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Rohan Ghost Story, A: 18. The Last Battle
The cowards were fleeing. They were actually too afraid to engage in combat! This was most unusual for the Rohirrim, Wormtongue pondered while he strode through the corridors of the Hornburg in haste, his glance sweeping the surroundings for possible traps. There were none that he could see. Apart from the locked doors that took his Uruks only moments to tear down, he had been able to detect no means of defence whatsoever he had been able to detect. A look into the armoury had revealed that they had started on turning pieces of firewood into sharp stakes, presumably to be used for deadly traps, but something had made them abandon their plan... or maybe there had not been enough time. How great had the advantage been they had paid for so dearly on the mountain path? A few hours? Half a day? Or less than that, had something delayed them in the mountains? Whatever it was, this was not what Wormtongue had expected to find. After the first damage the riders of the Mark had inflicted on his army on the ramp, they had done nothing but running away. A most unusual strategy, and unheard of from a people that, above all, held honour in such high esteem.
"They were here for a while," one of the half-orcs growled as they tore down the door behind which the royal chambers lay. A fire flickered in the fireplace over which an iron bowl hung. The bed had been used, and there were blood-stained bandages laying on the table close by. A grim smile spread over Wormtongue's face. So the king was indeed still here. He had not become a victim of the elements. Very well. Personal revenge was still a possibility.
"They're not in the fortress, Master." Another Uruk-captain approached him from behind, tensed, angered, barely able to restrain its eagerness to engage in battle. But where was the enemy? To Gríma, it was no question. He knew the system of tunnels and caverns behind the Hornburg very well.
"They will be in the caves, maybe making for the mountains again. But without their horses, we shall be upon them very soon." He turned around and pointed down the corridor where another group of Uruks were throwing themselves against another locked door. "That is the way."
The noise of approaching steps on the stairs. The sound of heavy bodies moving in the narrow tunnel, the creaking of armour. Distorted shadows dancing menacingly in the flickering twilight. The enemy was coming. So convinced were they of their triumph, they did not even care to advance in silence. What were they thinking? That the sound of their approach alone would send their enemies into a rout? They were not about to panic. They were not about to give in to fear. True to Rohirric tradition, they were prepared to sell their lives at the highest price possible, and as Elfhelm took a brief glance over his shoulder and saw the grim determination he was feeling himself in the expressions of the others he was sharing this tunnel with, he was satisfied. The woman was there, too, a bow in her hand. Her expression was tense, but concentrated. She was trusting him with her fate. They all were laying their lives into his hands. The feeling was both one of great pride – and fear. Was this incredible trust justified? Had he chosen the right strategy? They would know soon.
As the sound of the approaching enemy drew nearer, arrows were dipped into barrels of oil they had brought down. Their tips were wrapped with thin stripes of cloth and soaked up the liquid.
The first hulking figures appeared at the foot of the stairs, armed with intimidating looking black blades. Ready to hew their enemies to pieces, and more spilling into the vast main cave behind them. More and more of the foul creatures entered, their crossbows readied and pointing into the flickering twilight ahead, ready to rip the life out of their enemies. Fire reflected in yellow, murderous eyes.
Elfhelm nodded at his men and held the tip of his arrow into the pot with hot ash they had brought along. It flared up at once. In the other tunnel, he knew his Dunlending scout would imitate his actions, and behind him, his men followed his example. A careful glance through a hole in the rock. Still more Uruks poured into their sanctuary, searching for their precious man-flesh. Their army was now a single dark shape with many heads and many voices, snarling, growling, bellowing.
They advanced, all senses strained. The first set foot into the standing water, waded through.
More orcs passed the pool. The main body of the hostile enemy was now inside the cavern, befouling their sanctity; their purity. They fanned out like a group of seasoned hunters, forming a wide line to drive the enemy towards the other entrance, which they knew by now was blocked. Many of them in the water now.
Bows were drawn.
One of the Uruks, a particularly huge shape, started forward into their tunnel – and was greeted with a rain of fire-arrows! Two embedded themselves into its chest and forced a pained roar that made the rock reverberate with its fury – but the sound was drowned out as the other arrows found their aim in the pool, and the water erupted into flames!
"Forth, Éorlingas!" Elfhelm had traded his standard short sword he used in mounted attacks for a two-handed broad-sword, and his first strike clove the stumbling Uruk captain apart in the middle. It fell like a hacked tree. Infernal roaring greeted him in the main cave as he ran towards the twisted burning shapes, finishing them off one by one as he went, his men close behind. Ducking to the side, he cleared the way for the archers, and another hail of deadly arrows passed him to find their targets. From the corners of his eyes, he saw more men pouring out of the other tunnel that was held by his scout, but he did not have the time to see how his kinsmen were faring, because a burning silhouette was running towards him, the black blade raised above its head. Less than a heartbeat to anticipate his defence! Whirling and ducking simultaneously, Elfhelm evaded the blow that landed in the rock next to him with flying sparks, and thrust his sword into the creature's middle with his entire body-weight behind the strike, skewering his foe. He had barely drawn the blade out again when five more came charging his way.
"Kill them! Kill them all!"
Behind his escort of four of the strongest Uruk-hai, Wormtongue stood on the last step of the stairs as everything in front of him went up in flames. What were they doing to his wonderful creatures? Aghast, the counsellor stared at the stumbling dark shapes in the sea of fire, and more than one head turned to look at him. The main body of his army was still outside the water, but their losses from the first attack were still considerable.
Frantically searching for new instructions for his hesitant soldiers, Gríma's mouth opened and closed not unlike that of a trout. Nothing would come. Nothing but –
"They're coming from the tunnels! Make for the tunnels and evade the water! Go!" This was unlike anything the Rohirrim had ever done in battle! This was not their style! They were a brave, but simple people, and finer strategy was not their game! And there was this accursed issue of their 'honour', which had always seemed ridiculous to Wormtongue, even when he had still been in King Théoden's service. It went against everything the Rohirrim believed in to hide in the darkness and slaughter their enemies through some foul trick instead of engaging into noble one-on-one battle. So why were they doing so now? And why had he not anticipated this? What did a cornered animal do when there was no space left to retreat ? It attacked! Was this their last charge, the last desperate protest against their inescapable fate? If so, he would squash it underneath his foot!
Moving into the cave behind his escort, Wormtongue watched as his army charged into the tunnels like a great, two-headed black snake, killing everything in its path.
"They are coming! Fall back! Fall back!" Thor's bow sang, and his arrow left the string to become part of the deadly horizontal rain his men were greeting their attackers with. The first line of Uruks fell, but the others came at them so fast, there was no time to ready their bows again. Letting the weapon fall where he stood, the scout – in the same motion – drew his sword and spun into the wave of black flesh, dealing out a mighty strike with his blade. The two hostile forces crashed into each other like waves against unyielding rock.
They had made it back into the tunnel, but now the narrow path was filled with hacking, slashing, fighting enemies, and there was no evading the long jagged blades that were scything their way.
"Fall back!" Elfhelm yelled, spinning on his heels and, as the last of his men, charging down the tunnel deeper into the mountain to the next corner, where they had stored a great number of spears. The smoke had invaded the tunnel and made it increasingly harder for them to breathe, let alone see their enemies.
"Marshal! Down!" Arnhelm was turning as were the others, their arms drawn back. As Elfhelm dove to the ground, rolling and landing on his feet, a dozen spears simultaneously passed over his head and felled the orcs on his heels. A moment later, he had his sword in his hands again and swung it against the first creature that cleared the fallen. Sparks flew as it hit metal. The impact almost knocked the weapon from his hand and numbed his fingers. His arm was seized and almost squashed with brute force, and a foul stench invaded his senses as gaping jaws wide enough to swallow his head whole opened before him. His reaction was pure instinct, not time to think. The left hand to the hilt of his dagger, a vicious upwards-cut. The unarmoured orc was laid open, its innards falling in a steaming pile to the ground. It sank to its knees, and the battle surged over it like a tidal wave.
"Thor! Behind you!"
The scout rolled, not even taking the time to look over his shoulder, and a blade scythed through the space he had occupied just a heartbeat before. Yellow eyes sparkled with infernal bloodlust as the creature charged after him – and was stopped by a spear through its throat. A dark gush of blood spurted from its mouth as it fell backwards and disappeared in the smoke..
Another dark shape in front of him. Thor's sword arm cut upwards, gutting the orc, and as its sword fell to the ground and the creature clasped at the wide gash in its middle, he dealt it a mighty blow that severed its ugly head.
A moment to breathe, but as soon as the hot air reached his lungs, he broke into a violent coughing fit. The smoke was so dense now, it threatened to suffocate him, making his eyes burn and water, blurring his vision. He was not even sure anymore in which direction he was headed, back towards the main cave or deeper under the mountain.
Another silhouette was moving his way. Friend or foe? He held the sword raised, but dared not to strike. Orc or friend? Squeezing his eyes shut to clear his vision, Thor stepped backwards, hoping for the smoke to clear before he'd have to decide.
The silhouette solidified into the figure of an advancing Uruk, and he readied himself for the strike, even though his shoulder muscles were slowly starting to burn with fatigue. There were just too many of these accursed things! They were killing them by the dozens, but still more kept on coming, and every man they lost hurt them more grievously than the Uruk-hai losing ten. With a battle cry, Thor met his foe's blade – and was pushed backwards by the raw strength of the enemy, their swords caught between them. There was no withstanding the Uruk's power; he had to rely on his greater agility. Suddenly jumping backwards, he freed himself of the orc's hold and corrected the position of his sword by a mere fraction – enough for the creature to skewer itself through its own forward momentum.
Breathing heavily and again coughing from the smoke, the scout withdrew his blade, frantically scanning the way before him for danger. The strike from behind came unexpected.
Almost his entire host was fighting in the tunnels now, a place Gríma did not intend to enter until the last of their foes had been slain. They were still putting up grim resistance, he had to admit grudgingly, more than he would have given those stubborn peasants credit for, and his fingers tensed around the hilt of his dagger. Cursing at himself for not bringing along a better weapon with more reach, he scanned his surroundings and found that there were no Rohirrim left in the main cave. They were either dead, floating lifelessly in the shallow pools of water, or had retreated into the tunnels from where distinct battle noises could still be heard. There was no danger left here, and so he sent his escort ahead to help their brethren.
Smoke bit into his eyes and he had to hold his sleeve in front of his mouth to breathe in the stinking, hot air as he passed through the fallen in search for a more suitable weapon and finding it in a short, but well-balanced sword of a fallen Rohir close by. He was just weighing it in his hand when movement at the entrance of the closest tunnel claimed his attention. His first instinct was to run, but then he saw the towering shape of one of his Uruks driving the dark-haired warrior backwards into the cave, and he realised the opportunity. He knew this man. He was part Dunlending. With the skills he possessed, he could have been a great help to his subdued brethren, so what business did he have fighting for the other side? He had to be punished!
Silently, stealthily, Wormtongue approached the still fighting combatants, just in time to reach them when the filthy traitor had brought the orc to his knees. The sword felt good in his hands as he lashed out with all the strength he could muster. He had never learnt more than just the basics of the art of swordplay, but there was no skill necessary for what he was doing. His blade went through the leathern armour into the soldier's back where it met resistance. Still, it was enough to down the traitor, and Gríma was about to delivery the death-strike – when a new sound reached his ears. Shouting. Steps of many men. Men! It came from the stairs! He spun around, his wounded foe forgotten as all blood drained from his face.
It was not possible! It could not be! For once, all he had been dreaming of was in the middle of becoming reality – and now, through a trick, he would be denied his triumph at the last moment? This was not fair! But the sounds from the stairs left no doubt – Rohirrim reinforcements were coming to aid their brethren!
Drawing the collar of his cloak tight around his pallid face, Wormtongue hastily scurried through the carnage of the battle, but it was neither of the tunnels that he sought. There was another way, one these accursed Strawheads would not know of that would lead him safely into the mountains. He would then return to the safety of his lair in the Misty Mountains and think of a better, fool-proof plan to execute his wrath on the people of Riddermark and their king. And this time, he would come at them with an army mighty enough to lay all their lands to waste... The hidden pathway was not far. If he moved quickly, no one would ever know that he had been down here at all. There it was already, nothing more than a narrow, black hole in the rock, hardly wide enough to accommodate him as he went down on his hands and knees to climb in. Shadow swallowed him as the noise from the new arrivals filled the cave...
Elfhelm was a hardened warrior, but he was not used to fighting with a broadsword, and he began to seriously ask himself whether he hadn't committed a serious error of judgement by choosing that weapon over his usual shorter one. While whatever he hit with his vicious thrusts would stay down, the massive weight was beginning to take its toll on him, and it became increasingly harder to fend of the attacks that just kept coming at him from all directions. Twice the orc-blades had already found him when he had not been able to spin around fast enough, and while his armour had deflected most of their force, they had penetrated. So far there were only scrapes, but it was only a matter of time until a strike would cut through enough to maim him.
Their time was running out, Elfhelm thought as he saw another man fall under a Uruk-attack from the corners of his eyes. There was not much to see anymore, no overview of how many of his brave soldiers were still left, because all was obstructed by the dense, dark smoke that choked them and also was putting out the fires. It made the battle even more difficult, because it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe until the dark silhouette was already very close. Another shadow lunged at him and Elfhelm – with burning muscles - raised the sword and swung it in a half-circle through the air – and slipped in a puddle of blood. The velocity of his movement flung him forcefully on his side, and the sword clattered away.
The Uruk came to slithering halt and pointed his crossbow down – when a white-feathered shaft punched into its meaty chest. Roaring in pain, it dropped the weapon and glowered into the twilight of the tunnel from where the arrow had come. Frantically rolling away from the towering orc, Elfhelm scrambled to his feet and dove for the sword as his enemy remembered him. Gaping jaws opened to let out an enraged bellow – just when another arrow pierced its thick neck, burying itself in the creature all the way to the feathered end. Gurgling, it took a staggering step forward – and walked right into Elfhelm's mighty swing. The huge body tumbled to the ground, bleeding blackness.
Breathing heavily, Elfhelm leaned on his sword and turned his head to see who had come to his aid. He caught a fleeting glimpse of fire reflecting on flaxen hair, a body too slender to belong to any of his men – but then there was movement beyond the curtain of smoke again, and he swivelled...
... but it was no orc. It was a man, clad in full mail, his armour skilfully crafted and betraying his high rank. A man not part of his éored! What-
"Garulf?" He blinked, hardly able to believe his watering eyes as he let his sword sink to his side to stare at Marshal Erkenbrand's second-in-command. "Garulf! At last!"
"Marshal Elfhelm, Lord of Eastfold! What are you doing so far off your own territory, laying our precious fortress to ruin?" The warrior, a broadly-built, sturdy man about his age, walked up to him with an astonished expression on his face as he scanned the surroundings. The steps of more men could be heard behind him. Had they really made it? Was the nightmare over once and for all? "We came as fast as we could. Your messengers reached us yesterday evening, and we set out immediately, but that accursed storm slowed us down. I was already afraid we'd come too late and find nothing but Uruk-hai waiting for us here, but... it looks to me as if you did just fine by yourself, Marshal! How many of you are there?"
"We were twenty-five. I cannot say yet how many of them have survived." Elfhelm wiped his brow, but the sweat kept on burning in his eyes.
"Twenty-five!" The Westmark-soldier shook his head in disbelief as he performed a slow circle on his heels to scan the carnage of the battle. "We had to literally wade through dead orcs in the main cave. You did all that damage with only twenty-five men?" He smirked as he let his eyes wander once again over the dead orc to the marshal's feet and Elfhelm's grimy, smut-and sweat-smeared face and again shook his head. "You are an animal, Elfhelm! A beast! In the future, orcs will run when they merely hear your name!" His hand landed heavily on the warrior's shoulder.
"I would hope so," Elfhelm rebuked, still trying to catch his breath from the effort that lay behind him. "If we never see the filth again, it will still be too early." An appreciative nod. "You are a sight for sore eyes, Garulf, if I may say so! I was just about to give up." A quick glance over his kinsman's shoulders revealed more men than he could count in a rush. "You look disgracefully clean! Did you have to give battle at all?"
"Oh, we slew a couple of these foul things ourselves, brother, we just managed to take better care of our armour. Not everybody revels in taking a bath in the enemy's blood like you and your men. We did not come all the way just to bear witness to your glory." The hand slid down on Elfhelm's mail-shirt to stop at one of the cuts. Garulf narrowed his eyes. "You are hurt."
Elfhelm shrugged it off.
"Scrapes. It is nothing." He re-sheathed his sword and motioned for the few remaining men of his éored to follow him. "Let us find the others. There may be men who'll need help urgently. Árdwyne?"
"A moment, my lord Marshal!" A moment later, the young healer was at his side, her bow exchanged for a stuffed pouch she had filled with everything she had found in the healing room of the fortress earlier. She was far more eager to tend now to wounds than to inflict them. Nevertheless, Elfhelm gave her an appreciate nod.
"You handled yourself well, girl. You saved my life. Thank you."
She cast her eyes to the ground.
"Anyone could have done it. It was a coincidence that I was standing there. The creature was hard to miss."
"Don't belittle your deed. I felt bad enough about having to drag you into this battle, and this is how you repay me, woman!" He laughed as he turned to the waiting Garulf. "A woman slaughtered the Witchking of Angmar, and now another woman saves the Lord of the Eastmark! It deems me we should recruit more women to our éoreds in the future. They are made of stern stuff!" Laying an arm around Árdwyn's slender shoulders, he led her through the cordon of warriors along the tunnel back into the main cave. "I'm afraid I'll have to ask one more deed of you, although you must be as weary as we all..."
"You don't have to ask, Marshal," she gave back. "I'll be glad to be of help to your men. They fought for us all, not just for you... or the king."
"The king!" Garulf exclaimed as he followed them, kicking the carcass of an orc on the way to see whether he was truly dead. "How is the king faring? Could you free him?"
"Aye, we freed him. He is wounded, but safe. We brought him to the secret room. No orc made it past us, I'm sure of that. He slept through the whole battle. I'm certain that will be something to tease him with in the future. He will hate it!" His words were light, even if Elfhelm did not feel like jesting when he came to a halt at the mouth of the tunnel, forcing himself to look at the corpses in the shallow water and on the wet rocks. The flames were dying down, and the light in the cavern was sparse enough to hide the most gruesome details of the carnage. How many of his men had survived?
"Thor? Arnhelm?" There was movement further back, but through the smoke he could not make it out. "All who can still walk, move over here, so that I'll see you're still alive!" As the healer passed him to look where her help would be needed, he wiped his brow again with a grimy glove and then turned back to their rescuers, heavily leaning on his sword. Now that the danger was over, he found that every single bone in his body was aching. "How many men did you bring?"
"Fifty." Garulf raised an appreciative eyebrow at his comrade. " There were hardly enough orcs left to keep them satisfied when we got here. My respect, Marshal Elfhelm! I think you defeated them long before we came to finish them off."
He silenced as silhouettes materialised through the smoke, and with great relief, the Lord of the Eastmark recognised several of his trusted riders among them.
"Marshal Elfhelm? Please, come quickly!" It was the healer's voice, and it sounded distressed as she burst from the other tunnel, her face grimy with sweat and caked with ash. It cut through his initial feeling of relief like a knife. "It is your friend..."
Elfhelm's heart missed a beat. No. No, it could not be! Not Thor!
"My – Thor?" Garulf was forgotten as he fastened his steps to follow Árdwyne to the mouth of the narrow path. In the flickering light of a burnt-down torch, he saw a shape lying strewn across the way, the healer kneeling beside him. "Eru, no! Thor?"
Pain-filled black eyes looked at him as he kneeled down next to his fallen kinsman, the healer on the other side. An image that reminded him of how he had found Éomer and which still burnt in his mind. How bad was the scout's wound? He could not see it yet.
"Coward got me in the back," his comrade managed to say through clenched teeth. "It's not too bad, but still...!"
"Hold still, I need to look at it. Marshal, help me to get the armour off him." Together, they managed to open the clasps and ties, and Elfhelm hissed as he saw the deep gash on his scout's back. The healer sighed as she probed the wound and then looked up, tired, but relieved. "It looks worse than it is. The bone apparently stopped the blade. Let's bring him into the healing room where I can tend to the wound appropriately." She turned to the fallen man. "Can you walk ?"
"I will help you," Elfhelm offered, already slipping an arm under his friend's shoulders to pull him up. "Just your luck that the one time you let down your guard, it's only a weakling of an orc that gets you. Had it still been in possession of its full strength-"
"It was no orc, Elfhelm," Thor hissed, swaying as the marshal put him on his feet, his pained gaze meeting the other man's. "It was Gríma himself!"
"Gríma!" A moment of stunned silence.
"Gríma Wormtongue?" Garulf's confused voice came from behind, but Elfhelm barely heard the captain. "But isn't he dead?"
"We wish..." The marshal's glance darted frantically across the cavern, over the corpses in the water and on the rock. Nowhere could he see the counsellor's familiar black clothes and scruffy form. And he had not seen him in the tunnel he and his men had been defending either. His stomach turned to ice. "Where did he turn, Thor? And when?"
"Deeper into the main cave..." the scout hissed, torn between pain and growing concern. "Only moments before our aid arrived. What – nobody stopped him?"
The marshal's face became deadly white as he motioned Garulf to take his place and broke into a run up the tunnel, suddenly no longer sensing the fatigue.
"Oh no... oh no!"
Éomer tensed at the sight of the all too familiar figure in the buckskin tunic as she turned around to face him, his skin clammy from discomfort. They were in his tent again. Everything looked the way it had looked when... when... He dared not recall the image of all the blood smeared over her mouth and chin. Of the stark naked shock in her eyes. But then, a miracle happened: Théandran smiled at him. Slowly, with the grace he had admired from when he had first seen her. The grace that made him choose her. Oh, why had Éowyn done this to him? Helpless, he looked over his shoulder, but his sister was gone. They were alone... again.
Uncertain what the situation would lead to, he watched her approach and held his breath. Words of remorse came to his mind, and of shame. Bracing and searching for the words he wanted to say, he opened his mouth... but it was the woman who spoke first, still with the encouraging expression on her face. She came to halt in front of him and looked up.
"I had to speak with you, my lord. Please, tell your sister my sincerest thanks. I was not certain you would want to see me again."
"She did not tell me that it was you..." He began, deeply uncomfortable with the situation. Théandran took his hands, causing him even more discomfort. "If I had known, I ... I can't tell what I would have done. I..." Elfhelm's voice in the back of his mind: 'It never happened!' This was getting more confusing by the moment.
"I don't even know if you are real." He shook his head, knowing how ridiculous he sounded. But strangely enough, she seemed to understand.
"I am not, my lord. I have never been., and what you believed happened, never did. It was all in your head. Including me. I am nothing but a spirit Wormtongue invoked to torment you. A ghost, if you will." She raised his hands to gently brush her lips over them. "Fear not, Éomer of Rohan - your honour is intact. Your soul has not been tainted. You must forget me now." Her smile deepened at his confusion., his furrowed brow.
"Is this a dream?"
"Yes." She laid a finger on his lips. The touch of her hand sent a little spark through him. "A dream to undo the other dream, the darkness he planted into your head. Light and shadow. We will erase each other, and when you wake up, the memory of both will be gone. I know it is hard to understand." She embraced him now, and he willing let her do so, feeling strangely detached, almost weightless. Great pools of blue went up to meet his gaze.
"Before you forget me, it is my greatest desire to apologise to you for what Gríma made me do. I was too weak to defy him at first, but now, his hold over me is broken. Likewise his command over your memories of your sister and uncle. The king asked me to tell you that. He wanted to come, too, but there is no time for that… for your enemy is approaching." Her gaze went over his shoulder, and for a moment, she seemed to have forgotten about him all along. Had become all senses, as if she was listening to something he wasn't able to pick up yet. And then... he heard it, too. Faint only, in the distance, the echo of stealthy steps, of someone moving who wanted not to be heard. A sudden cold shiver went down Éomer's spine as Théandran's attention turned back to him, and the smile had vanished. All softness had left her face; and he recoiled from its sudden harshness. "My lord, he has come to kill you. You must wake!"
A muffled sound behind him, something heavy hitting the ground. Faint gurgling... and then the steps again. Closer now. He swivelled - and saw nothing. Confused, Éomer turned back to the woman still holding his hands – and twitched. There were only eyes now, great blue irises surrounding the black pupils that reflected the disturbing image of a hate-twisted, pale face framed by stringy black hair.
"Éomer, WAKE UP!"
The eyes disappeared – but the pale grimace remained, hovering above him like a cruel moon. A silver reflection in front of his eyes.
His hands and knees were chafed and hurt and he had several times run his head into a protrusion, but most of the way lay behind him now. Picking himself up from the ground as the low tunnel opened into a small, rectangular room, Wormtongue braced for the last part of his dangerous journey through enemy territory. He had made it thus far. Nobody had seen him, nobody had tried to stop him. If he was lucky, they did not even know he had been in the caves at all. The path into the mountains was only two more corners away and... but what was this? There was someone standing in front of him on the other side of the room he was about to enter, blocking his escape way. Gríma cowered behind the rock that shielded the entrance of the tunnel from where he had just entered.
He squinted. A warrior. He was not looking his way, but Wormtongue froze nevertheless and moved deeper into the shadow, quickly assessing the situation. What was this man doing here, instead of helping his kin fight further down in the caves, where every man was needed? What was he guarding... or whom?
A sudden fit of excitement seized the dark counsellor. But – of course! It could only be one person! And of course this had to be the place they would have brought him to; save behind their lines for as long as there was a single Rohir left who was still able to wield a sword in defence of his king... or so they thought! Valar, would he prove them wrong!
Letting his eyes sweep the rectangular room, Wormtongue saw a pair of legs on the left side of his range of view. A litter had been placed there, and it was no question who was lying on it. The Gods appeared to be in a playful mood today: First they threatened him with the unexpected arrival of Rohirrim reinforcements, only to reward him now with this final opportunity for revenge. A quick glance back to the guard. Still not looking his way. It was now or never!
Quietly drawing his dagger – he had left the sword behind as too complicated to move with in the narrow tunnel - he slipped out of the opening, silent as a shadow. Another quick glance at the litter. Yes, it was indeed the king, and he had his eyes closed and was not moving, so he was either asleep or unconscious... unable to defend himself. Helpless like a new-born... Oh, the opportunity…! Gríma had to bite down on the insides of his cheeks to keep himself from chuckling in surprised delight. So maybe he had lost the battle, but Rohan would be left kingless after all!
Five quick, silent steps brought him to the entrance. The guard never heard him coming up behind as the thin blade slashed through his neck, and he fell to the ground gargling and twitching, and then lay still in an ever-widening pool of blood. Wormtongue paused, exhilaration pulsing through his veins, and listened into the tunnel. There were distant shouts from the battle, steps of someone running far away, but nothing more. He looked back at the unmoving king.
"Now you die, Éomer of Rohan. Here and now, the line of Éorl ends..."
"Fraccas? Fraccas!" Elfhelm's lungs were about to burst as he ran up the ascending tunnel in full armour, the faces of the men he passed nothing but a blur. No answer. "Éomer!" The relentless drumming of his heart s made the blood churn through his veins and drowned out all other noises. A distinct notion that someone was following him, but he did not turn around. Up ahead, the flickering light of the torch in the secret chamber already illuminated the heavy darkness. He could see it! Could make out the opposite wall of the chamber already – and then someone stumbled backwards into his view, visible only for the blink of an eye. Dressed in a swinging black coat. For a moment, there was the slightest glimpse of a pale face... and then the shape jumped forwards again. "Éomer!"
This was too easy. After all the pain he had had to endure to execute his revenge, his adversary was lying unmoving before him, ready to be slaughtered like an offering in a heathen ritual. Gríma looked down in wonder at the king's sweat-beaded, drawn face, the only thing visible under the heavy blankets covering him, deeply torn by his desire to taste the full glory of this moment, his personal triumph, and the knowledge that he had to leave.
Slowly, almost ceremoniously, he wiped the blade clean of the guard's blood with his sleeve: He wanted for this to be perfect... pure. Below him on the litter, Éomer muttered something in his fever-dream, drawing his eyebrows together in worry. Lines formed on his forehead. It was as if he sensed the imminent danger, but could not wake, the prisoner of his nightmares. The sight of his adversary's discomfort brought another gleeful smile to Wormtongue's face as he raised the dagger, his eyes on the king's neck. Too bad he had not the time to make the king suffer through his last moments. A quick slash through the throat would have to do, for he had to be on his way. The Rohirrim would not leave their king so poorly guarded for long.
Bending over the unconscious man, Gríma felt a brief moment of regret: Too bad Éomer would never know who killed him. Too bad he was not awake to see his death coming. There would only be a few moments of sharp, breathless agony, the taste and feeling of drowning in his own blood, and then it would be over far too quickly. A pity…
He lashed out – and suddenly found himself looking into alert, dark eyes before the world exploded in a blinding white fireball!
No time to think. His bound right arm uselessly twitching against his torso, Éomer left fist shot upwards, blocked the strike and landed with a crunching sound in the pale face above him. The figure yelped and stumbled backwards, a dark gush of blood shooting from his nose through his fingers.
His body would not obey as he swung his legs over the left side of the litter, dropping into the narrow gap there like a sack of meal, and landing on his knees. An awkward moment when he went for the dagger under the blanket with the hand he was supporting his weight with and almost fell.
Elfhelm's distant voice, but it was drowned out by the animalistic yell of his adversary as the dark counsellor jumped towards him, the bloodied face with the wide eyes a grimace of absolute hatred. A blurred notion of white, black and silver. Channelling all his reserves into a last cry of defiance, Éomer's hand with the dagger shot out from under the blanket - just as the impact of Wormtongue's body threw him into the wall behind! Something scraped over his left ear.
Two huge, pale-blue eyes in front of his face, widening in shock. The mouth working, but instead of words a red flood spilling over the already bloodied chin, raining down on him. His hand, still closed around the hilt of the dagger, slippery and sticky too. He held on to it, his gaze locked on Wormtongue's as his enemy slowly sank to his knees, onto him. The sensation of smooth metal pressing against his cheek, trembling as Gríma fought to turn his wrist and stab him in the eye with his last remaining strength, the dying body impaling itself further on the blade in its midst.
He braced – and then let the hand with the hilt make one last, violent jerk upwards. More hot wetness soaking his tunic. The dagger clattered from Gríma's fingers and the wide eyes first narrowed as the pale face contorted into a grimace of pain – and then broke.
"Éomer! Éomer!" His friend burst into the room, an expression of absolute horror on his face. More men on his heels. "Béma, no!"
'It is good!' he wanted to say. 'The snake is dead!' he wanted to say as he saw Elfhelm's widened eyes. But he was so far away all of a sudden. So far away...
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