughter. The sensation of his stomach turning as he was picked up again. Nausea. He retched… and was dropped again with a guttural curse.

„Fuck! My boots!" A kick found his kidneys. Grumbling, then the rustle of clothes."Damn. Now look at this!" Hot breath in his right ear. „You will suffer for this, forgoil bastard. Do you hear me? That's a promise!"

Being dragged again, only this time, by his feet. Intolerable pain shooting through his head as it collided with the uneven stone floor again and again. Darkness again, tightening around him, the drowning in his ears intensiving to a mad crescendo.

Please…no more…'

But unconsciousness did not come. Just when Éomer felt the rest of his awareness starting to slip away from him, the torture stopped. Again, the screeching of rusty hinges, then he was all but thrown in the cell. A dubious voice on his left side.

„He is barely awake. Makes no sense yet to hurt him further. He'll faint right away."

„We'll see," Felrod grumbled, and roughly, Éomer was turned on his stomach. With the creaking of leather, the big halfbreed knelt down beside him and began to fiddle with the buckles and straps of his armour. „Help me with this, will you? I want him shackled before he wakes…"

Still afraid of me, aren't you?'

It was a good thought, the first clear thought he'd had in a while. Did this mean he was waking? He did not want to. Nothing good could come from that.

For a while, he was being turned this way and that, as they fought with his cuirass, pauldrons and mail shirt, under occasional muttered, Dunlendish cursing. To his dismay, Éomer found that he was indeed rising from the depths of semi-consciousness. With all distinctiveness, he could feel the coldness and the rough texture of the stone floor pressing against his face, and another sharp pain in his mouth. His probing tongue found the ripped flesh of the holes in his lower lip, filling his mouth with the taste of iron.

„Now lift him up. Come on!" With a metallic rustle, his mail cluttered to the ground. „Good. That's it. Although… wait."

A slicing, ripping sensation, and suddenly, a cold draft hit Éomer's bare skin as his tunic and shirt were cut away.

„That's better. There's not a lot of light down here. Got to see what I'm doing."

Dirty laughter rose that woke the intense desire in Éomer to smash his assailants' teeth in, and if it was the last thing he'd be doing in this realm. He opened his eyes. Everything was blurred, shadows dancing with the unbearably bright torchlight. There were no definite shapes and only vague colours.

„Forgoil opened his eyes. Felrod?"

„I'm done. Let's get the cuffs on him."

Éomer's arms were grabbed and pulled over his head, and he was turned on his back. A moment later, he felt the coldness of iron on his skin… and heard the clack of locks as the handcuffs were fastened tightly around his wrists.

„Still afraid of me?" he managed to mumble… and he was heard.

„Shit, afraid of you, bastard?" Felrod broke out in laughter. „Hell no. You should see yourself. You're a mess. A five-year-old could beat the crap out of you right now." With a jolt, he pulled on the chain, and Éomer's arms were lifted into the air. Another quick whisper. „You will find that I'm no five-year-old, though. Hell, I'm going to enjoy this! Gotta thank you for attacking the Counsellor. He might not have ordered this otherwise."

Another sudden jolt lifted Éomer's entire upper body.

„Damn, bastard's heavy. Dôrlak, Gúthlaf, help me!"

With combined effort, they hoisted him up into the air, and the handcuffs began to dig into his wrists as more and more weight was put on them. They also cut off the bloodstream to his hands, turning them increasingly numb.

Not good…'

Higher. Only with the tips of of his toes could Éomer still reach the ground, and his shoulders started to hurt under the strain of his own bodyweight.

„You like this, forgoil?" Felrod sneered, and with a last hard jolt, shortened the chain to the point where his victim's feet dangled freely in the air. „Feels good, doesn't it?" He fastened the chain around the bolt and stepped back, straightening and undoubtedly satisfied with his work. „Well… I believe we are, in fact, ready." He rubbed his hands together and cracked his knuckles in anticipation.

From somewhere Éomer couldn't tell, a burst of energy shot through him. His warrior's instincts reacted to the emergency situation, pumped the adrenaline through his body in a mighty flood. Made him ready to fight. He had no chance to escape, but Béma, if even the tiniest chance presented itself to hurt his torturers back, it would find him ready.

OOO

The wind was chill as Éowyn quickly descended the stairs from the terrace towards the path that would lead her down into the city. For a moment, It threatened to blow the hood from her head, and she dimly rembered that someone had mentioned that a late winter storm was about to hit them. She could see the vapour of her breath rising into the air before the next gust carried it away, and clenched her fingers into the warm fur. This was not good. It would be freezing in the dungeon. While it kept away the main force of the wind, the rock was perforated with fissures that allowed cold drafts in, and in winter, prisoners often fell sick from exposure. She had to get her brother out of there, as fast as possible!

After the confinement of the last days, part of her still wondered that they had allowed her to leave Meduseld, but of course, the danger had passed that she would warn Éomer before he could be apprehended. They thought that there was nothing left to do for her to help her brother. How she would prove them wrong!

A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that nobody was following her… or at least, she did not see anyone. Silent as a shadow, the daughter of Éomund hurried down the path. A touch of disorientation washed over her the further she descended. Why was there no one on the street? How late was it? A look up did not help her; the moon's face and the stars were obstructed by a thick layer of clouds. Somehow, it felt to her like the middle of the night, but it could not be. And yet, it was probably for the best if as few people as possible saw her.

Ten minutes later, she had reached her destination, a massive, well-kept house in a back alley close to the éored's stables. Her heart beating in her throat, she knocked. She had no idea what she was going to say, but… he had to know. Perhaps, he would know what to do.

From behind the door, the sound of quick steps reached her ears, then a key turned in the lock. Through the opening gap, Éowyn beheld Éothain's expectant face. And yet as he opened the door and saw her, the expression of relief on his features quickly turned into a frown. Very obviously, he had been expecting Éomer.

"Eowyn? But… why…"

„Éomer was thrown into the dungeon, and the Worm plans to kill him. Please, Éothain, help me!"





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