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A RED SUN RISES
Chapter 6: Assassins' Game
"Your son, my lord, is dead."
Wormtongue's words were followed by a deafening silence. For a time span impossible to define, only the crackling fire could be heard as the three people in King Théoden's study stared at each other; two of them in dismay, the other one with his usual, unreadable expression upon his face.
'Théodred is a mighty warrior, he cannot be defeated! It is one of the Worm's evil schemes; it cannot be the truth!' a voice in Éowyn's mind screamed in quickly growing despair, while at the same time, certainty grew within her that it was. Somehow, she just knew it, even if there wasn't anything to discover in the pale grey of her opponent's eyes. She knew it from the way her body reacted to Grima's words, from the icy shudder that raced down her spine and the clammy feeling in her stomach. She knew it from the way her cousin's smiling face passed in front of her inner eye, and from how his image made her feel.
From when she had arrived at Meduseld little and orphaned, Théodred – as much as had been in his power – had always been there for her. He had been her confidante once Éomer had joined the Armed Forces and left for Aldburg to roam the Eastmark with Captain Elfhelm's éored. He had kept an eye on the Worm's doings and countered each of his blatant efforts to disparage her brother and drive a wedge between them, and between Éomer and the king.
He had been the main source of her hope… and now she would never see him again. He was gone. Realisation hit Éowyn with the force of a battering ram, and she never even felt it when her uncle's let go of her hand.
"No…" Théoden exhaled, as if all the air in the hall did not suffice to fill his lungs. "No…. Gríma, no! Please, it cannot be!" He was pleading with the man before him now, deathly pale himself and his shaking increasing. Yet Wormtongue could only shake his head.
"I am very sorry, sire. It is a devastating blow… not only to you, personally, but to the kingdom, as well." He lowered his gaze to the parchment in his hands, and then handed it over at his king's silent request.
For the longest time, Théoden stared at the tiny piece of writing with unseeing eyes, unable to read the words. Hoping against hope that it was not the handwriting of the Lord of Westfold he would see when he looked down…but of course, it was. He recognised the precise, narrow script at once. The message, as usual, was in Westron, as there was no written form of Rohirric, and only their officers used the common language for communication… and its words were identical with what Gríma had just told them: 'Attack at the Fords repelled at great cost. Prince Théodred slain…` His sight blurred, and a horrible, anguished wail burst from his lips.
"Oh, Uncle…" Eyes shut tightly against the uprising burning of her tears, Éowyn wrapped her arms around the man beside her. The man who had raised her as his own daughter… the man who would now decide her brother's fate.
It was a strange night. Cold and dark and full of tension that just kept on building with everyone's awareness that with every passing moment, bloodshed was drawing closer. The moon was not yet up, which was vital for their plans to assassinate the orcs in their sleep, but in addition to a thick layer of mist which covered the land like a death blanket, a thin, high layer of cloud had developed in the meantime.
It threatened to obliterate the star formations, and although Felarof's Eye was the brightest star upon the firmament, Éomer was no longer sure for how much longer it would remain to be seen. It had almost reached the rocks he had indicated to his commanders earlier, and so he was ready to turn back from the forest's fringes where he had been standing for some time with Falk, the older brother of the scout who had alarmed them, to await Anlaf's assault on the orcs.
"Nothing is moving, not even a bird," the warrior whispered just now as he stared into the darkness beyond the trees, and white vapour rose from his lips into the chill air. "It is most unnatural… as if the night itself is holding its breath for something to happen."
"Well, something is about to happen, and we better get ready for it," Éomer replied wryly and turned back, a hand clapping the other rider's shoulder in reassurance. "You and Brytta remain here and listen. If you hear or see anything moving in there, anything at all, you know what to do."
"Aye, Marshal." Falk nodded, and Éomer left him standing at the edge of the forest and walked the short distance back to the fires, blowing warm air at his freezing fingers before he rubbed them. Another brief glance at the sky confirmed to him that it was almost time, and as ordered, his men were already awaiting him, their bows unslung and arrows in their hands, ready to react at the first sign of a disturbance. It was not altogether unlikely that the orcs would flee in their direction once Anlaf and his riders made their move on the other side of the siege ring. In that case, they would find themselves greeted by a deadly hail.
Unslinging his own bow and rapidly opening and closing the fingers of his right hand to get the feeling back in it, Éomer settled into the space between the two nearest men and loosely fitted his first arrow to the string. They were ready for action.
Something was moving in one of the shallow furrows which traversed the little hillock. Deep within its sheltering shadows, three men clad in nothing but leathern jerkins, deerskin breeches and woollen shirts, crawled against the wind through the sparse vegetation. They knew that - without armour - their very lives depended on their stealth. In addition to their excellent sense of smell, orcs could detect noises well below the level of what men were able to hear, so it was clear that the lowest noise would give them away. Still, the warriors were confident, having used their special skills countless times before.
To minimize the risk of noise, all three men carried only thin long knives, two arrows each and their bows, thoroughly fastened, so their weapons wouldn't move around while their owners crawled through the darkness. They were almost there.
Holding his breath, Anlaf lifted his head with infinite caution, and found that they had indeed reached the outer ring of their enemy's defences. His keen, night-sighted eyes glided over several large shapes in their immediate surroundings, most of them apparently asleep or dozing, while two more were sitting with their back to them close by, staring in the wrong direction. They wore no helmets. Perfect. They would start with those and then proceed to killing their resting comrades.
With a few soundless gestures, the scout indicated the orc he planned to tackle, and drew his first arrow out of his belt. Another short glance around. All quiet. A little closer, to get a better angle for the shot. On elbows and knees, Anlaf closed in on his target. There now. And his comrades? Lay behind him, their arrows already fitted to the strings of their bows. Waiting for his signal. He turned back and raised his bow. Took a deep, silent breath… and held it as he briefly aimed for the back of the orc's head. These beasts had strong bones, but the arrows would nevertheless penetrate straight through their skulls if they hit the right spot.
He narrowed his eyes… and shot. With a dull sound, both orc guards dropped to the ground. Flawless! And yet out of the corner of his eye, Anlaf noticed sudden motion. The dozing beast next to them began to stir and opened its eyes, but before it could even sit up, Cernhelm had reached it and buried his dagger to the hilt in its eye socket. A moment later, Oswyne slit the throat of its close-by comrade.
Here, death did not come silently. The orc gargled in agony as its black blood sprayed in all directions, and before he could sink his dagger into the beast's chest to end the noise, Oswyne suddenly felt Anlaf's grip around his arm.
"Our time is up. Go!"
All around them now, the beasts began to stir and move toward them, aware of the commotion. A deformed hulking shape approached their hiding spot with long, deliberate strides and lifted its crossbow, but suddenly it dropped to the ground with a pained roar and three arrows sticking out of its fleshy neck. Its assassins slung their bows and came to their feet, knowing full well that only speed could save them now as a guttural voice cried out into the night.
"Whiteskins!" it roared, full of fury. "Whiteskins among us!"
The cry rang all over the battlefield, and even before Éomer could react in any way, the unmoving shadows on the hillock before them jumped into motion… and turned away from them in search of the source of the disturbance.
He reacted instantly, following his instincts. With his arrow ready to be released, he dashed past the fire toward the rise with only a quick shout at his nearest men.
"Come with me!"
Not pausing to see whether they were indeed following him, Éomer stormed even closer until he was certain to be within range, then lifted his bow. So many targets to choose from, there was no way to miss! With a deadly whisper, his arrow buried itself in black flesh. A heartbeat later, several more orcs dropped to the ground with blood-curdling roars as the bows of the Rohirrim found them. Confusion and panic spread among their enemies at suddenly finding themselves assaulted from two sides, but Éomer could also see the first crossbows being lifted in their direction.
"Kill the maggots!"
"Fall back! Fall back, quick!" He dived to the ground and rolled over his shoulder, hearing the buzz of a bolt pass above his head which would have killed him had he still been standing. And yet a pained cry further back told him that at least one of the orc's projectiles had found its target.
Sudden uproar further back. Éothain and his men had entered the fray and provided cover for their hasty retreat. As fast as his legs carried him, Éomer made for the temporary safety behind their fires, and whirled around. A quick glance showed him that all his Riders had made it back, and so he unhooked his horn and blew into it, calling the attack off. If they proceeded with this, it could easily happen that the orcs would see a massive counter-attack as their only chance of survival. No, it was time to let the action die down for now and take stock of what they had achieved.
Slowly, the commotion settled back into an uneasy quiet; the exact thing the son of Éomund had wanted to inflict upon the enemy, and yet – for now – the situation did not only keep the orcs upon their toes. He turned to the nearest man and found that it was Garulf, the scout who had raised the alarm.
"Garulf? I need the reports of the other positions as quickly as possible. How many were injured, or, Béma beware, killed, and what damage they think they inflicted."
The older man nodded.
"I'm on it, Marshal."
He turned away with a sharp whistle, and Hasufel, his dark grey stallion with the instantly recognisable, two-coloured mane, was instantly at his side. They disappeared into the darkness.
With a deep breath, Éomer let his gaze travel over the battlefield. It seemed to him that there were quite a few more unmoving shadows lying around at the foot of the hillock, but they would have to wait for moonrise before any more solid numbers would become available. Which would be in about two hours, if he was not mistaken. The night had hardly yet begun…
It was late when Éowyn left her uncle's chambers to settle down for the night, although she was certain that it would be another one of those nights where sleep seemed to be nothing but a long forgotten rumour. Deep in thought, she directed her steps through the twilight of the deserted hall, thankful that no one was there to see her red and puffy eyes and inquire about what tragedy had befallen her. The news about her cousin's demise would be allowed to spread only in the morning; for tonight, Théodred would only be mourned by his father and her.
She had offered her uncle to stay by his side throughout the night for comfort, but again it had been the Worm who had successfully intervened. It was vital for his health that the King rested, he had said, and to her dismay, Théoden had not objected. It was foreseeable that even more difficult times were waiting for the Mark, Gríma had then explained, and many hard decisions needed to be made, which would require their ruler to be in the best possible constitution. A strong sleeping draught would ensure that the King found rest despite their tragedy. And with those words, he had produced a phial from the depths of his pockets and held it up.
Unconvinced that Gríma's suggestion was indeed what her uncle wanted, Éowyn had lowered her gaze to meet Théoden's sorrowful eyes, and his almost imperceptible nod had crushed her. How could it be that apparently, she was the only one longing for solace in this dark, hopeless night? Was it all the Worm's doing? Had Éomer been right after all, in his suspicion that his chief concern had always been to drive wedges between the members of their family, to estrange them from each other and thus, weaken the kingdom?
'Oh Éomer,' Éowyn thought with despair as she reached for the door handle to her chambers. 'What will you do once these tidings reach you? Will you understand that you will be in mortal peril if you return to Edoras, and flee?'
She almost wished for it, although it would also mean that – in all likelihood – she would never see her brother again. 'But at least he would live!' – 'He would never flee! He is convinced that he was right in riding out against those orcs, fleeing would mean to admit that he was wrong.'
The question was whether these news would even reach her brother in the field. If Éomer heard of Théodred's death only once he had returned to Edoras… She inhaled sharply.
'He needs to be warned! But how? I don't even know where he is now…' – 'And whether he is still alive.' a fatalistic voice in the back of her mind, which she had not known so far, added coldly. 'He rode into battle. Anything can happen in a fight. An arrow could find him, or Firefoot could fall and crush him…'
She shut her eyes, willing the horrible scenes which threatened to overwhelm her back into the confines of her subconscious.
'I must not think like that. Èomer is one of our greatest warriors-' 'So was Théodred.'
Her hand on the door handle hesitated. A sudden impulse was rising within her, growing ever stronger. Éowyn turned around. Apart from the guard before her uncle's chambers, the hall was all but deserted at this late hour. With a deep breath, Éomund's daughter directed her steps over to her cousin's rooms and quickly slipped into the darkness behind the massive doors. With the situation at the Fords strained for weeks before the massive blow had finally come, it had been a while since Théodred had last stayed in them, and still it seemed to Éowyn as if she could almost feel her cousin's presence.
It took a moment before her eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was no fire in the hearth, no warmth in here, and yet she felt somehow soothed. Gradually, the outline of Théodred's chambers became clearer in the weak light of the veiled moon, and so Éowyn walked over to the window and lowered herself into the massive armchair. Subconsciously, her hands caressed its soft leather, and once again, her tears spilled over.
'Oh Théodred… What am I supposed to do without you now? How can I win this fight all on my own?'
How could he be gone? How could such a vibrant, loving and giving man simply be reduced to a heap of cold, lifeless flesh?
Éowyn's gaze fell upon the portrait beside the big four-poster. In the twilight, she could not make out all the detail, but she knew this painting by heart and even remembered the days when it had been done almost ten years ago by Goldfred, easily the most esteemed painter in all of the Mark and a long-time member of the royal household. It had been taken in better times, easily recognisable by the expressions on their masterfully captured likenesses; a mirror to the past. None of their emotional scars were visible here, no illness, and no bitterness yet over wrongful accusations and subtle estrangement brought about by the Worm. She loved this painting, and yet it also hurt her to look at it, because it made her realise how far things had spiralled out of control.
All four of them were on it, regally attired: the men in their armour, she wearing her best dress and her hair artfully plaited around her head. Éomer, who had joined the Armed Forces only one year earlier, looked incredibly proud as he stared out of the painting at her. With a faint smile, Éowyn remembered their discussion that day. Her brother had resolutely refused the painter's request to sit down in front of his uncle and his cousin and next to his sister, determined to look his fiercest best, which had resulted in all of them having taken their portrait standing. To the fourteen year old she had been then, the hours had felt impossibly long and tedious, and inwardly, she had cursed Éomer repeatedly for his stubbornness when her feet began to hurt. Yet once the finished painting had been revealed to them, Éowyn had felt that all effort had been justified.
She was glad to have it now, even if her broken heart bled worse than ever when her gaze found her cousin's face. Théodred's image was so lifelike, it stole her breath. He seemed to smile at her from the canvas, his piercing blue eyes silently reassuring her that there was nothing to fear in the world; nothing they couldn't overcome.
'You were wrong, Cousin. The evil in the world is getting stronger, and slowly but surely, it is swallowing us, one by one…'
She rose to her feet with a start. Éomer needed to be warned, there was no way around it. What he would make of it was his own decision, but damned would she be if she would let her brother ride blindly into a trap. Théoden's reaction to her earlier vow had satisfied her, as it had seemed that the old man had indeed understood the earnestness of her threat. And yet in the darkness of her cousin's room, faced with the worst development possible, Éowyn felt no longer certain that even her drastic promise sufficed in keeping her brother alive. Further steps needed to be taken.
Finding what she had sought – quill and parchment – on her cousin's massive work desk, Éowyn set to work…
"Wait… Just hold him down… for another moment… I can see it now… I've almost got it. There!"
With triumph in his eyes, Tolgor showed Éomer the last piece of the broken arrowhead he had dug out of Háfa's shoulder. The young man slackened in Éomer's grip, the pain of his ordeal clearly edged into his tired features as he gritted his teeth.
"Gods, I won't need this again in a hurry…"
Releasing his iron hold, Éomer gave his exhausted rider a cheering clap on the back as he started to rise and helped the man up.
"Then see to it that you are quicker to duck next time, Háfa," he said, relieved to be done with this gruesome business. Two of his riders had been wounded in their attack, yet thankfully, none of them seriously. According to Garulf's report, Éothain's men had not been quite so lucky, having suffered one casualty and another man seriously injured, and there had been two more injured warriors at Anlaf's position. While such things always had to be expected in battle, Éomer hoped sincerely that the rest of their riders would emerge from this gruesome and demanding night unscathed. It would be hard enough to stand his ground against the Worm upon their return to the snake pit that Meduseld had become, if they succeeded in killing these orcs without any further casualties; this task would become considerably harder if they passed the city gates with half of their riders wounded… or worse.
Yet he felt still convinced of the necessity to destroy this band of the necromancer's foul brood, Éomer thought as he rose from his knees with a deep sigh. There was no telling what damage these orcs could have done to the Mark, had they been permitted to reach their destination – wherever it was – unchallenged.
His gaze strayed once again back to the dark hill. After a period of increased tension in the aftermath of their attack, things had settled back into the previous watchful standoff. More waiting to be done, more hours of idly sitting around the campfire, dead tired and yet ready for action at the slightest sign of a disturbance. He did not welcome the prospect.
Somewhere further up on the hillock, the encircled orcs suddenly seemed to quarrel over something, and he creased his brow at their furious roar, wondering what it was that had enraged them.
Éomer could no longer deny that he felt thoroughly knackered, like a hollow imitation of a human being someone had filled with rocks. But how, with everything that was going on, was he supposed to sleep now? How—
The bellowing was coming from behind!
Something moved at the periphery of his field of vision. Something bright. Rather sluggishly, Éomer turned and looked up. It was fire, his mind registered numbly. Shooting across the sky in a curved trajectory, like… an arrow…. a fire arrow. The alarm!
He had not even drawn the breath for a cry when there was a sharp thwack and Háfa, the young rider he had helped up just moments ago, stumbled toward him as if pushed forward by unseen hands. His mouth opened, but instead of words, a red flood shot out of it and flooded down his chin, an orcish arrowhead protruding from his chest. Mesmerised by the gruesome sight, Éomer caught the warrior just as Háfa's knees buckled, and his eyes darted frantically around for the source of the attack… towards the Entwood's border. He froze.
They were coming out of the forest, hulking great Uruk-hai bearing the White Hand upon their massive brows!
Letting Háfa fall as he unslung his bow with a swift move, Éomer dashed towards their attackers, and all hell broke loose…
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