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A RED SUN RISES
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
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…
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."
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