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Rohan Ghost Story, A: 13. The Demons Within
"That is wonderful. Simply wonderful." Wormtongue's expression told the orcs and Dunlendings around him that it was anything but. And how could this - the sight of a dead-end - be after they had followed that trace at a frantic pace for the entire night and morning since their valuable captive had escaped? They had run over a distance of many leagues, only to stare at sheer granite rock walls now? Curse those peasants! They had outsmarted him... for now. But their triumph would not last for long.
The commander of the nightmare host turned around to face his Uruk-hai scout, and deadly malice glowed in the pale blue eyes.
"So this is where the intelligence of your species ends. I should have known better than to trust your kind with this most important of tasks!"
The creature stared back at him from its towering seven-foot frame, uncomprehending.
"They were here!"
"Yes, Gârlâk, they were. I can see that." Others would have been intimated by looking into the amber-glowing ferocious eyes, but Wormtongue was determined to stare the half-orc into submission himself. "But where are they now?"
He waited a moment longer to let his underling know how unsatisfactory he found his performance, and then turned on his heel to face the rest of his army, his glance coming to rest on the warg and its rider. They stood a little apart from the rest, since the great wolf was clearly agitated by the pain of three arrows sticking in its side and tore apart whatever came too close to its mighty jaws, caring little whether it was friend or foe. Its rider was clearly having a difficult time keeping his mount in check... but now Gríma needed his service. The warg's special senses must be put to good use now. He raised his voice as he addressed his army.
"Listen, my fighting Uruk-hai: The enemy is running from us. They are afraid. They chose to ridicule us with this little trick because they dared not face us openly. They dared not confront us in earnest last night, and even now they would rather play 'Hide and Seek' with us than wage open battle. They are nothing but filthy cowards. But will it ultimately save them? Can running and playing tricks save anyone from the wrath of the mighty Uruk-hai?"
"No!" A chorus of deep, throaty growls shook the narrow gorge they were standing in.
"I know you have been running since yesterday. But the enemy has been running the same distance, and they can't be far ahead. In fact, they must be very close if they had to resort to using such a desperate trick. We must be almost upon them, and I know that you possess the greater stamina, not to mention the greater strength."
"We are the fighting Uruk-hai!" the chorus roared in unison. "No one is stronger than us!"
"That is right! And I promise you now, where I stand: once we have the king back, I shall grant you the right to kill each and every man and woman who crosses our path! We were trying to be merciful to the people of Rohan, but they want our wrath. Now they shall encounter it!"
His gaze went over to the warg-rider. The orc understood what was expected of him and turned his steed around, growling a harsh command into the furry ears while he knew all to well that if he made one mistake, he could just as easily end up in the beast's stomach himself. The wolf raised its ugly head into the wind. The scent was faint, but it was there... the scent of horses... men... and blood. It was that last scent which spurred the great predator into motion...
Hot. And cold. And hot. And cold again. A bone-chilling cold, one not even the fur-lined blanket they had wrapped around him could hold off. His teeth clattered, no matter how hard he clenched his jaw, and his shoulder was killing him. The shaft was gone, or at least the part of it that had protruded from his body, but it felt as if the main part was still embedded in his flesh. Presumably, Elfhelm had tried to draw it while he had been unconscious, and the movement had inflamed the wound anew. When would his ordeal ever end?
The answer was simple: when he died. For the first time ever, the king cursed his sturdy constitution. Presumably, others would have already surrendered to the hardships he had endured over the past two days. They would have broken their bones in the two falls he had taken; given in to the harsh autumn conditions and to Wormtongue's potions and mind-corrupting approaches… or to the poison flowing through his veins from the wound. The stench told him that it had begun to rot, and usually, once that stage was reached, it did not take long for most men to perish… yet he was still here, seemingly condemned to empty the bitter cup which had been handed to him all the way to the ground. The Valar could be cruel indeed … If destiny presented him with a chance to shorten his ordeal after all, Éomer was determined to seize it without thinking twice, no matter whether Elfhelm's men would view his decision as yet another act of cowardice.
The wind shifted and blew snow into his face. It was falling plentifully now, and while it posed no problem for their advancing yet, it was clear that they would leave a broad trace for the enemy to follow – if he was close enough to see it before the snow had covered it up again. It would make the narrow mountain paths they would have to cross before the village they were headed for slippery and dangerous, and if it continued to fall for long, would ultimately render them impassable. Éomer did not fear for himself, but if yet more men were to die because of him… He swallowed and grimaced at the pain in his dry throat. Was he, on top of everything else, also coming down with a sickness now? Over the course of the last hours, he had developed a cough that frequently rattled his battered body, but had thought nothing of it. And why, really? Maybe it would speed up his passing, so it was something he rather welcomed.
Something moved on the slope to his left. Looking up from under his eyebrows, head still hanging, Éomer caught a glimpse of something whiter than even the snow dancing on the hill. Sleipnir was back! Even though the ghost horse had headed straight for the battle when the king had seen it the last time, there was not a single stain on its radiant hide, neither blood nor dirt. It looked impossibly beautiful. Such must have been the sight of Nahar, the horse of the Valar and sire of the Méara-race. A dancing, powerful, yet weightless shape of impossible grace that almost scorched his eyes. When, oh when would the stallion come for him at last?
Éomer watched for a while longer, but when it became clear that Sleipnir had no intentions to approach him yet, he shifted his attention to his own horse. His beloved Firefoot had not become Gríma Wormtongue's marching provision after all. While he felt immensely relieved in that regard, it also dawned on the king that his foe had lied to him.
What else had he lied about?
Too weary to follow the discomforting thought, Éomer turned his thoughts once again to his horse. As it seemed, the animal was the only friend left to him, but of course the responsibility for his unlucky situation lay entirely within his own hands. The grey had followed him all the way from the Méara-valley to the Westfold, and while the strong bond between a Rohir and his horse was commonly known among the people of the Mark, Firefoot's demonstration of just how strong that bond could be warmed Éomer's heart. He would have liked to touch the stallion's neck, but they had tied his hands to the pommel of his saddle.
'Just like Gríma,' he thought, embittered. Another voice in his head insisted they had simply done it to prevent him from falling, but he did not listen to it as he stared at the blurred shape of his former friend who was riding in front of him. 'You would not follow my orders when I asked to be left behind, and instead put me through the indignity of first lifting me onto the saddle and then tying me to it. What else are you planning to humiliate me, Elfhelm? Are you enjoying yourself, old friend?'
"Éomer? My lord?" The voice came from the right. They had noticed he was awake. Bad. He did not long for their attention… nor for their pity. Pity was the last thing he ever wanted. Pity and shame were two things closely connected to each other. One had to work to earn the jealousy of others, but pity came free and usually originated from the fact that one had failed to look after oneself. Pity was the result of ineptitude. He wanted none of it. So he ignored the scout and his question whether he wanted something to drink. Better to ignore them all, all the more since their display of compassion was nothing more than a blatant lie. If Elfhelm let them, that expression would disappear from their faces faster than Shadowfax could run. There was no doubt in his heart that the men he had once believed to be loyal to him would sooner spit in his face than help him if it weren't for the fact that he was still their king.
A cold gust, its force increased by the narrow gorge they were travelling through, nearly unseated Éomer. His strength was waning, the effect of Wormtongues potion almost gone. Thanks to Elfhelm, he could not fall… but when they reached the pass and looked down onto the rocky terrain below in the slowly fading daylight with their destination barely visible on the horizon, Éomer's vision caved in once again and he sank onto his steed's neck…
"Éomer? Éomer, can you hear me?" A pause. The notion of hands seizing him from both sides. He grunted, unwillingly. Why couldn't they just let him sleep? "Careful, Findárras. Thor, cut the ties."
They had stopped. There were voices all around him now – men, women, children even, shouting and whispering. Dogs barking. He heard his name several times, yet could not follow what they were saying about him. Although… he cared not.
"Slowly now. We must not let him fall."
"What has happened to him?"
"Later. We must first get him safely into the hut. Have you found the healer yet?"
"She is already in there, tending to the men that were wounded in the attack. They arrived shortly before us."
"Good. – Thor, now let go… slowly!"
They were pulling him off the saddle. So they had indeed reached their destination, wherever it was that Elfhelm had wanted to go. Following a sudden impulse, Éomer opened his eyes – to twilight. But something was sparkling in the grey light, and while he was gliding towards it, it became clear to him that it was the elaborately worked hilt of the marshal's dagger. A dagger! A sudden surge of adrenaline flooded his veins. A moment later, his feet touched the ground and he doubled over, held by Elfhelm's strong arms – and went for the steel blade, had it drawn from its sheath and turned on himself before his former friend could react.
Shouts and shrieks from all around him as he pushed the dagger against his stomach with violent force. Rough, hard hands closed around his and turned the blade upwards at the last moment, and the steel cut through his tunic without breaking the skin.
"Éomer, no! Are you mad? Let go!" the older man roared into his ear, fingers still closed around his hands in a desperate attempt to wrestle the dagger from him. "What are you doing?"
The king fought with fierce determination, but had no strength left, and now even more hands seized him and held his arms.
"Take your hands off me, all of you! That is an order!" There was not even enough breath left in him to shout. He pushed again, but was no match for Elfhelm's brute strength, all the more as he was basically fighting one-handedly. As his knees started to buckle from exhaustion, Éomer had to admit that there was nothing left in him to win this fight.
"I told you before that I do not accept orders from a man who is not in possession of his right mind," the older man said matter-of-factly. "Now let go, my friend!"
The dagger was unceremoniously wrenched from his fingers with one final tug. Éomer felt like crying out in despair. This had been his one chance at ending it… and he had failed. As it looked, Elfhelm was determined to make him suffer all the way to the end. Curse him!
"Stop calling me that," the king somehow managed to mutter through his tightening, hurting throat. "If you still were, you would let me end it. Although I cannot blame you for feeling this way." He sagged and felt the support of strong hands under his shoulders. They half-carried, half-dragged him into the healer's hut, a large, sparsely decorated wooden structure with a nauseating mixed smell of blood, sweat, smoke and herbs deeply set in the wood.
"I am afraid I do not understand a word you're saying," the marshal responded, sounding thoroughly bewildered. "Why wouldn't we be friends anymore?" They came to a stop in front of a bed. "Careful now! Just let yourself fall, we will hold you. That is good." Éomer's legs were lifted, and someone pulled off his boots before they turned him around on the mattress and carefully laid him down. The short way from his horse to the bed had left him utterly spent and on the brink of unconsciousness again, and for a moment, he was unable to speak.
Elfhelm granted himself a few deep breaths before he addressed his second-in-command, his eyes still on the wounded king. This whole business was getting stranger by the second, Éomer's behaviour nothing short of a complete mystery to him. Just what had happened to his long-time friend that he had tried to kill himself? He would have to find out.
"Findárras, go and seek the settlement's captain. Have him send us a smith to rid him of these accursed ties on his neck and wrists. Then tell him to organise the evacuation of the village. Assist him in any way that you can. I want every man, woman and child to leave the village within the next hour. Tell them to take only what provisions they can carry and head north, as far towards Fangorn as they can. We will draw Wormtongue away from them, but it will still be better if they are not within his reach. Also tell them to set loose their stock. I don't know what Gríma plans, but let's not provide easy targets for his Uruks. If they are in haste to follow us, they will not have the time to go hunting for the animals. Maybe they will spare the stock this way. Arnhelm, see that our horses are tended to. They shall have whatever break we can grant them, even if it won't be for long. Let the men feed them, rub them dry and take their saddles down. It will be more work to saddle them again, but we owe them this much."
"Aye, my lord."
"What about the settlement's éored?" Findárras inquired. "We could use the reinforcements, even if they can only provide twenty men."
"Ten of them shall accompany us then. The others will be needed to ensure the people's safety. We cannot let them run through half of the Westfold without protection." Another pause.
"Aye. Anything else?"
There was so much to think of and so little time!
"Who will be watching the fires?"
Thor raised his hand.
"I will, my lord." He cast an uncertain glance at Éomer. "Unless you want me for some other errand..."
"No. I will be calmer if I know that you are out there. After the first fire is lit, I estimate that we have about two hours to disappear. But we have to make sure that we see it as soon as it's lit."
"Trust in me, Marshal. You shall know at once."
"Thank you, Thor." The scout gave him a small nod and went about his way. Elfhelm turned to the other man who was still waiting for his dismissal. "Findárras, I will be staying at the king's side, so you know where to find me if anything needs my attention. I have a feeling that my presence here will be needed before long... and I still have to find out what that snake Wormtongue has done to him. I fear that Éomer's strange behaviour has been caused by some foul trick of his. Maybe I can be of help." A grim nod. His second-in-command returned it curtly and left.
With a deep breath and briefly wondering whether he had forgotten something important that could prove vital later, the marshal turned around to look down on the young king, expecting him to have passed out from the efforts the day had held for him. But he hadn't. In fact, Éomund's son was looking at him with a brooding, gloomy expression he had so far only seen directed at others.
"Why are you doing this to me, Elfhelm? Why are you putting me through this?"
It sounded as if Éomund's son had barely strength left to utter these words, for he was hardly whispering loud enough for his voice to reach the marshal's ears. Together with the drawn expression and deep lines on his face that told of his pain, it was enough to wrench the seasoned warrior's gut.
"Eru knows I deserve it, but…I already am dishonoured. I am filth, and I admit it. What else do you want? Vengeance? Is this not enough vengeance for you? Is it your intention to humiliate me further by making me confess my crime out loud?"
The king was undoubtedly delirious, yet his speech took the older warrior aback. Before the marshal could even think of a reply though, a slightly bowed, thin woman stepped up to them. She was walking with a barely noticeable limp and was wearing brown, woollen rags that had several fresh-looking blood-stains on them. Her weathered face looked wrinkled and aged and bore an uncanny resemblance to old leather. Elfhelm estimated that she had seen at least 60 summers, but it could just as easily have been 70. The healer? He had only visited this particular settlement once before, and the incident lay years back. He could not remember anymore. But if his second-in-command said that this woman had a good reputation, he knew he could trust the information. A scrutinising glance from deep blue eyes found him, and a bony hand was extended to him in greeting. He seized it, even if he was unaccustomed to this particular form of courtesy.
"Marshal Elfhelm! What can I do for you? Unfortunately, your visit comes quite unexpected for us. You must forgive me for the delay in tending to your men. I wished we would have had a warning." She looked more closely at Éomer. "You brought another one?"
"Are you the woman they call Sarabande?" She nodded, but was already bowing over the king to tug at the torn tunic around his shoulder. Elfhelm grasped her arm and turned her around to face him. His voice was dripping intensity. "Then listen well, Sarabande: You never had a more important patient than this man!"
The marshal cut Éomer's injection short with an impatient gesture. He would have his say, king or not!
"This is King Éomer of Rohan." The woman's eyes widened slightly and once again trailed off to the man on the bed, a reaction Elfhelm found satisfactory. He had her undivided attention now. "He was gravely wounded in a fight two days ago, and there is still a large piece of an orc-arrow lodged in his shoulder. We need to get it out at once, and he will need to be moved again by moonrise at the latest, for our enemies are still on our tracks. I expect you to treat this patient with the utmost priority."
The old woman neither flinched nor seemed overly intimidated by her high guest as she briefly gave her ruler an acknowledging nod and an only hinted at bow and then met the marshal's intensive stare again. Out here in the Westmark, where assaults of rampant Dunlending forces were a firm ingredient of everyday life, she had grown accustomed to being barked at by high-ranking Rohirrim officers. She knew that the rough tone often employed when they were issuing their orders was nothing but a reflection of the men's concern, so she had stopped taking offence a long time ago and simply concentrated on her task. Laying a hand onto Éomer's glowing forehead, she waited a few moments before she finally answered.
"I shall see what I can do, my lord. Although I do not know about moving him so soon after the treatment." A scrutinising glance later she continued, this time addressing the king directly: "Forgive me for stating the obvious, my lord, but you look very weak to me already, and your condition will not have improved after having that arrow dug out of your shoulder." She opened the cut Elfhelm had made in Éomer's tunic to peer at the wound, and the lines on her face deepened in concern. "Your wound appears to be badly infected, and you are also running a high fever. Even if the weather were not worsening as it is, I honestly do not think that what Marshal Elfhelm has in mind would be in your best interest."
"Have you not heard me, woman? The enemy is still on our track!" Elfhelm interrupted her crisply. The woman did not seem to understand the situation. "There is no other way. I am loath to put him on a saddle in his condition as well, but a wagon would be too slow."
Sarabande straightened and nodded thoughtfully as she retracted her hand and cut her eyes to the back of the long hut again. She exhaled and let the man in front of her know that way that she was still harbouring doubts.
"It is your decision, my Lord Marshal.… but before I can treat him, I will have to look at one of your men they brought in shortly before you came. He might die if we do not give him all the help we are capable of – immediately."
A shadow fell onto Elfhelm's face, but before he could answer, Éomer cut him off, the first words the king directed at the healer.
"Tend to him first."
The marshal turned around.
"I said, tend to him, first!" Éomer locked eyes with his former friend in a silent battle of wills. Beads off sweat ran down his face, but he did not shrink from his opposite's piercing stare. His tone was quiet, yet firm enough to drive his point home and cut the discussion short. "It is my will. Marshal Elfhelm has no authority in my presence." He did not acknowledge the woman's presence by a single glance and only saw her shrug from out of the corners of his eyes. Then his attention was briefly diverted from his marshal as a radiantly white shape passed behind the open door, temporarily lighting up the twilight of the fading day. He knew who had come…
"If that is indeed your will, sire, I shall go now." Sarabande bowed to him and then addressed Elfhelm again. "While I am gone, it would be most helpful if you could remove his tunic. I will send someone to wash him. He needs to be clean before I can do anything." With a reassuring nod, she turned to go, briefly touching Elfhelm's hand. "Be assured that I will not take very long before I return. But we need to prepare him for the procedure first, which is a task that can be done by someone else me, and since your other kinsman is in dire need of help as well, I will not have to waste precious moments that could save his life."
Grinding his teeth but having to admit the healer was right, Elfhelm dismissed her with a curt nod.
She left, and for a few thoughtful moments, the Lord of the Eastmark watched her retreat into the back of the hut, his pensive gaze sweeping the beds that were temporarily occupied by most of his men wounded in the attack. He sighed and finally turned back to his former apprentice, wearing a deep frown on his broad, bearded face.
"I cannot say that I understand you, Éomer." Somewhere further back in the long hut, a man was crying out in agony, and Elfhelm's stomach twisted into a knot as he recognised the voice of the young man who had been riding with him only for a brief time. Shaking his head in helpless frustration, he finally forced himself to turn his back on the gruesome proceedings and concentrate on his estranged friend. "Your wound is already rotting. Each moment that it poisons you could be one too many. You know very well how bad it is. Is it your intention to die?"
Dark eyes met his, and while the feverish glint in them was unmistakable, there was also rock-hard determination written in them. At least some part of the Éomer he knew was still there, but not enough to make the marshal feel at ease. He braced for his precarious task and inhaled when the king finally spoke.
"It is my intention not to have another man die because of me. There has been too much death already on my account." Éomer coughed and had to pause to catch his breath, and in doing so, turned his head sideways and took in his surroundings in all their depressing detail. The simple wooden bed next to him was empty, but there was a large, dark, not at all encouraging stain on the mattress, and further back the king could see the healer's helpers tending to Elfhelm's wounded men, washing off blood with steaming cloths, sewing shut nasty gashes and dressing wounds. Éomer swallowed visibly and felt his voice getting caught up in his throat as he whispered: "So much death... and pain…"
His voice trailed off as Gríma's voice recounted his crimes in the back of his head, and his gaze came to rest on the leather restraints fastened to the head-end of the bed. As an experienced warrior, he had had arrows drawn from his flesh twice before and knew what the ties were used for. There were ties for his ankles, too. They would fasten them before they would begin, and still they would presumably need at least two strong men to hold him down while they were digging into his flesh with their instruments. They would stuff a cloth or a thick piece of leather into his mouth to give him something to bite down on, and then…
With a mighty effort, Éomer pushed the image behind his eyes back into the back of his mind. He would not think about the procedure now. It would become reality soon enough for him, what need was there to torture himself with these thoughts beforehand? But the effort was ill-fated when another cry rang out from the back of the hut. It brought back the memory of the exquisite pain in all clarity, and Éomer already dreaded to imagine what the procedure would feel like this time. To distract himself from his gloomy thoughts, the young king finally decided to cut his eyes back to his mentor who, in the meantime, had sat down on the foot of his bed. Where was the point in going through this agony?
'Do you want to die?'
"You want an answer, Elfhelm? An honest answer?" Dark grey eyes turned to him expectantly. "Aye, I want for it to end. The sooner the better." He saw the mighty warrior blink in consternation.
"I cannot believe I am hearing these words come from your mouth." Elfhelm felt as if he had been hit in the gut by a battering ram. Éomer, who had always been the ultimate warrior, never ready to give up and surrender...wanting to die? Frantically, he searched for the right words, but nothing came to him.
"Leave me be, Elfhelm. I do not want your help. I cannot and I will not allow you to risk your life and the lives of your men for a man you justly despise."
"I despise you? Whoever told you that?" The bewildered expression on Elfhelm's face and his raised brows were almost comical, but Éomer did not care to listen to his interjection as he continued. He would only have the strength to go through this once, so he had better make it fast.
"Rohan is in dire need of men like you. Men loyal to their kin... men our people can trust in and look up to in times of need... Maybe they will even make you their next king, for I could hardly think of a man who would be better suited for the task. – As for me… I deserve what destiny has dealt me. I am content now with paying the price for my sins."
The grey eyes in front of him narrowed in utter confusion.
"And what exactly would your sins be, son?"
"You know that perfectly well, Elfhelm." Éomer mirrored his expression, only that it was glowering anger that sparkled in the deep brown. "Why are you still asking? Because you want to make this even harder for me?"
"Because I do not know!"
"Aye, you have forgotten, have you?" the king spat, restraint and understanding forgotten, for he did not want to believe what his former friend was putting him through. "You don't remember that Midsummer Ceremony at Iséndras from two years back... and what happened afterwards!"
"Iséndras?" the Lord of the Eastmark rebuked, incredulous. Just where was Éomer receiving all these delusions? He shook his head with grim determination. "We have never been to Iséndras for the Midsummer Celebration! We always went to Aldburg that day, as befitting the Third Marshal and his entourage. The Westmark is Erkenbrand's realm, not ours. It is his responsibility to show himself to the people that look up to him; it was ours to represent Théoden's power in the eastern part of the Mark. I cannot believe I should have to remind you of that!" No reply. "Théodred was with us that day, too! We stayed at your former home and went to the bonfires when the night came, and I challenged the two of you to a drinking contest and won! I was even laughing at you and saying something in the likes of 'the youths not being used to Rohirric traditions anymore' and what disgrace you and the king's son were to us hard-drinking Éorlingas! And I was laughing even harder when you took offence at that and tried to stand up to fight me – only to fall flat on your face! You were so drunk you didn't even bother to get up and fell asleep on the spot! Maybe that is why you cannot remember anymore!"
"I remember quite clearly, Elfhelm, that is the problem!" Those grey eyes, silently cursing him for what he was about to do. Cursing him for what he had done the morning after, again wordlessly, but making sure that their message was being understood. "I see your face before me, the way you looked at me when I told you to summon that woman to my tent… You were disgusted, and it was justified!"
"In Aldburg? You were not staying in a tent in Aldburg, and there were no women in your home, either! Valar, you did not even make it home that night, you were too far gone! I had tried to set you up with two women who were battling over your attention the entire night, and you passed out right there at the fireplace! That is what happened at Midsummer two years ago! Even if you don't recall the occasion, I do, because it was probably the only happy memory I have from that time before war came upon us again! If you feel that this is something to be ashamed of, so be it, but killing yourself over it and leaving Rohan without a king would clearly be an extreme reaction... and quite irresponsible of you!"
"You think that this is the right time for jesting?" Éomer sneered, seething with red-hot anger. Why was Elfhelm doing this to him? The big man shrugged and just as quickly discarded his attempt to playfully coerce the king into sharing the truth about what was ailing him when he saw the intense rage in the dark, pained eyes.
"I thought the incident was something to be amused by, aye. But I wasn't jesting. I still don't understand--"
"Again, I was not talking about what happened in Aldburg."
"Then tell me what you were talking about, for I still cannot follow you! Maybe you need to hear it once again: We never went to Iséndras for Midsummer, and certainly not two years ago! I remember that celebration very clearly, son, and I am certain that if you start thinking about it, you will realise that I am speaking the truth." Elfhelm paused and took a deep, deliberate breath while he waited to detect a sign in the king's expression that he indeed did think on his words. He also lowered his voice again as he was becoming aware of people turning their heads y further back in the hut. "That woman that you said you supposedly ordered me to summon to your tent..."
"Not 'supposedly', Elfhelm," snapped Éomer, growing insecurity making his tone even sharper now. Nothing was adding up. There were pictures in his mind of the incident the marshal had described. He even remembered having been severely hung-over the next day, even though he was anything but untrained when it came to Rohirric drinking rituals. Stubbornly he insisted: "It happened!"
The big question. Was he man enough to say it? To admit it out loud? But Elfhelm knew already, so what was the point in getting choked up over his devious deed? Still, Éomer could not bear to look his older friend in the eye as he finally said the words. They tasted bitter on his lips, and they felt wrong.
So much blood! Her blood! Her wide, blue eyes, glazed with horror and shock, staring at him. Crimson rivulets on porcelain skin. Delicate fingers touching her split lip... Valar, what had he done...!
"I- I forced myself on her." He swallowed. "And I struck her… I- I hurt her quite badly and I don't know what--" To his surprise and, at first, intense anger, Elfhelm would not even let him finish his confession before he interrupted.
"Well, I know what: Gríma Wormtongue is 'what'." The marshal snorted in disgust. "I assume he gave you food while you were his prisoner? He did not starve you, did he?"
"I did not eat."
"But you drank."
Finally, it all was becoming clear! Immensely relieved, Elfhelm ran a hand through his tangled hair and sighed with relief. So there was the explanation! He should have been able to guess earlier. When he shook his head this time, it was with great conviction.
"No, my friend, there is no 'but'. The filth poisoned you. He made you drink one of his vile potions and whispered his venom into your ears, just as he did with King Théoden. Valar, Éomer, we both spent years trying to fight Wormtongue's influence over your uncle! Do you think he would have believed Gríma's accusations and banished you if his mind had not been corrupted by that snake's evil sorcery? You know as well as I do how Gríma had been telling him nothing but lies! And it is beyond me how – as someone who has witnessed first-hand what happened to your uncle - you should be willing to believe this scum now that you are in the same place! To believe your greatest enemy – rather than an old friend?"
Finally, a first hint of insecurity on the king's face! Confusion over the logic of his words. He was beginning to get through! But it was not enough yet. Éomer's mouth worked as he tried to make sense of what Elfhelm had told him. Of the clashing images in his mind. Of the bonfires, of Théodred laughing into his ear over a dirty joke – and the sweet taste of wine from Théandran's lips before she fought back.
"But – I remember it as if it happened yesterday! I can even smell her!" No more anger in his voice. Nothing but utter confusion was left.
'What is your name, woman? – Théandran, my lord...'
Elfhelm's big hand closed around his good shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. The scarred face hoverering above him conveyed nothing but utter sincerity.
"Trust me, my friend, had you attempted anything like this, I would have stopped you. I would not have brought you that woman and turned away, paying no heed to the consequence. I would have had some serious words with you to bring you to your senses… if it had been necessary. But you... and forcing yourself on a woman..." He felt the insane urge to laugh into Éomer's face - the idea seemed too bizarre – but he suppressed it. This was hardly the appropriate reaction."In the past, you beheaded two men yourself for just that crime. Do you remember?" The younger man's face said he did. "You never showed anyone mercy who was guilty of that act. Violence against those who could not defend themselves was the crime that always brought out the worst in you. And now you believe you would have stained your own honour in that manner? It is madness, Éomer!"
Silence. The expression of self-loathing and shame in his friend's eyes had melted away and been replaced by a deep thoughtfulness. There was still uncertainty... but also thankfulness... and hope. A faint spark only, but one that Elfhelm was determined to nourish. He cleared his throat.
"Listen, Éomer... even if you do not believe anything else that I've said, believe me now when I swear that in all these years that we've ridden together, I have never seen you do anything that would have met with my disapproval… and you, of all the men I have been riding with, know best that I am a man of strong principles!"
The battle was won. Elfhelm could tell that – even though there was still a last shadow of doubt in his friend's heart – he had chased away the demon that had been planted into Éomer's mind by their old, common foe. The expression on the king's face spoke more clearly than a thousand words: An exhausted, very weary, but unmistakable smile. Only a shadow, really, but it made Elfhelm's heart beat faster with joy.
"Aye... that you are, Marshal Elfhelm." Another coughing fit, but when it abated, the slight smile was still there. "When I was but a boy, your men used to call you their 'high judge' because your wrath would be horrible whenever you found a man not performing his duty
Yes! More of the 'real' Éomer. Elfhelm returned the smile, relishing the sweet taste of one of the most important victories he had ever achieved. He had saved his friend's mind; now they had to ensure that his body would endure, a battle in which he could not assist the young king, as much as he wanted to. His only help in this matter of life and death had to be to give moral support – and revive Éomer's fighting spirit. The great warrior was certain that once his friend truly wanted to live again, he would win this battle. It was common knowledge among the Rohirrim that once their former Third Marshal and now king had set his mind to something, he was apt to plough through granite walls to achieve it.
'I hope we meet again, Gríma! If we do, I shall wring your filthy neck for doing this to Éomund's son!' In spite of his usually stiff and always controlled bearing, the marshal patted the wounded man's hand before he leant back.
"Aye, son, that sounds like a fitting name for me indeed… Believe me, you did none of the things that Wormtongue accused you of. He must have used his potions to plant them into your head."
Éomer was looking straight through Elfhelm as he recalled his conversations with the evil counsellor on their way to the doomed village. His voice had a faraway, dreamlike quality as he recounted his captor's accusations.
"He told me that my men loathed me. That I only made it through the ranks because of my ancestry and kinship with Théoden…" His eyes focussed again. "And he said that the people of Rohan feared me... that my reputation among them was that of a ruthless and greedy man." He could not bring himself to tell his old friend Wormtongue's words about his crimes he had committed against Éowyn. For all the lies his captor might have told him for two days, the accusations concerning his sister still had a ring to them that sounded true.
The older man was taken aback by his words.
"For Éorl's sake, Éomer, your people and your men love you! How can you doubt that even for a moment? Forget what that snake said. There is notliving soul in all of Rohan who would not crawl on hands and knees through the plains of Gorgoroth and back for you, even if the Dark Lord's army were still there and torturing them every step of the way!"
He raised his head as a slender, young woman approached them with a bucket full of steaming hot water smelling of fresh of herbs. Elfhelm held out his hand to turn her around and make her face him as she stopped next to the king's bed. "What is your name, woman?"
"Árdwyne, my lord."
"Árdwyne, what do you think of our king? I order you to speak openly and freely, as the king demands to hear an honest answer from his people."
"My Lord…" she bit her lip, clearly intimidated by the marshal's intensive stance and also feeling Éomer's eyes on her as she turned to him. It was an awkward situation. What to say? A hundred possible beginnings went through her head before she finally chose to keep her reply brief and simple. "I can only speak for those I know, the people of this village and our neighbours, but... I know of nobody who speaks without the greatest respect of our king. The people of the Westfold love you and there was great joy when we heard tidings of you succeeding King Théoden. Just like the Lord Erkenbrand and the king's son, you made us ever feel protected and listened to, even in those times when you were still the Third Marshal. We know that you and your men constantly risk your lives in protection of us commoners, and it is something that we have not the words to thank you enough for. 'tis is the truth, my lord." She bowed and turned her gaze to the ground, her face turning crimson with abashment. A moment of silence ensued.
"Thank you, Árdwyne. Those were beautiful words." Elfhelm raised his chin and looked down on Éomer in challenge. "Will this do, son, or shall I go and summon each and every of our kinsmen to this bed to tell you more of the same?" He would not have to; he could read the certainty in the younger man's softened expression even before Eomer gave the tiniest nod of appreciation to the woman, too moved to speak. Elfhelm took a deep breath. The wave of relief that suddenly washed over him was almost painful. The woman's passionate confession had been the last straw. His friend was back. Now he had to endure. Having a goal would help him walk the rocky road that lay still ahead of him. "You will have to promise me that you will fight now, son."
Another ghost of a smile.
"Don't worry, old friend."
"You want to see Gríma brought to justice, won't you? You want him to bleed for all the evil he has done! Valar, I want to see him bleed for it, too! You owe it to Rohan, Éomer! You owe it to us as our king - you can't let this filth triumph over you."
Elfhelm liked the sparkle in Éomer's eyes. He knew its meaning, had seen it often enough. Whenever that sparkle was directed at another person, that person was in trouble. Whenever it was lit by a difficult and challenging task, the task could be considered done. Éomer's will was back. Elfhelm nodded grimly, the hand resting on his friend's leg giving him a reassuring pat.
"That is the spirit, my friend."
"Excuse me, my lords..." Árdwyne had been silently waiting at Éomer's bedside and was now lifting up the bucket she had carried. "I am sorry, but the Lady Sarabande will be here shortly, and I have yet to fulfil my task." She cleared her throat before she addressed the king. "I have come to wash you, my lord." A side-glance at the marshal. "Please, my Lord Marshal, if you could assist me?" She held up a cloth and looked at Elfhelm in silent question. Elfhelm nodded and drew his dagger.
"I assume you will have new clothes for him once you are done and I don't have to be careful cutting these disgraceful rags off him?"
"Aye, my lord. The lady will bring them when she returns." She turned to Éomer while the older man began to cut through the dirt-stained and ripped leather tunic. "I am sorry, Sire, but it would not do you any good if she had to open that wound further and afterwards put those dirty clothes on you again."
"I understand…" Éomer was not certain whether his attempt at a smile came through, when his attention was suddenly claimed by the sound of ripping leather as Elfhelm tore the last parts of his tunic apart with his bare hands, and he hissed at the sudden movement. A cold draught hit his heated skin and caused his flesh to crawl.
"Sweet Eru…" the marshal's broad face contorted to a deep frown as he eyed the black and purple bruises that marred the younger man's body from the collarbone all the way down to his hips. "What did that snake do to you?" He bent forward to examine a particularly dark, hoof-shaped bruise on the king's side as the healer's assistant pulled a chair close to sit on and went to work.
"I fell under Firefoot. It was not Gríma." Éomer closed his eyes and relished the sensation of the warm water running from his brow down to his chin. Somewhere further behind in the hut, the man cried out again, and he turned his head to look, but found his view blocked by too many people. Deep lines of concern appeared on his forehead. "Who is that back there? The man they are tending to?"
"Bergon. You don't know him. He just moved to the éored two months ago."
"What happened to him?" Silence. Obviously Elfhelm did not want to tell him. Fine. There was someone else he could ask. The young woman was done cleansing his face and was just dabbing carefully at the gash on his brow when he sought her attention. "If you know, tell me, Árdwyne."
She inhaled deeply. She had not wanted to tell for fear that the bad tidings would further weaken the king's spirit. But what was she supposed to do when she was asked directly?
"He… he took an arrow to the stomach, my lord. I am afraid it is not looking good. Sarabande is doing what she can, but…" She shrugged. "Some injuries are beyond even our healing skills." Her throat tightened, and she coughed to clear it while she put the dry cloth down and took the wet one from the still steaming bucket again to start on his neck and shoulders. Éomer fell silent. That man – Bergon – was dying over there. For him. The knowledge put a bitter taste in his mouth now that he was actually close enough to witness the horrible results of Elfhelm's attack. As it seemed, his friend had bought his life with the lives of his men… Was the life of a king worth the lives of eight soldiers... and most of the men at that doomed village? Was he worth it? Elfhelm said he was. Could all the images in front of his inner eyes in fact be the creation of the Wormtongue? But how could this be? He had seen the woman at Iséndras, and the villagers' hate for him. How could all have been an illusion?
The hot cloth arrived at the region around his bad shoulder, and he tensed. She noticed, and – if possible – her touch became even lighter, almost weightless.
"I am sorry, my lord... but it has to be done."
"Aye, I know. Go ahead. Pay me no heed." He turned his head to look at her. She had a plain, unremarkable face and tangled ashen hair that was bound in a tight braid. She was neither pretty nor ugly. Someone who – given her also quiet nature - would be easy to overlook under different circumstances. But here, from up close, in the middle of fulfilling her task, in the middle of helping people, there was a soft, magical glow to Árdwyne's face that made her beautiful in a different way. There was comfort in her presence. He was in good hands...
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