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A RED SUN RISES
Chapter 5: Dark Hours
A last ray of light bathed the battlefield into fiery redness and was reflected on drawn swords and steel armour, then the sun disappeared behind the Misty Mountains, and immediately, the twilight began to thicken.
Éomer knew what their most immediate need was, and as Aedwulf and Anlaf approached to give him their status, he shouted: "I will hear your reports later! We need fires, or those orcs will attack again as soon as it's dark. Send your men to collect wood at the fringe of the forest, but tell them not to enter it! Quick!"
Both warriors checked their horses and took off in the opposite direction. With a wary eye upon the unmoving orcs, Éomer let his gaze wander over the battlefield. There was still movement among the felled enemies, but they lay within range of their brethren's bows, so finishing them off was out of the question for now. He estimated that they had killed or wounded between thirty and forty of the foul brood, and felt slightly disappointed. Apparently, the opposite captain was an experienced warrior, and his strategy promised to keep them occupied for a good while longer.
Éomer sighed and sent a short, concerned glance at the dark red western horizon. Somewhere over there, many leagues away, Théodred was holding off Saruman's hordes right now, counting on his appearance. They could ill afford to waste time in a siege, but sacrificing his riders in a costly attack was something they could afford even less. As difficult as it was, they had to exercise caution for now. Patience was the need of the hour, even if he hated the very word.
From the corner of his eye, Éomer saw a familiar rider approach, and greeted him with a relieved nod.
"Éothain! You came at the right time. Are all your riders well?"
His friend shrugged.
"One rider was wounded when his horse took an arrow to the neck and fell. There was no time yet to examine him, but I fear that he might have broken his leg. His horse we had to put down." He sighed. "So, what now? We cannot attack them like this, it would end disastrous for us. But we can also not wait until exhaustion overcomes them. This would take at least a couple of days."
"I agree." Éomer nodded. "For now, let's build a ring of watch fires around them. We must make sure that they do not slip by us in the dark. I want a fire every one hundred paces, with two guards in the middle, just outside their shooting range. Let's see to this, first, and talk later."
"Aye, Marshal." Turning Scatha around, Éothain took off without any further ado.
Éomer followed his progress for a moment longer, and then cast a dark glance at the sky. The light was fading fast now; their situation still precarious and the standoff fragile. With another deep breath, the Third Marshal of the Mark urged his mount forth, intent on rounding their trapped foes to map the terrain while there was still something left to see. This would be another long night…
"It is a bit loose, don't you think, Maelwyn? I do like the fabric and the colour, but it is too large."
Éowyn tugged at the dark green wool around her hips and regarded herself in the mirror with a sceptical frown upon her face. After her return, she had spent the rest of the afternoon bathing and washing her hair, always expecting the dreadful knock upon her door, which – miraculously – had not come, and now it was time for the evening meal. The tension she had felt at first upon had subsided for a few blissful hours, but now that she was at last ready to leave her chambers, the familiar clammy feeling in her stomach was making a most unwelcome return.
Annoyed with herself, Éowyn decided to get it over with as quickly as possible. She could not hide here from the Worm for all eternity, as if she had done anything wrong. Better to face him head-on and be done with it. And also, she needed to know what they had decided. Hopefully, there would be an opportunity to speak with her Uncle alone later in the evening.
"I seem to remember that it was fitting you well when you tried it on a couple of weeks ago, my lady," her handmaid said, still busy with the laces of her bodice. "You have not been eating too well these past days." Another tug and a knot later, she was finished and looked appraisingly at Éowyn's reflection. "You are looking wonderful in it, my lady. No one will notice that it might be a little loose. It might be just the right thing to wear for dinner, in fact. You will be able to eat without feeling constricted in any way."
"True." Éowyn turned around, a faint, thankful smile upon her lips. "Thank you, Maelwyn. I suppose this will be all for today. Go now, and have a wonderful evening with your family. I have kept you long enough."
"I like to help wherever I can, Lady Éowyn." The young handmaid cast down her eyes, blushing. "Please, speak no more of it."
Éowyn's smile deepened.
"It is appreciated though, Maelwyn," she said, and turned toward the door. "I want you to know this." Time to face what lay behind it. With deep breath, she depressed the handle. 'I am not afraid of him! He cannot harm me!'She stepped into the hall, relieved to see the tables near the hearth well occupied. "Good night, Maelwyn."
"Good night, my lady."
Slipping into her thick woollen cape, her handmaid quickly left the hall, and Éowyn directed her steps over to the tables. In the flickering light of the hearth fire and the torches, Eomund's daughter was able to discern several people of their household, though her uncle was not among them. Neither was Grima. Vaguely relieved, but at the same time wondering again what the Worm was up to that kept him away for so long, Éowyn let her glance wander around the tables and, to her surprise, discovered Éothain's parents at one of them. With a questioning smile upon her lips, she approached the couple and indicated a courtesy.
"Lady Glenwyn… Lord Céorl… How wonderful to see you tonight!"
"And you, my lady!" Céorl, the Captain of one of the Edoras-based éoreds, stood up with an inviting gesture. "You are looking radiant tonight. If you have not already eaten, we would be honoured to share our table with you."
"The honour is entirely mine, Captain. I would be delighted."
Nodding her thanks as she sat down on the bench, Éowyn glanced at Éothain's mother. Approaching her middle years, Lady Glenwyn was a regal, intelligent woman, and it was an open secret that many of her suggestions and ideas found their way into the council by way of her husband. Right now, however, the expression in her piercing grey-blue eyes was worried, and it brought back Éowyn's anxiety with a pang.
Céorl sat back down and looked in the direction of the kitchen.
"Elfgyth was just here a moment ago. I could go and get her-"
"She said she would be right back, my dear," Lady Glenwyn reminded him with a gentle smile and turned to Éowyn.
"What a pleasure to see you, Lady Éowyn. It has been a while."
"Aye," Éowyn nodded. "Three weeks at least, or even four? I must admit, I am surprised to see you in Meduseld tonight. To what special occasion do we owe the pleasure?"
The smile dropped from Glenwyn's lips.
"We were summoned."
"Summoned?" Éowyn lifted her eyebrows, and the cold feeling in her stomach intensified. "By the King?"
"The King and his councillor." Céorl looked as tense as she felt. "We do not yet know why. And Éothain could not tell us as he is on the way to Westfold."
'No, he isn't,' Éowyn thought desperately. 'At present, he is riding north with Éomer. And you have not even been informed about this, yet?' She felt no longer hungry. Had Gríma summoned the couple to let them know that their son would be executed as a traitor upon his return? If he was not permitted to kill Éomer, would he resort to the next best punishment – killing his adversary's best friend?
The older woman's gaze pierced her.
"You would not know what business it is that made Théoden-King call us to the Golden Hall this evening, would you, my Lady?"
'Get a hold of yourself!' Éowyn scolded herself, then forced herself to shake her head. "I'm afraid I cannot tell you," she answered. "I did not see the king all afternoon. Or Lord Grima." Which was the truth. And yet it felt like a lie to her. She was thankful when she saw one of the kitchen staff approach their table with a heavy-looking tray.
"My ladies… Lord Céorl…" The young woman sat down her load and distributed the dishes, bowls and cutlery with skilled efficiency. A wonderful smell wafted to Éowyn, and yet she still asked herself how she was supposed to eat anything now in the presence of the worried couple. Alessa, she remembered the kitchen maid's name, looked at her questioningly. "And what may I bring you, Lady Éowyn?"
Éowyn cast a quick glance at the set table before her, and then back into the freckled young face.
"The soup looks good. That, and a piece of bread, please."
"The boar is particularly good tonight, my Lady," Alessa suggested. "Mistress Elfgyth prepared it all afternoon. She is very proud of it. Shouldn't I just bring you a tiny piece to try-?"
"Just the soup, Alessa. And some wine. Thank you." Éowyn was aware that her tone had been unusually harsh, and she felt immediately sorry when the young woman turned away with tale-tell red hue upon her face. Yet before she could resume the conversation with Èothain's parents, movement at the hall's doors claimed her attention. This time, it was the one she had been dreading to see.
'Where has he been all afternoon?' she wondered as she followed his path with her eyes. His cape looked damp, and his features even paler than usual. He looked cold, as if he had been outside for a long time. But why? 'What hideous plans has he wrought this time… and with whom?'
As if he had heard her thoughts, Wormtongue's head suddenly snapped around, and his colourless eyes found her. For a moment, he stood in the shadows, returning her stare with an unreadable expression upon his face. It was only when the couple at Éowyn's table turned to see what had claimed the Princess's attention, that he finally broke eye contact. A slightly regretful smile appeared upon his thin lips as he approached them.
"Lady Glenwyn… Captain Céorl… how good to see you in our hall. I am afraid though something came up and we will not be able to talk tonight. I would be very grateful if you could return tomorrow around noon. Would that pose a problem for your plans, Captain?"
The broadly built warrior shook his head, his brow creasing. To Éowyn's eyes, he looked suspicious. Their eyes met.
"I was about to take my éored for patrol in the vicinity, but I can easily postpone that to the afternoon without difficulties, Councillor." He turned his head and gave Gríma his full attention, obviously hoping to read something in those pale features. Yet as usual, the other man wore a mask of perfect blandness as he indicated a bow.
"I am glad to hear that, Captain. Then all that is left to me now is to wish you and your wife a nice, quiet evening. Enjoy your meal. We will see each other tomorrow." Wormtongue looked up, and his colourless eyes met Éowyn's, and something in them sent an icy shudder down her spine and knocked the breath from her lungs.
"My Lady, I am afraid though that you will be needed in the King's study once you're finished with your meal. Please, do take your time, but when you are done, your uncle and I will await you."
And with these words, Gríma Wormtongue turned around and disappeared in the thick twilight of the hall. Éowyn could only watch as he made for his chambers until the darkness swallowed him, and a clammy feeling spread in her stomach.
'Something happened. Something bad.'
Gradually it seeped into her conscious that the couple before her was staring at her.
"Lady Éowyn?" Glenwyn asked quietly, concern written into her regal features. "Is ought wrong? You are looking rather pale all of a sudden."
At a loss for words, Éowyn could only return her worried gaze.
"It is only that…" She shrugged and shook her head, not knowing what to say. Céorl nodded grimly.
"You are worried what it might be that he wants to bring to your attention. I understand, my lady. I would be, too. I am, in fact, for I have a feeling that it concerns us all." He stared down at his plate, then at his wife… and back at Éowyn. Contrary to the councillor's wish, it seemed that none of them would be able to enjoy their meal this evening…
Activity along the fringes of Fangorn Forest had all but died down with the fall of darkness. The standoff situation had solidified, with the Rohirrim's circle of fires established around their enemies, and the orcs for some reason or other not daring to test the strength of their defences.
Éomer assumed that, just like his men, the beasts were utterly exhausted. Whatever it had been that had lent them their unusual stamina, obviously it had lost its power by now. Which was well for him, as the pursuit had cost him and his éored likewise every ounce of strength they had been able to muster. This was now the second night without much sleep for most of them after two days of hard riding, and once the excitement of the battle had subsided, exhaustion had hit the Third Marshal of Riddermark like a sack of meal. He could have fallen asleep on the spot. And yet there was no way he would be allowed to sleep even for an hour.
"I do not like this," Éothain uttered in a subdued voice, the flames illuminating his eyes as he stared into the darkness beyond their fire. "Orcs are creatures of the night. If they wanted to break through, they would do it now, under cover of night, before moonrise. They must know we are dead on our feet."
"Well, I assume that they are just as dead," Éomer replied, chewing on a piece of smoked deer meat. "It would be a miracle if they were not…" He inhaled, following his friend's gaze. They sat together with Aedwulf and Anlaf to discuss their strategy for the night now that their fires had been completed. Each of them would command one quarter of the siege ring, and if they wanted to emerge victorious, their plan had to be faultless.
"Still…" Éothain shook his head and then washed the piece of dry bread in his mouth down with a swig of water. "What if they are waiting for something to happen? What if they are waiting for reinforcements? We already have our hands full with this lot, what if there are more on the way?"
The four men regarded each other uncomfortably for a long, silent moment, during which only the crackling of the fire could be heard.
"Saruman is busy preparing his assault on the Fords," Éomer said at length. "At least that is was everyone is believing. I doubt that he would be willing to diminish his forces by sending part of them our way. This group is very large, I would assume he thinks it able to overcome whatever problems arise along the way. He must know that there is hardly anyone left in this part of the Mark. He probably never even assumed that we would ride to meet them."
"We 'believe'," Éothain snorted. "We 'assume'. I tell you what, we don't know! I do not feel comfortable with this dark forest behind our backs. We can easily watch the plains, but what will we do if another orc army bursts out of the Entwood? We will never see them coming."
"You think they'd dare to walk through that forest at night?" Aedwulf creased his brow. "From all I ever heard about that place, it would not be a safe place for orcs, either. Not even during the day. There is no telling what dangers lurk among those trees."
"All the more reason to watch it sharply." Éomer swallowed. "Éothain is right. We will redistribute our forces: each of you will order five of your men to this side of the siege ring. It is, after all, the most likely direction for those orcs to try and break through. Send them over when you head back to your troops."
The others nodded thoughtfully.
"What about sleep?" Aedwulf asked at length. "We are all in strung-out shape. If our men are supposed to kill those orcs tomorrow morning, they will need some respite. We should work out a watch plan."
Éomer inhaled. Aedwulf's suggestion was risky, but he could see the sense in it. Of course, those orcs could decide to move any moment, but he had an inkling that they wouldn't. He narrowed his eyes as he stared into the flames, unseeing.
"We cannot allow for anyone on the forest side to sleep. If they attack, it will be here. So we should work out a rotation. It will still be risky, but I don't see those orcs trying to flee the way they have come. They must know they will die if they make for the open country."
He looked at Aedwulf.
"We will each send a quota of our men over to yours and Anlaf's position to sleep for two hours. There are thirty men at each position right now. Éothain and I will need our full strength awake and ready to do battle at our positions at any given time. So I say that when you return to your posts, each of you sends ten or even fifteen men to sleep. After two hours, you send them over to replace part of our forces here, but take care that theydon't notice the movement." A short nod towards the hillock. "This way, each of the men can get some rest, however brief… if the enemy stays put, that is."
"There is just one problem that I see – if we get some respite, our foes get it, too. We cannot allow that. We are still outnumbered. If we want to stand a better chance against them tomorrow at first light, we need to keep them on their toes throughout the night… and there is no telling how they will react. We will have to be very careful, or we might provoke the very attack we fear. It is a very fine line we'll have to walk."
"Needle pricks only," Éothain nodded thoughtfully. "Aye, that could work…. But we will need to plan those very carefully."
"It's scouts' work," Anlaf added, sudden excitement sparkling in his grey eyes. "Assassin's work. Two or three men at a time could enter the ring crawling where the light is weakest between two fires. Without armour, carrying only bows and knives, and silently kill any enemy sleeping in an exposed position before they head back."
"And every now and then, we could shoot some arrows at them." Éothain stared at the scout. "The men doing that would have to be very quick to get out of range, though, for their answer will come fast."
All looked expectantly at their commander. Eventually, Éomer nodded.
"All right. Anlaf's group will begin with this…" A brief glance at the starry sky in search of a familiar formation. "…as soon as Felarof's eye has moved over that rock there." He pointed out the dark shadow at the plains behind them. "That's a good hour from now. By then, they should have settled down for good and hopefully, won't be on their guard quite as much. Should that strategy prove successful, it will be my turn, next. Then Aedwulf's… and yours." Éomer met his friend's eyes. "After that, we will decide on a different order for the remainder of the night." He looked around and found only approval in his captains' expressions. He nodded and stood up, followed by the other three. "Each of you has their tasks. Let's get to them."
With great dread, Éowyn stepped into the king's study, mechanically nodding her thanks to the guard who held the door open for her. Although Grima's appearance had thoroughly spoiled her appetite when he had approached them at the hearth, she had taken her time to follow his summons until Éothain's parents had finished their meal and left Meduseld. She had even eaten her soup, although with her thoughts entirely wrapped up in assumptions what the Worm would soon disclose to them, she had barely registered what she had been eating.
Had anything happened to Éomer? Had her brother been wounded … or worse? The moment had finally arrived where – despite her reluctance to hear the councillor's ill news – she needed to find out for herself, for not knowing made her feel even worse, and so she had made her way over to her uncle's study on legs that felt like wooden sticks.
The heavy door closed behind her as she came to a halt, both hands unconsciously balled into fists by her side. A great weight seemed to lie on her chest suddenly, and she found that she could barely breathe.
"I am here," she said so lowly that at first, she wasn't sure that they had heard her. 'They can see that, stupid girl!' a voice in the back of the head scolded her, but she didn't listen to it. Rigid like a statue, she stood in the room and stared at the two men at the desk by the fire. Gríma was just now sitting down again and seemed to stuff something back into his pocket as he turned to her, while the king lifted a goblet from the table and drank. Putting it back, he pointed at a chair beside himself.
"Come here, Sister-Daughter. Grima said that his tidings concern us both."
"I'm afraid they concern everyone," Wormtongue added, following Éowyn's steps like a hawk until she sat down. "Yet you will be first to hear them."
Frozen to her chair, Éowyn barely felt it when Théoden's hand suddenly covered her cold fingers, squeezing them. He was shaking. They both braced and stared at the pale, non-telling mien before them, a single, silent question upon their faces.
"Tidings from Westfold arrived by bird this evening. Marshal Erkenbrand himself sent them." Wormtongue took a deep breath, and with his right hand, produced a small roll of parchment out of his pocket. All of a sudden, the tightness in Eowyn's chest became unbearable. She knew what would follow, and it stole her breath when the councillor began to speak.
"Three days ago, a great army of orcs attacked the Fords. Our combined forces succeeded in throwing them back one more time, although your nephew and his riders, my lord, were nowhere to be seen. - Of course not," he snorted, "…because he was still here, loitering around, before he took off in the wrong direction."
"Éomer did not-" Gríma's commandingly raised hand stopped the words on her tongue. For a few long seconds, Wormtongue's gaze tore into Éowyn's, before he shifted his full attention to the king.
"I fear, my liege, that, alas, this time, our victory was bought at a great cost… for it claimed the life of Prince Théodred, heir to the throne of the Mark… Your son, my lord, is dead."
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