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A RED SUN RISES
Chapter 16: Battle of Wills
For the longest time, Éomer could only stare back, and he heard the confused mutterings of the crowd behind him.
‚They told him! They betrayed me!'
He saw the triumph in his adversary's eyes, diabolical joy over finally having him where Gríma had wanted him for all these past years.
With a smug smile in the corners of his mouth, the Worm leant closer.
„Well, son of Éomund? Are you going to say something, or shall I continue?" After a lengthy pause, during which Éomer could still not think of anything to say, Wormtongue turned to address the listening crowd. „Apparently, this group consisted of a man, an elf and a dwarf. Hardly an ordinary group to meet in the Mark by any standards; much less so these days. And yet our dear marshal left them out of his report. And not because he deemed them not noteworthy. Oh no, quite the contrary!"
Slowly descending the three steps, Gríma made it a show to approach the dismayed and shocked guards and council members. His hands were full, and there was no doubt that he was enjoying himself immensely.
„In fact, it seems that Éomer son of Éomund had met long-known aquaintances, because he took pains to send his éored away to wait for him on the path, while he had a rather amiable conversation with those three ‚strangers'. Obviously, he did not want to be overheard. At least that is what his riders say. Do you deny it, son of Éomund?" He turned around.
Somewhere in his state of shock, Éomer was aware that everone was staring at him with newly awakened suspicion… and dismay… and sadness. He met Éowyn's eyes, and read in them the same shock that he felt. And when his glance sank to where the king sat slumped on his throne, he found with alarm that the old man was staring at him with undisguised disdain. Somewhere in the back of his mind, something clicked. There was but one strategy left to him now.
„I don't," he stated in a voice that utterly defied his inner turmoil, surprising even himself. He lifted his chin in defiance.
„I see. Then certainly, you will also not deny that you lent them your spare horses, for whatever dubious reasons."
„I won't, except that it wasn't for a dubious reason."
Béma, how they were looking at him! As if he had drawn a dagger and held it to the King's neck! Even Gamling stared at him as if he was seeing him for the first time. As if all those years he had watched him growing up underneath this very roof counted for nothing.
„Very well…" Wormtongue resumed his pacing, again rather speaking to the crowd than to the warrior he was accusing. „So, you gave those three our valuable horses, much to the confusion of your riders… and you allowed them to continue on their path. Thus violating one of our most important laws. To apprehend-"
„…all travellers in the Mark and bring them before the king." Éomer interrupted him. „Aye. I am aware of that law." Eyes were narrowed at him in alarm and consternation. This was not going well.
Gríma nodded again, apparently surprised by his enemy's bluntness.
„I see that your sister did not lie. You are indeed a very honest man, Marshal… even though you must be aware of the fact that you are digging your own grave with your words right now."
A thin smile appeared suddenly on Éomer's face. It held the merest hint of a threat, and Éomund's son was certain that his adverary was picking up on its meaning. Shock gave way to clarity and adrenaline flooded his veins. This was his last chance. If he did not convince them now, he would dangle from the gallows in no time.
Wormtongue studied his expression, and for a moment, he seemed as confused as the others, not understanding where Éomer was getting with this. When the warrior remained silent, however, he continued.
„As you have been so very accommodating so far, my lord, I suppose you won't mind telling us what you said to your riders, before you sent half of your éored away to make for Westfold?"
„Not at all, Counsellor," Éomer answered, and his smile deepened, the menace in it now clearly visible to everyone in the room. „I told them that I helped these strangers, because I had a feeling that they might make a difference in the fate of the Mark. That I had the feeling that they would be the key to your undoing, and to the restauration of Théoden-King as ruler of our people." With piercing intensity, he stabbed his eyes against Gríma's and lifted his hand, pointing at his opponent as he raised his voice. „Because it is you who is the traitor, Worm!"
Aghast faces stared back at him. There were shouts and gasps, and at the edge of his awareness, Éomer also noticed the sound of swords being drawn from their scabbards as he descended the dais with long, fast strides.
„You all know it!" he continued, paying no heed to what was going on behind him. Only the men of the Royal Guard counted now, and the members of their council. „You said so yourself for years! You often did not understand King Théoden's orders, and you were suspicious of the potions this man gave him! Many among you suspected that it was not the Mark Gríma son of Galmod served! And you were right!"
„Silence, Marshal, or your lying tongue will be cut from your mouth before we hang you!" Gríma shouted, hastily backing away from the powerful warrior. „Felrod! Grab him!"
„The Prince died in result of his plot!" Éomer drowned him out. „It was his plan to keep me away from Westfold for the attack, to murder the king's son and lay his corpse at my feet! He thought that with this one strike, he could dispose of the both of us. But he is wrong, and the Mark suffered long enough from his real master's secret reign! We're seeing through him, at long last!"
A death threat stood written in Éomer's eyes now as he stepped toward his opponent.
„Say his name, Worm! It is Saruman you serve!" From the corners of his eyes, he saw the big halfbreed storm toward him, followed by the rest of Gríma's private guards. With an expression of utmost urgency upon his face, he once again turned to the aghast crowd.
„What is it you're waiting for? What are you afraid of? It is not I who is the enemy! Kill him and put an end to this farce!" he shouted right into Gamling's face.
For the eternity of five heartbeats, the two warriors regarded each other, and in the old man's eyes, Éomer read all he needed to know.
‚I cannot do this. I want to, but I cannot.'
Felrod was almost upon him now, big hands grabbing for him. His eyes narrowing in disgust, Éomer broke away – towards Gríma.
‚They will kill me for this, but it must be done!'
Before his adversary could hide in the crowd, he was upon him, and his arm closed like a bear trap around the counsellor's scrawny neck. A strangled yelp escaped Gríma's mouth as he was dashed against the nearest pillar with such force that Éomer felt the impact even through his armour.
„Now you die, Worm!" he growled and flexed his muscles with all the force he had left. The pale face before him turned blue, eyes bulging in shock.
The concussion of heavy steps behind him.
‚Not fast enough! '
Once again, he smashed Gríma against the hard wood, hoping to snap his neck – when a comet exploded in his vision and his teeth were knocked together with such force that he bit through his lip. As Éomer staggered to the side, the ground tilted beneath his feet and he crashed with his shoulder against the pillar. Instinctively, he tried to hold on, to remain on his feet.
From somewhere behind him, from the distance of another reality, an anguished „No!" reached his ears. A second hard blow to the head ended his struggle, and darkness claimed him before the son of Éomund hit the ground.
„No!" Éowyn started down the stairs, horrified as she saw her brother stumble. „No! Éomer!"
„My lady, don't!"
Someone grabbed her arm and pulled her back, and before she could even think about it, her hand landed with a sharp slapping sound in her assailant's face. A familiar face. Háma's face. For a moment she could only stare at the Chief of the Royal Guard.
„My lady, please! Don't make it worse!"
„Don't make it worse?" She fought for breath and her composure. „How could I make this possibly any worse? They are killing my brother! Háma!" But even though the guard's broad face was apologetic, his fingers remained firmly closed around her arm, no matter how much she fought him. „Háma, let me go!"
At the pillar, the big halfbreed helped his master to his feet. The Worm looked as if he still couldn't breathe, and Éowyn sent a heartfelt prayer to Béma to keep it that way. Perhaps, Éomer had bruised his throat so badly that he would asphyxiate, after all! Then her view of the scene was cut off by the crowd. Again she tried to break free, and again, the Chief of the Royal Guard hindered her with a sad shake of his head.
„My lady, please. You can't change what's happening now. It is best you stay away."
„Why can't I change it?" she snapped. „Or, better asked, why can't you change it? You and the Royal Guard? You heard what Éomer said, and you said so yourself many times! You know it is the truth! Cut off the Worm's head and we're free from him!"
„Do not utter this aloud", Háma hissed, shock and urgency in his eyes. „I implore you! Or do you want to share your brother's punishment?"
Éowyn narrowed her eyes, contempt sparkling in their deep blue irises.
„There would be no punishment for Éomer if we all acted as one! What is it that everybody is so afraid of? You are all like the rabbit before the snake!"
A rising din of voices stole her attention for a moment, and through a brief gap in the crowd, she saw her brother hang lifelessly between two of the Worm's men.
„It's best that you don't see this, my lady," Háma insisted, and despite his apologetic tone, there was a new firmness to his words now, as well. „Let me guide you to your chambers." It was not a plea, not a suggestion, nor an excuse. He meant to lock her into her rooms like a disobedient child.
„You cannot mean this!" Éowyn fumed as she felt herself being gently, but insistently dragged toward the far side of the hall. „We grew up right beneath your eyes! How can you betray us so?" She could see that her words pained him, but obviously, they did not pain him enough.
„First and foremost, we are the King's guard, my lady," Háma offered by way of an explanation. „Now look at Théoden-King and tell me that what's happening is not what he wants."
Éowyn looked back… and the sight of grim satisfaction on her uncle's face punched the air out of her lungs. For a moment, she gave up all resistance. Only when they reached the door to her chambers some weak reply came to her.
„He is not himself, Háma. You know that... and you know why."
With great sadness in his eyes, the big guard nodded.
„Alas, I'm afraid you are right. And yet the facts remain: your brother disobeyed his orders, he violated our laws… and just now he assaulted the counsellor. I cannot disregard this."
„And what if the only way to rescue our people lies in violating those laws that help our enemy? Have you given this some though, Háma son of Harlond?" His frown told her that he hadn't. She nodded and opened the door to her chambers, casting the guard a last, meaningful look. „Perhaps you should. It is not too late yet."
And with that, she left him standing and closed the door into his face.
Darkness, then flickering light. Then darkness again. Muffled noises and muttering all around him, beneath a steady buzzing sound in his ears. The sensation of a red-glowing sword having been rammed straight through the top of his skull and sitting there now, sending waves upon waves of excruciating pain through what little of his awareness had returned.
A soft groan escaped Éomer as he felt the ground move beneath his dangling feet. He was being dragged. A voice close by, familar, even though it, too, sounded racked with pain.
„—last cell. Put him in chains." Coughing, a wincing sound.
„Punish him. But don't mar his face." Heavy, pain-filled breathing. „And no broken bones. Can' t-" Coughing. „Can't risk to aggravate them when they see him in the trial." Another extensive coughing fit, interspersed with painful little gasps.
„Should we wait for you, Master?" The Halfbreeds deep, rumbling voice. „Do you want to watch?"
The anguished groan of rusty hinges, assaulting his ears like a pair of long, thin needles. Piercing his brain.
„Can't." Coughing. „First… I got… things to do. Proceed. I will see him later." Steps, leading away.
„Well, come on, then. Let's bring him down to his new home. How I'm looking forward to beating the bloody crap out of this forgoil bastard!"
Down the staircase, their steps reverberating in the bare, hollow stone corridors. Suddenly, the feeling of flying… and a painful landing on the hard ground. A grunt Éomer could not suppress.
„Whoops", Feldrod laughed. „Lost my grip somehow."
More laughter. The sensation of his stomach turning as he was picked up again. Nausea. He retched… and was dropped again with a guttural curse.
„Fuck! My boots!" A kick found his kidneys. Grumbling, then the rustle of clothes."Damn. Now look at this!" Hot breath in his right ear. „You will suffer for this, forgoil bastard. Do you hear me? That's a promise!"
Being dragged again, only this time, by his feet. Intolerable pain shooting through his head as it collided with the uneven stone floor again and again. Darkness again, tightening around him, the drowning in his ears intensiving to a mad crescendo.
But unconsciousness did not come. Just when Éomer felt the rest of his awareness starting to slip away from him, the torture stopped. Again, the screeching of rusty hinges, then he was all but thrown in the cell. A dubious voice on his left side.
„He is barely awake. Makes no sense yet to hurt him further. He'll faint right away."
„We'll see," Felrod grumbled, and roughly, Éomer was turned on his stomach. With the creaking of leather, the big halfbreed knelt down beside him and began to fiddle with the buckles and straps of his armour. „Help me with this, will you? I want him shackled before he wakes…"
‚Still afraid of me, aren't you?'
It was a good thought, the first clear thought he'd had in a while. Did this mean he was waking? He did not want to. Nothing good could come from that.
For a while, he was being turned this way and that, as they fought with his cuirass, pauldrons and mail shirt, under occasional muttered, Dunlendish cursing. To his dismay, Éomer found that he was indeed rising from the depths of semi-consciousness. With all distinctiveness, he could feel the coldness and the rough texture of the stone floor pressing against his face, and another sharp pain in his mouth. His probing tongue found the ripped flesh of the holes in his lower lip, filling his mouth with the taste of iron.
„Now lift him up. Come on!" With a metallic rustle, his mail cluttered to the ground. „Good. That's it. Although… wait."
A slicing, ripping sensation, and suddenly, a cold draft hit Éomer's bare skin as his tunic and shirt were cut away.
„That's better. There's not a lot of light down here. Got to see what I'm doing."
Dirty laughter rose that woke the intense desire in Éomer to smash his assailants' teeth in, and if it was the last thing he'd be doing in this realm. He opened his eyes. Everything was blurred, shadows dancing with the unbearably bright torchlight. There were no definite shapes and only vague colours.
„Forgoil opened his eyes. Felrod?"
„I'm done. Let's get the cuffs on him."
Éomer's arms were grabbed and pulled over his head, and he was turned on his back. A moment later, he felt the coldness of iron on his skin… and heard the clack of locks as the handcuffs were fastened tightly around his wrists.
„Still afraid of me?" he managed to mumble… and he was heard.
„Shit, afraid of you, bastard?" Felrod broke out in laughter. „Hell no. You should see yourself. You're a mess. A five-year-old could beat the crap out of you right now." With a jolt, he pulled on the chain, and Éomer's arms were lifted into the air. Another quick whisper. „You will find that I'm no five-year-old, though. Hell, I'm going to enjoy this! Gotta thank you for attacking the Counsellor. He might not have ordered this otherwise."
Another sudden jolt lifted Éomer's entire upper body.
„Damn, bastard's heavy. Dôrlak, Gúthlaf, help me!"
With combined effort, they hoisted him up into the air, and the handcuffs began to dig into his wrists as more and more weight was put on them. They also cut off the bloodstream to his hands, turning them increasingly numb.
Higher. Only with the tips of of his toes could Éomer still reach the ground, and his shoulders started to hurt under the strain of his own bodyweight.
„You like this, forgoil?" Felrod sneered, and with a last hard jolt, shortened the chain to the point where his victim's feet dangled freely in the air. „Feels good, doesn't it?" He fastened the chain around the bolt and stepped back, straightening and undoubtedly satisfied with his work. „Well… I believe we are, in fact, ready." He rubbed his hands together and cracked his knuckles in anticipation.
From somewhere Éomer couldn't tell, a burst of energy shot through him. His warrior's instincts reacted to the emergency situation, pumped the adrenaline through his body in a mighty flood. Made him ready to fight. He had no chance to escape, but Béma, if even the tiniest chance presented itself to hurt his torturers back, it would find him ready.
The wind was chill as Éowyn quickly descended the stairs from the terrace towards the path that would lead her down into the city. For a moment, It threatened to blow the hood from her head, and she dimly rembered that someone had mentioned that a late winter storm was about to hit them. She could see the vapour of her breath rising into the air before the next gust carried it away, and clenched her fingers into the warm fur. This was not good. It would be freezing in the dungeon. While it kept away the main force of the wind, the rock was perforated with fissures that allowed cold drafts in, and in winter, prisoners often fell sick from exposure. She had to get her brother out of there, as fast as possible!
After the confinement of the last days, part of her still wondered that they had allowed her to leave Meduseld, but of course, the danger had passed that she would warn Éomer before he could be apprehended. They thought that there was nothing left to do for her to help her brother. How she would prove them wrong!
A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that nobody was following her… or at least, she did not see anyone. Silent as a shadow, the daughter of Éomund hurried down the path. A touch of disorientation washed over her the further she descended. Why was there no one on the street? How late was it? A look up did not help her; the moon's face and the stars were obstructed by a thick layer of clouds. Somehow, it felt to her like the middle of the night, but it could not be. And yet, it was probably for the best if as few people as possible saw her.
Ten minutes later, she had reached her destination, a massive, well-kept house in a back alley close to the éored's stables. Her heart beating in her throat, she knocked. She had no idea what she was going to say, but… he had to know. Perhaps, he would know what to do.
From behind the door, the sound of quick steps reached her ears, then a key turned in the lock. Through the opening gap, Éowyn beheld Éothain's expectant face. And yet as he opened the door and saw her, the expression of relief on his features quickly turned into a frown. Very obviously, he had been expecting Éomer.
"Eowyn? But… why…"
„Éomer was thrown into the dungeon, and the Worm plans to kill him. Please, Éothain, help me!"
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