3. 3 - One Enemy More
- Chapter 3 / One Enemy More -
News had spread like fire through a field of dry grass: our lord Éomer had been exiled, by order of the King. By order of Gríma, I thought bitterly as I watched the Serpent smile in satisfaction at Théoden King's feet. With Théodred on the verge of death and Éomer gone, he was truly left ruler of Edoras. Even his men sensed it, thick as they were: they walked around, bolder than ever, now openly speaking of our King's upcoming death.
If only to prove them wrong, I redoubled my efforts to save Théodred's life, watching him night and day, only leaving his side when Éowyn came to relieve me. Together we cared for the wounded prince, in the dimly lit room where our hopes seemed to fade, blending with the shadows.
Théodred fought bravely for his life, often sweating in fever or shivering in cold, calling his father's name in his delirium. But our efforts were not enough, I sensed it: the infection that seemed to overcome his strength a little more each day was bound to win if nothing was done to stop it. And so I started searching for remedies.
I knew a woman who lived in the lower parts of Edoras, an old healer who had turned away from the life at court, and now provided herbs for the whores of the city. It was her house that I was leaving, carrying beneath my cloak a remedy against infection. The cold wind seemed to blow right through me and chill my very bones as I hobbled up the street, even more cautious than ever. The small satchel seemed to weigh me down, the small houses around me huddling together as though in a conspiracy; I felt as though every passer-by's eyes were on me. But, discarding my worries, I hurried on.
The back door was now in sight, and I slowed down, my heart picking up its pace in my chest: two men were lounging against the wooden doorframe. They eyed me with undisguised malevolence, and one of them nudged the other, pointing at me. Béma, they were discreet… I felt an uncomfortable, foreboding feeling prick my skin: they looked dangerous, and it was probably no coincidence that they should wait on my usual path. Reluctantly turning around, I headed for the front doors, already dreading the welcome I would get there.
Osred was standing guard once again, watching enviously as his comrade snored, comfortably wrapped up in the second cloak he had probably won at cards. His already foul temper seemed to have grown meaner with the cold as he threw me a disgusted look. "Get out of my sight!" he spat.
I realized that getting through would be harder than I thought. "I need to pass, my Lord," I replied softly, trying to convey my extreme humility and respect with my every gesture.
"And I need some wine and a big-titted whore," he snarled. "I'm not your servant, to open the doors at your every whim. Now move!"
I gritted my teeth, but forced my voice into even more unctuous tones. "My Lord, I appeal to your magnanimity. Please let me…"
I was cut off by a blow to the face that sent me reeling backwards; stumbling, I bent in pain and almost rolled down the stone stairs. After touching my lips, I raised my hand to the light: the fingertips were red with blood. I felt tears sting my eyes at the pain and the shock. Never had I been hit before, not even since Gríma had arrived; I had always managed to keep to the shadows, to remain unnoticed and insignificant, and Osred's reaction had left me feeling small and very, very vulnerable. I saw him raise his hand again, and flinched away.
"What is going on here?"
I almost sobbed in relief when I saw Éowyn approach, as regal and cold as ever. Osred looked annoyed, but composed himself and bowed, but barely, so that the gesture was more an insult than a mark of respect. "My Lady," he drawled.
"You did not answer my question." Éowyn stated icily. Osred narrowed his eyes in defiance.
"The old hag..."
"…Is a subject of mine, and therefore under my protection." Éowyn's voice was steely, but when she looked at me, I saw compassion in her eyes. "And you, as a guard of Meduseld, should know that. It is not worthy of a man to mistreat an old woman. Now, do your duty and let us pass."
Osred opened his mouth, and I almost gasped. Was he truly going to reply? "You are not Queen here!" he sneered. Éowyn blanched, her hand instinctively searching the sword that she once used to carry. Horrified, I wondered briefly how this would end. Would Osred dare strike the Lady, too?
"But our Lady Éowyn is Théoden King's beloved niece, his kin," said a smooth voice. There was no need for me to turn around; anyone living in Meduseld these last months had heard it at least once.
"Lord Gríma." Éowyn seemed to force herself to look at him. Her stance went rigid, as though every fiber of her body screamed in disgust at the proximity of the counsellor.
"My Lady Éowyn…" The Serpent bowed low, and I wondered whether it was, too, an insult. There was no mockery on his face, but he was a man difficult to read: his eyes could speak of loyalty and friendship while his tongue lashed out to reproach and humiliate. His words always seemed wise, though once the listener dissected them he would understand he had been fooled. "I am astonished," he continued softly, "to hear such words of disrespect uttered towards a Lady, and even more so to someone of your quality." He looked at Osred, who glared back. "Be gone" Gríma ordered. "I shall speak to Théoden King, of course, but I believe it is safe to say that you are henceforth banished from the royal guards."
Osred opened his mouth to protest, but caught the Serpent's look and lowered his eyes. I, too, had seen it, and fought the urge to curl up into a ball right on the stone floor. For I understood, in that moment, that Gríma was not a man to be underestimated, and not one to forget the offenses made against him. The pale, sickly appearance disguised something else entirely, just like I hid behind the rags and the years. He was much smarter than me, and I had no doubt that should he bother to look closer, he would understand at once who I truly was.
But luckily for me, Gríma cared little for servants. His eyes never left the Lady Éowyn, greedy and feverish, capturing her every movement, every glimmer of her golden hair. How ironic that I should be thankful for his infatuation with my mistress, while she loathed the mere thought of him…
Osred's spear clattered on the ground when he cast it aside, waking his comrade with a start. His face was contorted with rage as he walked stiffly past Éowyn and Gríma; as he stopped next to me, he leaned to whisper into my ear: "I will remember this, hag. We will meet again."
I shivered at his words, fear racing through my veins once again. I had no need for more enemies… First Gríma – for I did not fool myself, his intervention only served as means to approach Lady Éowyn; had I been alone, he would not have moved to save me from being beaten – and now Osred. For someone who had wanted to keep to oneself and avoid attention, I had certainly failed spectacularly. I sighed: and to think that I had been doing so well…
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I gently removed the bandages from Théodred's chest and cast them aside. The prince's skin was cold and waxen beneath my hands, and never again would it be warm. The gaping wounds that hadn't had the time to close seemed to taunt me, to remind me of the futility of my efforts and all the sleepless nights I had spent in the dimly lit room, watching a man who was already dead, needlessly prolonging his agony.
I took a clean piece of fabric and plunged it into a basin of warm water that I had brought, and proceeded to wash the prince's body. Théodred's skin seemed as cold as stone in comparison. He had died during our absence, left alone with the shadows that dwelt here. I could only hope that he had gone during his sleep.
The grime and blood were washed away, and one could almost think that Théodred was sleeping, so peaceful he looked. I took the clothes that Éowyn had prepared, and started to dress the prince. I braided his hair, weeping for everything that had been broken and lost: the life of a good man, the hope of a kingdom, and my own dreams who had withered and shrank to become one simple goal: to last the day.
There was little doubt left about what awaited us now: long, cold days of anxious waiting, as Théoden King declined endlessly under Gríma's watchful gaze, drooling on his throne, insensitive to the warmth of Éowyn's hands when she would sit by his feet and beg him to return to his people and his family. Month after month of enduring the increasing boldness of Gríma's men, the beginning of the famine as the crops were left unattended because of the orc and Dunlending attacks… In the end, we would almost hope our King died with the little dignity he still had left, so that the uncertainty would end. And then Saruman would come to claim what was his, and no one would resist him. Although, I thought bitterly, there would be miserable little to claim: he and his minions would bleed the land and suck it dry, eating the supplies we had left, stealing the gold and leaving Rohan to die in poverty and hunger.
And then, man would turn against man for a piece of bread, and the former glory of the Eorlingas would be forgotten. By summer, there would be nothing left but a sea of grass where once was a great kingdom.