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Rohan Ghost Story, A: 5. In the Hands of the Enemy
It was as Wormtongue had said. A ghostly pale sun had barely begun its ascent in the sky and started to melt away the thick blankets of fog that still lay over the narrow valley, when they finally came for him.
Cautiously leaned back with his good shoulder against the rock wall, Éomer had been watching the Uruks' preparations for the breaking of their camp for a while, his thoughts circling around the fate of the good people which had been rounded up in the pig pen like animals. There were many children among them. As much as he hated Gríma, the king refused to believe that his adversary would send his ghoulish army against them. Or would he? After all, no scruples whatsoever had stopped Gálmód's son from planning genocide at Helm's Deep!
'Aye, but only because he would not have to watch them die there,' he concluded, taking Wormtongue for a man who would rather try to avoid witnessing the carnage his actions implied. But what kind of 'lesson' was he speaking of? One could not teach lessons to dead people. An indication that the herdsmen would be allowed to live? If only he could believe it. Musing over Gríma's motive in his mind, Éomer watched his enemy's army getting ready to move. Against his own will, he was impressed by the straight-forwardness of the Uruk-hai. Once told their tasks, they appeared to get to them single-mindedly and did not stray from them until they were done, very efficient, and highly convenient for whoever would be leading them.
Still, one question remained unanswered: What was Gríma's hold over them? Why did they obey a scrawny, not at all intimidating weakling of a man? Granted, Wormtongue was - in his own, twisted ways - fearsomely cunning and intelligent, but as far as Éomer knew the different orc-species, they did not care much for intelligence. To impose one's self upon them as their leader, one would have to inspire their fear. It was hard to see how Gríma had accomplished that, and how he had managed to get a hold of them first. To Éomer's knowledge, all of Saruman's Uruk-hai had vanished in the sudden rout after their defeat at Helm's Deep. The Huorns of Fangorn had taken their revenge on them, a sight he had found hard to believe even though it had happened right in front of his eyes. Nowhere in the Riddermark had a single Uruk been seen after that incident, so it had been taken for a fact that they had all found death. Obviously, like Gríma's assumed death, this also had been but a rumour, born out of hope. Out of hope, his ever- vigilant kinsmen had let down their guard. It appeared that hope came with a very high price these days.
Shifting his position, Éomer gritted his teeth as another bolt of agony travelled through his nerve-endings from his pierced shoulder - he knew it had been pierced for he could feel the iron tip of the bolt scrape over the rock behind him whenever he moved his back, and the back of his tunic felt sticky and slick with blood. Gríma's potion had brought part of his strength back, but it had also increased the amount of pain he felt from a dull throbbing to a thunderstorm of hurt which made it increasingly hard for him to focus. Despite the morning chill, his brow was already beaded with sweat.
The fleeting reflection of something bright at the rock wall opposite his position brought Éomer back from his inner musings. What - the merest notion of a movement. The king narrowed his eyes in an attempt to make out what exactly it was that had caught his attention: something grey and furry. Something that did not want to be seen. Straining even more, he concentrated on the spot behind the empty branches of a dried-up bush, and there it was again, just for a heartbeat - the notion of the first light of the day reflecting on golden hair. Éomer shifted his view at once away from it, choosing to let his eyes rest on a pair of horses some wild-looking humans who appeared to be Dunlendings were loading with supplies, and his heart missed a beat. It had only been a brief glimpse, but since he had not seen Elana among her rounded-up family, he had already been worrying for the girl. Now he knew where she was, and her position was even better than he could have hoped for!
Taking a care not to let the direction of his gaze betray the girl's position to his enemies, Éomer's eyes strayed up and over the outcropping he had seen her on again, this time accompanied by an urgent prayer.
'For Eorl's sake, Elana, take your horse and ride to Edoras! Raise the alarm! Call help!'
His lips formed a grim line as he imagined how it would be to have Edoras' Royal Guard and the majority of the remaining éoreds come to their aid and once and for all kill this orc-scum that soiled the ground of the Mark through their sheer presence, but he would not let them kill Gríma. Gríma... after all that writhing, stinking, poisonous snake had done to his kin and country, Éomer would claim the privilege of bringing Rohan's bane to justice entirely for himself - and this time, the stinking rat's death would be very real, and certainly not a merciful and quick beheading...
Revelling in his thoughts of vengeance for a while longer, Éomer finally noticed the object of his violent reflections walking towards him with the two Uruk-hai captains that always seemed to accompany him. Not knowing what was to come, he tensed. The dark counsellor came to a halt in front of him and stared down taxingly while his hands played with a heavy-looking chain.
"It is time, my lord...I hope you rested as I told you to, as this is going to be a very long, hard day, and it looks like you are not in the best of conditions, if I may say so." A brief sparkle of malevolent pleasure accompanied Wormtongue's words as he passed the chain to the creature to his right. "Put this around his neck."
For a moment, Éomer thought of resistance as he watched the Uruk squat down beside him with wary eyes. Pride forbade for him to suffer any slight through the hands of an enemy willingly. Giving in would be the first step towards giving himself up.
'No! No use.'
It took a fierce effort to push the thought aside. There was nothing he could do, and fighting an impossible fight would only worsen his condition. There was no way of telling whether Gríma would grant him the opportunity for an escape attempt, but if it came, it would be foolish having to let it pass because he had no strength left to make use of it. The metal band was closed around his neck with an audible sound which pierced his heart with its finality, yet Éomer refused to let his despair show. He looked up, jaw set, at the one who was holding the other end of the chain.
"What is your plan, filth? Where are we going?"
Pale blue eyes met his unflinchingly. Oh yes, Gríma enjoyed looking down on him for a change! What a triumph for him to finally have the one who had opposed him even during the days of his secret reign over Rohan on his knees, and at his mercy!
"You shall see soon enough, my liege. Now get up and remember: any kind of disobedience will result in the death of one of your kinsmen."
The long hours on the cold ground had done their work to a point where the king found it almost impossible to follow Wormtongue's order: after being chained to the rock for the entire night, his arms were numb, his legs stiff, and as soon he began to move his battered body, the real extent of his injuries could no longer be denied by his stubborn mind When Éomer finally made it to his feet, he was drenched in sweat and his middle and upper body were throbbing like a rotting tooth. In addition, it felt as if all of Rohan's blacksmiths were busy in the limited space between his ears, pounding their hammers into the delicate, soft matter inside his head in a steady rhythm to get out. It was a major achievement to have made it to his feet on his own, an accomplishment of his still iron will, but then he would sooner die than let Gálmód's son triumph over him.
"Bind his hands behind his back!"
The Uruk-hai grunted their affirmation and went to work; one seizing the king in a grip which would snap his neck if he put up resistance while the other one opened the chains around his wrists, only to draw back his arms and lock them again even tighter on his back. The pull on his bad arm drained the colour from Éomer's face.
"You must be very afraid of me, snake," he spat, not able to bite back his contempt any longer. "Your prisoner is injured and in chains, and still you choose to hide behind the broad backs of your Uruk-hai. They may be loathsome, vile creatures, but at least they possess courage, which is more than can be said of you!"
"You would be well counselled to keep that heated tongue of yours behind your teeth, my lord," his adversary sneered in a low, dangerous voice. "Or shall I rather say, it would be in your kinsmen's best interest? The Gods know I am in a charitable mood today, which is why I will not punish you for your words, but be warned that this may be subject to change if you continue in this fashion. I may not feel like burning the rest of this clan's belongings, yet, but I dare not say how I might feel about it an hour from now. If you insist, I shall leave nothing but the black ashes of their tents behind." Gríma countered Éomer's glare with a meaningful side-glance at the watching herdsmen.
Again it was Fréod's face that brought the king to his senses. Slowly tilting his head to the right against the Uruk-hai's firm grip, Éomer found the eyes of Elana's clan directed at himself, their faces full of fright and worry. Their destiny seemed to lie solely in his hands. They had already lost their winter supplies and their horses. If help did not arrive soon, they would have to starve. Éomer would not have them suffer even more, like the loss of their shelter and their few possessions, only because their king persisted on keeping his pride intact.
The surge of fury abated. He needed to keep a cool head; he could not afford to let others bleed for his rage. All his adult life he had been roaming the Mark in protection of his people; he would not burden his conscience now by becoming responsible for their misery, particularly now since the faces he was staring at appeared to be more concerned for him than for themselves. Sobering at the discovery, he exchanged a meaningful look with the clan's leader.
'Do not fear for me,' his expression said. 'I can hold my own.' At least he hoped so. Gríma obviously did not want to kill him, at least not yet. This was a knowledge Éomer hoped he would be able to use to his advantage, even though he could not begin to think of a way just yet.
"The hour is getting late, my lord," Gríma spoke into his thoughts, his courteous tone in stark contrast to the implied meaning of his words. "We must move, as your presence is highly anticipated in other parts of your kingdom. We must not let your people wait."
A broad hand pressed against Éomer's back and pushed him toward a bay horse the two Dunlendings he had observed earlier were holding ready for him. The king's heart sank as he took in the appearance of his new mount: being of under-average height, the poor creature was severely underfed to the point where its ribs were clearly visible through its dull hide, and the thin legs seemed barely fit to support its own weight. This was no steed to stage his escape with. Firefoot... he needed Firefoot, more now than ever. Even with his hands tied on his back and thus unable to shift his weight to not hinder his steed's speed , Éomer was sure that the grey stallion would have been able to carry him to safety and even outrun the two wargs he spotted now for the first time at the head of Wormtongue's army. But such musings were useless. By the look of things, his trusted horse was lying dead among the rest of its kin further behind in the valley. He would have to find another way.
Not wanting to give away either his disappointment nor his true condition through his posture, Éomer straightened as he walked down the cordon between the patiently waiting Uruk-hai, his bruised and battered body crying out in pain. Roaring laughter rose as he briefly stumbled in the mud and almost fell to his knees. Insults were shouted at him, but he blocked them out, instead focussing on the horse they led him to. But then something shiny tumbled into his path, and he could not help himself, he had to see what it was. The sight of a blood-spattered, pierced cuirass froze his blood. He recognised it instantly, and a different kind of pain assaulted his senses. Éothain, his trusted marshal and brother-in-arms of many years... Léod, the nineteen year-old, keen-eyed scout he had moved into his personal éored only shortly after his return from Gondor... all the others... all were dead. nineteen men had been gruesomely slain last night, nineteen of Rohan's best warriors. The last man standing - was he. The question was for how much longer.
Something hit him in the chest and fell to the ground to the rising roar of the surrounding creatures: Éothain's helmet. And another one. A third one. Éomer closed his eyes, not wanting to see the devastating hail of his dead soldiers' belongings. Another helmet hit his thigh, then, suddenly, a sharp voice rang out.
"Enough! We have much ground to cover today, and we need to move! I know you are impatient to pay him back for the massacre which has been committed against your kind! There will be a time for your vengeance, but it is not now. Seat him on the horse, and then we shall be on our way. Rohan is waiting for us!"
They lifted him onto the unsaddled horse, an action which alone was an insult to any self-respecting Rohir, and fastened a second chain to the iron collar around his neck, the end of which was fastened to the saddle of the guard to his right, another blow to the king's feeble last remainders of hope. Now he was secured from two sides by chains, his weak horse bound to a third guard in front of him, and his hands tied behind his back. Gríma Wormtongue was too cunning to take any chances with his valuable prisoner. If Éomer was to escape from his foe's grasp, something unexpected would have to happen. His eyes again sought out the outcropping where he had seen the girl earlier, but there was nothing left to see for him. The king hoped that she was already on her way to Edoras.
A rising roar woke him with a jolt as the Uruk-hai screamed their affirmation to their master's command, so powerfully, it shook the surrounding mountains. The guard in front of him spurred his horse, and Éomer's own steed broke into a well-paced trot, followed by a host of running orcs. The last thing the captured king saw before the winding path blocked his view was the image of the frightened herdsmen in front of their burnt-down barn.
Elana sat silently on the ridge high above her clan's invaded settlement, in a place she had carefully chosen. Where she sat, the wind blew into her face, making it impossible for the wargs she had seen to pick up her scent, and Áriel was back in the secret cave. Deep in thought, she watched the host of nightmare creatures break camp and take the king with them. What was she supposed to do now? The burden which lay upon her back was the hardest she had ever felt.
The way to Edoras was blocked. There was no way to clear the fallen rocks with a horse. For the same reason, she could not use the two mountain paths in the valley, which led her to the question of how their enemies had managed to bring their own horses with them. Was there a way somewhere, some connection through a secret cave nobody knew of? It was hard to believe. Still, she could not afford to lose valuable time searching for it. The way the young woman understood the situation, there were really only two paths of action open to her, and both involved going the same way the enemy went, as there was no other way out of the meara-valley. Of course, since the path wound almost directly westward through the Ered Nimrais, it also meant that each step would take her further away from Edoras - and capable help.
The young woman was torn between two choices: she could ride ahead of Éomer's captors and alarm the settlements that lay on the way, but it would be a risky course of action. She could not be sure about where they were headed yet, and risk to lose them. If she knew one thing, it was that their young king would die if help did not arrive soon. Any delays in his rescue would come at a very high price, a fact which turned her thoughts toward the second risk: she knew nothing about the size of the other settlements' éoreds. The nearest one, situated one and a half day's journey further west was not large. Sometimes, her family had taken the trip to celebrate Midsummer with their fellow countrymen, but as far as Elana remembered, she had never seen more than fifty people at that place, women and children included. While a full éored consisted of one hundred and twenty riders, only Edoras and a few more settlements in the Westfold were populated enough to both man and equip them. As most of the others were basically self-contained when it came to their protection - a tribute to their often extreme remoteness - it was possible for an éored to consist of no more than ten men, hardly enough to fight the enemy they were faced with.
There was another risk: with the winter wind mostly blowing from the west, the wargs - and maybe those horrible dark things as well, would be able to pick up her scent. Áriel was fast and could probably outrun a warg, but the idea of one or even two of those huge, savage predators on her heels made her very afraid. There had to be another way.
So, what else could she possibly do? Ride after them, keep out of their sight and reach and observe... until she was sure which way they were headed? Was this the way to go? It sounded awfully passive. Cowardly. Elana did not like the feel of it at all, but as she glanced down again into the quickly emptying gorge below, she understood that it was the path she would have to go down at least for the first part of the journey. It was too late by now to ride ahead. She would wait a little, and then follow the broad track the enemy would inevitably leave at a safe distance.
The sun had passed its highest point behind the mighty mountain peaks, but its bright face could no longer be seen from below. A thick layer of dark, rain-promising clouds had - around midday - first assaulted the light, and shortly afterwards, a slight, uncomfortable drizzle had started to fall. The Uruk-hai, of course, did not mind. They did not mind cold, or heat, or pain; they knew neither fear, nor fatigue, nor exhaustion. They had already been running for the better part of the day, putting the leagues behind them without a single break. If anything, the horses would probably need a break before they would.
Éomer had experienced the legendary stamina of the White Wizard's creatures before, but only now, as he observed them more closely in order to find a possible weakness in the ferocious fighting-machines, did he notice just how hopeless his situation really was. All in all, he estimated Gríma's army consisted of somewhere between one hundred and fifty and one hundred and eighty, most of them Uruks and a few Dunlendings. His éored had undoubtedly done some damage, but even so, it would take a massive force to pose a serious threat to his captors. The young king knew that one of his marshals, Elfhelm, had to be somewhere in the region they were travelling through. The older warrior had left Edoras three weeks earlier to inspect the progression of the repair work at Helm's Deep and to see how things were at Isengard further to the west. With a little luck, they'd run into him and his éored. Yet Éomer also remembered clearly enough that - due to the post-war lack of men and horses - Elfhelm had only taken about fifty riders along with him when he left, not nearly enough to take on a battle with Wormtongue's Uruk-hai.
Inwardly sighing to himself, Éomer redirected his gaze from the steady up and down of broad, dark backs in front of him to the surrounding landscape. They had reached the high plains of the Westmark and continued west on one of the main mountain roads. If they did not change direction, they would reach the Gap of Rohan in about three days. The chance that Elfhelm and his men were still around was not that small. Against better knowledge, the king found himself occasionally scanning the distant hills for the uplifted tips of spears.
Another thought entered his head and added to the chill the slight drizzle had planted in his body: a number of smaller settlements lay along the way they were taking. Gríma appeared to deliberately avoid the larger ones, which would be armed well enough to put up resistance and maybe cause him problems on his way. The 'lesson' he had been talking about... it would no doubt be brought as a punishment to the unprepared clans of the remote Westfold, first, the nearest of which they would reach in about another day's journey. What did Galmod's son have in mind? A massacre as a humiliation of his foe? To demonstrate how truly powerless he was? The thought alone made the king shudder. What could he do to prevent it?
Not having anything else to brood over or occupy his mind with, Éomer shifted his attention to the horse carrying him. It appeared to be a simple beast, no pure-bred Rohirric war-horse with meara-blood in its veins, but then again, its trot was swift enough and it did not flinch from the vile running creatures that surrounded them, a credit to the animal's courage. There were few horses that could endure the presence of both orcs and wargs, their worst natural enemies. Maybe it was a better steed than he had originally thought. Maybe... maybe it would prove useful to him, yet, if the opportunity for an escape would present itself.
'And how likely is that?' the voice of reason within the back of his mind sneered. 'With two guards holding on to the chain around your neck, your hands tied on your back and neither saddle nor bridle to direct your horse with, which - lastly - is also bound to the one in front of you! If you want to escape, you might have a better chance to wait for the night and sneak away in the darkness.'
Right. Éomer harboured no doubt that Gríma would find something to chain him to for the night, and sneaking away from two patrolling wargs and a host of Uruk-hai would be a deed worthy of many songs, a deed he could hardly hope to accomplish. No, his only hope lay within the animal that was carrying him. The question was how responsive it was. Having been on horseback since before he could properly walk, Éomer, like all Rohirrim, knew that under normal circumstances, he would be able to direct a horse of Rohirric upbringing simply through use of his legs and bodyweight, and his own sense of balance would not let him slip from its bare back even at a full-speed canter. He possessed the necessary riding skills, but what about his steed?
Casting a secret glance at the surroundings guards, the king found to his satisfaction that the long, steady-paced journey seemed to have lulled them into a stupor, for they did not appear to pay overly much attention to their prisoner and were lagging a bit behind. Very well.
Very lowly, too lowly almost for his own ears, he began to hum, a soothing, calming sound in pace with the animal's steps. His efforts were rewarded with a first, slight twitch of the bay's ears, first one, then the other. It heard him. It was paying attention. A very slight smile tugged at the king's mouth, but he strangled the life out of it with a quick look at Wormtongue's dark silhouette further ahead. The animal was listening. Very well. A few low clicks with his tongue, and both brown ears turned backwards, in fact the horse was almost turning its entire head now.
Time to take the next, slightly more difficult step. He had to be subtle about this. If the horse responded too rashly to his efforts, his enemies would know at once what he was up to and think up further measures to make his escape impossible.
'You will not betray me, will you, horse of Rohan?' he thought - and applied pressure to the beast with his right thigh. A simultaneous, subtle shift of his weight - and his steed responded. Only with a slight change in direction, very accidental-looking to the surrounding guards. Except it wasn't! Excitement took a hold of Éomer as he repeated the whole procedure to the other side. Again, the inconspicuous animal performed flawlessly and confirmed to the man it was carrying that it had indeed once been the mount of a capable rider. Not of a Rohirric soldier, because it was too short to be used in battle, but a person experienced in the art of becoming one with his horse. It knew helps and orders given in the subtlest ways, even without saddle or bridle. The only question still open was the one concerning its speed and endurance. There were only four other horses among Gríma's army as far as Éomer could see: One belonging to the dark counsellor himself, and three more to the guards around him, which looked suspiciously like Dunlendings to Éomer. Dunlendings - since when could they ride? They would be no match for him, and their steeds didn't look much better than his own. Gríma - would probably not chase after him if he ran. His adversary was smart enough to know that he could very quickly turn from hunter to prey if only the slightest chance for revenge would present itself to his prisoner, and even with the bolt in his shoulder, Éomer was sure he had what it took to kill Wormtongue single-handedly. That left as his main obstacle the two warg-riders. He knew from experience that wargs could - at a short distance - outrun almost every horse. Would the small bay horse he was sitting on be able to stay ahead of them over a distance of maybe half a league?
'How big is your heart, my friend? Big enough to carry us both to safety?'
Resuming his humming, Éomer watched with silent satisfaction the effect on his steed. He could be mistaken, but it felt more relaxed beneath him. The king chanced a quick glance to both sides. The guards were still not paying attention, and the level of noise from the grunting and panting Uruk-hai seemed loud enough for him to switch to a very low, Rohirric chant that barely required him to move his lips. The horse snorted and held now both ears constantly in his direction. Its movements became soft and fluent under his weight. It was his now for the taking. Inwardly cursing about not having his hands free to stroke the animal's neck and thus confirming their newly-formed bond as he did with each horse he broke in, Éomer's thoughts returned to one of the few happier memories of the last years before the war, a memory tied to the same place they were riding through right now...
"I can tell there is something on your mind, brother. Why don't you tell me?" Eowyn's face was flushed from the onslaught of the wind, as she slowed down the bay mare from a breathtaking canter to a trot, and finally, to a walk. The animal was breathing hard after the race, but the way it proudly held its head and tail up high, she could tell it had enjoyed the wild chase as much as its rider. Riding bareback, with the feeling of the mighty muscles moving beneath her and with nothing to hold on to but the mare's long flowing mane, the experience had been as close to actually becoming one with her steed as possible. The rush of excitement was still making her reel as she turned around to face her brother, her long, golden hair flowing like a banner in the wind, wild and free. "What is it, Éomer? You did not expect to lose, did you?" she laughed.
Éomer looked at her in wonder, his heart suddenly aching with overwhelming love he felt for his younger sister. 'I should bring her along more often,' he thought, unable to take his eyes from Éowyn's radiant smile, a sight he had not seen in months, if not years. The stiff, tense bearing she always displayed at the Golden Hall had changed to that of a young, carefree woman with a hunger for life. 'Far away from that snake's influence. The poison of his sick mind cannot touch her out here.' He returned her smile and directed Firefoot alongside her mare.
"I do not envy you the triumph, dear sister, but you won because you are by far the lesser burden to your steed," he teased her good-naturedly and allowed his stallion to bump into the slender bay's side. "But even so, I have to agree that the mare appears to be a good pick. A suitable birthday present for the White Lady of Rohan, even if its colour is wrong."
Éowyn sighed theatrically.
"When will the day come when my proud brother, Third Marshal of Riddermark, will honestly admit he has been beaten by a woman at a fair game?" she laughed, her eyes sparkling. "Tell me, will I live to see it?"
"You may, but 'twas hardly a fair game," he gave back, cracking a big, brotherly grin at her. "Let us ride back, stuff you into the heaviest armour we can find and load a few bags of sand on your horse's back as well. Then we'll repeat the race and shall see who emerges as the winner." Éowyn groaned and moved as if to hit him, but of course, he blocked her and seized her wrist in an iron grip. "Now, this would be a game you would most definitely lose at, sister, but I would not call this fair, either. Only this time, it would be your disadvantage."
"Maybe so, but I could beat you with the sword. You know I have won in battle against several men of your éored already."
"I must admit that I heard about this rumour." He released her wrist, and even though he had been gentle, Éowyn pretended that she had to rub it to renew the flow of blood to her fingers. "But even so, there is a reason why I am their marshal." The grin was back. No way would he have his younger sister win a battle of words on his own turf. "You could not beat me, and I suggest you do not try, for I would not want to crush my sister's high spirits before we return to Edoras." At the last moment, he realised his mistake and bit down hard on his tongue, but it was already too late. The shadow of dread had already returned to Éowyn's face and caused the smile to falter so quickly and thoroughly that it seemed to have been but a brief illusion of happiness. Cursing himself for his stupidity, Éomer frantically sought for a way to undo the harm he had done, but it was she who spoke first.
"Éomer... I don't want to go back to Edoras." The sight of his sister's dismay pierced Éomer's heart. "I cannot tell you how much I dread it, this feeling of foreboding and decay... the oppressive silence in the dark halls..." Her eyes stared into the void. "Our uncle's illness... the decline of our kingdom... and the haunting echoes of his steps... I don't know how much longer I can take this." She finally turned to look at him, her gaze pleading. But what could he do?
"Éowyn... you know I have to leave for the northern borders very soon, and I cannot let you stay here unprotected. There are too many fell things going on in the Mark these days, and most of the time, it is the smaller settlements that fall prey to them. At least you will be safe at Edoras. I doubt they are feeling strong enough yet to attack us there."
"I would rather fight a host of orcs than face the evil which is ruling Meduseld," she rebuked harshly, and her tone did not leave him any choice other than giving it back. "You cannot imprison me in this tomb for the living forever while you take every chance to flee from it yourself!"
Éomer's eyes flared up in sudden anger.
"Flee from it? Our people need protection, sister, that is why I'm constantly gone! Do you not think I would rather stay and fight that snake in our own halls to keep him from spilling his poison across our lands?"
Éowyn did not flinch under his hard stare.
"But you expect me to fight that fight, and all alone, too!"
"No, Éowyn! I expect you to take care of our uncle, not to fight Gríma, and I expect you to stay out of harm's way until we can concern ourselves with him. Is that so hard to understand?"
"I do not wish to be left behind like a child or weak, old woman every time the men ride out to protect our country! I have proven myself to be a good rider and fighter, and Rohan is in dire need of those!"
"We will go back tomorrow, like I said, and I will say no more." He brusquely turned Firefoot around. "It will be dark soon. Let us go back."
"You are thinking of her..."
Wormtongue's voice spoke into his brooding and pulled him back into grim reality. Éomer tensed and felt his stomach twist into a knot, his usual reaction to the dark counsellor mentioning his sister. Éowyn's harsh words were still in his mind, even more vividly now with Rohan's bane riding so close to him. He had to fight to keep a bland face; he did not want to show his foe how close he had hit to the mark.
"I can see it in your eyes. I think of her, too, sometimes, quite often, in fact, but I believe my confession is hardly a surprise to you." Gríma had reined in his horse until he had fallen back far enough to talk to his prisoner. A gesture ordered the guard on Éomer's right side to fall back for as far as the chain let him. Now they were almost riding side by side... like good friends. The thought sickened the king, and Gríma's words caused his blood to boil to a point where he found it impossible to further ignore him. Too much, in fact, to even be able to cast more than a brief glance out of the corner of his eye without trying to find a way to strangle the snake with his bound hands. When he finally found his voice for a reply, it sounded cold and hard like steel.
"She is out of your reach, snake. You can do whatever you want to me, but at least she won't have to endure your lecherous looks anymore. Just the thought of you used to make her sick." His eyes remained fixed on a group of leafless trees up ahead.
To his surprise, Gríma smiled. Not looking at his adversary, Éomer did not see it, but he heard it nevertheless.
"And you would be the one who knew how she felt about me."
'Just what is he insinuating?'
"Everybody knew. She wore it on her sleeve. If you failed to notice, it was probably because in your greedy mind, you already possessed her! You never had a care for how she felt about you, because Saruman would have given her to you either way. And to bend her to your will, you would probably have subdued her with the help of one of your potions." It was a frightening thought. He looked over. Strangely enough, Wormtongue was still smiling, but it was not the malicious expression he had expected. A faraway, wistful shadow lay on his pale features before he turned to face the king.
"Her will? What would you know about her will? You were never there to hear the bitter words she spoke to herself in her loneliness; a wild, free spirit stuck in a cage by the traditions of your people and the stubbornness of her own brother! I was drawn to her because of that spirit. Not in a thousand years would I have tried to destroy it."
Éomer's brow furrowed. He had been ready to shoot back with an acid reply to any of Gríma's rebukes, but this confession caught him off guard - all the more as it sounded perfectly honest.
'You know he's always been a master of words,' he reminded himself. 'Do not fall prey to his malicious insinuations!'
But even so, the young king could not prevent himself from feeling a sharp pang of guilt as he thought about the counsellor's accusations. It was true: when - after becoming a warrior at the age of sixteen - had he ever been there for Éowyn for longer than a mere few days, except for the period where an injury he had sustained in battle had forced him to withdraw from active duty for an entire summer? His éored had been constantly on the move in protection of the eastern borders of the Mark, and through his skill and dedication he had climbed up the hierarchy so fast that he had soon made himself indispensable, a valiant, skilful warrior with a fierce sense of loyalty.
Some would have called him a driven soul, a man who searched for valour in battle because he was lacking elsewhere, and as much as he would have objected to the notion in the presence of others, Éomer knew that deep down inside it was probably true. Ever since the death of their parents, he had been running away... from the feeling of loss, his own inability to deal with the situation, to stand up to his inner feelings. Instead, he had tried to fill in for his father - an eleven-year-old boy fiercely watching out for his seven-year-old sister and never allowing anyone to get close enough to hurt her. Éowyn had been the only family left to him, and at his mother's deathbed he had sworn himself to protect her any way that he could, whether it meant by defeating their enemies on the battlefield or by keeping her out of harm's way at Edoras.
Gríma's head turned around to finally face him. Something in his face twitched as he recognised the result of his words in his prisoner's expression.
"Yes, it was you who put her into the cage... you and your uncle." It was uncanny how that snake seemed to be able to look right into his head and read his mind. Stubbornly, Éomer stared at the broad back of the Uruk-hai in front of him. "By over-protecting her, by making her feel useless, and weak, like someone who could not hold her own. You never acknowledged her riding and battle skills. Of course, you practised with her, you saw how good she was and how much she craved to join you in your constant fight, but each time the Rohirrim rode into battle, you ordered her to stay behind like some old woman. And when she finally pleaded to be allowed to ride with you, you looked at her as if she had lost her mind, and maybe she had."
Éomer's head snapped around.
"Watch your tongue, snake, or-"
"Or what?" Gríma did not flinch under the dark, diamond-hard stare. He had the king where he had wanted him all along - had pried his fingers deeply into his most vulnerable spot. Oh yes, the potion worked. One of his favourite recipes; one that had worked wonders on the late King Théoden, as well. At first, it seemed to lend the fatigued patient strength, but once the body had broken down the revitalising ingredient of the potion, the ensuing weakness would be even worse than before. And then there was the other part of it, the one that kept the mind of the unsuspecting victim wide open to suggestions of any kind..."Do you remember that incident from four years back, you had just received your first serious wound in a battle and had to drop from active duty for quite a long period..."
Éomer's eyes became narrow slits.
"What about it?"
"What would you say if I told you that your sister was envying you? For all the attention you received, the concern of your people and the honour that went with surviving a battle where the chances had been against you. She would have traded with you in a second and gladly accepted the price, but since she was denied that possibility, she thought that the pain served you right. In her eyes, you had been punished for the way you treated her. In her mind, your enemies had avenged her! What would you say?"
"I would call you a liar, just what you have always been. A sick creature that thrives on the misery of others and enjoys enhancing the other's hurt by whispering poisonous words into their ears." There was a cold fury in the king's voice, but no conviction. Gríma could tell that he was definitely making progress. Oh, this was delightful!
"But it is the truth."
"Coming from your lips?" Éomer spat. "Say what you will, it is something your twisted brain has conceived. It has nothing to do with the truth. Even if Éowyn had harboured such feelings, she would have never told you. She would rather have told me."
"You are wrong, for she did tell me." Gríma allowed himself a sly smile. "Right there in your room, actually. You were sleeping, and she was tending you when I entered to find out how you were faring. We had just heard the healer's news that you were likely to recover completely in the course of time. Very good tidings, I deemed, especially for your sister... but her expression was not joyful when I entered. It was... rather sad. I asked her why, and so she told me."
Éomer could not think of a reply, his mind seemed to be void, shocked into numbness. Éowyn - having taken delight in his pain - and confiding in their greatest enemy about it? It could not be! But he could not think clearly anymore. It had to be one of Wormtongue's lies. If only he could have been sure!
Sensing his prisoner's growing distress, Gríma bent forward in his saddle to whisper with great confidentiality: "It appears to me that I know more about your sister's secrets than you, her brother and only kin. Tell me, Éomer, King of Rohan, if you think you two are so close, how can this be? How can a man that you thought your sister despised as much as you do have access to all of her secret wishes and desires, whereas you - the brother who swore to keep her from harm - have not?" He paused and waited for a reply, but it was very clear that his words had stunned the king into silence. "You do not know? Well, I believe I should give you the time to think about it, then. We shall continue our talk about your beautiful and enigmatic sister tonight. Maybe you will have found some answers. Until then." He spurred his horse and went to reclaim his place at the top of the procession. The seed had been planted. Tonight, there would be more of the potion. Slowly but surely, Éomer of Rohan's mind would be pried open - and then corrupted until his vengeance would be complete. If he did this right, the king would die by his own hands...
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