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A RED SUN RISES
Chapter 13: Questions of Loyalty
"What is he doing?"
"Who are these strangers? Does he know them?"
"It certainly looks like he does, but…"
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."
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.
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?'
"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.
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.
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…
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."
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