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A Red Sun Rises
It seems that, hopefully, there is still some fuel left in my writing tank, and when I just recently reread our favourite trilogy, I found myself becoming interested in the Rohirric side of the battle of Éomer's éored against Ugluk's Uruk-hai on their way to Isengard. There was some great strategy at work that night! Expect some good old-fashioned action in the later chapters… I do not know yet how carried-away I might get, but I'll give you proper warning beforehand…
I dedicate this story to Thanwen, as she prefers action over fluff, just like me!
Chapter 1: Tidings from the North
It was Éothain's voice that disturbed the peace of the Royal Stables, and it sounded urgent. They were already in a hurry to ride to Westfold and strengthen Théodred's forces at the fords of Isen for the feared assault, but to Éomer's ears it sounded as if his friend and captain had something else to tell him. The Third Marshal of Riddermark looked up from the saddlebags he had been packing for the ride, just in time to see Céorl's son coming to a halt before Firefoot's box.
"Éomer, Léod is back. He said that he needs to speak with you before he reports to Gríma and the King. Right away, he said." He cocked an eyebrow.
The young man was one of the scouts Éomer had dispatched to the north-eastern parts of the Wold, to keep an eye on things after he had pulled back their herds onto the other side of the Entwash in result to several orc attacks. He felt his hackles rise at the thought of the news his rider might have returned with now, and was well aware of the alarmed looks the members of his éored were giving him. He stepped out of the stall.
"Where is he?"
"Just outside the stables." Éothain, too, looked concerned. "Will you meet him here?"
Éomer shook his head.
"I'll come with you." He lowered his voice. "We'll speak in the fodder storage."
Éothain understood and silently agreed as he led his marshal and friend towards the exit. Wormtongue had been too well informed of their recent undertakings. It was clear to both warriors that the councillor had somehow succeeded in placing at least one snitch among their riders. They had to be careful. It was sad to see what things had come to in the Mark when Rohirrim spied on Rohirrim. Slowing his pace to let Éomer exit first, Éothain sighed. He had a bad feeling about this.
Léod still stood where he had left him, and both rider and horse looked as if they had traversed the long empty leagues from the north to Edoras without a single break. With a silent nod, Éomer signalled one of the passing stable boys to relieve the scout of his mount.
"Greetings, Léod. Éothain says you returned with urgent news from our eastern border."
"Greetings, Marshal." The young man indicated a short bow. "Aye. I have ridden all day and all night to bring you these tidings as quickly as possible. I thought you should hear them first, before I report to the King."
"Then come." He gestured the man over to the storage and walked through when Éothain opened the door after a quick glance around. There was no one around to notice them. If Léod was surprised to be asked into a food shed, he did not show it. They closed the door behind them. Éomer turned around.
Léod took a deep breath.
"I was patrolling the territory you appointed to me, Marshal, and there was nothing to report. All of the northern Mark is empty. But just before I left camp yesterday morning, I saw a single rider heading my way as if all of the Dark Lord's brood were hunting him. It turned out that it was Garulf, who had been watching our easternmost boarder… and he told me that he had spotted a group of Uruk-hai descending into the Wold. A great group!"
Éomer inhaled sharply.
"Garulf said they were at least two hundred strong, possibly even stronger."
Marshal and Captain exchanged an alarmed look, but the scout was not done yet.
"He also said that they were moving unlike any orc-group he had ever spotted in the field. You know yourself that usually, orcs will move stealthily and carefully and do whatever they can to avoid detection, but these did not seem to mind at all that they were leaving tracks one could detect from half a mile away. And they were running the whole time that he was following them, making for Fangorn."
"For Fangorn!" Éomer creased his brow. "I doubt they will dare to enter that forest. They probably only want to use it for cover… on their way to Isengard."
"That is very likely, my lord," Léod agreed. "And the way they were moving suggests that they are anxious to bring something to their master; some valuable prize or loot for Saruman. They were not fleeing from something, of that Garulf was sure. At least he did not notice anything that would have warranted their hurry. He wanted to follow them further and I offered him to bring you these tidings, so that he could turn around and continue his pursuit."
"You did right, Léod." Éomer stared at his captain. "We cannot allow for those orcs to reach their destination, whatever it is that made them chance this perilous course. We cannot let them run unchallenged through the Mark. Even if they are far from any village now, as soon as they enter the Westemnet, that will bring them within reach of many settlements too small to repel them…all the more as many of them will have sent their riders to the fords to strengthen Théodred's forces."
"Which is the way we are headed, as well, Éomer," Èothain said thoughtfully. "We cannot very well ignore your cousin's summons. They expect the hammer blow any day now. The Marshal is counting on us."
"I know." Éomer's expression darkened. "And yet this is a new and dangerous development that could also very well concern him… if that group turns south from their current course and attacks him from behind. It is not altogether unlikely that they are part of Saruman's battle strategy."
"You're right. I had not thought of that. It makes sense though." He shook his head. "Now what?" He cast a side-glance at their scout, and then both men stared at their thoughtful marshal. Silence followed.
At last, Éomer straightened and took a deep breath.
"I will bring it before the King. He needs to hear this."
Éothain lifted a sceptical brow.
"I think I can well imagine what he will say… if he says anything at all and it won't be only the Worm talking."
"Aye, I can imagine it as well." Éomer's gaze went towards the door, behind which he knew the Hall of Kings to be. "And yet I must try. We all swore an oath to protect our people. As much as I love my cousin, there are already many valiant warriors at the fords to support him. The people of Westemnet have no one to help them should those orcs raid their settlements. Théodred would understand." He inhaled, and then gave his scout a court nod.
"Come, Léod. We will see Théoden King together. Perhaps it will make him and his councillor see the urgency of that decision. Éothain, see to it that the rest of our éored is ready to ride in an hour. We cannot challenge a horde of over two hundred Uruks with only eighty men."
His captain's gaze was still doubtful.
"What if the King or the Worm forbid it? They will not be delighted to hear that you plan to take your full éored into battle. That leaves only Céorl's riders for their defence."
For a moment, the two friends stared at each other.
"We will cross that bridge when we come to it," Éomer replied at last. "Just make sure that the men are ready when I return... and tell Céorl to meet me at the stables in an hour."
The two men quickly ascended the stairs to the hall. Back in the old days before Théoden's illness, its splendour had always been a source of comfort and pride to Éomer, but now he could not help feeling tense as he approached the guarded doors. There was no doubt that the coming confrontation had the potential to turn very ugly, especially if the king had gone to rest as he had announced only an hour ago when Éomer had seen him last. If he had to deal with Gríma only…
Éomer squared his shoulders, determined to maintain his composure, no matter what happend. His obviously very nervous scout was following in his footsteps as he headed for the Captain of the Royal Guard.
"I will do the talking, Léod, unless Théoden King or Gríma question you directly," he muttered under his breath, and the young man nodded eagerly.
Before them, Háma expected them at the doors with a questioning expression upon his weathered face.
"Marshal? I thought you were already on the way to Westfold."
"There is a new and alarming development, Háma. I know that the King wanted to lie down, but I'm afraid that I need to speak with him right away."
The Captain of the Royal Guard cast a questioning glance at the scout behind Théoden's nephew, and creased his brow.
"That is very unfortunate, Éomer. I have specific orders not to let anyone disturb the King's rest. He is feeling quite unwell today. Can it not wait for another couple of hours?"
"Alas, Háma, it cannot." Éomer shook his head. "We have received news of an unexpected and potentially dangerous situation in Eastemnet, and time is of the essence if we want to retain our chance of acting against it. Lives could be at stake. Many lives." His tone left no doubt that he meant what he said.
The older man took a deep breath, and it seemed to Éomund's son as if he, too, dreaded to see Gríma about the interruption of the King's sleep. Inwardly, Éomer shook his head. Béma, something was indeed very wrong in the Mark when steadfast, upright men like Háma feared to bring urgent business before their ruler!
"Háma, please! I would not be here if it were not important."
"All right, all right…" With a heavy sigh, the Captain of the Royal Guard turned around. "I will ask Councillor Gríma to allow you in. But I need for you to wait out here, I am sorry. These are my orders."
"I understand… and I thank you, Háma."
He watched on until the heavy wooden doors had closed behind the older man, and then turned around to let his eyes glide over the terrace before the hall. The other two guards regarded them with a mixture of curiosity and dread in their eyes, possibly asking themselves when the bad tidings would ever end for the Mark. Most of these days, Éomer was wondering about that himself. The late winter sky above their heads was leaden grey and looked as if it might dump a load of snow or rain upon them any moment, and the icy gusts that tore at them at this elevated position only added to the Marshal's apprehension. It would be a taxing ride, no matter where they ended up riding to.
Léod's mien indicated that he was thinking the same, and Èomer could only thank the young rider that he had hastened through the night to bring them the news of Garulf's alarming observation. Right now, the scout looked ready to fall asleep where he stood. He cleared his throat.
"When we're done here, Léod, you will go directly to the guest quarters. You will not ride with us."
The young man's eyes widened and he opened his mouth in protest.
Éomer shook his head, and his voice became resolute.
"I appreciate your sense of duty, Rider, but you're looking utterly exhausted. I am also quite sure that your horse cannot run any further for now. Even if I gave you a fresh one, you would only slow us down. We will have to make haste if we want to intercept those orcs, and give battle as soon as we find them. Your reactions and thinking will be much slower in this state, and I will not be responsible for your death. You will remain in Edoras until tomorrow to recover and then resume your watch in Eastemnet. Is that understood?"
"Aye, Marshal." Léod lowered his head. "It is only…I want to help."
Éomer laid a hand on his shoulder.
"You already did, Léod. We would not be standing here if it weren't for you." He felt movement behind him and turned around in time to see the door open. The expression on Háma's face was unreadable as he bade them to enter.
"Théoden King will be with you in a moment," the Captain of the Royal Guard told them in a muffled tone as they walked through the twilight towards the deserted dais, the only sound the echoes of their heavy steps. Upon reaching the hearth, Éomer braced himself for the coming confrontation. It seemed certain to him that it would get ugly. Gríma would see to it with his mean-spirited and personal accusations.
"Please, Marshal, wait here." Háma gestured toward the empty tables and benches. "I will get you as soon as the King gives me the order to lead you before him." He disappeared into the shadows.
With a brief, impatient twitch of his eyebrows, Éomer sat down. Léod followed his example, his gaze wandering through the oppressive twilight. From the way the young man inspected their surroundings, Éomer concluded that he had not been inside Meduseld often. Not that it could be called a welcoming place these days. Aside from the darkness, which not even the hearth fire could sufficiently penetrate, the air seemed stuffy and smelled of ash and sickness. For a moment, Éomer considered calling the door wards to ask them to ventilate the big room a little better, but just as he narrowed his eyes to penetrate the deep shadows for a sign of them, he heard a door clap from the direction of Théoden's rooms, followed by slow scuffling and muttered, unintelligible whispering. He tensed, feeling a sudden pang of guilt as he beheld the three shapes making their way towards the dais in the flickering light of the torches. Aye, his uncle was sick… but his business was too important to delay even a minute.
Éowyn was with the king, he noticed, and she had to support their uncle heavily as he tried to negotiate the few steps. With a deep groan, Théoden King lowered himself onto the throne, and his councillor, who had slowly followed them, gestured Háma closer to whisper something into the man's ear.
With a sense of foreboding, Éomer slowly rose to his feet, followed by his scout. And really, the Captain of the Royal Guard waved for them to approach.
"What is it that could not wait, Son of Éomund?" Gríma began in a cutting voice, even before they had reached the dais. "What was so urgent that you had to deny a sick man his rest? Should you not rather already be on the way to Westfold, I wonder, to follow the Second Marshal's summons?"
"Councillor Gríma…" Éomer inclined his head and then shifted his direction to his uncle. "I apologize for having to disturb your rest, Sire, but I assure you that unfortunately, there was no other option available to me. There are new and alarming developments at our northeastern boarder, and we need to rethink our actions quickly," He waited for a reaction, yet the old man seemed to look right through him. "Sire… We were just about to depart for the Fords of Isen when Léod, one of my scouts I ordered to keep an eye on the Eastemnet, returned from his ward in great haste and with potentially dangerous tidings." He introduced the young man with a glance and a nod, and Wormtongue's pale grey eyes shifted towards the youth.
"You are said scout?"
"Aye, Lord Gríma."
"And what tidings do you bring?"
"My Lord…" Léod fought to manoeuvre his voice through his tightening throat under the councillor's cold scrutiniy. "A great group of orcs, over two hundred strong, invaded the Eastemnet yesterday. They descended from the East Wall and are on the way to Fangorn, if they did not alter their course yet. It seemed they were in great haste."
"There are no settlements in their way in the north," Wormtongue replied, his attention back on Éomer. "Are there, Marshal?"
"No, my lord. But-"
"And you withdrew our herdsmen and horses from there, behind the Entwash. Isn't that correct?"
"That is correct, my lord. And yet-"
"So what damage could they possibly inflict upon that empty land, Marshal?" Gríma interrupted him again. "It seems to me that the worst they can do up there is trample the grass. What makes them more important than a summons of your cousin, who calls for your aid in battle? The sword strike will fall at the fords any day now."
Éomer narrowed his eyes, feeling his blood pressure rise.
"I am painfully aware of that, Counsellor. And I would that I could leave for Westfold at once, but I cannot ignore my scout's tidings." As expected, Gríma intended to make this even more difficult for him. That he understood what threat a group of over two hundred orcs posed to the Mark, was out of the question for Éomer. "As Léod stated, the group was making for Fangorn when they were last seen. My guess is that their final destination is Isengard, to either bring Saruman loot or important tidings. And yet-"
"Isn't that pure speculation on your part, Marshal?" Wormtongue interrupted, but Éomer ignored it.
"And yet we have no guarantee that they will stay on this course. They could easily turn south before the Isen and raid all those settlements who sent their warriors to Théodred's aid. There would be no one left in those villages to stop them. And when they are done, they could come from behind and attack the Second Marshal's forces from a direction he didn't foresee, thereby placing his troops between the hammer and the anvil. Yet even if this is only a test of our watchfulness, we cannot afford to ignore it, or next time, they will send an army that way." He shifted his attention back to his uncle. "Sire, please, we cannot allow this to happen! I implore you!"
There was still no reaction, but at least it seemed to Éomer that Théoden King's gaze was less empty. He exchanged a quick, worried look with Éowyn, who stood silently behind the throne, pale like snow. Her expression was composed, but in her eyes, he could read the same dread that he now felt. When he turned his attention back to the Worm, the expression he had expected was there: a nasty, calculation smirk around Gríma's thin lips.
"You are desperate to hunt those orcs, aren't you, son of Éomund?"
Éomer squared his shoulders. He knew too well the direction this was going.
"Aye, Councillor…I am desperate.… because the lives of our people are at stake. I swore an oath to protect them."
"Oh, your oath… I forgot." The smirk became even more pronounced, but the expression in Wormtongue's eyes remained cold. It was the gaze of a hawk focussing on its prey. "This is about your honour. You seek to hunt those orcs to further your own glory while your cousin is away in the West. You think people will call you a hero when they hear that you slew their enemies, even though they were too far away to even be a threat to them… or is it merely bloodlust that's driving you?"
"Councillor Gríma…" Éomer fought against his bucking temper. "This is not helpful."
"It is the truth, though, isn't it?"Wormtongue bowed down to the King. "Alas, my lord, it is as I feared. We all know how much your nephew hates the orcs. They killed his father, and now they must pay… even if it means that your son will wait in vain for reinforcements."
"I forbid it!" the old man croaked, and his milky eyes tried to focus on his nephew. "You will ride to the fords, Marshal, as decided earlier. All our strength is needed there."
Éomer shook his head and took another step towards the dais, ignoring Éowyn's warning head-shaking.
"Do you object to your King's will?" Wormtongue said sharply, and his eyebrows shot up. His pale eyes pierced the younger man. "Do you, Marshal? You know what such bearing is called?"
They stared at each other, and in the ensuing silence, an idea formed in Éomer's mind. A dangerous idea, no doubt, but it seemed the only option available to him. His tone was quiet, but dripping with intensity when he answered.
"Are you calling me a traitor, Councillor? And are you insinuating, as you did before, that I do not care for my cousin's fate? Or worse, that I want him to be killed, in order to claim the throne for myself?"
Gríma did not shrink from his stare.
"I did no such thing, Marshal," he replied, eerily calm. "Yet I cannot help wonder what your true motivation might be."
"I thought I stated it loud and clear, Lord Gríma. My motivation is to protect our people."
His adversary shrugged, and looked down at his slumping ruler.
"Well, you heard the King, Marshal. You will protect our people at the fords. Pursue those orcs on your own account, and there will be consequences. I can only warn you."
For another short eternity, councillor and marshal regarded each other, unspoken threats passing between them. At last, Éomer nodded and, with a brief glance at his sister and the silent king, turned to go.
"Very well. Sire…Lord Gríma… Léod…" With great steps, he made for the doors, followed by his dismayed scout.
"I mean it, Marshal!" Gríma shouted after him.
The door ward before them hastened to let them out, and an icy gust greeted them as they emerged from the twilight. The dark grey sky still loomed as foreboding as it had when Háma had admitted them into the hall, and yet it looked immeasurably more welcoming to Éomund's son. The fresh air cleared his head as they made for the stairs.
It was not until they had halfway descended to the stables that Léod dared to ask.
"What will we do now, Marshal?"
His eyes on the stables, where Éomer could see Éothain expectantly looking their way, he involuntarily straightened… and, with a deep breath, replied: "We will make for Fangorn."
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